Russians Live in a Police State. Don’t Write Off Its Art Professionals for Failing to Exercise Freedoms They Don’t Have
Calls for blanket boycotts lack understanding of the realities of art in Russia.
I was born in a country that no longer exists. I also have no memory of that country, except as passed on to me in the recollections of my parents and grandparents. Two months after I was born, the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist, though it still says I was born there in my Russian passport. On February 24, 2022, the country where I have lived since 2 months after my birth and until I was 10 years old, the country with which my identity is most closely aligned, also ceased to exist when it invaded Ukraine. Now Russia is as isolated as it was during the Cold War, as international observers look on in horror and try to show solidarity with Ukraine. Yet I write this to urge my colleagues in the art world not to succumb to a simplistic and indiscriminate condemnation of Russian artists and cultural workers. Do not engage in performative political allyship without understanding the complexity of political activism in Russia and the real limitations on personal freedoms in a police state.
The overwhelming majority of cultural workers in Russia who openly oppose Putin’s regime have suffered for it. From the well-known case of Pussy Riot, to young LGBTQ artist Yulia Tsvetkova, to director Kirill Serebrennikov, cultural workers are being jailed or punished for their positions. Censorship in Russia suppresses and erases all dissenting voices. The government even erases collective memory by silencing and incarcerating those who unearth Stalin-era crimes, as in the case of the Memorial organization, which has been shut down and outlawed, with one of its head researchers getting a 15-year prison term on trumped up charges. All the remaining small independent press outlets are being banned or forced out of Russia, from Meduza, to Novaya Gazeta, to Dozhd Channel. New laws have been introduced this week, saying that taking part in an anti-war rally, spreading “disinformation” (like calling a war a “war”), and calling for Western sanctions, all result in prison time.
Those who left Russia have more freedom to be openly critical of Putin’s regime, without facing the consequences they would face had they been on Russian ground. New York-based Russian-Tatar curator Ksenia M. Soboleva told me she cannot access her website within Russia because of the ubiquitous use of the word “lesbian” in her scholarly and curatorial practice. Many of Soboleva’s queer friends in Russia cannot be vocal on social media out of fear for their lives. “There is a huge difference between being pro-Putin and not being actively outspoken against Putin, especially for those communities in Russia that are already vulnerable,” Soboleva states. “Also, not everyone’s avenue of resistance is social media, as it is heavily censored in Russia (and recently shut down)—there is quiet, underground activism too.”
Living for over a decade in an increasingly oppressive environment without freedom of speech, let alone a functional democracy, cultural workers in Russia now face grave danger for speaking out against the regime. And yet they still do. They protest, get beaten, thrown in jail, fired from their jobs, and have their futures taken away. Imperialism works the same way everywhere, whether it is in the U.S., the Middle East, China, or Russia: A country that practices aggression abroad is bound to suppress dissent at home. One Russian opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was murdered in the street in 2015. The other, Alexey Navalny, is in prison after surviving an assassination attempt with a deadly nerve agent. To turn our backs on Russian cultural workers doesn’t just demoralize those who most strongly support Ukraine in Russia by signaling to them that they have no allies, even among those whose side they are on. It also hurts the most politically vulnerable segment of Russian society.
I have lived most of my life in the United States, having fled Moscow with my mother and brother due to “Skinheads,” or anti-semitic Nazi groups attacking us on the streets for being Jews in 2002. When I returned to see my family in 2006, nobody knew that Putin would be a lifelong dictator, there was still freedom of the press, and Russia had just begun exiting the lawless nightmare that was the ’90s. For a moment in the mid-to-late 2000s and early 2010s, Russia and other former Soviet republics had a greater international cultural presence, which gave an illusion of change that the West embraced without much scrutiny.
Today in the West, most art world professionals would struggle to name three contemporary living Russian artists, let alone Ukrainians or Belarusians. The reason for this is simple.
From the stolen 2012 election onward, Russia has become synonymous with Putin, and Russian art, unless it was explicit and didactic in its opposition to Putin’s regime, was largely cast to the wayside by Western media and institutions. The period of visibility for artists from Russia, between the time the Berlin Wall fell and the early 2010s, ended abruptly in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea after the Maidan revolution. Everything that was built in terms of visibility for Russian artists until that point has vanished, Russian galleries disappeared from major fairs, and Russian artists disappeared from most important institutional shows in the West. A survey exhibition of AES+F—a quartet of Russian-Jewish artists, one of whom is my father—at London’s Royal Academy, would have been the first exhibition of a Russian artist collective in that institution’s history and probably the first solo exhibition at a major Western institution of Russian artists born after World War II. But that, too, was canceled in 2014, in a bellwether of the shift in international cultural relations. Needless to say, the market for contemporary Russian art also crashed, and artists from the country have faced an uphill battle since.
Contemporary Ukrainian artists have only recently started gaining visibility in the West, with Western curators making expeditions to Eastern Europe just before Covid, galleries like Sabsay showing Ukrainian artists in Denmark, and Voloshyn from Kyiv participating in international fairs. I remember seeing Voloshyn’s booth for the first time at the Armory Show in New York in 2020 and feeling extremely proud that a Ukrainian gallery made it there. Now its owners are stuck in the U.S., while their gallery staff and artists in Kyiv use the space as a bomb shelter.
I don’t mean to compare the situation of Russian artists to those in Ukraine. But international observers should be aware of the situation ordinary Russian and Belarusian artists are in, both economically and politically, and not generalize when it comes to actions that have real consequences for them, their families, and their futures.
With very few exceptions, I have not seen major Western institutions take any initiative to support Russian artists in the past decade. In 2020, I spearheaded AES+F’s initiative to launch a residency for artists from Russia in partnership with the International Studio & Curatorial Program in New York—the only one of its kind in the United States. Typically, it is expats from the former Soviet bloc who are doing the critical work of making Russian and Ukrainian artists visible, not so-called pro-Putin cultural elites, who prefer inviting and highlighting Western celebrity artists within Russia, to pave a path for themselves into Western high society.
In 2021, I joined a gallery founded in Moscow (Fragment) as a partner to open their New York space, because the gallery’s mission is to amplify and give visibility to voices from Central and Eastern Europe, support marginalized LGBTQ artists in Russia, and foster a cutting-edge international discourse in contemporary art. We work with a lot with queer themes in Moscow, despite “queer propaganda” being banned and punishable by jail time, as was the case with young artist and activist Yulia Tsvetkova. Many queer artists cannot publicly come out of the closet for fear of losing their day jobs, their families, and also risking repressions as harsh as imprisonment. Our last exhibition was titled “In the Field of the Other,” and it brought video works by four pivotal artists from the West to Moscow—Morehshin Allahyari, Tabita Rezaire, Rachel Rossin, and Jacolby Satterwhite—while showing four artists in New York from Russia, Belarus, and Serbia, namely Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov, Polina Kanis, Jura Shust, and Igor Simić. Jacolby Satterwhite’s We Are in Hell When We Hurt Each Other was on view in our Moscow space as the invasion began. Seldom does life give us such moments of serendipity and resonance—his work was shared countless times in Russia on that day.
With very few opportunities for artists in Russia compared to the West, especially those who work with queer and other controversial social themes, depriving them of the little visibility and support they still have does nothing to stop the war that Putin started and potentially inflicts harm on those who are already putting themselves in grave danger by speaking out against Putin’s regime and supporting Ukraine. My partner in Moscow, Sergey Guschin, and Alexander Shchurenkov, an artist and our curatorial director, are in danger by staying in Russia. Russians do not have the privilege white Americans and Europeans enjoy, of voicing dissent without consequences, which in this case is up to 20 years in prison or worse—and yet they still go out and protest and help Ukraine in the ways they can. Even children have been detained and separated from their parents in Russia for laying flowers at the gate of the Ukrainian embassy. Still, they have gone, and will continue to go.
I stand with Ukraine and Ukrainian artists with every fiber of my being, organizing support with the resources at my disposal. But to confine Russian artists, writers, and academics to cultural isolation, as many are calling for now, is not only extremely demoralizing for those who risk their lives to support Ukraine from within Russia and Belarus, but will also do the most harm to those already in danger.
Cultural connections made Glasnost and Perestroika possible. It was connections between artists, writers, musicians, and independent cultural institutions that gave Russians hope that they could overcome authoritarianism. We need that hope now more than ever.
Anton Svyatsky is a partner at Fragment gallery.
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