Russian performance art in the time of Putin
In March 2021, about a year before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Timofey Kazantsev, a classical pianist, ended a concert in Novosibirsk, Siberia in an unusual manner. He dedicated his performance to Vera Lotar-Shevchenko, a pianist who was imprisoned in a labor camp during Stalin’s purges, and he told the audience of a “large-scale political repression machine currently operating in Russia.” He called for them to sign a petition for the release of a local activist arrested for attending protests.
My colleague at the Calvert Journal, a website that covered contemporary art and culture in the post-Soviet world which I edited until its closure in February 2022, had written a short article about Kazantsev’s protest. In it, Kazantsev compared the risk of speaking out in Russia to Beethoven’s last piano sonata — the strange, existential Op. 111 sonata with which he ended that concert.
“You will either get a response from the audience, or it will end badly,” he told me on a call from his home in Germany, where he moved with his wife and two children last summer. “There is a similar feeling” in Beethoven’s Op. 111, one of the few sonatas which has a very special ending.
Kazantsev’s post-concert remarks were brave and risky. There had been widespread crackdowns on protests across Russia two months prior. But it was his choice of metaphor that moved me most.
Beethoven’s last sonata is the execution of what the composer had attempted to do with the few sonatas that preceded it. With this arietta, Beethoven broke with the tradition of composition — of sonata form — which had dominated for over a century and in doing so marked the end of the Classical era and the start of the Romantic period. The arietta expresses something that had yet to have a codified language. It was revolutionary, and thus, in part, a farewell.
Russian art is now largely in exile. Kazantsev is one of the estimated 900,000 Russians who have fled the country since the invasion of Ukraine. The exodus has touched almost every area of Russian society, but especially the Russian cultural world. Author Lyudmila Ulitskaya and theater director Kirill Serebrennikov now reside in Germany. Cult rock singer Zemfira and actress and director Renata Litvinova fled to France. Singer Monetochka left Russia for Lithuania. Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina, who evaded house arrest and left Russia in April, now wanders Europe.
The scattering has been global, but it’s the countries with relaxed visa rules for Russian citizens that have, inevitably, become hubs for Russians. It was to Tbilisi, Georgia that young filmmaker Kantemir Balagov fled following the start of the invasion. Literary bloggers Zhenya Kalinkin and Daria Kasya only recently left Tbilisi to make a new life in Argentina. Contemporary artist Dagnini, who arrived a few days after the war began, still lives and practices art from her apartment in a Tbilisi suburb.
When ideas are prevented from entering politics, they are often redirected into art, whose abstraction and need for interpretation make them, by definition, harder to police. As a result, culture often ends up as one of the last islands of free thought under authoritarian regimes. When despots turn their attention to artistic censorship, we know things are taking a darker turn.
The historical precedents for Russian artists working productively in exile are plenty: writers Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky, painters Lidiya Masterkova and David Miretsky, dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. But for those artists whose subject was Russia itself, success was often scarce.
For the generation of performance artists, those who responded directly to Putin’s Russia and who came to define the last two decades of Russian art, exile will likely look quite different.
From Voina and Pussy Riot to Pyotr Pavlensky and Elena Kovylina, the most affecting art under Putin were sensational and explicit acts of defiance against the specificities of Russia’s debasement. As a result, these artists entered, perversely, into a kind of symbiosis with the regime. How they recalibrate their confrontation with a Russian state now physically distant from them will be interesting to watch.
“In the U.K. you don’t have a totalitarian regime, that’s why you can’t see the black and white border,” Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina told me during a recent midnight phone call. “For Russia it’s clear. Either as an artist you’re protesting or you’re decorating the regime. Both exist. An in-between does not.” Alyokhina, speaking to me from Reykjavik where she had just opened “Velvet Terrorism – Pussy Riot’s Russia,” the first overview exhibition of Pussy Riot’s work, was late to our call having just finished graffitiing a blue-and-yellow sign on a wall. It read, “War 3963 km,” with an arrow pointing in the direction of Ukraine.
“We’ve done these in around 15 or more cities,” Alyokhina said. “Our graffiti imitates a road sign. There’s no name of the city, just the word “war” and the number of kilometers to the Ukraine border and an arrow. It’s a reminder to people that war is not as far away as we think. In Western Europe people think it’s not about them, that it’s far away.”
For their 40-second Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012, Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova were both arrested for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in prison. The severity of the punishment was alarming and, considered a decade later, a marker for a new phase of deepening repression under Putin. Performance art became a key battleground. Because it was in culture and the arts that those who had the most to gain from a more liberal government — the urbanite middle class — lived.
“In a way, I almost feel better now, because before the war there was an illusion of control,” said Zhenya Kalinkin, one half of the YouTube podcast duo “What Would I Do If Not Read,” who moved to Buenos Aires.
Beginning in 2012, Russian cities underwent beautification projects. While redeveloping parks and widening pavements, this beautification literally laid the ground for slick new galleries and revamped Soviet-era factories financed by the oligarchs. It was here, in the Garage Center for Contemporary Arts, Strelka, and art clusters like V-A-C foundation and Winzavod that the young and liberal came to socialize and shape a burgeoning art scene — all under the support and financial backing of the men that kept Putin in power. The Calvert Journal, too, was first conceived as a platform where edgy young artists could show off their work to the English-speaking world.
It wasn’t just that this veneer of artistic bohemia masked a lack of fundamental freedoms and dulled the urgency to demand them. It was that it caused a strange kind of displacement. Often struggling with Russian exhibitions, museums relied heavily on imported shows, and international big names like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami made the Russian art world look like the art world in Western Europe — but, in fact, it was far from it.
Art is never objective, and it is only in context that we can hope to understand what it might mean. Subversion, after all, can only exist in the face of repression, rebellion only ever a counterbalance to the presence of control. This Potemkin art scene of the 2010s mimicked the West and so fostered an environment where it was not abnormal to be apolitical, which many wrongly took to represent relative freedom. Putin’s great success during these years was “managed democracy,” a sinister concept that meant Putin would always win. There was a creative offshoot: managed art.
It is now incredible to think that in 2011, the street-art group Voina received a state-funded prize for spray-painting a giant phallus onto a bridge in St. Petersburg which, when risen, faced the local FSB headquarters, erect. Three years later, by 2014, the Ministry of Culture pulled funding from Russia’s largest international documentary film festival, Artdocfest, for the “anti-state” views of its director.
It was then that the artist Oleg Kulik, most famous for his performance impersonating a dog, reduced the artist’s choice either to fighting against the forces of oppression or currying favor with them. The artist, according to Kulik, can choose “to bite or to lick” — not a dilemma that exists in democratic countries.
“It’s doubtlessly the role of art to get through to people in Russia,” said Pussy Riot’s Alyokhina, whose exhibition is giving its proceeds to children’s hospitals in Kyiv. “We cannot assess our impact, not right now. We can continue what we are doing and have a hope that people will see it and something inside them will change. It’s just not the moment to give up.”
In a way, attempts to define contemporary Russian art is a process of discounting all the things it is not. “Art doesn’t have to be totally understood. What’s important is an emotional response,” said 35-year-old performance artist Dagnini. In her Tbilisi apartment, where she’s been living since moving to Georgia in February 2022, a number of her artworks hang off the walls.
“In Russia, you’re not taught to be a human. You are taught to be part of something great,” she said. “Literature is part of the issue because it’s part of the imperialistic way of looking at things. We were taught Russian literature as part of a cult of being great.”
“I didn’t leave Russia voluntarily. And I can’t return. So I guess you could call me an exile,” said performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky. Leaning against a white bookcase in his Paris apartment, Pavlensky becomes animated when our conversation turns towards power, which forms the core of his work. During his time in Russia, he was regularly arrested.
In Pavlensky’s 2013 performance, called “Fixation,” he nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones in Moscow’s Red Square to protest Russia’s transformation into a police state. It launched his notoriety as one of Russia’s most provocative artists. All of his performances, from “Segregation,” where he sliced his right earlobe off outside Moscow’s Serbsky psychiatric center to protest the police’s return “to the use of psychiatry for political goals,” to “Carcass,” when he wrapped himself, naked, in barbed wire, to represent the individual’s position within the legal system, have involved Russia’s state instruments of power: police officers, court judges and prosecutors among them.
“In my acts, I get people of power to participate in my art. I am getting representatives of power to act as part of art. They are participating in my thoughts and the things I’ve thought up. The subject of power becomes the object of art,” he said.
Fleeing to Paris in 2017 following allegations of sexual assault, Pavlensky was, in a way, the acid test for radical Russian artists who are now transplanting their practice outside of Russia. Pavlensky’s first performance in Paris was called “Lighting”: he set fire to the doors of the Banque of France, which “has taken the place of the Bastille, and bankers have taken the place of monarchs,” as he declared at the time. It caused outrage, and Pavlensky was charged with property damage.
His second project, “Pornopolitique,” was a short-lived website that was to be the first porn resource featuring political bureaucrats and other representatives of power. On the site, Pavlensky posted a video he had procured of a Paris mayoral candidate masturbating. The politician subsequently withdrew from the race, and Pavlensky was charged with invasion of privacy and dissemination of images of a sexual nature without consent. The French media, which had fawned over his work in Russia, turned against him and eventually “stopped talking about my work at all,” Pavlensky said.
For Pavlensky, the key to artistic integrity and freedom is a consistent artistic vision. The question of relevance in exile, of the necessity of reinvention in a shifting environment, is complex. When I argue that the inflammatory artistic language Pavlensky used in his performances in Russia means something else in the French context, he demurs. In his work, Pavlensky says, the context is simply power, no matter the national context or the specifics of its abuse: “There is power here in France too. Power here is no less strong than in Russia.”
For all the Russian artists who thrived pursuing non-political art in exile, there are counterexamples of Soviet dissident artists who, following emigration to the West, changed their practice and lost relevance. It’s the likes of Boris Mikhailov, a trailblazing Soviet Ukrainian photographer whose less provocative work following emigration to the West Pavlensky rails against.
“As an artist, you need to declare what you do and carry on with it. To change it in the way these artists did is to be a traitor of your own art,” Pavlensky said.
With how increasingly dangerous it became to voice any dissent in Russia during the 2010s, bravery in the face of oppression became the metric by which the West assessed Russian contemporary art, breathlessly paying attention to any act that incurred a police response. This reaction contributed to a misunderstanding of the influence of this art as a force within Russian society. For Western validation, good Russian art didn’t just have to be independent, it had to be working in opposition to the state.
One of the primary ways in which nations come to terms with their past is through stories, be they told through literature, art, film or some other medium. It is their importance that makes them vulnerable to manipulation, to being warped by authoritarian regimes and re-employed as instruments of control.
The poison of Russian propaganda over the war in Ukraine may have created a facade of denial, but it is precisely that: a facade. Sooner or later, Russia will have to confront the horrors taking place across Ukraine at its hands. It is the artists who will have to find a way to tell the stories that will open their eyes, and ours.
Sitting in Dagnini’s apartment, there is one work which stands out. It’s a replica of the painting “Rozh” — meaning “Rye” — by 19th century Russian landscape artist Ivan Shishkin. I’ve seen the image before. Its calm, pastoral scene of rye fields is reproduced and hung in homes and buildings across Russia due to its supposed representation of Russia’s quintessence. “This image is important and painful to look at, because it’s the painting every Russian school kid should write an essay about at some point,” says Dagnini. “You’re meant to think of land, patriotism. I found out that the painter himself wrote on the other side of this painting: ‘Freedom, expanse, rye, God’s grace, Russian wealth,’” says Dagnini. “He used these big words that can be lethal when used in propaganda and for a state’s agenda.”
Dagnini created the replica after the war in Ukraine started, adding the name of the painting over the image with one letter changed. The word that now overlays the wheat fields reads “LOZH”: LIE.
The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Show your support for journalism that stays on the story by becoming a member today. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S. non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.