March 06, 2017

Better Russia


Better Russia

Victoria Lomasko. Other Russias. Translated from the Russian by Thomas Campbell. New York: n+1. 2017. 320 pages. $20. 9780997031843.


Other Russias CoverOther Russias is an album of images and impressions of ordinary, unconnected Russian citizens who have unexpectedly found themselves activists. 

Victoria Lomasko, a graduate of Moscow State University of Printing Arts, found herself becoming an activist simply by doing her art out in the world. Yet her “first work of graphic reportage was rejected out of hand. I was told that no one drew from life in the 21st century. But I felt the need to complete my drawings on the spot, to serve as a conductor for the energy generated by events as they happened.” (8) Or, as I would put it, she was the magician that captured the energy as she sketched the voiceless and disregarded (the “Invisible” of Part 1 of her book) or the cynically persecuted (the “Angry” of Part 2): for example, the members of Pussy Riot; the countless non-Slavic Russian citizens discriminated against for jobs and housing; principled legal staff; and the LGBTQ, who have to fear for their safety and family-life in the face of religious bigotry. 

In the introduction, Lomasko explains her choice of drawing over cameras: “I turned to the practices of the 19th and 20th centuries – namely to the albums produced by Russian soldiers, concentration camp inmates, and people who experienced the Nazi siege of Leningrad. In many cases, urgent work like this was the only kind of reporting that was done in these brutal conditions – these albums were the sole acts of witness.” (8) The key word is “urgent.” Art is always dangerous to authoritarian governments, because the artist’s individual opinions and beliefs permeate the images. 

We love photographic images because they seem so real, and yet one of their drawbacks is that they hypnotize us into forgetting who’s behind the camera and who’s paying for the technology. These drawings, on the other hand (and a live hand at that), are active and responsive art; they can’t help communicating Lomasko’s sympathy, interest and bewilderment. We never forget that she, a living, engaged witness, is recording her impressions; her most inspired drawings are representations of a change in time: they reveal earnest people with pasts who have suddenly found themselves in their surprising new roles as protesters. 

At first, Lomasko says, she was shy of the “ordinary” people she was surreptitiously drawing, until she finally “worked up the courage to engage them in conversation and ask questions. Later, I began to approach my subjects as a journalist would, traveling to various places to research topics that fascinated me.” (9)

What all the subjects have in common is that they are believers. From all walks of Russian life, they believe in a moral cause – some in the morality of individual conscience, some in the morality of church and state control.

For instance, the protesters on Pushkin Square I myself remember from visits to Moscow are admirably sturdy and obviously brave: “Every Saturday, rain, snow, or frost, a group of Orthodox activists holds a prayer service and protest rally against Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s urban planning policies.” (29) Yet Lomasko’s reportage reveals that they’re also, unfortunately, purveyors of a shameless anti-Semitism: “Pray against kikes?” says one. “It won’t help.” (31)

"Pray against kikes? It won't help..." "It would be better to pray against our presidents."

So those activists leave an unsavory taste in one’s mouth. It’s hard to root for bigots.
On the other hand, the political activists she recorded in 2011 and 2012 had a wonderful faith in goodness and common decency, and even expected and cultivated the sympathy of the police. Surely, you’re with us! Because, clearly, it’s impossible for idealists to imagine a sincere person who is for the repression of civil rights:

"Police, are you with the people?"

“It is seen as something of a miracle when people in Russia engage in successful grassroots organizing,” remarks Lomasko (261), and the bravest, most miraculous crew in Other Russias may be the truckers, Russia’s cowboys who held strikes to resist getting gouged for tolls by one of Putin’s cronies:

"We can convince many long-haul truckers to join the strike. They have nothing to lose. While there is life, there is hope."

When Lomasko and her friend, the marvelously agile English translator Bela Shayevich, appeared at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute on February 28 and at the publisher n+1’s office in Brooklyn on March 3, Lomasko expressed herself with a sparkling and spunky determination. She said her aim was to “draw every rally as if it were a person.” Many of those rallies were, then, optimistic people.

For me, though, the portraits of individuals are superior, and some of the most riveting are her drawings of the teenaged boys in a juvenile prison, where for five years she as a volunteer taught art. In these images we see the artist observing artists. She shows us how Andrei has relaxed into his drawing of saints. Look at his hands and his concentration!

"In the world, there is much to distract you from becoming smarter."

In contrast to deeply immersed Andrei, however, is his agitated fellow prisoner Yevgeny:

"I draw my anger for the whole world." (Every drop of insult is like rain.)

Andrei and Yevgeny’s differences are an example of Lomasko’s belief in showing two sides of activities – though most often in this book they are of protesters versus the churchfolk and nationalists. She has respect, it seems, for everyone but (1) the loathsome young nationalists of Nashi, (2) skinheads, (3) the flunky judges and prosecutors who don’t even seem to believe in their own words, and (4) the most devilish of church officials whose only power under Putin seems to be to drum up intolerance.

Lomasko prefers giving her attention to those who never get a say. She had to rapidly sketch the sex workers. Those who were working in an “office” she had to catch between clients or during HIV tests:

“Many guys come just to talk. We need to raise the fee for chats. Our brains are worth more.”

By the way, Lomasko said at her n+1 presentation that she never changes a drawing or a quotation. Her grim sense of humor regularly momentarily lifts the despair: “Call girls – girls without their own chambers or offices – work out of cars and vans. I spent time in one such minivan. Four girls sat crowded together on the seat opposite me. While they waited for clients to call, they drank wine from a box and beer from cans, the rhinestones on their outfits and their gorgeously painted eyes glittering. They were very different from the ‘office’ girls. They reminded me of pilots, ready at any moment to parachute out of the cockpit. They had the special charisma of people for whom the risk of death has become commonplace. One girl’s face was сrisscrossed by a scar.” (131)

There are, she notes, wonderfully heartening overlappings of support among activist groups, notably those of the truckers and park protesters. My favorite image of all is of the siblings Albert and Nargiza, who participated in protests over the threatened destruction by a developer of a portion of Dubki Park in Moscow: 

Kids
ALBERT: “I go to the school across the street from the park, and I hang out in the park with friends.” NARGIZA: “Dubki Park makes children and squirrels happy.”

I got out my sketchbook and copied several of Lomasko’s drawings, including of course that one; in doing so, I immediately gained an appreciation of her quick, bold touch and her care and her tenderness for her subjects. Almost no one she depicts comes across as a caricature. And when her subject has time for reflection, she goes in deep:

Sitting
“I would not have come here if it had been up to me. I realized things would only get worse. The police let my tiny truck through.” [Sergei, from Dagestan]


What are we twenty-first-century citizens to make of someone who doesn’t pull out a cellphone or camera and instead wields a sketchbook and thick pens? (“I hate pencils,” she said at Columbia.) In Moscow, in one instance the furiously sketching Lomasko was taken for a fellow nationalist. Another time, she recalled in Brooklyn, one of the menacing skinheads said when he caught her sketching him: “Ooh! No one’s ever drawn us before!… So, uhh, how do I stand?”

In other circumstances or eras, perhaps Victoria Lomasko would be taken for a holy fool.
Bless this holy fool who believes every living soul has a story and a cause!

Self-portrait.

Lomasko is the graphic artist equivalent of the great Svetlana Alexeevich, the Nobel Prize winner whose work also records and vivifies the lives of the Invisible and the Angry. 


Note: The captivating Lomasko will discuss her work at venues in Portland, Oregon (March 8-9), Seattle (March 11) and Pittsburgh (March 20 and March 24). According to n+1’s publisher Mark Krotov, the press’s next Russian-related book will appear this spring, a volume of poetry by Roman Osminkin.

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