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Post-Russian Artists:
What Is It Like to Be an Artist

From a Terrorist State?

Alexander A.

A few months before writing this essay I immigrated from Russia, giving up my home, my job as a curator in an art gallery and a teaching position at Moscow University. Hundreds of thousands of my compatriots and many colleagues have done the same. In this article, I want to convey how people whose homeland has become a terrorist state feel and how the identity of such people is woven into contemporary intellectual culture. More specifically, this essay is about post-Russian artists. I would define a post-Russian artist as an artist who transforms his or her nationality and focuses on the themes of loss, nomadism and identity. This does not mean that a post-Russian artist is necessarily someone who has left Russia - although in a research sense this is most often the case, because we cannot interview or mention in publications those who are remaining in Russia, lest we expose them to danger.

Behind the process that I am describing, I see an international and not just a Russian trend. Intellectuals-refugee from China, Iran, Afghanistan and Mexico are greatly influencing the global cultural landscape. Nevertheless, since I am originally from Russia and familiar with the local art scene where I have worked for 10 years, it seems more appropriately to analyze this cultural process through the example of my country of origin. Immigration from Russia happened not because of a sharp economic decline, life-threatening or lack of resources, but for cultural and philosophical reasons, for rejection of what some power structures dub "traditional values", whatever they may be: patriarchy, nationalism, radical religion, authoritarian state or disregard for human rights.

The departure of a large number of artists from Russia can be an enough important phenomenon to influence the artistic expression of an entire generation. The history of art is full of names of Russian artists who were emigrants in the West. Wassily Kandinsky, Mikhail Larionov, Marc Chagall, more recently Eric Bulatov, Oscar Rabin, Ilya Kabakov and many others. Today, the wave of immigrants is bigger than all the previous ones. What mark will this exodus leave behind in the world of contemporary culture?

In October 2022, a Moscow court sentenced 22-year-old artist Pavel Krysiewicz to 5 years in prison for an artistic performance against political repression in Russia (Trimel, 2022). It is important to understand that Pavel was born and lived his entire life under Putin's regime and has never had the opportunity to vote in any election. The last presidential election in Russia took place when he was a minor. He is not responsible for or guilty of Russia's crimes, he is a victim. He is now in prison.

Many other artists have made attempts to influence the society of their country of origin and suffered for it from the Russian authorities. Nika Nikulshina, Yulia Tsvetkova, Danila Tkachenko, Aleksandra Skochilenko, Daria Serenko, Maxim Evstropov, and many others. Some of them are now in prison, others have left the country. And we realize one very disappointing thing - 10 years have passed since the first Pussy Riot criminal case, many young artists' lives have been scarred in the field of peaceful protest and cultural activism, but society has not changed. This is why many Russians are leaving the country and voluntarily becoming refugees.

I want to make one clarification: an artist, especially if he or she is not engaged in protest art, does not have to be a political activist. Their art does not consist in the production of political slogans. The very fact that these artists voluntarily became refugees is a political statement. After that, the task of immigrant artists is to be sincere and talk about how they are feeling in the moment or, equally importantly, what is going on with their group identity.

According to various estimates (Russian Federal Security Service, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Association of Tour Operators of Russia and investigative journalism), from hundreds of thousands to several millions people who oppose Putin's regime and its values left and continue to leave Russia since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022 (Haseldine, 2022). Sadly, Russia is just a part of the global problem. In 2022, the number of refugees worldwide has reached 100 million (UNHCR, 2022). Among them are scientists, journalists, artists, etc. Some of them assimilate into other societies, others become global nomads. The phenomena of assimilation can be seen as global nomadism, refugees, political immigration, and such phenomena as the third-culture kids are layering on top of each other. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to all those who have left their homeland under similar circumstances as refugees.

Artists are among the few who can express their experiences publicly, in many cases expressing themselves artistically on behalf of their compatriots who feel the same way but cannot be heard. I think artists and curators are able to influence quite strongly what happens to the identities of large groups of people.

The first artists I would like to mention are Sergei Ovseikin and Grigory Konik. Sergei Ovseikin is well-known in Russia for his large-scale graffitis. The summer after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sergei and Grigory made a huge graffiti in Tel Aviv. The graffiti read, “We are not he,” which became the slogan of many Russian immigrants and got thousands of reposts on social media (Ovseikin, 2022). After this Grigory Konik declared: “I don't agree with the government's decisions and I don't recognize Putin as president or even as a person” (The Flow, 2022).

A little later a well known painter Pavel Otdelnov managed to prepare a large solo exhibition in London. The collection of works for his London show permeated with an immigrant sense of desolation. One of my favorite works depicts a snowy, endless wilderness and bare, disconnected people standing waist-deep in snow, almost like the iconography of the Forty Martyrs of Sebastia. It's called Generation (Howe, 2022).

At the same time Konstantin Benkovich presented his sculpture Suitcase, created with the official support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and exhibited at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh in 2022 (Cameron, 2022). The Suitcase was created with steel bars that turned it into a cage. This work speaks about forced freedom, freedom as unfreedom, and I think this image allows the viewer to really feel the difference between travel and refugee.

Archetypal images of Russian culture regain their poignancy. The image of a burning house in Anastasia Lopoukhine's graphiс, for example, refers us to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. I always thought that these images in Tarkovsky's films were mystical metaphors, but now we remember that Tarkovsky also survived the war and immigration. Anastasia immigrated a little before the current war and now works in New York. Her last series of drawings was on show in the autumn of 2022 in Paris, dealing with the painful experience of integration into a new society (Burganov, 2022).
In a society where all channels of information have been taken over by authoritarian power, the voice of those who disagree cannot be heard. This is well expressed in Varvara Grankova's performance Ringing in which she stood on the bell tower of an Orthodox church as the bells tolled, screaming at the top of her lungs, but her voice was drowned out by the sound of the bells (Grankova, 2022).

One of the most succinct works that illustrates the processes I explore is the crossed out word 'Russia' by Alice Yoffe (Yoffe, 2022), an image of deep disillusionment with the country. Her other drawings depict the police beating of civilian protesters, the experience of many of those who have fled Russia. Alice is a vibrant artist whose solo exhibitions have taken place in Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. She has participated in many biennales, including a parallel programme at the 55th Venice Biennale.

The opposite strategy was chosen by Andrei Kuzkin - not to renounce Russia, but to show that it is not so easy to get rid of Russia in oneself. His solo exhibition, opened in January 2023 in Paris, shows that you can mold traditional Russian prison toys from a French baguette too - there is no difference. And that with the change in the external landscape you remain essentially the same (Spirenkova, 2023).

The expressive transformation of a personal artistic style can be traced back to Slava PTRK. Slava used to create large and complicatedstreet art series. He also organized the famous Russian street art festival Carte Blanche (Pertsev, 2021). However, his first work after immigrating was quite different - a small graffiti on a piece of curb that was forgotten in the wasteland. The inscription read: “What am I doing here?” (Ptrk, 2022) - a question that every immigrant who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a foreign country asks himself.

These few names and works of art are the tip of the iceberg. It is impossible to find out the exact number of artists that have left Russia in the past year. It is undeniable that the number of artists is growing every day. 

The last example I want to give is not a work of art, but words from my personal correspondence with the artist Kaykhan Salakhov. His family has lived in Moscow for several generations. He was born in New York, but grew up in Moscow, then he left Russia again. He was preparing a presentation of his art in Dubai when I was working on the Post-Russian Artists project. I asked him if I could mention him in my article. He answered me, “I am neither a Russian nor a Post-Russian artist. I have the status of an intergalactic foreign agent in many galaxies.” Kaykhans response is a clear expression of post-nationalism and cosmopolitanism. The correspondence between artist and curator is integral to the understanding of the ever developing relationship between artwork and current events. 

Political immigration is not about being a victim or simply seeking a more comfortable place to live. On the contrary, immigration is a refusal to be a victim, and the result of a profound worldview shift. This shift may be symbolically depicted as the rebellious Isaac who refuses to be sacrificed, stabs Abraham and leaves his tribe. Very often political immigration is accompanied by severed ties, loss of home and irreparable family conflicts. You can even burn down the home of your fathers to free yourself from the weight of tradition, but then the weight of loss, landlessness, rootlessness, fatherlessness and insecurity will come upon you. What do we become if we give up our nation?

Nevertheless, many artists who leave Russia, do not want to be associated with Russia like Kayhan Salakhov or cross out the word "Russia" like Alice Yoffe. Many of them no longer want to be associated with their country of origin. On the other hand they don't have another nationality to cling onto, therefore I identify this group as post-Russian artists. Can a person be accepted in modern society without a national identity? Can we invent another type of group identity instead of a nation? 

We have entered an era in which identity has become liquid. For example, the choice of gender identity has become a human right, and growing nomadism among world cultural workers impacts as well on individual national identity. But society, governments and institutions demand from them to belong to a country and have a nationality.

The question, today, is whether contemporary artists, most specifically artists from Russia, have the right to choose or reconstruct their visual and national identity in the same way that they are free to do with their gender identity. It can refer back to the European ideals of post-nationalism. Post-nationalism is a process when media and entertainment industries are becoming global and facilitate the formation of trends and opinions on a supranational scale. Any group identity, including the nation, is merely a social construct, merely a means but never an end. Thanks to postcolonial theory, we understand people who want to protect their national culture from the Western globalization. Here are others whose experience tells them that anti-globalism rhetoric can be used as a smoke-screen for state terrorism and violation of human rights.

I tried to show, using Russia as an example, that the philosophical conflict in the artistic practices of dissident artists and political immigrants lies in their frustration with their inability to influence the society in their country of origin. As a result of an often painful transformation, their identity becomes fluid and flickering. Many believe, having given up their nationality, everyone has the right to choose or invent any other group identity to describe themselves. Anti-patriotism, nomadism, and the search for peaceful ways of cultural globalization is definitely closer to the group identity of artists outside of Russia than any form of nationalism. Perhaps between the most important works of art of those who left Russia in 2022 and those who remain deep underground inside Russia will not be the object, but a particular type of post-national identity.



Burganov, A. (2022 Oct. 26). Drawings that deftly oppose absurdity. Cultites. available at: 17 Dec 2022). 

Cameron, L. (2022 Aug. 8) Artist unveils suitcase sculpture to highlight plight of refugees. The Independent. available at: 17 Dec 2022). 

Grankova, V. [vargranart]. (2022 Oct. 3). Instagram. available at: 17 Dec 2022). 

Harris, H.C. (2020 May 29). Towards a Decolonial Future at the Biennale of Sydney. Berlinartlink. available at: 17 Dec 2022). 

Haseldine, L. (2022 Nov. 6). How many Russians have fled Putin? The Spectator. available at: Dec 17, 2022).

Howe, K. (2022 Oct. 19). Pavel Otdelnov shows a portrait of today's Russia in London. Russian Art Focus. available at: 17 Dec 2022). 

Ovseikin, S. [zukclub]. (2022 Jun. 28). Instagram. available at: 17 Dec 2022). 

Pertsev, A. (2021 May 6). Everyone around is snoring, but Yekaterinburg has awakened. Meduza. available at: 17 Dec 2022). 

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The Flow (2022 Jun. 30) Street art of the day: "We are not he" sign in Tel Aviv. available at: Dec 17, 2022).

Trimel S. (2022 Oct. 19). Five Year Prison Sentence Against Performance Artist in Russia Is “Unjust” Criminalization of Free Expression. PEN America. available at: Dec 17, 2022).       _cc781905-5cde-319 4-bb3b-136bad5cf58d_

UNHCR. (2022 May 23). Ukraine other conflicts push forcibly displaced total over 100 million for the first time. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. available at: Dec 17, 2022).

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