The Siege of Leningrad 75 Years Later

osipova-siege graffiti

The inspiring Petersburg artist and political activist Yelena Osipova has drawn this graffiti to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War.

The piece is dedicated to her late friend Lenina Nikitina, another wonderful artist, who lived in the building on whose walls Osipova drew her work.

Nikitina lost her entire family during the Siege, which lasted nearly 900 days, from September 8, 1941 to January 27, 1944.

nikitina-cold bathLenina Nikitina, Cold Bath. Pencil on paper. Courtesy of ArtGuide and the Museum of Nonconformist Art, St. Petersburg

As many as a million civilians are believe to have died during the Siege.

The other evening, an arts program on one of the regional German channels broadcast a segment about Daniil Granin and Ales Adamovich’s Blokadnaya kniga (Book of the Siege), which has recently been translated into German by Helmut Ettinger and Ruprecht Willnow, and published as Blockadebuch: Leningrad 1941–1944.

Blokadnya kniga was translated into English by Clare Burstal and Vladimir Kisselnikov, and published in 2007 as Leningrad under Siege: Firsthand Accounts of the Ordeal.

If you don’t have time to read Blokadnaya kniga or any of the other hundreds of books about the Siege, please watch Jessica Gorter’s stunning 2011 documentary film 900 Days. {TRR}

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The Siege of Leningrad Ended 75 Years Ago Today: Here Are Nine Films and Books about the Siege Worth Watching and Reading
Anton Dolin and Galina Yuzefovich
Meduza
January 27, 2019

[…]

Once There Was a Girl
Viktor Eismont, 1944

Eismont began shooting this unique picture while the Siege was still underway. It premiered a year to the day after the Siege was lifted. The Siege is shown through the eyes of two children, five-year-old Katenka and seven-year-old Nastenka. Natalya Zashchipina, who played Katenka, would go on to star in children’s films such as The Elephant and the Rope and First-Grader in the late 1940s, while Nina Ivanova, who played Nastenka, would star in Spring on Zarechnaya Street in 1956.

Baltic Skies
Vladimir Vengerov, 1960

The best film about wartime Leningrad and Leningrad during the Siege, when Baltic Skies premiered, it outraged Nikolai Chukovsky, whose novel inspired the film and who is credited as the screenwriter. The movies features a star-studded cast, including Pyotr Glevov, Mikhail Ulyanov, Mikhail Kozakov, and Rolan Bykov. The film’s young lovers were played by Oleg Borisov and Liudmila Gurchenko, who would later act in Alexei German’s war films. German considered Vengerov one of his teachers.

We Looked Death in the Face
Naum Birman, 1980

A picture about the founding of the Frontline Youth Ensemble. In one of his final roles, Oleg Dahl played the former choreographer. The film features poems by Olga Bergholz and music by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Blockade
Sergei Loznitsa, 2006

A documentary film consisting of footage shot by cameramen during the Siege, it features rare scenes, including the execution of Germans. Loznitsa added a soundtrack to the film, bringing viewers closer to the events.

We Read the Book of the Blockade
Alexander Sokurov, 2009

Less a film and more an impressive project by Sokurov, We Read the Book of the Blockade shows Petersburgers both famous and unknown reading aloud Daniil Granin and Ales Adamovich’s book, a compilation of eyewitness accounts of the Siege. The readers include actors Vladimir Retsepter and Leonid Mozgovoi, and Sokurov himself.

Celebration
Alexei Krasovsky, 2019

[Posted on January 2, 2019, by Alexei Krasovsky. “Attention! This film was made without state financing or grants. The filmmakers paid for its production themselves. Please do not show Celebration without listing the information about how you can donate money to us.  It is the only we can cover the costs of this film and start working on a new one. Thank you.

Sberbank Visa/Mastercard Card (in Russia): 5469 3800 7030 3101 (Aleksei Olegovich Krasovskii)

DonationAlerts (featuring viewer poll): https://www.donationalerts.com/r/alkras

PayPal: https://paypal.me/alkras (alkrasss@gmail.com)

Yandex Money: https://money.yandex.ru/to/410013518953856

Cameraman’s Yandex Money account: money.yandex.ru/to/410013518953856 (Sergei Valentinovich Astakov, cameraman-sa@yandex.ru)

Ehterium address: 0xbA2224ba22f2f4494EF01C6691824A178651d615

Don’t forget to mark your contribution as a “donation” so that we’ll have any easier time making films in the future.

Happy New Year!

Screenwriter and director: Alexei Krasovsky

Cinematographer: Sergei Astakhov

Starring: Alyona Babenko, Yan Tsapnik, Timofei Tribuntsev, Anfisa Chernykh, Pavel Tabakov, and Asya Chistyakov

Executive producer: Yuliya Krishtofovich

Art director: Yevdokia Zamakhina

Sound: Nelly Ivanovna and Anastasia Anosova

Assistant director: Zhanna Boykova

Editing: Vladimir Zimin and Alexei Krasovsky

The song ‘Field, O My Field’ was written by Iosif Kovner in 1937 and first recorded in 1941.”]

Filmmaker Alexei Krasovsky shot this controversial, intimate, tragicomic film at his own expense and uploaded it to YouTube during the New Year holidays. The picture deals with the privileged classes during the Siege and contains transparent illusions to the present. Starring Alyona Babenko, Yan Tsapnik, and Pavel Tabakov.

Polina Barskova, Zhivye kartiny [Living pictures], St. Petersburg: Ivan Limbakh, 2014 

Written by poet and academic Polina Barskova, this book is a miscellany of strange, heterogeneous, and genre-bending texts (several stories and essays on the verge of poetry, capped off with a short, semi-absurd play) that interweave the author’s own experiences as a researcher and human being with the real stories of people during the Siege.

Significant historical figures who survived the Siege (poet and literary scholar Dmitry Maximov, writer Vitaly Bianchi, playwright Yevgeny Schwartz) meet on the the pages of Living Pictures with other, unknown shades, such as the art historian Totya and the artist Moses, who made the mistake of falling for each other on the eve of the war, or six-year-old Katya, who plays a gloomy game of  bouts-rimés with her mother, composing a poem about people stricken by hunger-induced dystrophy. The famous, the nameless, Barskova’s other characters, and Barskova, some of whom did not experience the Siege themselves, ring the changes on the book’s main point, as voiced by one of the characters: the Siege was a peculiar civilization with all the qualities of other human communities. This civilization did not disappear without a trace. It has germinated anew in subsequent generations, who continue to feel its icy breath.

Sergey Yarov, Leningrad 1941–42: Morality in a City under Siege, trans. Arch Tait, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017

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“The ethic of sympathy demands the gaze not linger on mournful scenes of human agony,” writes historian Sergey Yarov in his book, seemingly ruthlessly violating this ethic. Instead of charitably averting his gaze from the most horrific aspects of the Siege of Leningrad, Yarov peruses as keenly and closely as possible theft and deception, monstrous, incurable physical deformities and people’s aversion to them, assaults on children (it was easier to take food from them since they were weaker), indifference to the suffering and deaths of other people, willingness to endure any humiliation, the collapse of community, and cannibalism.

As he plunges into the abyss of diaries, memories, and official records, uncovering truly unimaginable things, Yarov nevertheless hits upon an impeccable tone for discussing them, managing to maintain in each episode the perfect balance between scholarly scrupulousness and supreme humaneness.

Olga Lavrentieva, Survilo, St. Petersburg: Boomkniga, 2019 

This graphic novel by the young artist Olga Lavrentieva is a laconic, black-and-white account of the life of her grandmother, Valentina Survilo. Survilo’s happy Leningrad childhood ended in 1937 with her father’s arrest. She was exiled to a village in Bashkiria, where her mother died, before making a long-awaited return to her beloved Leningrad. This was followed by the most important and terrible chapter in her biography, the Siege, which the still very young Survilo endured in a prison hospital, the only place willing to employ the daughter of an “enemy of the people.”

The relentless hunger, cold, bombings and artillery attacks, treachery of friends, and rare, miraculous instances of kindness left a deep wound in Survilo’s heart, causing her to suffer nightmares and be constantly anxious about family members during the relatively prosperous postwar years. Lavrentiev uses the rather typically tragic story of one Leningrad woman as a lens through which she and her readers can look at the history of her hometown and the entire country.

Survilo will be published in March 2019.

Thanks to Giuliano Vivaldi for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader. I have replaced the trailers used in the original article with full-length videos of the films themselves. Please take note of filmmaker Alexei Krasovsky’s appeal for donations. If you watch Celebration, please consider making a donation to him and his crew via Sberbank, PayPal, Yandex Money or Etherium.

 

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Petersburg Remembers Markelov and Baburova

On January 19, Petersburg, like its older sister to the south, Moscow, remembered murdered anti-fascists Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, as well as other fallen comrades in the struggle against grassroots and state-sponsored fascism and racism.

Events included an “exhibition” of posters, commemorating the dead, on the city’s main street, Nevsky Prospect; an unauthorized march to the Field of Mars to lay carnations on the Eternal Flame; and a punk rock concert at a local club to benefit the Anarchist Black Cross and imprisoned Russian anti-fascists such as Alexei Gaskarov and Alexei Sutuga.

Veteran journalist and photographer Sergey Chernov was on the scene to chronicle all these events. I thank him for letting me share some of his photographs with you here.

Picketer holds portrait of slain lawyer on Nevsky Prospect, January 19, 2016. Photo courtesy of Sergey Chernov
Picketer holds portrait of slain lawyer on Nevsky Prospect, January 19, 2016. Photo courtesy of Sergey Chernov
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Picketers hold portraits of Stanislav Markelov, Timur Kacharava, Anastasia Baburova, and other slain anti-fascists on Nevsky Prospect, January 19, 2016. Photo courtesy of Sergey Chernov
"I don't want to dive into a fascist whirlpool." Photo courtesy of Sergey Chernov
“I don’t want to dive into a fascist whirlpool.” Photo courtesy of Sergey Chernov

Continue reading “Petersburg Remembers Markelov and Baburova”

Yelena Osipova: “Russia Is a Bird, Not a Bear”

 

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Russia wants to be a bird: peaceful, honest, kind.  Russia: kind and hardworking. 2011: The bear can no longer be cured. Vote for the bird. Although it is wounded, if it is treated well, it can fly high. Vote for the hardworking bird

“Russia is a bird, not a bear”
Tatyana Voltskaya
November 21, 2015
Radio Svoboda

Yelena Osipova’s “naïve” posters remind us of the link between politics and street protests

A cozy basement with uncomfortable pictures: that is how one might describe in a nutshell the exhibition of paintings and posters by Petersburg artist Yelena Osipova currently underway in the Petersburg office of Open Russia, which shares the space with the Petersburg office of the Parnas party.

Elena Osipova
Yelena Osipova

The exhibition marks a milestone—Osipova has turned seventy—but it is her debut exhibition. She has never been a member of any artist unions and groups, but she has stood outside in the rain, frost, and heat at nearly all the protest rallies that have taken place in Petersburg in recent years. The striking posters that Osipova holds at these rallies expose the latest injustices or crimes, warn of dangers, and empathize with the plight of others, whether they have been victims of terrorist attacks, natural disasters, dishonest elections or civil rights violations.

The exhibition was not easy to put together. The organizers set out to show not only Osipova’s best political posters but also her paintings, mainly portraits and landscapes. The show also includes two large genre scenes, the first featuring an ordinary Soviet beer hall, the second, a group of punks. Perhaps they are the link to the posters, which call to mind not only the tradition of political satire but also primitivist painting.

We are all hostages of violent, provocative imperialist politics.
We are all hostages of violent, provocative imperialist politics

“This exhibition is the first in my life,” says Yelena Osipova. “And I love the room and these vaulted ceilings and the fact you can see how my paintings segue into the posters. The latest poster, showing a mother with a dead infant, is about the dead Tajik boy Umarali Nazarov, while the first was prompted by the Nord-Ost tragedy in 2002. Then I went to the Mariinsky Palace [seat of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly] with a simple lettered poster, handwritten on a sheet of wove paper. I just could not understand why no one took to the streets then, why everyone was silent. On the fortieth day after the deaths of the hostages, I made a poster in which I painted a picture in acrylics on fabric.

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In an Andersen story, a girl sold matches in Denmark in the nineteenth century: matches. (Read Andersen’s fairytales to children.) 2012, the twenty-first century. Children are commodities. This is the end of the world. Adoption should be free. Foster care should be free. In Russia, children sell narcotics: narcotics.

You are a professional artist. Where did you study?

“I graduated from an art school. It was then called the Tauride Art School, now it is the Roerich Art School. Marc Chagall had studied there in his day, though not for long. I had then wanted to apply to the monumental painting program at the Mukhina Academy. I had been influenced by the frescoes of Andrei Rublev and Dionisius, by the size of their figures and their schematic manner. But young women were just not admitted to the monumental painting program, and I have no regrets about it now. What would I have done? Painted murals in the subway? I am an artist and educator. I taught for over thirty years. We organized three art schools from scratch.”

Umarali
Umarali

So you mostly painted landscapes and posters, then Nord-Ost happened and you turned to posters. What exactly happened after Nord-Ost?

“An ever more horrible event: Beslan. No conclusions had been drawn! I had two posters: one was lost, while the other version is exhibited here. The lost version was two-sided. On the reverse side, the slogan “Moms of the world, give birth to little princes. They will save the world!” was written on a blue background. I made the next poster, “Don’t believe in the justice of war!” when the war in Iraq began. I stood outside the American consulate, the British consulate, outside the consulates of all the governments who had supported sending troops into Iraq. There was no reaction. When it was the anniversary of the Beslan tragedy, the mothers of the dead came to Petersburg and wanted to walk down Nevsky Prospect to the Russian Museum holding icons and candles. Ultimately, no one joined them. Just one other woman went with the Beslan moms, plus me with my poster. So we marched alone, amidst the general indifference.”

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Artist Yelena Osipova holds a poster that reads, “Don’t believe in the justice of war,” during an unauthorized anti-war protest outside Kazan Cathedral in Petersburg on March 15, 2014. Photo by Sergey Chernov

But this indifference has continued. Look how many people came to the rally protesting the death of the Tajik baby Umarali Nazarov, who was taken away from his mother.

“Yes, but more people are coming than before. Civil society is slowly emerging. We have had the Marches for Peace, and certain rallies have drawn a good number of people. It used to be that no one came to these things at all.”

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Yelena Osipova, Portrait of an Artist, 1975. Oil on canvas

Have you been detained at protests?

“Of course I have been detained. There was a G20 summit here one summer. I went there with two posters: Don’t believe in the justice of war! and another one about the disposal of nuclear waste. The police detained me then, and I have been detained many times since, sometimes quite roughly. There were unpleasant incidents outside the Mariinsky Palace on St. Isaac’s Square when the war with Ukraine began. Yet the people who go to these events think like you do, and that is quite important. You feel you are not alone with your thoughts, that there are other people who think the same way. Okay, so there are not so many of them, but they are out there.

Free political prisoners!
Free political prisoners!

“Now, perhaps, it will become more difficult, and people will retreat to their apartments, as they did in Soviet times. The laws that have been passed [restricting public protests] are tough to deal with even financially. It used to be that the biggest fine I got was five thousand rubles. People collected the money on the web, and later I sent it on to the Bolotnaya Square prisoners. But the fines now are so high that you cannot pay them. It is too bad that society resigned itself from the outset and did not oppose these laws. After all, they could have resisted and taken to the streets, but, unfortunately, when people have begun to live better, they become indifferent.”

Are there any landmark works, works important to you at this exhibition?

“Yes, for example, Theater Entrance. I painted it during my fourth year at art school. I was really into the theater then, and my thesis painting had a theatrical motif. There are also three paintings here from my Vologda series, pictures of fields in Vologda. There is a landscape painting of Gurzuf, in Crimea. The big painting shows a beer hall that was behind the Nekrasov Market. It had these big round arches, and the beer was poured straight from a tap. You could meet professors and students and artists there. I have painted Russia there with a halo, looking sad. It was the nineties, a very complicated time. And my other painting on this subject is Punks in the Subway. I knew all those kids.

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The musical Nord-Ost, October 25, 2002. Stop the war, people! Learn the truth!

And what is Oh mania, oh mummy of war…, featuring two crows?

“It’s an anti-war poster. I drew it after Boris Nemtsov’s murder. I used a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva. She wrote it in Germany, and I saw the resemblance with our circumstances. The poster Not everyone who is naked is needy is about the death of Berezovsky. I play on the birch motif [Berezovsky’s name is derived from the Russian word for birch tree, berëza], and there are funereal crows.

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Artist Yelena Osipova at the opening of her exhibition on November 14, 2015. She stands next to posters that read, “August 6, 1945. August 9, 1945. Moms of the world against atomic energy,” and “Ukraine, forgive us: we let it happen.”

Do you appreciate some of your posters more than others?

Maybe this one, Don’t believe in the justice of war!, and the Beslan poster. In fact, the political posters about tragedies I always rendered in the three colors of the Russian flag.”

Will you continue to make new posters and freeze on the streets?

“At one point I though that maybe there was no need for this and I wanted to quit, but people said I should do it and told me I gave them hope.”

At the entrance to the exhibition is a small poster, Vote for the bird. At the bottom of the poster is a heavy United Russia, pumped full of oil; on the top is a bird.

“The bird has always been the symbol of Russia,” argues Yelena Osipova.

Syria. Russia
Syria, Russia, Russia (2015)

And to her mind, Russia’s color is blue, as in a certain painting by her beloved Wassily Kandinsky. True, Osipova now sees less and less of the color in her homeland’s plumage.

Translated by the Russian Reader. All photos by the Russian Reader except where otherwise indicated. Yelena Osipova’s work will be on view at 19 Fontanka Embankment until November 25, 2015.

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.

Putin’s War on Ukrainian Fascism

Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukrainian fascism is off to a flying start in the great man’s hometown of Saint Petersburg, Russia.

During [an anti-war demo on St. Isaac’s Square in Petersburg today, March 2, 2014] the following incident occurred. Elderly Petersburg artist Yelena Osipova, who regularly takes part in opposition protests and has even earned the nickname “Opposition Grandma,” was splashed with urine from a jar. The contents of the jar hit the woman in the face. Eyewitnesses say the person who did this immediately fled the scene. According to witnesses, the ruffianism was the handiwork of a supporter of Petersburg legislator Vitaly Milonov, who had come to the Mariinsky Palace [the seat of the Petersburg Legislative Assembly, on St. Isaac’s Square] from the October Concert Hall [the site of an official pro-war rally]. However, this information is as yet unconfirmed.

Source: Fontanka.ru

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Yelena Osipova, St. Isaac’s Square, March 2, 2014. Osipova’s placard reads, “Ukraine: The occupation of sovereign Ukraine will separate Russia from its native Ukraine for a long time. V[alentina] Matiyenko [former governor of Petersburg, now speaker of the Federation Council, which yesterday voted to authorize Putin to send Russian troops to Ukraine] is Lady Macbeth. Saint Petersburg, 2 March 2014.” Photo courtesy of AC. 

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Around thirty people have already been detained during an anti-war protest action on St. Isaac’s Square today. Among the detainees was Stefania Kulaeva, director of the Memorial Anti-Discrimination Center. First, [Vitaly] Milonov’s “titushki” attacked [her] placard, then Milonov told police officers that Stefania should be arrested.

Source: Facebook

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Stefania Kulaeva, St. Isaac’s Square, March 2, 2014. Her placard reads, “The Anschluss of the Crimea is Russia’s disgrace.”