KYIV — The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia doesn’t kick off until June 14, but one Ukrainian artist got a jump on its Russian hosts.
President Vladimir Putin views the international soccer championship as a chance for Russia to put its best face forward at a time when relations with the West are arguably worse than at any time since the Cold War. Russians are even getting smiling lessons to make foreign visitors feel welcome.
Ukrainian artist Andriy Yermolenko, on the other hand, sees the monthlong spectacle as an opportunity to shine a light on Moscow’s perceived crimes and human rights violations in his country and around the world.
Inspired by Russia’s forcible annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support for armed insurgent forces in eastern Ukraine, Yermolenko has created a-growing collection of provocative, alternative World Cup posters that has taken the Ukrainian and Russian Internet by storm.
“You know, when the conscience switches on, it’s very hard to muzzle it and make it shut up,” Yermolenko told RFE/RL’s Russian Service, adding that he had hoped Ukrainian government officials would do a better job of raising the alarm. “But I saw that everyone was silent. I could not remain silent.”
Yermolenko’s images, which he publishes to his personal Facebook page, are bold and jarring. In one, a silhouetted soccer player kicks a ball into an exploding plane to symbolize the July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine with a missile that international investigators found to have come from Russia.
In another, a person in a yellow hazmat suit juggles a skull with their foot — a swipe at Russia for its alleged near-fatal poisoning of former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, with a nerve agent called Novichok in the United Kingdom.
A third depicts the Russian-backed bombing of civilians in Syria’s war-ravaged Aleppo: It shows a player tackling another player, who carries a bleeding child in his arms.
But what may be Yermolenko’s most brazen image shows a glaring Putin donning a track suit, his hands drenched in blood, squatting atop a pile of human skulls. “You can’t stop me, suckers!” reads a text bubble beside him.
Kyiv’s Call For Boycott Falls Flat
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin have themselves urged the international community to boycott the World Cup over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its ongoing military role in eastern Ukraine. But Kyiv’s appeal has mostly fallen on deaf ears.
In an attempt to garner more support, it has raised the issue of Ukrainian political prisoners held by Russia. Currently, roughly 70 Ukrainian political prisoners are sitting in Russian jails, many of whom were convicted using false evidence in show trials, according to Kyiv.
The detainees include internationally known film director Oleh Sentsov, a Crimea resident serving a 20-year prison term after being convicted on terrorism charges that he and human rights groups say are politically motivated.
Now 31 days into a hunger strike that began on May 14 to demand the release of all Ukrainians, Sentsov has said he is prepared to die to save his compatriots.
Yermolenko named Sentsov’s hunger strike as the “catalyst” for his poster campaign.
Ukrainian officials, including Foreign Minister Klimkin, have warned Ukrainians about the risks of traveling to Russia to attend World Cup matches.
Yet some 5,000 Ukrainians are thought to have purchased tickets to matches in Russia, according to Ukrainian parliament deputy speaker Iryna Herashchenko, who also urged her countrymen to think twice about going.
“It’s not worth a single hryvnya or ruble to support anything that is happening in Russia,” she added.
Yermolenko won’t be coming. And he won’t be watching the matches on television, either.
“I love football, but I will not watch the World Cup, and I do not advise anyone [to watch], to be honest, because you can’t calmly watch an event that is smeared with blood, even if it’s a very beautiful concert or a very beautiful show,” Yermolenko said. “For the last few years, Russia has shown itself as a terrorist who does not adhere to any international doctrines, from chemical weapons to interference in elections in other countries.”
“It’s scary!” he added. “That’s what I’m saying with my posters.”