The self-proclaimed republic of the United States of Siberia has become the most ambitious and provocative artistic project on Russian territory. The Siberian separatist movement, though much discussed and fretted about by Russians when mentions of it appear on television, differs from other separatist movements (such as those in Catalonia, Scotland, Chechnya and Abkhazia) in a crucial way. It is entirely the invention of a group of artists: the Blue Noses group, Artem Loskutov, Vasily Slonov, and Damir Muratov. So in place of nationalist parties, referenda on independence, separatist governors – Siberian separatism has artists, exhibitions, funny performances, and other manifestations of Siberian humour.
Despite this, the Russian FSB (the Federal Security Bureau, the successor the KGB) has opened countless criminal investigations into the Siberian separatist movement. The artists are under full-time surveillance and curators exhibiting their art have been interrogated about the ownership of weapons maintained by any supporters of the United States of Siberia, the Island of Siberia Freedom, and the United Kingdom of Siberia.
It is worth mentioning that the above-mentioned artists do not group themselves together in the way that the members of Pussy Riot do. Each artist works independently and lives in a different city: Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Tomsk, Ekaterinburg, and Ufa, all of which are hundreds of miles away from each other. Thus the only mechanism these artists have to make themselves heard is to tap into and amplify (even if in the form of a caricature) the deep-set fears of ordinary citizens – which is likely why each of their performances is so violently opposed by the authorities.
Vasily Slonov’s work is arguably the most risky among all the “Siberian project” artists. During a population census in Russia, a joke went around the Siberian population that it would be good fun to indicate “Siberian” in the nationality column, instead of “Russian”. Through his work, Vasily Slonov explores what this “Siberian man” would look like – and his creation is so radical that he resembles an altogether different race, let alone a different nationality. According to Slonov, the “Siberian man” has a felt-covered car; a telephone made of fur; and a rifle made of wood – all attributes of completely distinct civilisation. Indeed the “Siberian man” himself resembles a northern version of a native American Indian in Slonov’s vision – sporting a dishevelled beard and having a penchant for hatchet, axe and pikes.