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Freedom and shackles Historian discovers records from 1976 documenting a 23-year-old Vladimir Putin’s role in suppressing Soviet protest art
New information has emerged about Vladimir Putin’s early professional life as a KGB officer. A St. Petersburg-based historian discovered a document which shows that Putin participated in investigating one of the first instances of protest art in the USSR. In 1976, at age 23, Putin helped to search the home of an artist who painted the slogan “You may crucify freedom, but the human soul knows no shackles!” on the wall of St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress. Two artists served time in prison for the action, but the slogan – and Putin – live on.
In September 1976, Vladimir Putin, then a 23-year-old lieutenant in the KGB, took part in investigating one of the first instances of modern protest art in the USSR.
The case concerned an inscription reading “You may crucify freedom, but the human soul knows no shackles!” which appeared on the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. Investigators searched the home of the artist, Oleg Volkov, and their report mentions Putin’s name. Today, the document can be found in the archives at the Museum of Political History. St. Petersburg historian Konstantin Sholmov found the records and posted a photo of the report on social media on November 21, but it wasn’t until November 27, when local politician Boris Vishnevsky also wrote about it, that Sholmov’s discovery started receiving wide attention.
Vishnevsky noted that there is now definitive proof that Vladimir Putin participated in the case.
The slogan “You may crucify freedom, but the soul of man knows no shackles!” appeared on a wall of the Peter and Paul Fortress, facing the Neva River, in the early morning of August 3, 1976. It was a Tuesday, and the Soviet artists Yuly Rybakov and Oleg Volkov, who had been attempting for several months to organize a street exhibit of their work at the fortress, made the inscription. It took 15 minutes for the artists to write the slogan using water-based white paint and paint rollers. The inscription was 42 meters (138 feet) long and each letter was 120 centimeters (four feet) tall. Rybakov later recalled that he and Volkov walked to the Palace Bridge after they finished for a better view of their work.
Rybakov said that the KGB officers who were sent to paint over the inscription had to approach the fortress wall in rubber boats. “That morning, the Neva rose so high that it was impossible to get to the inscription on dry land. The agents had to approach in rubber boats, wade into the water in rubber boots, and figure out something.” He says KGB officers covered the inscription with coffin lids taken from a display workshop at the fortress, which concentrated even more attention on the slogan.
Austrian journalist Herwig Höller wrote for the Russian art and culture publication Colta that Rybakov and Volkov’s work differed from other Soviet graffiti “in its size, its poetry, and its pointed placement in the literary-historical context.” Höller said “the choice of location — a former prison — and the words ‘freedom’ and ‘shackles,’ made it possible to interpret the inscription as an allusion to the Pushkin verse, ‘In the depths of Siberian mines / Preserve your proud patience.’”
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According to the report found in the Museum of Political History, Vladimir Putin and other KGB officers searched Oleg Volkov’s home, a month after the artists painted their inscription, on September 7, 1976. The report about the search was written a few days later, on September 13, when Rybakov and Volkov were arrested. They were charged with malicious hooliganism and damaging state property and historical and architectural monuments. Rybakov was sentenced to six years in prison. Volkov got seven years.
Forty years later, on August 3, 2016, the slogan “You may crucify freedom, but the human soul knows no shackles,” appeared again in St. Petersburg, this time without an exclamation point. Timofey Radya, an artist from Yekaterinburg, left it on the Pirogovskaya Embankment, where it lasted several hours. Rybakov said, “Well, I can only say that it [the inscription] has not lost its relevance. My regards to the new authors.”
Abridged translation by Emily Laskin
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