WOW HUH
The 'Un-Whored Path' of Leo Tolstoy and Voina
by Jacquelyn Gleisner


“In order to properly define art, it is necessary, first, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure,”(1) wrote Leo Tolstoy in 1897. At the time Tolstoy was writing his way through a spiritual crisis, developing a body of work that outlined his unconventional beliefs. Today these writings function as a symbolic script for the provocations of the Russian performance group Voina, self-defined as “a street collective of actionist artists who engage in political protest art.”(2) As Tolstoy’s views grew increasingly more radical, he became a social pariah. In a similar fashion Voina’s mendicant members are sometimes in the news, frequently in trouble with the law, and always outside convention.

Separated by one hundred years, the author and the art collective Voina (which means “war” in Russian) comprise an unlikely couple within Russia’s avant-garde. Beyond their overlapping cultural heritage, Tolstoy and members of the street art group share an ideology tinged with ascetic undertones. Tolstoy reshaped his life, eschewing the excesses that would hinder his highly personal quest for spiritual purity. While Voina’s pursuit is more political than spiritual, its puritanical members live without comforts such as fixed shelter, cell phones or an overall sense of stability. Tolstoy and Voina’s rabid views regarding sex, money and truth set them apart from the mainstream. Both of these iconoclastic figures have found a place on what Voina founder Oleg Vorotnikov (who calls himself “Vor,” meaning “thief” in Russian), has described as “the un-whored path.”(3)

Yet Tolstoy’s path was not always free from whores. At the height of his virility when he served as the commander of an army cavalry regiment, Tolstoy (like his peers) frequented brothels and enjoyed the company of many women. To his credit he dutifully documented these encounters in his journals. Later, as Tolstoy was courting young Sophia Andreevna Behrs, sixteen years his junior, he had a unique pre-nuptial request: Sophia was to read his diaries in order to learn of her fiancé’s checkered past. Ironically, the unhappily married Tolstoy would endeavor to abstain from all sexual relations with his wife many years later. (This was a decision he reached only after he had fathered thirteen children with Sophia and one bastard child with a peasant, by the way.) Sex, according to Tolstoy (and his pen pal Gandhi), was an impediment to moral purity and therefore, piety.

While Tolstoy championed celibacy as a means of moral purity, the members of Voina utilize sex to deliver a political message. The rowdy art collective became an international media sensation in 2008 when the group staged a sex party inside Moscow’s Biological Museum. In front of a sign which read “bear-cub successor,” six couples disrobed and began copulating.(4) The performance took place in February, just one day before the presidential election. Titled "Fuck for the Heir Bear Cub!"(5) this extreme action was a pun on the name of the politician, Dmitry Medvedev, whose moniker is derived from the Russian word for bear. Medvedev had waged a campaign with the Russian public to increase the birth rate. Voina responded with an orgy inside the museum. An inverted endorsement of Tolstoy’s abstinence, the performance inside the museum was a brazen refusal of the candidate.

Sexual abstinence was but one source of discontent in Tolstoy’s marriage. The Russian writer and thinker also tried to quit smoking and give up eating meat. However, the deepest schism between himself and his family developed over his attitudes towards money. Born a man of privilege and wealth in society, Tolstoy rejected both his inherited wealth and the rights to his publications as his views became more austere during the final chapters of his life. Sophia, overcome with frustration and fearing poverty, was wont to throw herself in the snowy ditches on the property of the family estate at Yasnaya Polyana. The more enraged his family became as he gave up his fortune, the more Tolstoy fantasized about straying as a mystic and a peripatetic.

It is not surprising that Voina’s attitudes towards money are also unorthodox. In fact, the group lives without money altogether. Vor and his wife, fellow Voina member Koza (formerly Natalia Sokol; her artistic nom de guerre means “she goat” in Russian) have lived without money since 1998; they subsist on what they can steal and what they are offered. Vor believes refusing to pay for things like food or shelter liberates him to become a true force of resistance. Vor, who has two children with Koza, has stated: "Most people make excuses for doing nothing by saying that they have to survive or feed a family. This justification doesn't apply to us."(6) Voina’s art is expansive, not expensive. The group is a caveat to the often affluent milieu of the contemporary art world – in Russia and abroad. Money, or rather its intentional absence, makes the members free to focus on more important matters.

Family is potentially one such matter. Arguably, Tolstoy, the author of the oft-quoted passage “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”(7), had greater concerns. At the age of eighty-two Tolstoy left his own family behind. To find happiness Tolstoy believed that he needed first to unfurl the fetters of his life. Like the members of Voina, he planned to embark on the life of an ascetic, uncluttered with materials wares. This new life, however, was short-lived. At the time of his departure, Tolstoy’s health had already been poor; he would be dead within a week. In November 1910 on the day before his death, Tolstoy’s final words to his son Sergei were: “I love truth ... very much … I love truth!”(8) As the octogenarian’s body caved to pneumonia, Tolstoy’s final utterances were hardly an apology and almost an explanation of the curious unfolding of his concluding years. Tolstoy, the aspiring ascetic, would reject even his family on his journey of the truth that he loved so dearly.

One century later the members of Voina are aligned with Tolstoy’s staunch commitment to truth seeking and sharing. Voina acknowledges that freedom of speech can come at a cost. Speaking the truth has imperiled the safety of the fanatic members of Voina, several of whom have been beaten and incarcerated by Russian authorities. Nonetheless, Voina remains committed to the truth, even when facing the ultimate form of renunciation, death. Koza spoke for the group when she declared, "We've had sex in public and are no longer scared of it. We've invaded a police station and are no longer scared of it. What else is there to scare us? Death we will deal with in the future. Soon we will be completely fearless."(9) For the members of Voina, danger never outweighs the imperative of exposing the truth.

Through the negation of desire and the abnegation of pleasure in art, Tolstoy and Voina illuminate a deeply personal truth. The truth – be it for moral or political gain – is irrevocably linked to asceticism. Koza stated, “The situation around Voina constitutes an integrity test for the art community. Artists have to understand that before anything else they are citizens, and as citizens they must express their position in their art. It’s just a matter of being honest to oneself.”(10) While Tolstoy was true to himself – at the expense of his worldly comforts and finally, his family – to abandon pleasure for the benefit of a greater good is a test of integrity that many people and many artists will surely fail. Tolstoy and Voina have shunned, not just the whores but nearly everyone, on their path of purity.




(1) Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Late Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy, Jay Parini, ed. (London: The Penguin Group, 2009), 65.

(2) Free Voina, What is Voina? http://en.free-voina.org/ (March 23, 2012)

(3) Walter Mayr, “Russia's Art Revolution: Voina Challenges Putin with Imagination,” Speigel Online International, Dec. 21, 2011. (http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,805084-2,00.html)

(4) Hrag Vartanian, “FREE VOINA! Two Russian Art-ivists Languish in Jail,” Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art & Its Discontents, Dec. 22, 2010 ( http://hyperallergic.com/15354/voina-interview/)

(5) http://en.free-voina.org/

(6) Speigel Online International, Dec. 21, 2011.

(7) Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. Constance Garnett, (New York: Modern Library Edition, 1993), 3.

(8) Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy: Spiritual Writings, Charles E. Moore, ed., (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 36.

(9) Thomas Peter, “Art shock troops mock Russian establishment,” Reuters, Jul 23, 2008. (http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/07/23/us-russia-art-idUSL1650947620080723)

(10) Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art & Its Discontents, Dec. 22, 2010.

Voina, “F*ck for the heir – Medved’s little Bear!”, source


Koza and Vor of Voina, source


"Lev Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana", 1908, the first color photo portrait in Russia, source


L. N. Tolstoy in his study. Iasnaia Poliana, 1908. Photo by K. K. Bulla., source