Russian Postcards

Sketches of a hidden country

Text by Tony Wood

Illustrations by Viktoria Lomasko

When the media are muzzled, can graphic art give us a clearer picture of what is happening? Tony Wood is deputy editor at New Left Review and writes frequently on Russia for the London Review of Books. He looks to Viktoria Lomasko’s work for images of the land that lies beyond punk prayers and Putin’s mediatised machismo.

We’ve long been accustomed to seeing photography and film as our main windows onto events. The TV camera hovering over a disaster area, the war reporter’s lens, the phone held aloft at a demonstration, the documentarist’s DV-cam – we rely on these and other devices to bring us direct visual testimony, and to help us make sense of political and social realities. But we also know, of course, how easily media images can manipulate or distort what they seem to depict, and how much they can leave out of the picture. It may be that our best guide to what is happening isn’t always another photograph or piece of footage – that sometimes, a more artisanal form of visual reportage can capture truths that escape the glassy stare of the lens.

The drawings of Viktoria Lomasko are one example of this kind of handmade counter-image. Outside Russia, she is probably best known for her visual reports on the anti-Putin protests that gripped the country in the winter and spring of 2011-12, and for her courtroom sketches of the Pussy Riot trial hearings in 2012. Some of these sketches were the source of controversy in spring 2013, when the curators of an exhibition of feminist art in Moscow, having invited Lomasko to participate, abruptly decided to exclude her works. (The reasons given were unclear, but amid mounting political repression of the regime’s opponents, the curators were probably keen to keep a low profile.) Lomasko’s work doesn’t deal only with these visible moments of contention, however: since around 2008, she has been chronicling experiences that tend to escape the attention of the mainstream media in Russia. Through her images of street scenes, protests, court cases, migrant workers, schools, collective farms and more, she provides a cumulative, close-quarters portrait of the country that lies beneath the surface of media representations.

Lomasko generally does her drawings, pad and pen in hand, in the midst of the situations she depicts; in a recent sketch from a Moscow metro carriage, for instance, we see the artist’s own hand and the surface she’s drawing on, in a kind of mise-en-abîme on the fly.

The results are deceptively simple in style: the barest outlines and details serve to capture personalities, moods and atmospheres, whether of a vast crowd or an isolated individual. A sketch of the protest in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on 10 December 2011, for example, shows a massed sea of person-shapes with banners and flags rising above it; but the eye is drawn to the block letters on a placard in the centre of the image saying: “They’ve fucked us.” Laconic captions or speech bubbles often add a dose of humour: in Lomasko’s home town of Serpukhov, 100km south of Moscow, two women sit drinking vodka, one announcing to the other: “I’ve been feeling slutty since December.”

Many of Lomasko’s most memorable images have a striking narrative quality. What we are seeing is not just a freeze-frame of reality, but a condensation of different moments and meanings into a single scene. In some cases, we feel we’re getting a précis of a person’s life in a few pen strokes and fragments of text. An elderly woman called Kapitalina Ivanovna – presumably her parents had been reading Marx – holds up a portrait of Lenin at a May Day demonstration, saying: “This is what I live by! Lenin lives!” Another scene from Lomasko’s home town shows a woman, accompanied only by a dog, walking away from us along a path, saying: “There are no men or businesses in this town.”

The style of Lomasko’s drawings may recall that of other artists working in graphic forms for which the English language still lacks a convincing name (“graphic novels” seems both too pompous and too specific; “comics” doesn’t seem to cover it either). But where, say, Joe Sacco’s Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012) is a considered, post facto record of his and Chris Hedges’ journey across the landscape of America’s recession, Lomasko’s works are more immediate – raw testimony that she often posts online within hours. Behind the seeming plainness and speed of her technique, however, lies a process of studious observation, more like the methods involved in portraiture and reportage than taking a snapshot.

Lomasko began by drawing people she saw on the streets and in other public spaces: parks, hospitals, bars. Initially these were disconnected images, but she was soon producing series bound together by a thematic thread: for example, the everyday realities of provincial towns, as in her first series, “The Provinces” (2009-10); or life and work on an ex-collective farm, as in “Heroes of Krapivna” (2010). She has also done a lot of courtroom sketches – including the second trial of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2009, a series from 2010 on the trial of some exhibition organisers for blasphemy, as well as several trials of journalists and dissidents being prosecuted for their opposition to the authorities. Pussy Riot are the most famous but, alas, not the most recent. More than two dozen activists have been charged with inciting “mass disorders” at a May 2012 anti-Putin demonstration; many of them have been in jail since late last year, and face lengthy prison terms once their long-running trials conclude.

In many of these drawings, Lomasko seems to be passively registering what has taken place in front of her eyes. It’s perhaps telling that her LiveJournal alias is “Soglyadatay”, Russian for “spy” or “eavesdropper”: often her method involves catching people unawares and noting down overheard dialogue – as in the drawing of a pro-Putin protester saying into her phone: “We’re shouting at an opposition meeting. Still another couple of hours of shouting to go.” But several of the more recent series depict places and situations she has actively sought out, like an investigative journalist. In a phone conversation with me she described a gradual shift in her approach: where her earlier work involved “trying to be noticed as little as possible”, her drawings increasingly rely on contact with their subjects. The captions attached to scenes and portraits are often words addressed to her or facts she has discovered from her interactions with the people she’s observing; the eyewitness has become participant.

This is especially true of her images of migrant workers. Often from Central Asia, these immigrants are incongruously known in Russian as Gastarbeitery, an adaptation of the German word. In Moscow and other cities, they clean the streets or sell groceries, their shacks dwarfed by the gleaming construction sites they work on. Lomasko has done several portraits that convey their individual qualities as well as their general predicament. In one sequence from 2011, showing slave labourers who’d been locked in a cellar, a 34-year-old woman called Bakiya tells Lomasko: “We had two minutes to eat our food. If we didn’t manage it, they’d beat us round the head with truncheons.” In another portrait, a cheerful Korean worker pauses while holding a bucket, saying: “Draw faster! There’s work to be done.”

Lomasko has become involved in the situations she depicts in other ways. Since 2010, she has been a regular visitor to reformatories deep in the provinces: she has given drawing classes in one, in Mozhaisk, two hours’ drive west of Moscow, and has reported on another in Novy Oskol, near the border with Ukraine. These are often more melancholy images, such as the scene of girls slumped in chairs in the TV room, or the picture of a girl on a stage in front of a Christmas tree, declaring: “Childhood surely exists somewhere, but not here.”

After moving to Moscow from Serpukhov to train as a graphic artist, Lomasko originally aspired to enter Russia’s glossy, glamorous art world. But she came to reject what she described to me as its arrogance and, above all, its condescension towards the millions living outside its boundaries. Ordinary people weren’t often considered valid subjects for contemporary art; she summed up the standard art-world view as being: “They won’t ever come to our exhibitions, so there’s no need for us to depict them”. A contrary impulse seems to have driven her work: “I want to capture everything, everything.” When asked if there was a particular logic behind her choice of projects, she replied that she was interested in all social groups and places: “I’d like to get to the most remote cities in the north of the country, where people from the capital rarely go; I’d like to draw women at my mother’s workplace, I’d like to draw enterprises that close, I’d like to draw the Russian criminal underworld.” The problem is that “I just haven’t got time to draw everything.”

The label Lomasko applies to her own work is revealing: she refers frequently to the genre of “sotsialnaia grafika” – “social graphic art”. Revealing, too, that the precedents she looks to are mostly from an epoch when socially and politically engaged art was much more prevalent. Käthe Kollwitz and the Mexican revolutionary muralists are among a few non-Russian touchstones, but she mainly cites influences from within the Russian and Soviet tradition. Though interested initially in the non-conformist art of the 1970s and ’80s – the cartoonish conceptualism of Ilya Kabakov or Viktor Pivovarov – she has found herself increasingly drawn to earlier figures: the painter and designer Aleksandr Deineka, who tried to work around the stifling conventions of socialist realism from the 1930s through to the 1960s; and the “Thirteen” group, a set of avant-garde artists active around 1930 who aimed to reinvigorate life drawing as a means of capturing reality.

In this respect, Lomasko is part of a broader turn that’s been taking place in Russian culture in recent years. Many artists and writers have started reassessing the Soviet experience to see what can be salvaged from it – in particular from the ferment of the 1920s, when a kind of revolutionary pluralism held sway, before the leaden conformities of Stalinism were imposed, often with lethal results for artists and writers. It’s no accident that, among the figures working in diverse fields who have begun to look to that period, many have leftist or socialist sympathies: the poets Kirill Medvedev and Aleksandr Skidan, the artistic-philosophical collective Chto delat? and the artists Glyuklya and Tsaplya, as well as Lomasko herself. But rather than trying to borrow the formal clothing of the 1920s, these artists and writers wish to emulate that period’s capaciousness, its insistence on the validity of all kinds of formal experiments. They also want to learn from its errors, in light of the country’s tragic 20th-century experience: they seem to share a suspicion of monumentality, of heroic canvases that simplify political commitments into histrionic gestures or one-dimensional slogans. Many of them deploy irony, humour and parody to subvert any pretensions that might risk solidifying into dogma.

But if it’s easy to see what pitfalls contemporary Russian artists and writers need to avoid, it’s less obvious what kind of positive project or idea they can take up. Here the attempts by Lomasko and others to reconnect with the social agenda that drove much of the Soviet artistic avant-garde, and much progressive Russian art before it, might be a guide. One of the many tasks those movements took on was to document realities that had eluded the conventional visual and print media of the time: the Wanderers of the 19th century broke the confines of academic painting to depict rural life as it was, while Dziga Vertov’s documentary newsreels sought to “catch life unawares” in the streets of 1920s Moscow. This same impulse, albeit in very different historical circumstances, seems to lie behind Lomasko’s sketching and eavesdropping: an attempt to represent Russia to itself, looking beyond the sheen of ideological and commercial projections that saturate most media images, to all the faces and stories that have been waiting to be recognised. §

Image 1: Kapitalina Ivanovna: "This is what I live by! Lenin lives!"

Image 2: "I've been feeling slutty since December."

Image 3: Woman on left: "We're shouting at an opposition meeting. Still another couple of hours of shouting to go." Man on right: "Russia! Putin! Medvedev!

Image 4: "There are no men or businesses in this town."

Image 5: "Childhood surely exists somewhere, but not here."

Image 6: "They've fucked us."

Image 7: "I like Moscow more."

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