Other Russias: An Interview with Victoria Lomasko
From the vantage point of the present, Russia continues to be the twinned other to the U.S. We tend to see these altered superpowers in sharp relief from one another but in our current climate of warming wars and proxy politics, we must attempt to engage these cobbled together complexes we call nations as a contingent mix of demagogues and dissidents with no clear outcome. As the news cycle splashes with questions of Russian access and influence over the president, each week sees a new official resigning under duress due to undisclosed interests with the Russian government or its many proxies, and meddling in elections has expanded from a domestic hobby of Putin’s to an outright international strategy, we must look past the faux news and frenzied rhetoric to find the rhythms of dissent we are able to learn from.
In Victoria Lomasko’s presciently timed collection, Other Russias, she captures almost eight years of intimately recorded acts with sometimes historic consequences, detailing the the daily lives of the Russians away from the headlines, as well as those – such as Pussy Riot – whose acts of resistance vibrated out into international imaginaries. The autocrats from afar are nearer than ever to our own seats of power and the view into Putin’s Russia evidenced by Lomasko feels urgent for us to observe and learn from. The book is both an important document of our urgent moment and a warning from a parallel state that acts as our mirror set slightly ajar into other futures.
I spoke with Lomasko over email near the conclusion of her US tour in support of the book’s release. Included throughout are selections from the book’s center section “A Chronicle of Resistance,” documenting protest actions and demonstrations over a five year period from 2011-16.
James McAnally: This book comes at one of the most complex moments in Russian-American relations since the end of the Cold War, if not before. What does this book mean for you to be released now?
Victoria Lomakso: Other Russias was not conceived as a book for an American audience, or created for export. We began working on it in 2014, when many new laws limiting freedom of speech were passed in Russia. They made me think that it was unlikely that I could publish it in Russian.
Almost as soon as I signed the contract with New York publisher n+1, I received an offer to publish the book from Penguin UK, who will put out a UK edition this June. At that point, it didn’t matter to me whether the book would be published in Britain or America, as long as it came out in English.
It wasn’t until my U.S. book tour when I realized how perfect it was that the book was published here, and what a good time it was for it to come out. I felt the force of the love-hate relationship between our two countries, which are, to a certain extent, mirror images of one another. The election of Donald Trump points to the many similar problems our countries face: the rollback of social services and rise of inequality, as well as the strong nationalistic mood amongst a large portion of the population.
I thought it was funny that people believed that there was a Russian conspiracy to elect Trump, and that Putin controlled him. It’s like in Russia, where instead of society acknowledging its own mistakes, everyone always blames America. For some reason, in countries like Germany, for instance, where there are a multitude of social, educational, and human rights programs, the people will choose someone like Angela Merkel to lead them, instead of a macho man with sexist, homophobic, and nationalistic views.
JM: The book carries a primary account of many pivotal movements in Russia over the past several years, particularly around the Occupy offshoots, election protests, Pussy Riot’s emergence, as well as various strikes and organizational actions. How has the understanding of the work shifted from its initial publication in Russia? Has the reception been significantly different?
VL: Today, it feels like an eternity has passed between the present moment and 2012, when there were huge protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg. As part of my US tour, I had a show in Pittsburgh that included a slideshow from my series “A Chronicle of Resistance,” which chronicled the protests of 2012. The slides clicked by in a dark room, one after another, and it felt like I was watching a historical film from another era. “Could it really be that all of this happened and I was there, and drew it?” Similar sentiments were expressed by the curators of the Triennial at Moscow’s Garage Center for Contemporary Art as they looked through these drawings. And probably, viewers felt something like this too.
Although I am by no means an old person, I’ve already led several lives: my Soviet childhood, my perestroika youth, my early adulthood in the fat years of Putinist ‘stability.’ Now, I live in a dictatorship. This is how it always goes in Russia – just yesterday, everything might have been totally different. This is exactly why documentary and self-reflective work is so important. It’s crucial that historical experience and any conclusions one can draw from it not simply evaporate, but be passed on to subsequent generations.
JM: One aspect we are exploring in our ongoing feature, Unstable States, New Constitutions is the idea of previously stable relations starting to dissolve, opening up to alternate configurations. What do you think is to be learned (in the US and elsewhere) from Putin’s emergence and his autocratic actions, both politically and culturally? Are there tactics or modes of resistance that you documented that were particularly effective?
VL: One of the lessons that might be learned from Other Russias is that if the segment of the population that considers itself progressive and has material resources (such as the liberal-leaning intelligentsia) doesn’t do anything to reach less educated and privileged social classes, demagogues like Putin and Trump will get to them instead.
The majority of the people who participated in the 2012 protests were well-educated and had good jobs. They were small business owners, office workers; there were a lot of people who worked in the humanities, creatives, students from prestigious universities. The opposition leaders did not manage to attract other segments of society – workers, migrants, people who live in the provinces. For these ‘simple folk,’ the opposition is much more hateful than Putin. That’s why all we managed to do was walk around with our creative posters then get dispersed.
The Russian truckers who began protesting in 2015, who are strong men that served in the military, are much more serious and dangerous to the government. But the truckers have practically no informational support, let alone financial resources. The liberal intelligentsia remains extremely insensitive and snobby.
Do not make these same mistakes.
JM: Could you talk about the title, Other Russias? Is it related to the political party you mention – also known as “Other Russias” – or is it meant to counter particular perceived narratives about the nation?
VL: Other Russias refers to the Russia that you can’t learn anything about from the majority of Russian media outlets, or that is only presented in skewed and biased ways.
I don’t draw famous people, with the exception of Pussy Riot – but I knew them before they were famous. My stories feature people from all different social groups, who are brought into direct, intimate contact with the reader through their opinions, fears and dreams. Very often, the book shows people whose views are so different, they would have never come into dialogue in real life, but in it, appear the same spread.
I don’t think conventional journalists could get this kind of material, as they are limited by news-worthiness and deadlines. I got to spend long periods with my subjects, for example, I visited the protesting truckers at the camp in Khimki from December through May. So I collected my material not only through journalistic but also sociological methods.
Other Russias will bring you deep into Mother Russia, allowing you to experience her down to the tiniest detail…
JM: You open the section of the book “A Chronicle of Resistance” with a clear charge that the movements of 2011 were a distinct moment in Russia, as in many places worldwide. In many ways, the book brings us close to the present, with entries well into 2016. Where do you feel that arc is headed? Are things shifting? Did thing shift dramatically within the five or so years this book addresses?
VL: Other Russias does not begin with stories from 2012, but with a section called “Invisible,” about underground and marginalized social groups. This section could be expanded indefinitely because the population keeps growing more and more marginalized: people keep losing their civil rights and money.
As for the second section of the book, which is about protests, the truckers’ protest that began in 2015, against the new taxes they have to pay, is ongoing. On March 27, 2017, they initiated a new nationwide protest action. The largest strike took place in Dagestan. Instead of negotiating with the protesters, the authorities decided bring in the Russian Guard.1
You don’t see these kinds of stories on TV. They also didn’t broadcast any of the anti-corruption protests that took place in Moscow and St. Petersburg on March 26, 2017. Meanwhile, the police arrested almost 1,000 people, and authorities are already fabricating criminal cases against some of them.
Naturally, the government has the resources to repress all dissent. But actually doing this will be a lot more difficult if the strikes and demonstrations take place simultaneously all around the country. The government is vying to take over all spheres of citizens’ lives, including their private lives, regaining the control it had had in Soviet times. But in the USSR, state control was balanced by care: people were provided with free housing, medicine, and education. There was no unemployment, the pensions were sufficient, people had regular vacations, and a lot more.
Today, we’re experiencing the horrific mix of state control, violence, and economic crisis. There are no grounds to hope for Russia.
Victoria Lomasko was born in Serpukhov, Russia in 1978. She works as a graphic artist and has lectured and written widely on graphic reportage. Lomasko is the coauthor of the book Forbidden Art, which was nominated for the Kandinsky Prize in 2010. She has also co-curated two major art exhibitions—The Feminist Pencil and Drawing the Court. Her work has been exhibited in numerous shows in Russia and abroad. She lives in Moscow.
Other Russias is a visual account of Russia in the Putin years. In this book, eight years in the making, Lomasko captures a Russia that rarely makes it into the headlines, documenting the lives of a country’s forgotten people. Every illustration in Other Russias was done on site—from the courtroom during the Pussy Riot trial to the tents at Moscow’s version of Occupy Wall Street; from the apartments of sex workers to the juvenile detention centers where Lomasko teaches children to draw. Other Russias was translated into English by Thomas Campbell.
All images are courtesy of Victoria Lomasko and n+1. Special thank you for the translation of the interview by Bela Sheyevich. Other Russias is available now from n+1.
- The Russian Guard was created by Putin in 2016, and its troops are allowed to use their weapons without warning. ↩