Russia vs. Russia: Political Art and Censorship

Victoria Lomasko
April 14, 2015
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During the last discussion at the Russland vs. Russland. Kulturkonflikte forum, the event’s title finally paid off.

Kristina Leko, an artist and teacher at the Berlin Institute of Art, opened the discussion. The organizers had invited her to comment on the forum and the exhibition of Russian “critical art.”

She wondered how much the objets d’art for Marat Guelman’s Perm project (documented at the forum) had cost, whether the money had come from the city’s budget, and if it had, whether the citizens for whose sake this monumental street art had allegedly been made had agreed with this. Leko noted that she had found it unpleasant to listen to the presentation of the project, during which it was stated that the residents of Perm were “insufficiently educated to understand art.” She also said that after carefully viewing the video documentation for MediaImpact, she could not understand where the audience for this sociopolitical art was. Did Russian “critical” artists even want to communicate with the general public? Leko asked whether it was possible to make “critical art” now without taking Russia’s aggression in Ukraine into account, and whether one could be a “critical artist” while ignoring gender and racial discrimination.

Her talk was suddenly interrupted by artist Alexander Brener, who burst into the circle of panelists and yelled, “All of this is shit! We must talk about what matters most!” Brener was not a forum participant. He had come every day to listen to the speakers and several times had expressed his dissatisfaction, but in much more acceptable form.

Brener had interrupted Leko’s talk and continued to shout about shit, but the panelists interpreted his stunt variously. One group sided with Brener, calling him a great Russian artist. This was a performance, a compliment to the forum’s organizer. The talk had been boring: let Brener have his say, they said. The moderator, sociologist Alexander Bikbov, demanded that Leko be allowed to finish her talk. He was backed up by cultural studies scholar Olga Reznikova, who told Brener that there had been many boring and offensive presentations over the past three days and asked him why he had not felt the urge to shout down a high-profile male who had been talking “shit.” The only Ukrainian participant in the forum, Vasily Cherepanin, director of the Visual Culture Research Center in Kyiv and editor of the Ukrainian edition of the journal Krytyka Polityczna, said he felt sorry for us, since we were accustomed to rudeness and could not tell the difference between it and art. As a manager of an institution, he himself kicks out such “performance artists,” no questions asked.

While this was happening, Leko’s hands were shaking. The German audience was shocked. One of the German participants asked perplexedly, “Why is there no solidarity among Russian artists?”

I am certain that the majority of men in Russia who identify themselves as “leftists” are incapable of uniting with women on an equal footing and dealing with our professional work appropriately, without loutishness. Personally, I have no desire to identify with those “leftists” or liberals who try talking down to me or do the same thing with other women. I had had enough of that at the Feminist Pencil show at MediaImpact.

I said that sexism was one of the causes that prevented people from uniting.

Hearing the word sexism, some of the Russian participants began laughing and making faces. They then pointedly left the room altogether when the topic of gender was picked up by Olga Reznikova, Heinrich Böll Foundation coordinator Nuria Fatykhova, and the German audience.

Vasily Cherepanin raised the next topic. He spoke about the war in Ukraine, stressing it was a war of aggression on Russia’s part. At the same time, many Russian socially and politically engaged artists have preferred to remain apolitical on this matter and not make anti-war statements. One of the Germans asked why the Russians were trying to depoliticize the discussion of sexism and the war in Ukraine. After this question, another third of the Russians dashed from the room, while the artist Brener, who had been sitting quietly in the corner, again broke into the circle of panelists, screaming at Cherepanin, “Fuck off!”

Moderator Alexander Bikbov summarized the discussion by noting that too few “critical” artists had stayed for its final part. As soon as the conversation had turned to the things that mattered most—politics within the art scene and the war in Ukraine—many were not prepared to discuss them.

But then at the farewell dinner, the participants who had left the discussion early continued giggling among themselves about gender and feminism.

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Russia vs. Russia: From Censorship to Self-Censorship
New Russian laws—from a ban on swearing to protections for the feelings of religious believers—have made life difficult for artists. But the main obstacle to freedom of creativity has become self-censorship.
Yekaterina Kryzhanovskaya | Berlin
April 13, 2015
Deutsche Welle

lomasko-courtVictoria Lomasko, Prisoners of May 6, from the Drawing Trials project

For several years, Victoria Lomasko has been doing socially engaged graphic art, producing graphic reportages from court hearings and political rallies, and drawing the real stories of juvenile prisoners, migrant workers, rural teachers, and Orthodox activists. But the Russian woman can now longer speak openly about what concerns her through her drawings: now her black-and-white “comics” could be subject to the articles of the Russian Federal Criminal Code.

“My work Cannibal State, in support of political prisoners, today could be regarded as insulting state symbols. Liberate Russia from Putin clearly rocks the boat; it’s a call for rebellion, for revolution, and this is ‘extremism.’ A work from the Pussy Riot trial, Free the Prisoners! Shame on the Russian Orthodox Church!, featuring Patriarch Kirill, no doubt insults the feelings of believers,” the artist recounts.

Could she now, as she did earlier, freely post her political posters in social networks or show them at exhibitions?

“Hardly. But just two years ago several of them were even published in magazines,” notes Lomasko.

From censorship…

At the forum Russia vs. Russia: Cultural Conflicts, held April 10–12 in Berlin, Lomasko was not the only one bewildered about the prospects of protest art.

“In Russia nowadays you cannot do anything,” states Artyom Loskutov, an artist and organizer of the annual May Day Monstration marches in Novosibirsk.

In 2014, the Monstrators took to the streets of Novosibirsk holding a banner that read, “Hell is ours.” When the Russian media were excitedly talking about the virtues of federalizing Ukraine, Loskutov and his allies announced they would be holding a March for the Federalization of Siberia.

“If people in Russia hear every day that separatism in Ukraine turns out to be a good thing, that cannot slip through the cracks. We have simply hastened the next stage, when separatism will be seen as good for our country as well,” Loskutov emphasizes.

Russian federal media watchdog Roskomnadzor responded by sending fourteen letters to various media, including Ukrainian publications and even the BBC, demanding that they delete even mentions of this protest.

…to self-censorship

According to many forum participants, however, censorship was not the worst that was happening to them today.

“The worst thing that infiltrates our heads is self-censorship. It is impossible to know about the new laws and not to think about the consequences if you make a work about something that really concerns you,” argues Lomasko.

A congress of ultra-rightist nationalists was held in March in Petersburg, completely legally. And yet the media could not publish photographs of congress participants in clothes featuring swastikas because they would be fined for extremism.

“I really want to speak out on this subject. But if I were to draw something, I could be accused of spreading fascist ideas. And if I put it on the Web, everyone who reposts the picture automatically becomes my accomplice,” explains Lomasko.

Consequently, she said, there have been almost no artworks openly criticizing the annexation of Crimea or the war in Ukraine. Doubts about the legitimacy of Moscow’s actions are now also subject to the Criminal Code.  A rare exception is the graffiti piece Broads Will Give Birth to New Ones, in which a pregnant woman holding a Molotov cocktail is depicted with an infant soldier in her belly. But it was produced anonymously by members of the Petersburg group Gandhi.

Monumental propaganda

On the other hand, you can express your joy over the actions of Russian politicians without the sanction of officials. Thus, on the eve of the referendum in Crimea, a monumental graffiti proclaiming “Crimea and Russia: Together Forever” suddenly appeared on the wall of a house in Moscow’s Taganka Square where an officially authorized map of the Tagansky District was supposed have been painted.

“The contractor himself decided that the Crimean agenda was more topical and interesting, and he willfully painted what he did, not the map he had been commissioned to paint,” explains Anna Nistratova, an independent curator, researcher, and artist.

0,,18377432_401,00Victoria Lomasko

Later, such monumental propaganda began to appear all over the country, both as commissioned by the authorities, and at the behest of the population, including activist artists, many of whom also believe, according to Lomasko, “Crimea is ours, Donbass is ours, and Ukraine basically doesn’t exist.”

“In matters of propaganda, orders from the top are not obligatory. Our citizens themselves are capable to taking the initiative,” notes Nistratova.

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IMG_5964“Memory” (P = Pamiat’), one of a series of “graffiti” murals produced by the pro-Kremlin youth group Set (“Network”) to celebrate Vladimir Putin’s birthday in October 2014. The five murals, which appeared in different cities, each featured a different letter from the president’s surname; each letter was associated, children’s primer-style, with a different “patriotic” virtue (e.g., such as “memory” of the war). This mural was painted on an apartment block on Petersburg’s Obvodny Canal. Photograph by The Russian Reader

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Lost status

Nistratov points out that there are very few artists involved in political art in Russia. Besides, neither exhibitions nor the very best artworks nor inscriptions on the streets have any effect on society, in her opinion.

“The artist in Russia today is a strange, marginal subject. His status as an intellectual, as a moral exemplar, which existed earlier, has been completely forfeited,” says Nistratova.

Confusion is, perhaps, the feeling that is prevalent throughout the talks given by the participants of the forum Russia vs. Russia: Cultural Conflicts. By and large, the activist artists have no clear strategies for operating under new conditions.

“The only thing that seems to me worthwhile is maintaining one’s own little environment, a bubble inside the shit. Because if this nightmare ever ends, we have to make sure we are not faced with a scorched, absolutely bare field, bereft of political and social art, activism, and civic consciousness,” argues Lomasko.

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This is a real courtyard in my neighborhood, near a playground. Parents stroll around the yard with their children, discussing the news from “fascist” Ukraine.

Do I have the right to draw and show you this landscape featuring a swastika, a landscape that is fairly typical in Russia? During the recent trial of the Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists (BORN), their lawyer argued that the anti-fascists are just another street gang like the fascists. So why not label any denunciation of fascism “propaganda” of fascism itself?

Nationalists freely held an international congress in Petersburg in March. The only people the police arrested were the anti-fascists who protested the congress. Nationalists can walk around sporting neo-fascist symbols, but the authorities will prosecute publications that dare to publish photos of them. Juvenile prisons are filled with skinheads, but nationalist ideas are fomented on television.

Attn: Center “E”. I am opposed to fascism.

fashizm_colourThis yard is not in Ukraine. There are many swastikas in Russia, too. But if Russian citizens try to expose fascism, they can be charged with “extremism.” Inscription on wall: “Russ [sic] is ours!”

Victoria Lomasko: Socially Engaged Graphic Art in Russia

Victoria Lomasko on Socially Engaged Graphic Art
November 8, 2014
Openrussia.org

To get a more or less undistorted sense of reality in our country and transmit it to other people, you have to become a researcher yourself. Socially engaged artists have joined independent journalists, human rights activists, and sociologists in this field. I will try to briefly describe socially engaged graphic art and how it can help in shaping civil society.

It is easier to start the story by talking about my own experience. I would agree with what artist Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin said on this score: “If your work does not improve you, it is powerless to improve anyone else, and [art] has no other task than improving humanity.” For a long time I was hampered by the art scene’s insularity and especially by my own fear of venturing outside it. In 2008, I began making forays into other social milieux and drawing graphic reportages, illustrated documentary stories. I have produced stories about farm workers, village school teachers, migrants, Orthodox activists, the LGBT community, sex workers, and juvenile prison inmates, among others. I have seen that these other milieux are no less isolated from each other, generating mutual contempt, fear, and hatred.

lomasko-soc-1 From the series Black Portraits, 2010. (Left panel) Stoneworker Sergei, who used to be a militant atheist, is now an Orthodox activist: “The West wants to destroy the bold and beautiful Russian people.” (Right panel) Viktor Mizin, a political science lecturer at MGIMO, was born at the Grauerman maternity hospital in central Moscow: “Russians are shit, but I’m a seventh-generation member of the intelligentsia.”

I drew these two portraits on the same day. I meet the Orthodox activist at a prayer meeting against a proposed new redevelopment plan for Moscow, and the “member of the intelligentsia” in a bar on Bolshaya Nikitskaya. The diptych—an illustration of our extreme anomie and mutual disrespect—сame together on its own.

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Teacher: “Is ‘Moscow’ a person’s name or a place name?” First-grader Sasha: “It’s a street.”

The drawing, above, is from the graphic reportage A Village School, which takes place in a village near Tula. When I expressed my surprise that the children did not know what the capital of Russia was, I was told that Moscow was a big dump inhabited by freaks.

The situation is aggravated by the official media, which produce repulsive, clichéd images of many social groups. I was thus afraid to go a juvenile prison for the first time, expecting to see young degenerates there. In reality, black and white were intertwined, and I found it impossible to judge other people’s actions.


From the project Drawing Lessons in a Juvenile Prison, 2010—2014. (Left panel) Oleg: “There are swastikas encrypted in Raphael’s drawings.” Oleg draws a lot. He has his own views of Renaissance masterpieces. (Right panel)  Oleg is a skinhead. It all started when, aged eight, he witnessed the murder of a friend: teenagers from the Caucasus killed him to get hold of his telephone. At fourteen, Oleg organized a “fight club,” in which he was the youngest member. The fighters “staged flash mobs at Caucasian markets.” Oleg said that in his small provincial town, the population was divided into skinheads, people from the Caucasus, and suckers. He was convicted of a gang killing. He expected to be rewarded for his patriotism, not punished. Oleg had kept up his spirits at the penitentiary: he had been studying foreign languages, philosophy, and economics. He dreams of becoming a politician: “Yanukovych’s priors hadn’t stopped him from becoming president.” In the autumn, he was transferred to an adult prison.

Before meeting sex workers, the image of them I had in my head—of brazen, heavily made-up prostitutes—had also been shaped by the media. But in real life they were tired women in casual clothes. Many were single mothers who had gone into prostitution to feed their children.

lomasko-girls-6From The “Girls” of Nizhny Novgorod, 2013. “Some clients ask us to piss on them, but I’d be happy to shit on them on behalf of all women.”

When I had just started making graphic reportages, it was considered something marginal in Russia. The situation has changed in recent years: there have been more and more graphic art non-fiction stories on social topics. Here are a few examples.

lomasko-soc-5Tatyana Faskhutdinova, Unknown Stories from the Life of Lyonya Rodin, 2012. (Left panel) People often take me for an extraterrestrial. One winter, the firewood ran out and there was no fuel for the stove. My friend and I decided to rent a flat. The landlady had a fit when she saw me. Lyona: “How much is the flat?” Landlady: “Ahhh! And he talks, too!” (Right panel) In our town, no one has any use for people like me. Disabled people have no way to get around normally. Tram driver: “Hurry up and get on!”

“Lyonya Rodin is my friend. He has been disabled since birth. […] It was not so much the absurd, maddening situations that happen to him now and then, situations caused by people’s indifference and society’s unwillingness and reluctance to accept people with disabilities, that I wanted to recount, but rather his ability to make friends, to dream, to make plans and carry them out, his passion for what he does, his utter lack of bitterness at life, and his inner calm and pride, despite the harshness and even cruelty of his circumstances.”

lomasko-soc-6Yana Smetanina, The Inhabitants of Psychiatric Hospital N0. 5 in Khotkovo, 2013. TANKA KHIMKI. Tanka is 53. She endlessly mumbles to herself and unexpectedly pops up everywhere at any time asking for a smoke. When she cusses, you can make out what she’s saying. She gestures like a woman who spent ten years in prison. TOO-ROO-TOO-TOO-ROOM. But she got her education at Moscow State University. She was brutally raped for the first time when she was 7. She was raped again as an adult.

“As a child I was really afraid of ‘crazy’ people. […] When, almost three decades later, I came to meet the inhabitants of Psychiatric Hospital No. 5 in Khotkovo, you can imagine my surprise when I realized that nearly all these women had been rape victims and that was why they had lost either their minds or their strength and their will to live. […]  They had been victims of rape, including incest, early in life, assaults on the street, and beatings by their own husbands.”

lomasko-soc-7Ilmira Bolotyan (illustrations) and Natasha Milantyeva (texts), A Nun’s Life, 2013

“Natasha Milantyeva, my girlfriend’s cousin, spent over 18 years in a convent. A Russian Orthodox nun, she was forced to leave her convent because life there threatened her health and the people in charge no longer wanted to see her among their ranks. Her unique experience has been the basis of short stories and plays about convent life. Natasha has witnessed events that no journalist could either record or depict.”

These works and many others were shown at Feminist Pencil, a series of exhibitions of socially engaged graphic art curated by Nadia Plungian and me.

Graphic reportage is especially appropriate in court, since it is forbidden to take pictures and shoot video during hearings. Activist artists in different Russian cities and other parts of the former Soviet Union have taken to sketching court proceedings during political trials.

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Radik Vildanov, Bailiffs Blocking the Corridor (Bolotnaya Square Trial), 2014

Zlata Ponirovskaya and I run the web site Drawing the Court, an archive of drawings from political trials and informative texts about these cases.

There are other grassroots initiatives involving drawing. The Women’s Crisis Center in Petersburg, for example, has begun engaging female artists to document court hearings on cases of domestic and sexual violence against its clients.

In Germany, Belarusian artist Marina Naprushkina sketches court hearings in the cases of asylum seekers from different countries, archiving them on the web site Refugees’ Library. Although her project only partly involves Russia (many of the refugees are from Chechnya and Dagestan), I cannot pass up this happy synthesis of socially engaged drawing and human rights work in my overview.

“I put together notebooks at the hearings, which people then translate into different languages. Having the web site function as an informational platform for refugees themselves is our main objective. The refugees are often not ready for the hearings: they don’t know they go, and what they should expect there. The notebooks are already read in many countries around the world,” says Naprushkina.

Like court sketches, graphic art produced for rallies has to make a clear, emotional statement. Many activist artists have been involved in making placards for opposition rallies and even helping to design the look of whole columns.  For example, at a 2012 rally in support of the Bolotnaya Square defendants, the Left Front’s column marched with portraits of the political prisoners drawn by artist Nikolay Oleynikov. In 2014, Oleynikov also organized an Anti-Fascist Creative Workshop at which he helped activists collectively produce placards for the annual Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova memorial rally on January 19. Portraits graced most of the placards at the rally.

lomasko-soc-9Anti-Fascist Creative Workshop. Photo by Vasily Petrov

However, portraits of political activists belong more to the realm of political art than to graphic art focused on social issues. It would also be a stretch to include the numerous examples of graphic art that appeared at protest rallies in 2012 and 2013 in this body of work. The main subjects were criticism of Putin and support for Pussy Riot: I don’t remember seeing placards dealing with societal problems there.

The works of Petersburg artist Yelena Osipova are outstanding in this regard. Even before the upsurge of protests in 2012, Osipova had been attending rallies and solo pickets with large, hand-drawn placards that took on such topics as the demolition of historic buildings, tuberculosis, everyday racism, children involved in the drug trade, and the murders of journalists.

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Yelena Osipova, Don’t Believe in the Justice of War, March 2014. Photo by Asya Khodyreva

Osipova illuminates even the war in Ukraine from a social angle. Such posters of hers as Don’t Go to War, Sonny and Stop the War, Mothers and Wives, and her large-format colored placard Don’t Believe in the Justice of War treat war not as an abstract evil but as the personal tragedy of women who have lost sons and husbands.

City walls are another good place for socially engaged graphic art. Over the past two years, the Petersburg group Gandhi has become a notable presence in socially engaged street art. Most often, the group makes large stencils in a laconic, poster-like style, for example, its series depicting female migrants or its latest work, a fresco on the fence of the Social Adaptation Center for the Homeless in Moscow.

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Stencils made by the group Gandhi for the Solidarity Art Festival, 2014. Photo by Anton Androsov

Gandhi has made one of the few statements by Russian artists on the war in Ukraine. At the Street Art Museum in Petersburg, they produced a fresco entitled Broads Will Give Birth to New Ones, explaining it as follows: “We see and hear what is happening—a war that has not been formally declared but which is permanently conducted on the external and internal fronts. […] Our subject is a woman holding a Molotov cocktail. Glowing inside her is an infant soldier, doomed to fight for the money and power of strangers. The woman has chosen to rebel, knowing that if she fails, her child will himself, in the future, go after her with a gun.”

lomasko-soc-12Gandhi, Broads Will Give Birth to New Ones, 2014. Photo taken from the group’s Facebook page

Samizdat has always been a means of spreading leftist ideas. Graphic artists have been actively collaborating with such independent publications in Russia.

The newspaper Chto Delat has been published for many years by an eponymous group of leftist artists, philosophers, writers, researchers, and activists. Back issues of the paper are accessible on their web site.  The newspaper is filled with graphic art. These are not illustrations, however, but series of works by artists, linked to the articles by a common theme.

Lots of graphic art is printed in the anarchist newspaper Volya (Liberty).

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Anarchist newspaper Volya

The 2013 International Women’s Day issue of Volya, featuring the works of feminist artists, was especially interesting visually. Such a variety of genres—posters, stencils, comics, graphic reportage, logos, and cover art—cannot be found in the official press.

Feminist zines are gradually emerging in Russia. In 2013, the first issue of Molota ved’m (Malleus Maleficarum) was published.

In the next few days, the first issue of the queer feminist zine Naglaya rvanina (Insolent Gash) will be released.

lomasko-soc-14Spread from queer feminist zine Naglaya rvanina, 2014

I am particularly interested in how socially engaged graphic art can become a part of human rights work and educational projects. Since 2010, I have worked as a volunteer with the Center for Prison Reform, participating in art trips to juvenile prisons. My project Drawing Lessons is part of the Center’s human rights and educational program. The project includes summaries of lessons specifically designed for juvenile prisons, drawings made by the inmates during these lessons, my own sketches in the prisons, and various samizdat (calendars, postcards, and brochures).

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Calendar for the Novy Oskol Prison for Girls, 2012

I have posted most of the material from Drawing Lessons on my blog.

Another example is the Nasreddin Hodja Joke Contest, a project by Petersburg artist Olga Jitlina. Every week for several months, Jitlina organized informal meetings with migrants at teahouses, cafes, and other places.  Over cups of tea, participants analyzed the kinds of ethnic discrimination experienced by migrants in Russia and came up with succinct, witty responses that would put their offenders in their place without inciting them to violence. Artist Anna Tereshkina drew comics for the project about the modern-day Nasreddin and his fictional sister Dilfuza, who find themselves in typical conflicts in Russia. The speech balloons were left either entirely blank or only the lines of the victimizers were filled in. The migrants themselves came up with Nasreddin and Dilfuza’s rejoinders, and the wittiest lines were incorporated into the comics.

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Olga Jitlina meeting with Nasreddin Hodja Joke Contest participants at a Petersburg teahouse, 2014. Photo by Victoria Lomasko

I hope even this fragmentary overview of Russian socially engaged graphic art gives some idea of its variety, especially in comparison with the situation in the 2000s. However, due to the tightening of censorship, the range of topics on which one can speak publicly without fear of incurring fines, criminal penalties or some other form of pressure from the government has begun to shrink rapidly.

Even worse than official censorship is the internal censorship practiced by the organizers of socially engaged projects.  For example, I was asked to leave in the pitiful stories of migrants in a graphic reportage I was doing while removing everything about the perpetrators of their misadventures—Russian police officers, judges, and officials who abuse their power. Such decisions are explained by the fact that castrated socially engaged works are “better than nothing.” As a result, instead of analyzing phenomena in their entirety, they once again leave viewers and readers with distorted images.

Artists reacted to events in political and public life in 2012 and 2013 with a flood of works. Many of them were superficial and lacking in professionalism, but this was made up for by the urgency and timeliness of their topics. Now we will have to react less and reflect more. In principle, any social topic can be used to reveal Russian society’s fundamental evil: our total alienation from each other and disrespect. And for the most radical works there are still the social networks, the streets, and samizdat.