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21st Feb 2024

Feature

Art of resistance: Exiled Russians create new wave in Europe

  • Moscow metro: Russian artist Ekaterina Selenkina made a performance art piece in over 20 stations in one hour (Photo: Kyle Taylor)
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More than 2,000 Russian artists and other creatives have condemned the Ukraine war in the past 18 months — and many of them now live in the West. 

The culture-drain began long before Russian president Vladimir Putin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February, but Russia's new level of aggression is swelling the flow of emigration. 

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  • Selenkina is now an editor in Germany (Photo: Instagram)

EUobserver spoke to Russian artists-in-exile about how they're doing in their new homes. Their stories vary: some are conquering Europe's film and theatre scenes, others are looking back to their past lives in Russia, or taking jobs as cleaners to support their children. 

Some have felt hurt by being 'cancelled', but hard times are also inspiring artists to experiment, and there is hope this could flower into a renaissance of Russian culture after the war ends. 

Woman in black

On one of the last days of May last year, a young woman went down into the Moscow metro. She was dressed in a black trench coat and carrying a baby bundled up in diapers drenched with blood.

Down on the platform, she calmly waited for the train and entered one of the carriages. She walked through silently, got off at the next stop, moved to another carriage, and repeated the scene. 

She changed carriages again and again, but suddenly she started to talk out loud, repeating: "The Russian military is killing children in Ukraine. The Russian military is killing children in Ukraine".

She travelled to around 20 metro stations during one hour, without being detained by police, then resurfaced into the vast city and vanished. 

The woman in the subway that day was Russian film director Ekaterina Selenkina, who is known for her film Detours (2021), about the life of a Moscow "treasure-man" (a kind of drug dealer). It won several awards, including the Special Prize (Critics' Week) at the Venice Film Festival. 

And the blood on the baby's diapers wasn't blood at all, but red paint, while the baby was a plastic doll — Selenkina had turned an ordinary metro ride into anti-war performance art.

She later posted photos of her action on Instagram on 1 June 2022 — International Children's Day.

She had recently emigrated from Russia prior to her Moscow-subway protest. She returned briefly to carry out her plan and left again immediately, fearing persecution. 

After all, another artist — Alexandra Skochilenko — had just faced a high-profile criminal case in April 2022 for a much more inconspicuous action.

Skochilenko was charged with "dissemination of knowingly false information" about the Russian army after she swapped price tags in her local supermarket in St Petersburg for stickers about Russian war crimes in Ukraine. 

She thought she'd be safe because she was acting anonymously, but Russian police are finding ways to gag even the quietest of protests.

And the 32-year old graphic artist is now in pre-trial detention risking 10 years' jail. 

Thinking back to her own Moscow-metro demonstration last year, Selenkina told EUobserver: "I expected to be detained, with the worst consequences, but the pain of losing Ukraine was much stronger than fear. I had no doubts about what I was doing".

Her will to protest erupted in the first days of hostilities, Selenkina said.

She attended anti-war rallies, but when she realised there'd be no mass-scale resistance, she opted to leave Russia and seek other ways to push back. The subway action was one of these.

Her goal was to pull people out of their everyday mentalities into a reality that many of them tried to deny, she said. 

The metro passengers reacted in different ways — some approached her with words of gratitude and support, others shouted at her and threatened to call the police, while a minority tried to ignore her.

But it was obvious even from those faces that her anti-war chants evoked an emotional response, which was the desired result.

"People who were against the war were able to see their allies," Selenkina said of the effect in the subway carriages. 

"Since in Russia it's dangerous to publicly say that you are against the war, you can feel lonely, thinking that you are surrounded only by its supporters. During my protest, people could spot those who shared their opinion," she said.

She wasn't arrested despite the daring nature of her action. After leaving Russia, she learned that police had filed a report on her protest, but no criminal charges have so far been brought. 

Selenkina is now engaged in anti-war activism from Germany, where she edits texts for Beda, an independent media about Russia's imperial project. 

She stopped making films because they took a long time, they were expensive to produce, and had limited distribution compared to new media, she said. 

But she also stopped because events have damaged her faith in the soft power of cinema, she indicated. "In times of war, you want to turn to something that has a more tangible and quicker effect," Selenkina said.

Russian president Vladimir Putin (2nd from right) visited the House of Culture in 2021 (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Discourse and power

The Kremlin used to have a subtler strategy for dealing with opposition culture before the Ukraine war. 

On one hand, it cracked down with criminal cases against the most provocative anti-regime activists, such as the feminist punk-rock group Pussy Riot. 

But on the other, it left society a prison-yard space for airing opposition art.

The state supported propaganda cinema, but also critical films such as Andrei Zvyagintsev's searingly anti-Putinist and Oscar-nominated Leviathan in 2014. 

Moscow had the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. It also opened a House of Culture on the site of its GES-2 power station in December 2021 — just three months before the invasion. 

And the capital city's Tretyakov Gallery was, at the same time, hosting a large exhibition called: "Diversity. Unity. Contemporary Art of Europe. Berlin. Moscow. Paris".

This was meant to cultivate cultural dialogue between Russia and Europe, but it closed prematurely when hostilities broke out.

Recalling the freedoms of the pre-Ukraine invasion days, Russian gallery-owner Marat Gelman told EUobserver: "Back in 2019, I held exhibitions of the [opposition street-art] group War, Pussy Riot, and [Russian anti-regime performance artist] Pyotr Pavlensky in Moscow at the private gallery ART4."

"In 2020, the Tretyakovka [gallery] hosted my exhibition Marat's Gift [on post and anti-Soviet art]. That is, it was still possible then. Now it's impossible to imagine such a thing," he said.

Gelman emigrated from Russia in 2014 to Montenegro, where he became one of the organisers of the Dukley European Art Community art-residence in the town of Budva, and of the annual SlovoNovo forum of Russian culture in Europe. 

He was one of a long list of Russian cultural figures who left before full-scale war erupted, including writers, such as Boris Akunin and Viktor Pelevin, or documentary maker Vitaly Mansky.

But Russia's arts-exodus swelled to massive proportions after the invasion.  

Notable writers, such as Vladimir Sorokin, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, and Viktor Erofeev moved to Germany.

Oscar-nominated film directors Kantemir Balagov and Kira Kovalenko relocated to the US.

Gelman divided artists who left Russia into three categories: young people, stars, and mid-career professionals. 

Aspiring young artists found it easier to integrate abroad, where they built their first careers and were seen as individuals instead of as representatives of Russia, the gallerist said. 

Celebrities also did well because they took their audience with them, Gelman added.

Part of their fans emigrated with them to the West and those who stayed in Russia followed their work via social media, online, or through printed book circulations. 

And, for the lucky ones, contacts in arts circles in Western countries were waiting with open arms to take them in, Gelman said.

"Now, literally the whole of Berlin is filled with really good, quite established artists. After the war, about 1,500 artists from Russia and about 500 from Ukraine moved to the city," he said. 

Russian director Vsevolod Lisovsky is putting on an adaptation of Brecht in Tbilisi (Photo: therussianreader.com)

Brecht breathes again

Arriving artists still had to "prove their skills all over again" upon landing in the new scene, Gelman noted.

But over the past year, many Russian directors, actors, and other creatives in Europe have been doing just that.

Film maker Kirill Serebrennikov started shooting Disappearance, about Nazi doctor and war criminal Josef Mengele, in Germany in June this year. 

It is being produced by award-winning French firm CG Cinema and Hype Studios from Russia. It also stars German actor August Diehl — known for playing a Gestapo major in Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino's film Inglourious Basterds. 

Serebrennikov has staged anti-war plays and operas based on Russian literary classics over the past year, such as Viy, The Black Monk, and Baroque in Hamburg.

And Russian theatre director, Maxim Didenko, has migrated to the German stage, where he put on an anti-war play, The Last Word, last winter.

The Last Word compiled excerpts from genuine appeals to court made by Russian women persecuted for political reasons, such as student-magazine editor Alla Gutnikova, pro-LGBTI artist Yulia Tsvetkova, and Pussy Riot members.

The monologue was written by Russian arts-critic Anna Narinskaya and delivered by another actress and director in exile, Alisa Khazanova.

Countries on the fringes of the EU have also shown hospitality to stars. 

Vsevolod Lisovsky, a Russian theatre director and two-time winner of Russia's Golden Mask Award, is preparing to stage a premiere of Fear and Misery of the Third Reich at the Sandro Akhmeteli Theatre in Tbilisi in September.

His text is based on an anti-war drama by German playwright Bertolt Brecht, depicting life in Germany after the Nazis came to power. 

Lisovsky's adaptation has been translated into Georgian.

And his choice wasn't accidental — because even though Brecht was writing almost 100 years ago, conditions in Weimar Germany were so similar to those in Putin's Russia, that Lisovsky wanted to see how Brecht's ideas resonated with a modern audience. 

The Russian director and his Theatre of Transition troupe had already performed Brecht in Moscow before moving to Georgia.

They performed it five times between May and September 2022 — in the Moscow underground, on street junctions, and on an uninhabited island on the Klyazma Reservoir near the capital.

Police tried to disrupt all of their pop-up performances.

Authorities also fined Lisovsky 50,000 roubles (€460) for "dissemination of knowingly false information" because of an anti-war post on Facebook.

At one point, his troupe switched to reading out loud from Plato (mainly The Republic) on the Moscow subway.

But the crack-down intensified and Lisovsky spent 30 days in detention centres for "resisting the police" before he decided to leave his home country in March 2023. 

"The first arrest could be called a vacation. Sakharovo [a Moscow detention centre] reminds me most of a pioneer camp," Lisovsky joked, referring to the Soviet-era Young Pioneer camps for children.

"The second time I was treated more harshly. It was clear that the next time I would have to go not to Sakharovo, but to the pre-trial detention centre. There was no fear of imprisonment — it was just clear that it would be long and boring," he added. 

Lisovsky voiced optimism following his first five months in the free world. 

With his Brecht premiere due in Tbilisi, he told EUobserver he could work from anywhere and hoped to stage plays in the EU in future. 

The exiled director also felt a sense of loss, however. 

"In Russia, I had the feeling that I was working to change the country. I don't really care where I do my simple art. But there is only one country I can do something with. It's called Russia. That's what I've really lost," Lisovsky said.

Riga, as well as Berlin, has taken in Russians (Photo: IVAN 63)

Maria's one-way ticket

Many other Russian artists and creatives who fled after February 2022 found it harder to rebuild their lives, however. 

Award-winning directors aside, many people in the middle of more ordinary careers in Russia's arts sector fled to Europe with no job prospects, few possessions, and no guarantee of asylum. 

Costume-designer Maria Kabysh was one of those who left, travelling with her two sons on a one-way ticket to Latvia early last April. 

Thinking back to the initial news of Russia's Ukraine invasion, she told EUobserver it left her in "shock" and she lacked the "reserve of emotions" to properly voice the terror that she felt. 

At the time, she still had a valid Latvian visa after having worked on a project in Riga, but before they could go, she had to organise up-to-date passports and EU visas for her sons, which cost 200,000 rubles — almost all the money she had saved from her winter-season shoots.  

They arrived in Latvia and claimed political asylum — a difficult decision to take because it closed the possibility of returning to Russia. 

"I came to Riga with absolutely no idea where and how to live. I had my mother's gold with me, and I knew I could take it to a pawn shop and get euros for it. That was our starting capital," Kabysh recalled.

She also had no idea if her asylum application would succeed. 

In her first asylum interview, Kabysh told Latvian authorities of all her trips to Russian opposition rallies over the past 15 years and about police pressure on her family. 

She and her children found accommodation via acquaintances in Riga while her case was being assessed.

She looked for work by word-of-mouth and writing off to production studios. She took on any jobs, including free assignments, and, little-by-little, the first paid projects started to come her way.

But in autumn last year, Latvia refused her asylum claim. The authorities deemed that Kabysh had left Russia just to get a better job, arguing that if she was really fleeing due to her activism then she ought to have left much earlier than she did.  

At the same time, her new flow of costume-design projects dried up.

Kabysh appealed the asylum decision and worked as a cleaner for several months to make ends meet, while awaiting the final verdict. 

She won in the end — her lawyer convinced judges that the risks for political activists in Russia increased dramatically after 24 February 2022. She's also working in the creative sector once again. 

"Everything was very bad until Citizen Poet came into my life, where I started doing costumes," Kabysh said, referring to a Russian satirical production by Andrei Vasiliev, involving actors Mikhail Efremov and Arthur Smolyaninov, as well as poets Andrei Orlov and Dmitry Bykov. 

Another studio she worked with was making a video for the well-known Russian theatre director Serebrennikov mentioned above, Kabysh added. 

But after the rocky road, the mother-of-two still couldn't afford to take any time off, as she dreamt of doing. 

"You want, like after a long run, to catch your breath and do nothing. But then you remember that you are in the wrong position, and that you need to establish yourself in this country. Only then can you rest," she said. 

"It took me a whole year to prove that I could work as a full-fledged specialist. When you come to another country, you have to start from scratch," Kabysh added.

Russian rapper Oxxxymiron at a Berlin festival last year (Photo: A. Savin)

Renaissance, cancelled?

Meanwhile, young people make up the lion's share of the post-war diaspora.

Most Russian emigrants were aged between 20 and 40, according to the Outrush project. Some 57 percent of those surveyed were under 35, in a separate study by the non-profit organisation OK Russians. One third came from office-based or creative professions. 

Russian emigrants usually went to Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, the UAE, or Uzbekistan, as well as EU countries, Outrush said. 

Many ended up working in international or Russian businesses and doing freelance assignments, instead of finding local employment. 

For their part, Russian music-video director Sasha Needmor and producer Sonya Sepmanson went to Tbilisi. 

Going by their first names, Sasha and Sonya, they entered the music business only in 2021 and quickly found success, shooting videos for popular Russian singer Maeby Baby (Victoria Lysyuk), Belarusian pop group Iowa, Ukrainian singer Yolka (Elizaveta Ivantsiv), and musicians Alena Shvets (Alena Shvetsova), Dora (Darya Shikhanova), and Grechka (Anastasia Ivanova). 

Their latest video, for Oxxxymiron, about Russian singers who collaborated with authorities, racked up more than 3m views in its first days of release.

Before the war, they'd considered moving to Ukraine anyway, due to its music industry, but when Putin invaded, they fled to Georgia even though they knew nothing about the place. 

"It was not a planned or considered decision. We urgently ended all relations with Russia, bought tickets for a large sum, and left with only two suitcases, with no understanding of what would happen next. I was in a terrible state," Sonya recalled.

Prior to leaving, they'd mostly worked with Russian-speaking artists, but their departure opened doors to a more international arena.

Their first project in Georgia came two months later when they met Ooes, an electro-pop singer from Dzerzhinsk in Russia. 

They made a video called Fade about loss of stability and security. The song didn't talk about war directly, but shooting stars in the visuals referenced Russian missiles, while a final sequence alluded to Russia's massacre of civilians in the Ukrainian town of Bucha.

"It was an opportunity for us to express ourselves. We shot the clip together with Russian, Georgian, and Ukrainian specialists. It was a creative project, and all the Russian guys worked there for the idea," Sasha said.

Sasha and Sonya also got a big break last year when they worked with US director Jonah George.

"It was a creative project with not a very big budget. But that's normal for such projects, and we all wanted to work with a director who shoots for [global retail brands] Nike and PlayStation," Sonya said. 

They were due to be listed in George's credits, but things turned sour when the US director published the clip after cutting the names of the Russian duo and their technical team due to the Ukraine war. 

George also blocked them from tagging him on social media when they complained, in what felt like xenophobia. 

"When we arrived in Georgia, he had no complaints about us. On the contrary, he supported us very much. While post-production was going on, he started to cooperate closely with Ukraine and he was invited to shoot there. As he told me, after that, he [George] decided that it would be wrong to list Russians in the credits," Sonya said. 

Calls to cancel Russians in Western culture have taken many forms since the war.

The EU has imposed visa bans and asset freezes on blacklisted Russian writers, actors, and singers who do blatant pro-war propaganda.

In more grey areas, famous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is suing New York City's Metropolitan Opera after it sacked her on grounds she didn't condemn the invasion explicitly enough.

Kyiv has also lobbied European institutions directly and via Ukrainian artists, who've refused to perform at the same festivals as Russians. 

This is what Ukraine's former Eurovision Song Contest winners Kalush Orchestra did during the Sea Dance festival in Montenegro in 2022, after learning that Russian DJs Nina Kravits and Anfisa Letyago were in the lineup. 

In May this year, 13-year old singer Sofia Samolyuk from Ukraine refused to perform at the Sanremo Junior festival in Italy because of the participation of Russians. And Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba later honoured her with a special commendation for "triumph of spirit in cultural diplomacy".

But many young Russian artists-in-exile have raised money for Ukraine after getting out. 

Musicians Monetochka and Noize MC held charity concerts for Ukrainian refugees, raising over €300,000 at one event in Berlin, for instance. Exiled Russian rappers Face and Oxxxymiron and punk band Pornofilmy did the same.

And it hurts if you end up being targeted even though you're also fighting the Russian regime.

In May this year, for instance, an Estonian literary festival excluded Linor Goralik, the editor-in-chief of Roar (Russian Oppositional Arts Review) magazine, following a protest by Ukrainian poetesses.

In another example, Russian theatre director Dmitry Krymov has struggled to find venues to show his first feature film, Everything is Okay

It was on the cusp of being broadcast in Russia last year, when Krymov spoke out against the Ukraine invasion in strident terms and left the country, prompting Putin's Orwellian culture ministry to rip out his name from Moscow theatres.

And, in an ironic twist, cinemas in free Europe also don't want to show it, because Everything is Okay was part-funded with a Russian culture-ministry grant from pre-war days. 

Optimism

But for all that, young Russian artists, such as Sasha and Sonya, aren't letting setbacks get them down .

They were building networks of friends around the world, they said, and shortly releasing a video for Noanne, a singer from Prague, for distribution in the EU and the US. 

For Gelman, the gallerist, regrettable bans were also isolated incidents and there was no wholesale "cancellation of Russian culture" in Europe or America.

The general public in Europe knew that real artists represented themselves, not their national flag, Gelman said.

Even for those who were struggling to cope in their new lives in the West, there was "no comparison" to the pressure faced by artists who still lived in Putin's Russia, he added.

But for some, exile forced them to break new creative ground, in times when broader Russian society needed to invent a post-Putin and post-war identity, he said, in a note of optimism. 

"Mass emigration has created a unique moment for the development of art, putting cultural figures in a state of search. Our artists are not embedded in the European market, and no one in it, in the current situation, particularly needs them. Therefore, they are forced to experiment and move forward," Gelman said. 

"Russian art now probably has the greatest prospects since perestroika [the post-Soviet Union 1990s] or even the post-war [WW2] period," he added.

"In general, we can say that a renaissance of Russian culture is now taking place in Europe," Gelman said.

Author bio

Daria Kozlova is a correspondent at independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europe, and currently a resident journalist at EUobserver.

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