A Letter to Russia from Russia

Nadia Plungian with her textile works at the exhibition “Post-Soviet Cassandras,” 2015

A Letter to Russia

Nadia Plungian writes to Russia from Russia

The more horrifying the images from the news, the more clearly do I realize that there is a profound significance to the fact that I stayed in Russia and repeatedly turned down opportunities to leave up until now. I am also thinking about friends and colleagues from Belarus, who are in a similar situation. Our countries have completely shut down, we have no illusions of a future whatsoever. There are no outside forces responsible for making a new era dawn. It is time to say something from within this space.

Many people are writing about political suicide. But which political reality is killing itself right now? Without a doubt, it’s the Soviet Union and its successor—Soviet post-Soviet statehood. We all saw the Soviet-era apartment buildings blowing up in Kyiv and Kharkiv. In the terrible light cast by these fires, it becomes especially obvious how closely the 2000s and the 2010s followed the Soviet epoch.

This is not just about “peacekeeping missions” but about a specific type of hybrid censorship, of visible and invisible pressure. The possibility for major changes in cultural, academic, and public life has been suspended for many years now. This happened with the nearly unanimous tacit support of the older generation, who seemed to have gotten stuck in the late 1980s and demanded that we, their children, not go beyond these historical confines under any circumstances.

People my age who wanted to change something have over the past fifteen years gone through a series of political and existential conflicts which can be summed up by the phrase “do not live.” There is no sphere in which we have not had to listen to rebukes about our lack of qualifications or threats to throw us out of the profession. Science, culture, technology, art, politics, the family. New methodologies? Irrelevant. Questions of domestic violence, violence toward women and children, generational conflicts? Laughable, those problems don’t exist. National, postcolonial, gender, religious identities? Prohibited, irrelevant, incomprehensible, nonexistent. You want to prevent historical monuments from being demolished, or, say, entire historical neighborhoods? Who do you think you are? We’re bringing out the bulldozers! You want to work at a school or hospital? Go on, we’ll see how you like living hand to mouth. And the respectable people who held respectable positions in society back in the 90s have been broadly supported when they call attempts to talk about all this “a revival of Party committees,” “leveling,” and “hysterics.”

The focus on suppressing the new, on ignoring progress—generally, the focus on a defeatist rhetoric laced with threats—is hardly a new phenomenon. For fifteen years we’ve been hearing from absolutely every corner that we have no prospects. That if you’ve got a head on your shoulders you should leave for Europe right away. That only morons and idealists would want to live in “this country,” would want to deal with the dynamics of Russian society, to write textbooks here, to reform museums, schools, or universities here, to open functional academic institutions, to form some kind of decent societal platform capable of describing the past and projecting a future.

The stance taken by the older generation was formally divided into two parts, which were fueled by two late-Soviet ideologemes. Substantively, however, they were entirely united, and they were taught to us at university. One part of society declared: you are nobody because you didn’t live in the USSR; we will take away your pensions, social security, and place in society; we will force you to pay insane mortgages, we will send you to jail for comments on social media, shame you for your personal life, and not give you even the slightest access to political life. The other part of society insisted: don’t flatter yourself, take your modest little spot—after all, you will never have money and possibilities anywhere near what they have in the West; nothing you do can ever be compared to what happens in enormous Western museums or with famous Western curators; you must memorize Western philosophers and theorists by heart because you are not philosophers or theorists, you have to imitate Western artists because you are not artists; holding out hope for anything bigger is deluding yourself; and remember, if you don’t want to play by the rules of the twentieth century, the nineteenth century will come.

I don’t know why my generation was so methodically deprived of opportunities, but I think that now the final act of this show has commenced. Because there’s nothing left to trample us with. Will all the leading thirty- and forty-something specialists in our countries be fired and deprived of income, sent to prison? And what fuel will you use to move forward then? This is not the Brezhnev era. The Soviet ideology has been destroyed; postmodernism is grown over with mold. You don’t have any writers, poets, politicians, or scientists. Who will force us to re-integrate into this meaningless, self-devouring loop, and how will they do it? Most importantly, how will you fill the empty cultural centers that you’ve been building all these years in all Russian cities? How exactly will the twenty- and fourteen-year-olds, under orders from the old folks, conceptualize and glorify military strikes against neighboring countries and the choice of complete cultural isolation? By what methods? On what terms? To what end?

I’ll add one more thing. Only now am I realizing the significance of my professional choices as a historian and art historian. Back in 2002, I rejected the possibility of working with “neutral themes,” choosing instead to deal with Stalin-era Soviet art—that is, pretty much the most depressing and censored material around. It is a field in which there are no reliable answers and no readymade narratives, and in which the big methodological steps have only been taken halfway.

My work is connected with what exists here in Russia. It is based on private archives and personal testimonies that come together to form an unwritten history of the country. It brings back the cultural and intellectual presence of people who, like us, found themselves here and stayed here at a most difficult time of transition, without any hope or any right to be heard.

The path that many of my friends and have chosen brought us face to face with a hard fact: the desire to work professionally in Russia and come up with something new in the civic, academic, and cultural sense meant operating under double pressure: without support from the older generation or from Western researchers. But we had faith in other thirty-somethings. We formed our own intellectual networks in various directions within Russia and in the territories known as post-Soviet space. We went deep into our countries and studied museums, archives, architecture, and the cities themselves, to see with our own eyes and independently analyze our history without having recourse to cliches and stereotypes.

I would not have become what I am if I had not maintained contact for the past fifteen years with independent millennials from Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan; with the scholars, human rights activists, artists, and philosophers who lived in these countries and with those who were forced to leave them, along with many like-minded people in Russia. We all encountered censorship and stigmatization and taught each other how to remain thoughtful people under these conditions. We welcomed each other into our homes, using the last of our money to put together conferences, roundtables, and exhibitions, taking every opportunity to see one another and exchange know-how. Because besides us there was no one to create the foundations for a future for our free countries. There is no one now either. There is no West offering us a readymade scenario. There is not a single Soviet institution that might have solutions.

We are alone.

This war is being waged without our consent and against us, physically destroying the fruits and prospects of friendship, cooperation, and solidarity for our generation.

Nuclear threats, attacks on neighbors, closed borders—this is the crazed twentieth century, screaming at us to heel.

But history will not grant it this authority. There is no such thing as the past dictating the rules for the future, or the past dragging the future into its old coffin.

Twentieth century, you tossed us out of your cubicles and deprived us of places in politics a long time ago. But this has had only one result—we are now free to choose our own places in politics and culture.

Nadia Plungian is a Moscow-based art historian, curator, and feminist activist. Source: Colta.ru, 1 March 2022. Translated by the Fabulous AM

Post-Soviet Cassandras (Berlin)

 

11020730_438171806342700_9079588153318388054_oPost-Soviet Cassandras is an exhibition with artists from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, who all deal critically with the social and political situation in their countries. The show is about analysing the current social reality: about women’s rights and gender roles, about the lack of a political dialogue, about happiness and misfortune within marginalized groups. Despite flagrant abuses, the artists envision ideas for a more inclusive future using the means of art.

Participating artists: Anatoly Belov (Kiev), Gandhi (Saint Petersburg), Shifra Kazhdan (Moscow), Victoria Lomasko (Moscow), Marina Naprushkina (Minsk/Berlin), Nadia Plungian (Moscow)

Curated by: Dorothee Bienert, Victoria Lomasko, Nadia Plungian, Antje Weitzel
A project in cooperation with uqbar e.V.

April 25–July 12, 2015. Opening: 6 p.m., Friday, April 24, 2015

Galerie im Körnerpark
Schierker Str. 8, 12051 Berlin, Germany
galerien@kultur-neukoelln.de
+49 30 56823939
Open Tuesday–Sunday, 10 a.m–8 p.m.
U + S-Bahn: Neukölln und Hermannstraße

Barbarians at the Gates: The Demise of Stroyburo House

The Demise of Stroyburo House
Nadia Plungian
March 8, 2015
Facebook

Tonight, an illegal criminal operation has completely destroyed Alexander Langman and Leonid Cherikover‘s Stroyburo (“Construction Bureau”) House, a monument to the Bolshevo Commune. A fresco, The Working Class, by artist and communard Vasily Maslov, will remain forever buried under its ruins. The fresco had been slated for restoration and measures had been taken prevent its further deterioration. A few days ago, the building had been listed in the Russian Federal Unified State Cultural Heritage Registry.

Along with its fresco, Stroyburo House was a landmark of international significance. During 2013–2014, the ruination of the building was halted through the efforts of architectural heritage activists and experts, including myself, and the facade and the room containing the fresco were left intact. The authorities promised to restore the building and turn it into a museum, and the scandal led to dismissal of Korolyov’s mayor. The media wrote extensively about Maslov, there were programs about him on national TV, and a large show of his graphic work opened at the Avant-Garde Center in Moscow. Quite recently, there had been another exhibition of his works in Bolshevo from the collections of the Korolyov Museum.

Then there was a pause, the restoration was delayed, and the building was given official landmark status. Last night, a group of unidentified criminal raiders, operating practically under the supervision and direction of Korolyov city police officers, brought in wrecking equipment and commenced finishing off the building’s supporting structures. At present, they have destroyed the facade and all the remaining walls. Alexandra Selivanova went there in the morning, and there can be no illusions. According to dozens of observers from Archnadzor and the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK (All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Monuments of History and Culture), the Maslov room no longer exists.

You can talk about impotence and rage, but in fact that would mean saying nothing. The destruction of architectural landmarks is today implemented with methods resembling a real civil war. This war is waged not only against people but against also our right to historical memory. The terrible ruins of Stroyburo House, the ruins of the illusory independence and self-governance of the 1930s communes, reveal to us the reality of the historical stage where we find ourselves. I will say one thing. Criminal lawlessness and official relativism are based on fear of losing power, and in a state of increasing fear it is impossible to act rationally. If the regime strikes out indiscriminately against its own culture, if it forgets the rulings it made yesterday and does not know what to do today, then it has completely lost control of the situation.

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“The Islamic State is already outside Moscow”: Korolyov landmark demolished to cries of “Allah Akbar!”
March 8, 2015
Regnum.ru

Today, March 8, Stroyburo House, a cultural landmark in the suburban Moscow town of Korolyov, was demolished to the accompaniment of extremist and neo-Nazi slogans, VOOPIK activists have informed Regnum.

“The Islamic State is already here. The gangsters who were guarding tonight’s demolition of an architectural landmark containing a world-class fresco cried ‘Allah Akbar!’ and ‘Red-assed commies!’ The local police looked on in silence. The Moscow Region police, the Russian Interior Ministry, the Governor of Moscow Region, and the Moscow Region Prosecutor’s Office have remained aloof. At the moment, the demolition is being completed in daylight. The authorities continue to do nothing,” said VOOPIK Moscow Region branch chairman Yevgeny Sosedov.

Sosedov had spent the last twenty-four hours trying to contact Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov through official channels, but to no avail.

“One of the men surrounding the building was drunk and screaming ‘Douse him with gasoline and set him on fire!’ in reference to a local city councilman’s aide. As soon as the police left, he shouted, ‘I’m going to start shooting!’ There were neo-Nazi slogans and swearing,” recounted VOOPIK activist Yevgeny Rybak.

Police who were called to the scene left without taking any action. Attempts to summon the police again through the Moscow Region police’s main directorate and the Interior Ministry’s central office were fruitless.

3-17-bigStroyburo House in November 2014

The illegally demolished, regionally listed cultural landmark was the first brick building at the Bolshevo Commune, which operated in the 1920s and 1930s. Until now, the building contained the world’s only examples [sic] of Soviet avant-garde monumental painting. Activists had managed to save only one fresco by artist Vasily Maslov.

[…]

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Building on Bones
Fresco from 1930s Discovered in Constructivist Landmark Threatened by Illegal Destruction
Nadia Plungian and Alexandra Selivanova
November 11, 2013
Colta.ru

Detailed_pictureStroyburo House, November 2013. Photo by Nadia Plungian

In the town of Korolyov, a building that could be a museum is being destroyed. Nadia Plungian, senior researcher at the Institute of Art Studies, and Alexandra Selivanova, a senior researcher at the Research Institute of Theory and History of Architecture and Urban Planning and director of the Avant-Garde Center at the Jewish Museum, visited Korolyov and tried to get to the bottom of the situation.

On the morning of November 8, another arson took place in the suburban Moscow town of Korolyov, and later that night, the first phase in the illegal demolition of the building at Ordzhonikidze Street, 34/2, commenced. One of the first communal houses in the world, the building, known to historians as Stroyburo House (Alexander Langman and Leonid Cherikover, architects), is part of the impressive constructivist campus of the Bolshevo Commune (1928—1935), which has been almost completely preserved to the present day.

In the mid 1930s, the commune’s campus was an interesting complex, which today gives us a complete picture of the early Soviet social and educational experiment in organizing collective living. It included a factory kitchen, a hospital complex, a shopping center (the so-called ship house), dormitories, a kindergarten, a workers club, a building for assemblies of communards (the so-called airplane house), and the residential building, discussed in this article. Among other reasons, it went down in the art history annals thanks to Nikolai Ekk’s famous 1931 movie Road to Life, the first Soviet feature sound film, which deals with the re-education of a teenaged communard.

According to the draft master plan for the town of Korolyov, the entire campus of the commune, except for the shopping center, has been slated for demolition, and apartment buildings will be constructed on the vacated lots. Activists of the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK are currently making every effort to preserve the complex as a whole and Stroyburo House as part of it.

The question of demolishing the house was raised about six months ago. According to Maria Mironova, chair of VOOPIK in Korolyov, a letter writing campaign to various authorities managed to get the entire complex placed on the waiting list for eventual cultural heritage status. After the house was vacated of residents, however, it was not put under protection, and for reasons unknown, municipal documents limit the period prohibiting all work on the premises to the present day, November 11, 2013. During this time, the empty house has been the target of seven arson attempts.

Stroyburo House, Bolshevo Commune. 1930s

Now, while the house is under attack from backhoes and fire, a poll on whether or not to demolish the house is underway on the website of the Moscow Region Culture Ministry. Many local residents support demolition. According to them, the developer, Development 21, Ltd., told them its terms: if the historic building were not demolished, the residents would be evicted from their new municipal apartments. The practice of “building on bones” is not new in Korolyov. A neighboring high-rise has been built on land once occupied by a cemetery used during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which Development 21 ripped up, discarding and destroying the gravestones. The developer’s manipulative rhetoric is seemingly so well established that the senseless demand to chose between the town’s history and its improvement has long been taken for granted by the residents, who obediently support the destruction of their own memory.

It was in these catastrophic circumstances that a week ago, on November 2, architectural heritage activists discovered wall paintings from the early 1930s in two rooms in the house during an inspection.

“[Yevgeny] Rybak phoned me on the second,” recounts local historian and history buff Vladimir Kultin, head of the Podlipki-Kaliningrad-Korolyov Club. “He was at the house with his young son. You know the layout yourselves. Down the hallway to the right, there are two rooms, then a kitchen. If you noticed, there is not a single unbroken window in the house right now, and the terrible draft has caused the wallpaper to peel from the walls. That is how [Rybak] discovered the painting. Our jaws dropped, of course. People have been searching and searching, and there the Amber Room drops into your lap. I even dubbed [Rybak] Schliemann. His son was in the second room. He says, Dad, there are some men here. We take a look, and it is true: it’s a Maslov, a portrait of three workers. There is no doubt it is him: the part of the fresco featuring the bridge is repeated in other works by the artist. We explored further and found geometric shapes, a bright crimson triangle, and a circle, which we later recognized as a locomotive.

“By tapping the wall between the rooms, we realized it had been installed latter. The molding at the top is different, and the doors give the impression of a latter do-it-yourself job. (You can see that laths have been plastered above the opening.) All these partitions are already in the Technical Inventory Bureau plan for 1947. But if we mentally removed the wall and the doors, we would see a large room with identical windows, which was painted with a fresco all round the perimeter.”

fileFresco in Stroyburo House, former appearance. Image © Vladimir Kultin

Fresco in Stroyburo House, former appearance. Image © Vladimir Kultin
Fresco in Stroyburo House, current appearance. Photo © Vladimir Kultin

The discovery in Stroyburo is completely sensational, not only because very few pre-war frescoes have survived, and not only because the work’s provenance is obvious: the daughter of one of the communards, artist Vasily Maslov (born 1905—executed 1938) had kept pre-war photographs of the fresco. It is also sensational because the fresco was known from archival materials and was previously considered lost, since inaccurate information had led historians to believe that the fresco had been painted in another building at the complex, the Spark (Iskra) communard club, which burnt down in 1943.

Vasily Maslov’s personal background is interesting as well. A Yekaterinburg artist who left home as a teenager and earned his living as a painter, Maslov later studied in the mid 1920s at art colleges in Gorky and Baku before arriving in Moscow, where on the recommendation of Commissar of Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky he was given a room in a dormitory and enrolled in a remedial arts college for workers [rabfak]. In 1928, Maslov met Bolshevo Commune organizer Matvei Pogrebinsky through Maxim Gorky and thus became a Bolshevo communard. Even now, Maslov’s frescoes can be put on a par with the works of many of his famous contemporaries such as Vladimir Malagis, Israel Lizak, and Vasily Kuptsov.

Vasily Maslov in the art studio at the Bolshevo Commune

It was decided that information about the frescoes should be temporarily kept on the back burner to prevent deliberate vandalism until experts arrived: activists had already started receiving threats from supporters of the developer. However, on November 8, fire broke out at the house for the eighth time. According to architectural heritage activist Olga Melnikova, everything pointed to the work of a professional arsonist. The roof was destroyed, and the building was burned from top to bottom on several sides. Firefighters privately confirmed that the building had been doused with a flammable liquid, but refused to comment on the record.

Pyotr Shubin, chair of the Korolyov Council of Deputies, who managed to stop Stroyburo House from being vandalized on Friday night, says that the town’s master plan, according to which the buildings are slated for demolition, has still not been agreed with either the Ministry of Culture or the Ministry of Natural Resources. However, the grounds of the former commune continue to be redeveloped.

Almost immediately after the fire was extinguished, Stroyburo House was again subjected to another attempt at rapid demolition. On the night of November 8, a front loader arrived to begin demolishing the left wing. On November 9, a second, much larger loader arrived. In the presence of the police and fire department, the building continued to smolder. We got the impression that constant, repeated attempts at arson were taking place, now under the strict control of the authorities. In between these stages of the demolition, we were able to get inside the house and partially photograph the already heavily soaked fresco in both rooms, as well as disseminating information about it on social networks. It is quite likely that similar frescoes could be discovered under layers of wallpaper in other rooms in the house, but this can be ascertained only when all work has been halted on the premises. Access to the rooms is now forbidden. This has to do with the desire to prevent art historians and architectural experts from carrying out inspections before the building is totally ruined.

To divert the attention of activists from Stroyburo House, another criminal offense was committed: an arson attack on the first floor of the so-called 38th Store—a neighboring constructivist landmark, which had served as the Bolshevo Commune’s shopping center and had been known as the “ship house.” Even the master plan did not call for demolishing this building, but the tacit support of the police and the Emergency Situations Ministry appeared to encourage further unlawful acts.

file-1
“The store is closed”

Over the weekend, the vandalism reached its absurd climax. Yevgeny Sosedov, council chair of VOOPIK’s Moscow Region branch, held negotiations with Moscow Region police, city police, the local fire chief, and a spokesman for Development 21, Ltd. On his Facebook page, Sosedov writes that it was obvious the local authorities, firefighters, police, the ESM, and the developer were in cahoots.

“Under the guise of fighting the fire (which has been out for nearly a day already) it has been decided to inflict maximum, irreversible damage to Stroyburo House. Allegedly in order to extinguish smoldering floor slabs (although there was not even any smoke), it is necessary to smash yet another wall (this is done with a crane) and breach the walls of the house between the first- and second-floor windows in six to eight spots (this is done with a backhoe). No one takes any responsibility for this decision. Everyone refers to a certain committee decision made during a morning meeting at town hall.

“And yet, last night and this afternoon, the firefighters did not deem it necessary to extinguish the smoldering floor slabs, but this evening it was for some reason necessary to smash half the walls in the building to accomplish this same purpose. They tried to begin making the breach earlier today, but the big backhoe broke down and a new one had to be found.  The building is almost completely waterlogged: what else is there to put out? (And why can’t it be put out through the windows?) And what is this new method of putting out fires in historic buildings by breaching half-meter brick walls? Residents say they can see chopped trees and branches through the windows of some first-floor apartments, which apparently have been placed there so that the burning continues and smoke keeps appearing. The work on breaching the walls is done by the developer, who has a stake in destroying the house. The developer is allegedly doing the work on behalf of the local Emergency Situations Commission. And yet spokesmen for the developer and the police unanimously assure us that they will not allow the building to be demolished, because ‘the governor forbade’ them to do it.”


Stroyburo House on November 10, 2013. From the Facebook page of the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK

The building now being destroyed is not only the first building at the commune, the historically most significant part of its campus, and a good example of residential constructivist architecture. It is the semantic heart of the complex, uniting the daily lives of former homeless children and the artistic experiments of the communards with the memory of their tragic lives, arrests, and purges. The personal belongings, photographs, archives, memoirs, and artworks still preserved today would make it possible to turn Stroyburo House into a magnificent, innovative museum that would provide visitors with a clear idea of the social and architectural experiments conducted during the avant-garde period and show them Korolyov’s tremendous importance as the flagship of early Soviet communal culture.

The history being destroyed in Korolyov as we speak is no abstraction. At issue is the material evidence of the lives of the 1920s and 1930s generation, the people who built this town and created its manufacturing base, especially considering that the commune did not run on state subsidies but on the money it earned. Among the communards and the teachers were well-known academics, musicians, athletes, and artists. The building’s facade could be strewn with memorial plaques. The wave of purges in 1937—1938, which killed most of the communards, has prevented this memory from being preserved. Development 21, Ltd., also wants to prevent it.

However, the entire complex of Bolshevo Commune buildings would be a surefire draw for tourists, as completely different types of constructivist buildings have survived there. Strung on a central axis, Communards Avenue (now Ordzhonikidze Street), each of them could accommodate a minimum amount of museum items and tourist infrastructure. The kitchen factory, kindergarten, hospital, department store, education building, and residential houses could accommodate, respectively, a cafe, a children’s center, a pharmacy, commercial zones, open lecture halls, educational spaces, and hostels, which would gradually reveal not only the history of the Bolshevo Commune but more generally the aesthetic and concept of the new organization of daily life in the 1920s. Stroyburo House, which encloses the complex from the right side, could accommodate a hotel on its upper floors, galleries and art studies on the middle floors, and a Bolshevo Commune Museum on the first floor, thus becoming a new cultural center for that entire district of Korolyov. Needless to say, there is no such complex in Russia, just as there is still no Museum of the Soviet Union.

Bolshevo communards. Junior competitions: “Best boy.” Kostino, 1937

Given the rapid growth of “red” tourism around the world and efforts in this direction even within Russia itself (e.g., the Ulyanovsk Region), the suburban Moscow town of Korolyov had every chance to occupy a dominant position in the field. In the 1930s, thousands of foreign tourists flocked to see this “plant for re-education,” and they could easily have returned in even greater numbers in the present day.  The commercial attractiveness and social relevance of this cluster are obvious. A thoughtful and high-quality approach to the complex could have brought economic self-sufficiency and new vectors of development to Korolyov. It could have rejected its lot as just another faceless appendage to the capital, filled with new housing estates.


Track and field athletes from Bolshevo Commune No. 1, women’s team. Metal Worker Stadium, 1934

“I don’t know whether we will save Stroyburo House or not,” writes Yevgeny Sosedov. “But I know for sure that this ‘rout’ will go down in the history of the town and Moscow Region, and the names of those involved will be on a par with those who purged the communards in the 1930s. Those men killed people, while these men are destroying the last memory of them, but the methods are the same.”

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The Bolshevo Commune fresco: discovery of the year or loss of the decade?
Mural from time of the Bolshevo Commune discovered in suburban Moscow town of Korolyov during demolition of 1920s building
Maria Semendyayeva
November 26, 2013
vozduh.afisha.ru

Demolition of the Bolshevo Commune began in November. In the early 1930s, thirteen constructivist buildings, designed by architects Alexander Langman and Leonid Cherikover, were built for the commune in what is now the town of Korolyov but was then the village of Kostino, near the station of Bolshevo. Eleven of the buildings have survived. The Korolyov master plan calls for demolition of all the buildings. The Bolshevo Commune was seemingly doomed—until November 2, when a mural was accidentally discovered in Stroyburo House.

The fresco was identified through photographs as the work of artist Vasily Maslov. It had been considered lost, since, according to historians, it was located in the commune’s House of Culture, which has not survived to the present day. The fresco was produced in 1930–1931: painted in oils, it featured images of industrialization, typical of the 1930s. Stroyburo House was the first brick building at the commune, and it housed managerial staff and communards, explains Alexandra Selivanova, architectural historian and director of the Avant-Garde Center at the Jewish Museum. The early 1930s were a brief heyday at the Bolshevo Commune. Founded in 1924 on the initiative of Dzerzhinsky as an experiment by the OGPU in reforging juvenile offenders, in 1938 nearly all the senior management and teaching staff were executed or imprisoned. 655 people lived in the commune in 1933, but by the late 1930s that number had grown to around four thousand. The communards were former street kids: all of them received an education and worked in the commune’s manufacturing facilities, the income from which allowed the commune to operate autonomously. Bolshevo produced sports equipment that was sold throughout the Soviet Union and brought in a steady income. Until a club was built, the first floor of Stroyburo House was the center of the commune’s cultural life. It was there that Vasily Maslov produced his fresco, which was meant to inspire the communards to work and self-improvement. Then the commune’s population increased, and the room on the first floor was partitioned; the fresco ended up in two different rooms and was later wallpapered over.

98ff540b004345298e4d2138df483366Vasily Maslov’s wife Muza in front of his later fresco at the Bolshevo Commune House of Culture. Photograph courtesy of the Korolyov branch of VOOPIK

Maslov was a fairly well known artist in the thirties, but his name has been absent from the official art histories until recent: in 1938, he was shot along with many other communards. Maslov was born in Yekaterinburg province. After his mother died, he became homeless and earned money drawing portraits on the street. After brief stints at art colleges in Baku and Nizhny Novgorod, he came to Moscow, were Lunacharsky and Gorky intervened in his life. On the recommendation of the latter, he went to the Bolshevo Commune. He almost left to study in the workers faculty [rabfak] of the Vkhutein, but quickly returned.

“Apparently, the regular instruction at the Vkhutein was too academic for him,” says Alexandra Selivanova, “but he was actively engaged in self-education, mainly at the Museum of New Western Art. In addition to cubism and expressionism, ‘revolutionary artists of the west’ were exhibited there. Maslov’s graphic work can be compared with that of Frans Masereel, and his paintings with those of the red artist Heinrich Vogeler. I personally see parallels with the artist Vasily Kuptsov from Pavel Filonov’s school: the same disintegrated space, fragments, and local color. Maslov is a very emotional artist. All his watercolors and oil paintings are quite vivid. Even the faded mural under the half-torn wallpaper makes it plain that it was a painting rich in contrasts.”

Vasily Maslov, Industrial Landscape, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum
Vasily Maslov, Prostitutes, 1920s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum

Vasily Maslov, On the Quay, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum
maslov-socialist building sitesVasily Maslov, Building Sites of Socialism, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum

Vasily Maslov, Men’s Faces, 1930s. Courtesy of Korolyov History Museum

In 1933, an artistic commission visited Bolshevo. It concluded that the “decorative panels and murals are ill conceived. They suffer from compositional chaos and unsuccessful attempts to introduce decorative elements in the form of garishly colored crystal shapes, as well as the complete absence of an overall tone.”

The opinion of today’s experts is radically different. Selivanova is certain that the mural found in Korolyov is a genuine museum masterpiece. She even draws an analogy with the fresco produced by Diego Rivera at Rockefeller Center. It also depicted Lenin, which is why it was plastered over a year after it was produced.

It is possible that the only surviving wall painting from those years has been found in Korolyov.

“These murals can still be found, under layers of oil paint, in constructivist buildings in Minsk, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Samara. But no one has done it yet. Maslov did a number of murals in Korolyov. He painted murals in the club house and the factory kitchen. The factory kitchen has survived, but there are offices there now, and we don’t know what is under the plaster,” says Selivanova.

The fact that the wall at Stroyburo House containing the mural has stood fast until now can be considered a miracle. Since the beginning of the demolition, the building has caught on fire eight times, and on several sides simultaneously. The fires were also extinguished in an unusual way—with excavators, which were used to break the floor and ceiling slabs in several places. According to restorers, there are also paintings from the 1930s in one of the rooms that has been caved in, but the developer, Development 21, Ltd., has been scrambling to halt even the examination of the painting that has been uncovered. According to the building’s defenders, staff from the development company are on duty near the ruins every day and even call the regional culture ministry to inform them when the restorers do not come to work on time.

Текущее состояние росписи в Доме Стройбюро в КоролевеCurrent condition of the mural at Stroyburo House in Korolyov (November 2013). Photograph by Konstantin Maslov 

The discovery of the Vasily Maslov mural, argues Selivanova, could help preserve the entire Bolshevo Commune complex. After a long meeting at city hall, a temporary moratorium on construction work has been announced. Restorers are working on the mural, and an official expert analysis to get the building on the protected list is being prepared. Generally, Selivanova is convinced that the constructivist landmarks could draw foreign tourists and help Korolyov find a new identity. The situation is unique in that the Bolshevo Commune campus has almost entirely been preserved: tours have been conducted on similar constructivist streets in Yekaterinburg, for example, for many years. At one time, all foreign travelers who came to the Land of the Soviets visited Bolshevo; George Bernard Shaw, for example, wrote about the commune. If an effort is made to develop the infrastructure and a minimal amount of money is invested, Bolshevo could be made into one of the key tourist spots in suburban Moscow. Korolyov is half an hour’s drive from Moscow, closer than Gorki Leninskiye, which still draws visitors. Korolyov city hall does not even need to make a special effort to build a constructivist museum in the town. It merely needs to preserve what is left, and let engaged professionals do their job.

But the situation could develop in a different way. The mural will be hurriedly transferred from the wall to a canvas and sent for restoration, because six days at most remain until the end of the moratorium on demolition. The expert analysis of Stroyburo House is still underway. Meanwhile, the building, of which only the foundation and facade remain, could be demolished within a week by the developer, Development 21, Ltd., with the complete consent of the local administration. A cookie-cutter residential complex will arise on the site of the constructivist landmark, and people who cannot afford a flat in a high-rise within the Ring Road will eagerly snap up the apartments there. Theoretically, there is the prospect of making more money on a living architectural landmark, transformed into an international museum, than on sales of apartments. In the Luzhkov days, before the emergence of urban planning councils, Archnadzor, and progressive municipal departments of culture, this alternative would never have even occurred: the building would have been demolished long ago, no questions asked. And if Korolyov city hall goes for the easiest option now, it will not just mean the loss of yet another constructivist landmark. It will also be a sign that the reconstruction of old Soviet houses of culture or Ivan Melnikov’s buildings is only a temporary measure, which will last until another company like Development 21, Ltd., comes along and begins digging a foundation pit.

All translations by The Russian Reader

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Recommended further reading and viewing:

1484716_799130750140923_8512887158632087521_nStroyburo House. Image courtesy of Korolyov Branch, VOOPIK

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.