Russian Secret Service Searches Moscow Art Museum

The private museum was founded by oligarch Roman Abramovich and his ex-wife Dasha Zhukova in 2008.

Pyotr Verzilov. Photo: Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images.

Billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow was searched by Russia’s FSB secret service last Friday, April 26. A spokesperson for the museum said this action was related to the Kremlin’s interest in Pyotr Versilov, a dissident who was recently accused of treason after he claimed he had joined Ukraine’s army to fight against Russia.

Last month, some 30 artists were investigated by Russian authorities, allegedly over their ties to Versilov, who was previously associated with the punk feminist collective Pussy Riot and married to its co-founder Nadya Tolokonnikova. Earlier this month, Versilov was given an 8 year sentence in absentia by a Moscow court.

The search at Garage last week came to the public’s attention via images and videos that appeared online in which a team of armed agents wearing helmets and black masks forcibly shepherded museum employees out of an administrative building. The employees were not allowed to leave or use their phones.

The armed agents were soon followed by another group of investigators in plain clothes who began making enquiries about certain high-level museum employees, according to the independent news platform Mediazona, which was co-founded by Versilov. This included the head of the legal department, “someone” from the department of marketing and exhibition projects, curators, and the museum’s director Anton Belov. Most of these museum’s staff was not in the office on that day.

The image shows a man and a woman posing for a picture, identified as Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova. They are at the Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art exhibition.

Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova attend the Preview of the Spring Exhibition Season at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art on March 9, 2017 in Moscow, Russia. Photo: Team Boyko/Getty Images.

The FSB did not enter the main museum. Instead, a post on the Telegram channel Caution News claimed they remained focused on the administrative building, where Garage stores its archives, and the Narkomfin building, which contains Garage’s bookstore. The channel therefore initially speculated that the search might be intended to crackdown on the LGBTQ literature.

The Garage Museum did not respond to a request for comment.

Initially, both the museum and the Moscow Ministry of Internal Affairs denied to the press that any search had taken place. A spokesperson for Garage told Mediazona that it was “operating as normal.” The publication further reported that by Friday evening the authorities were seen leaving the museum building and, if they took anything with them, they managed to keep it concealed, according to Caution News.

The search was later connected to the criminal case against Versilov after a spokesperson for the museum informed Kommersant of its motivation the next day. The publication also suggested that the FSB had removed boxes of documents from the building to aid in their investigation. In March, the FSB allegedly searched Versilov’s mother’s house and targeted artists who later claimed they had been designated as witnesses in the case against Versilov.

Garage is a private museum that was founded in 2008 by Abramovich and his ex-wife Dasha Zhukova. While the museum is open, it has not run any new exhibition programming since Russian’s war on Ukraine began in February 2022. Another news site, Podyom noted that earlier this month Garage removed books from its store that were published by countercultural independent houses Directio Libera and Moloko plus almanacs, allegedly following complaints from visitors.

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