uhe once vital informal art scene in Russia has become silent as a result of the war of aggression in Ukraine. Many critical artists have left the country. Others, like the St. Petersburg pensioner Elena Osipova, who took to the streets with posters she had painted against the war and the Putin regime, were arrested several times. Petersburg artist Alexandra Skochilenko, who replaced price tags in a supermarket with news about Russian wartime atrocities in Bucha and Mariupol, has been in jail since March on charges of spreading “false news about the Russian armed forces”. She faces a prison sentence of up to ten years.
Artists from Russia who are critical of the regime are still active on social networks, even though the Russian state blocks international social media and also restricts their use via VPN as far as possible. The Moscow sculptor and conceptual artist Roman Sakin, who has since moved to Armenia, only posts war-critical, ironically subversive art on his Instagram page – such as his Venus made of cotton wool, an allusion to the swear word “Vatnik” (quilted jacket), used for underprivileged Russian nationalists, or a tin in military camouflage filled with fresh meat, which suggests that mobilized men are cannon fodder (the Russian expression means “cannon meat”).
The feminist multimedia artist Alisa Gorschenina from Nizhny Tagil in the Urals not only posts resistance slogans on her Instagram profile, but also highly emotional object or installation art, for example photos of herself in long robes with the words for ” Peace” or “We are against the war” are painted on. A group of Russian software developers and designers founded the non-profit social network “Grustnogram” (derived from “grustno” – sad); under the motto “Mourn together!” this page automatically converts all photos and films posted to black and white; instead of likes you give broken hearts, and instead of friends you can search for “sad compatriots”.
Of course, the most popular contemporary artists in Russia do not express anything against the war, either in artistic works or in public statements – be it out of fear, desperation or lack of enthusiasm. In today’s Russia, artists undoubtedly lack institutional support or an organized network, not to mention the threat of criminal prosecutions for “discrediting the Russian army”, beatings and house searches by the brutal law enforcement officers.
But even now, more critical art is likely to be created in Russia than is visible – in isolation, in secret, in solitude. On the other hand, the art that Russian artists create in exile, sometimes in collaboration with Ukrainian colleagues, is visible and free. In April, the Russian-born Berlin performance and installation artist Maria Turik initiated a protest action, which was joined on the one hand by the exiled Moscow theater director Anna Demidova and on the other hand by the street artist Daniela Nich, who had fled the Ukraine. Together they installed a four-meter-wide painted banner in front of the “Russian House” in Berlin, which was loyal to the regime and possibly even involved in espionage activities, showing a destroyed street in Bucha.
From France, the artist Andrei Molodkin attracted international attention: he filled a portrait of Putin embossed in acrylic glass with blood; this was donated by his Ukrainian friends before they returned to the front in Ukraine. Molodkin explained that he wanted to break the propaganda effect – viewers of his work should only see Ukrainian blood instead of Putin’s face.
Probably the best-known exile artist who – in contrast to the famous emigrants Ilya Kabakov or Viktor Piwovarov – tackled the theme of the Russian war of aggression is Maxim Kantor, who lives in France and Germany. His exhibition “The Rape of Europe” was shown in the Luxembourg National Museum of History and Art in the summer. With sixty cartoonish, bitterly angry political paintings and drawings, Kantor accuses the Putin system, but also holds up a mirror to the greedy Western art world, which has long had its pockets lined by Putin’s entourage. At the same time, however, Kantor emphasizes the humanistic component of Russian culture, which, as he says, arose “within an inhumane empire and in the struggle against enslavement”.
Jan Talkeborn in Saint Petersburg, is an art historian and lives in Dallas, USA.
Alexander Estis, born in Moscow, is a writer and lives in Aarau, Switzerland. In 2021 his “Hand Dictionary of the Russian Soul” was published by the Cologne Parasite Press.