Yevgenia Isayeva: “If We Give Up, The Darkness Will Devour Us”

In late March, Petersburg artist Yevgenia Isayeva protested Russia’s war in Ukraine by performing an action entitled “My Heart Is Bleeding”: the young woman stood on the steps of the former City Duma, in the downtown, wearing a “bloody” white dress. The artist was jailed for eight days for her protest. Sever.Realii talked to Isayeva about her arrest and whether people who oppose the war should now leave the country.

Isayeva spread out a canvas on which the following message was written: “I feel that it is pointless to appeal to reason. Therefore, I appeal to your hearts. Women, children, old men and old women are dying every day in Ukraine from bombing, hunger, and the inability to get out from under the rubble or get medicines. Their graves, marked with homemade crosses, turn black in courtyards and playgrounds. There are thousands of people who have been wounded and mutilated, there are millions of broken lives. If you make excuses for this, then your heart has gone blind. Find the strength for mercy and compassion, do not support the bloodshed!”

The protest lasted only ten minutes. Isayeva was detained by the police, and subsequently she was jailed by the court for eight days on charges of disorderly conduct. She served her sentence in the special detention center on Zakharyevskaya Street in Petersburg.

Isayeva: “My Heart Is Bleeding” was for me a kind of essay in freedom. After February 24, I could not live normally. I felt bad, and for the first time in many years, I started having panic attacks again. And this gesture, in fact, helped me as a ritual – it was easier to go on.

Sever.Realii: Some people have gone on living as they used to live, doing their projects and trying not to notice what is happening, because rockets are not falling on houses here in Russia. How do you communicate with people whose heart does NOT bleed?

– I don’t communicate with people who are not close. I am a categorical person: it’s a matter of black and white for me now. My president was shot dead on a bridge seven years ago. (She means the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov – SR.) I have the sense that we are living an ancient or biblical myth, where there is a kind of crystallization, a highlighting of the truth – of relationships, of how we understand things, of the facts. I am sure that we will survive this horror. While before February 24 it seemed to me that all this would drag on forever, now I’m sure it won’t. Twenty-five percent of Russians do not support what is happening – that is almost thirty-five million people and it is quite a lot. Propaganda is trying to convince society that people like us are crazy. But I’m not crazy. And I told the police at the station that history would judge us and that this would happen quickly enough.

– Can art change anything in life?

– Artists are always troublemakers and disturbers of the peace, even when they later become classics. Take Dürer, for example. He was the first to make a self-portrait en face. Now it is taken for granted, but in fact it used to be that only the faces of saints were painted en face, not those of ordinary people. He was the first to portray himself like this. It was a provocation. Artists are the ones who establish the discourse and make you indignant, who make you think. Art and science look for answers to unanswered questions. It seems to me, of course, that the imagination is also very important: the system is manned by people with no imaginations, who are incapable of abstract thinking – and this is quite obvious. At the police station, they tried to convince me that what was happening was unilinear. I told them that there is your opinion, and there is mine, and it’s different, and that’s fine. And that basically it’s normal to live in a world in which there are different opinions – that’s what I think everyone needs to understand. My generation grew up amid this freedom.

Is it possible to do certain projects in Russia now without being afraid?

We are all like hostages of the system here, but if we give up, all this darkness and drabness will swallow us up and devour us. But there are absolute truths that we can and should talk about. Yes, to some extent, the theory of small deeds has failed we did things, but we didn’t do enough, since now we are faced with all of this. So we have to do it now. Now is the best moment to do rather than giving up, to help each other, while self-flagellation and feeling guilty, in my opinion, are unproductive.

– What were conditions like at the temporary detention center?

I was in a cell for two in the temporary detention center on Zakharyevskaya [in Petersburg’s Central District]. Compared to the police station, where I had spent two days, things were quite good there. My cellmate was a young woman who had been sentenced to administrative arrest over a fight with her husband; she had a black eye. She and her husband, who had been given ten days of administrative arrest, would shout back and forth to each other there. She had been jailed for seven days for their fight with each other. We had rec time in the yard. When we were walking with the other young women and talking, she would say, “My husband and I are doing our time here together.” The girls would immediately ask whether they had been detained together at an anti-war rally. She was embarrassed to tell the truth: she was the only non-political arrestee among us.

– Tell us about your family.

– On my mother’s side, we have our own plot at the Volkovo Cemetery. The oldest grave is that of Apollon Alexandrov, who died in 1866, but when he was alive he was something like a caretaker at the Alexandrinsky Theater. Basically, he was tangentially involved with art, and I have a long family history on my mother’s side. Some of my relatives are from Ukraine: for example, my ancestors include the famous artist Ivan Makukho–Makushenko, a People’s Artist of Ukraine. The surname was later split into Makukho and Makushenko. Among Dad’s ancestors (Yevgenia’s father is Maxim Isayev, an artist, director, actor, playwright, and co-founder of the AKHE Engineering Theater – SR) there is a Jewish line, whose graves are at the Transfiguration Cemetery. There is a family legend that a young woman, the daughter of a rich rabbi, and a revolutionary–minded poor Jewish boy ran away from Gomel to Petersburg and started that line. The family albums have been preserved at home: you look at pre–war photos and see how there are fewer and fewer men in the pictures: crackdowns and war took their toll, people disappeared and died. I have a very good sense of the two-hundred-year history of my family’s relations with Petersburg. Sitting in the temporary detention center, I read the essays of Joseph Brodsky. He had the idea that in Petersburg they show you the house where Dostoevsky lived, and then they show you Raskolnikov’s house: life equals literature. I lucked out with teachers at school: my literature teacher made sure that the poetry of the Silver Age has stayed with me. The romance with the city is part of my own myth. I draw Petersburg, I write about it. It is a friend, a lover, and a companion. I feel like I’m a part of it. So I don’t have the passionarity [sic] for emigration: there is no place like home.

– Have you asked yourself whether you should stay or leave?

– After the collapse of the Roman Empire came the Dark Ages, when literacy disappeared: everything was so badly destroyed that people forgot how to write, they forgot what these signs meant. But writing later re-emerged. It is very important now to carry the light through these Dark Times. Not everyone will leave [Russia]. There are children here, and they will grow into young people. I grew up in the culture of the nineties, when “freedom” was the watchword, and was greatly treasured. It is very important to sustain this freedom. Even if everything is banned, we must remain free.

Source: Sever.Realii (Radio Svoboda), 29 April 2022. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the link. Translated by the Russian Reader

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