MOSCOW—Russia has morphed into a dystopia; not a day goes by without word that a new victim has been snatched by the authorities. The map of police raids on people’s homes stretches all across the country—any journalist, local activist, social media user or businessman could be next.
It’s like living in the underworld and Russians curse the rulers as demons—or cherti—drinking the blood of the people. These nightmarish thoughts—previously only shared with friends in hushed tones—have been brought to life by Russia’s answer to Bansky.
It’s far too dangerous to paint these images in the street, but Koin, an anonymous underground artist, has been daring to publish devastating portraits of Russia’s elites as grotesque vampires—or wurdulacs from Slavic fairy tales—complete with fangs and splattered with blood.
The images, shared on TikTok and Instagram, have been seen millions of times and become a touchstone for the Russian underground.
The series began in January, the day after opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested on his return to Moscow from Germany, where he had been treated for Novichok poisoning after an attempted assassination by President Putin’s goons.
The portrait of Putin showed a weak, balding man with sharp fangs and blood gushing from his mouth, which dripped onto the collar of his white shirt and spattered his weary face. “I painted the President, the way I see him,” the caption read.
“I looked around for somebody who’d be painting similar caricatures and realized I am alone. Oh, God. I am the only one.”
Koin has around 47,000 TikTok followers but he told The Daily Beast he can never reveal his real name, nor his whereabouts, in case he is the next person to be dragged away.
“I live with constant fear they might find them,” he said. “I looked around for somebody who’d be painting similar caricatures and realized I am alone. Oh, God. I am the only one.”
The idea of evoking the hellish political climate is a great tradition in Russian art, although even the devil, Woland, in Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita is much more likable than Moscow’s real villains.
“Art is a reflection of reality: concrete men and women in power throw young innocent Russians and Belarusians in jails, which my images reflect as them eating people alive,” Koin explained.
A decade ago, one of the last truly independent speeches in parliament—made by Gennady Gudkov—warned that a dark cloud was descending. “We now have a country of bans, a swamp of injustice. You are trying to shut people’s mouths by repression,” he said.
The situation continues to deteriorate, with scores of dissidents silenced, jailed or dead, and independent media outlets now subject to harassment and closure. On Friday, a Moscow court upheld a ruling that Meduza—one of the most courageous independent Russian language news sources—should be designated as a “foreign agent.”
Putin has even backed his ally Alexander Lukashenko, who hijacked a commercial jet flying between two European Union nations last month in order to detain an opposition journalist. The young founder of an independent media channel was paraded on TV last week showing signs of maltreatment.
Amid the crackdown, Koin’s social media interventions are among the most powerful still being allowed to break through. The image of Lukashenko shows Europe’s last dictator gleeful with a glint in his eye as he holds up his blood-soaked hands.
Koin also targets the apologists and the propagandists of the two authoritarians. His latest post on TikTok explains, “Here is what people see on TV, and here is what I see.”
He portrays the entire coterie of backers and hangers on as more zombified ghouls.
“When the KGB arrested a young Belarusian journalist the other day, many pro-government vampires clapped their hands,” he told The Daily Beast. “I still cannot wrap my mind around the fact that many rejoice at the end of their countrymen.”
His image of RT’s Anton Krasovsky was accompanied by the real words used by the pro-Putin pundit when hundreds of thousands of Russians came out to protest the arrest of Navalny: “I would drown you all.”
By contrast his portrait of the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya shows a bullet hole in her forehead, allowing a bright light to shine from within the fearless Putin critic. There’s an arrow through the back of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician who was shot dead outside the walls of the Kremlin.
As a child Koin said he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. He remembers often drawing pictures during school lessons. Now in his early thirties, he creates the political cartoons on both sides of every page in his A1 sketchpad. One day, he says he will sell the series at auction and donate the proceeds to help political prisoners.
Koin said he did not want to paint some of Russia’s top politicians, like ex-President Dmitry Medvedev, but his followers insisted, so he showed the former president stitching his own eyes closed so as “not to see what the power machine is doing to people.”
Koin thinks that if Russia had to choose a new leader from the current crop of senior politicians, Medvedev would be his choice. “I don’t think that he is currently able to do anything about the existing system, so he prefers to eat people with his eyes stitched shut.”
“They will continue taking relatives as hostages, maybe even children. Maybe one day they will start shooting at the opposition, undertaking any dark path to keep power.”
— Gennady Gudkov
Still, there are some politicians aiming to change the system. Dmitry Gudkov—the 41-year-old son of Gennady—was leading in the polls ahead of elections later in the year. This week, his family said more than 150 police and intelligence officers raided the homes and offices of his team. Dmitry was jailed for 48 hours and is now facing spurious charges over an old unpaid rental debt.
Dmitry’s father, who now lives in exile, told The Daily Beast that the situation would continue to get worse.
“They will continue taking relatives as hostages, maybe even children. Maybe one day they will start shooting at the opposition, undertaking any dark path to keep power,” Gennady Gudkov said. “There is no bottom to stop this degrading process, it still shocks me.”
Koin knows his actions could land him in Russia’s notorious penal system and once you’re in their grasp, there is no guarantee you will ever be allowed to return to a normal life.
But he continues to risk his life to shine a light on those who abuse their countryman. He agrees with Gudkov, every time you think the situation is as bad as it gets there is a new, tougher crackdown. He said: “Once again, we broke the bottom and fell through.”