Tag Archives: Victoria Lomasko

International Women’s Day Special: Victoria Lomasko on Women’s Lives in Small-Town Russia

March 8 marked the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day celebrations in Russia. This is the third in a series of posts focusing on the work and plight of several different women involved in political and social activism in Russia today.

Below, artist Victoria Lomasko reflects in words and pictures on the lives of women in small Russian towns and cities like the one where she grew up, a hundred kilometers south of Moscow.

Lomasko’s series Feminine is featured in a special Eighth of March/feminist issue of Volya (Liberty), the newspaper edited by our friend and comrade Vlad Tupikin. Yesterday, during an authorized opposition rally to mark International Women’s Day, Tupikin was detained by Moscow police for the “criminal” act of attempting to distribute this newspaper.

A special thanks to Victoria Lomasko for permission to reproduce her work here.


Victoria Lomasko



“When I was young, I had a date lined up on every corner.”


In the series Feminine, all the characters are drawn from life, and their remarks are recorded verbatim. However, I tried to move away from reportage and towards symbolism—to generalize specific situations in images expressing my feelings.

The portraits here are less images of specific people and more archetypes: the faded, lonely woman, the “sluttish” boozer, the rigid old Soviet woman, and so on.


“There are no factories in this town and no blokes.”

 tetay Luda

“He just couldn’t put on slippers and become a domesticated bloke.”


Each drawing adds its own tint (of sadness, irony, and anger) to the overall picture—the life of women in the Russian provinces.


“I’ve been feeling slutty since December.”


I was born in Serpukhov, a town in the Moscow Region. The women and girls around me talked about men: acquaintances and strangers, exes, current husbands and boyfriends, and future husbands and boyfriends. We believed that love would change the monotonous course of our lives.


“I’m not a boozer. I’m a saint.”


I had one other belief—in my calling as an artist. Only my dad, a self-taught artist, supported my plan to study in Moscow and then work as an artist. Some of my girlfriends’ moms tried to force their daughters to spend less time with me, believing such nonsense as I was spouting communicable and a hindrance to finding a husband. They were right: I’m still not married and have no children.

 v bory

“We’re used to having blokes pay for everything.”


I have lived in Moscow for over ten years. When I travel to the provinces, the pictures I see and the conversations I hear are familiar to me. Even divorced girlfriends sympathize with my “plight.”

I became an artist, but I do not feel like a winner. In this country, their life strategies and mine turn into a loss. I look at the “heroines” in Feminine and find a part of myself in all of them.


“Where can I get hold of a machine gun to kill Putin?”

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Filed under censorship, contemporary art, feminism, gay rights, political repression, protests, Russian society

Victoria Lomasko, 2012: A Chronicle of Resistance

vika & vlad

Victoria Lomasko
2012: A Chronicle of Resistance

2012 was marked by heavily attended protests by the Russian opposition. For the first time since the early 1990s, the protest movement in Russian attracted worldwide attention. Many people anticipated an “orange” revolution.

Beginning with the elections to the State Duma, on December 4, 2011, and until November 2012, I kept a graphic “chronicle of resistance” in which I made on-the-spot sketches of all important protest-related events. I will try now to recall and describe the protests, in which I was involved as a rank-and-file albeit regular participant.

United Russia election observer

December 4, 2011.
On election day, I worked as a artist/reporter in Khimki. At my polling station, journalists and all observers, except those from the United Russia party, were removed under various pretexts, but the female artist was allowed to stay as an amusing oddity. I witnessed one bus after another bringing people who voted with absentee ballots. The people were from various enterprises and quite often from other towns. The drivers shouted at them to vote faster because they had to get them to the next polling station. Ordinary residents who had come to vote on their own were unable to get through to the table where ballots were issued.

By evening and in the days to come, the Internet was chockablock with photo and video evidence of election fraud. Observers wrote about gross violations. Coupled with Putin’s decision to become president again, this evidence undermined any illusions about civil liberties in Russia and hopes for change.

Women on phone: “We’re yelling at an opposition rally.”
Man with megaphone: “Russia! Putin! Medvedev!”

December 6, 2011.
I missed the December 5 rally at Chistye Prudy. The same evening, protesters created an event on the social networks—a rally on December 6 on Triumfalnaya Square. Protests in defense of the freedom of assembly, launched by [Eduard] Limonov, have taken place on Triumfalnaya since 2009. Although the December 6 rally was not allowed by the authorities, thousands of people gathered for it. At the exit from the subway, people were greeted by Nashi members pounding drums and battalions of police in “diving suits.” Police were rough when detaining protesters. Security services officers in plainclothes and Nashi members videotaped the proceedings from the other side of the barriers. I stood next to them: I was taken for a Nashi member and praised for my talent. I added the speech bubbles later at home.

“We’re fucking tired of them”

December 10, 2011.
News of the arrests on Triumfalnaya added even more fire to the desire to protest. Around forty thousand people signed up for a “Rally for Honest Elections” on Facebook.  Revolution Square was the meeting place. On the Internet, in kitchens and offices, people discussed the possibility of revolution and the likelihood that the demonstration would be dispersed by force of arms. Liberal leaders (Nemtsov, Parkhomenko and Ryzhkov) made a deal with the authorities that the rally would be allowed if the protesters were moved to Bolotnaya Square and away from the Kremlin. On December 10, the first opposition rally since the early 1990s involving tens of thousands of people took place, and the police did not detain anyone. I think many people were so excited to be present in the throng of the one-hundred-thousand-strong demonstration and so impressed by the beauty of the march under flags of various colors that they ceased to critically evaluate what was happening.

Woman on phone: “All of Moscow is here.”

December 24, 2011.
The December 24 rally on Sakharov Avenue was memorable because of the clear presence of the “common people”—folks without iPhones, poorly dressed, and without party allegiances. The “people” took to the streets without creative placards and used foul language when commenting on Ksenia Sobchak and Alexei Kudrin, who addressed the rally from the stage.

Caption (upper left): We beat Hitler, we’ll beat Putin!

February 4, 2012.
On a frosty afternoon, the March for Fair Elections proceeded from Bolshaya Yakimanka to Bolotnaya Square in four columns—a non-aligned “civic” column, liberals, right-wingers and leftists.

February 26, 2012.
The grassroots “White Circle” flash mob resembled an unwitting reprisal of the 2007 action “White Line,” when artists from the so-called Trade Union of Street Art enclosed the Garden Ring in a white chalk line. During “White Circle,” protesters sporting white symbols joined hands along the entire length of the Garden Ring. White clothes, white balloons, white flowers, white toys, white dogs, white ribbons waved from passing cars, and the falling snow: the mood was bright. It was spoiled only by Nashi members holding placards that read, “Only 8 days left until Putin’s victory.” After “White Circle,” Sergei Udaltsov and his supporters led protest round-dances on Revolution Square.

Election observers observing the vote count

March 4, 2012.
Thousands of activist observers worked during the presidential election. I was part of a mobile group organized by the Citizen Observer project. Shuttling between polling stations, we saw rows of buses from Belgorod, Vladimir, Saratov and many other towns; at the polling stations themselves, we saw lines of provincial workers and students with absentee ballots. A festive concert on Manezh Square awaited them in the evening.

Despite the fact that all opposition forces were mobilized in the сapital, Putin mustered 48.25% of the vote in Moscow, and 63.6% nationwide.

We will begin carrying out peaceful acts of civil disobedience

March 5, 2012.
The next day, Pushkin Square was the site of another For Fair Elections rally. There were fewer creative placards and more anger—people shared their impressions of the election. We stood in the cold, knee-deep in snow under a full moon. Udaltsov urged protesters not to go home “until Putin leaves.” Police dispersed the several hundred people who heeded his call and stayed. Many of them were sentenced to fifteen days in jail.

Valentina, 73 years old
“Well done, Pussy Riot! I’d sing ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Out!’ with them.”
Placard: What a talent for treating the people like idiots

March 10, 2012.
The last For Fair Elections rally took place on Novy Arbat. Maxim Katz and other victors in municipal district council elections urged the crowd not to despair and switch to solving social issues. Speakers mentioned the political prisoners from Pussy Riot, and the first placards supporting the group appeared amidst the crowd. The next protest was scheduled for May 6.

Nadya Tolokonnikova: “I wish those who put us here a life like ours in prison.”

In between the thousands-strong rallies, “Pussy Riot Court Festivals” were held outside courthouses where hearings in the Pussy Riot case took place. Artists were heavily involved in these protests, producing leaflets and placards, and organizing performances.

Woman on left: “I’m trying to dissuade my husband from emigrating—I want to raise the kids here.”
Placard: It’s important to believe in a happy future
Woman on right: “I want to live in Russia.”
Placard: Changes have already taken place in our hearts 

May 6, 2012.
Despite the start of the summer dacha season, around fifty thousand people gathered for the March of Millions. For the first time during the recent large rallies, the police dispersed people with billy clubs and tear gas. Right in front of me, police hit a young man over the head, and he fell to the ground bleeding. “They have murdered him! They have murdered him!” women wailed. Several protesters overturned portable toilets, and the shit from them flowed under policemen’s feet.  The police divided protesters into groups, drove them through the streets, beat and detained them, but they were unable to force people to leave the area between Bolotnaya Square and the Tretyakov Gallery until nightfall. At present, nineteen people who attended the rally, arbitrarily chosen by the police, have been charged with organizing a riot. Twelve of them are in jail. One of the so-called prisoners of May 6, Maxim Luzyanin, has already been sentenced to four and a half years in a penal colony.

Woman: “Why are there riot police everywhere?”
Policeman: “Because of the folk festivals.”

May 7, 2012.
Putin once again became president of Russia on this day, but disgruntled citizens began holding round-the-clock “folk festivals” in downtown Moscow in protest.

Pushkin Square (Moscow), May 9
Veteran: “We defended the motherland!”
Riot Cop: “And we’re clearing the square.”

May 9, 2012.
On May 9, it seemed like Moscow was celebrating Police Occupation Day, not Victory Day.

By midday, the opposition—people from the “folk festivals,” mainly—had begun closing ranks at Chistye Prudy. In the evening, paddy wagons appeared on both sides of Chistoprudny Boulevard. The police for some reason did not disperse the fifteen hundred activists. Despite the threat of arrest, at least a hundred people spent the night at Chistye Prudy around the monument to Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbayev.

Lecture on civil disobedience

May 10, 2012. The Occupy Abai camp took shape at Chistye Prudy the next morning. It was organized by civic activists, liberals, leftists, anarchists, nationalists, members of the LGBT community and others. The core Occupy Abai activists almost never left the camp during its existence; they slept on the ground in sleeping bags. They took responsibility for cleaning the camp, running a people’s kitchen fueled by donations, and maintaining order. Other members of the protest movement also tried to spend as much time as possible in the camp; many of them blew off classes or took a vacation from work. Every day, activists gave free lectures on political and social issues. Some people came to the camp with guitars and organized improvised concerts: they sang about freedom. Poets held a reading of civic poety, Theater.Doc performed a play entitled “BerlusPutin,” and I had a show of drawings, Everyday Occupy Abai. People of different political persuasions discussed the prospects of the protest. Occupy Abai was crowded even in the cold and rain. Everyone regarded the camp’s existence as a miracle.

On May 13, tens of thousands of people joined the “Test Stroll” organized by writers, which went from Pushkin Square to Chistye Prudy. At the end of the stroll, many people remained at Occupy Abai.

Man: “I left my business six months ago to take part in the protests with my girlfriend.”

May 16, 2012.
At five o’clock in the morning on May 16, Occupy Abai was dispersed by the police. The pretext was a suit filed in the Basmanny District Court by several residents of house no. 9 on Chistoprudny Boulevard, who complained of “noise, filth and trampled lawns.” Occupy moved to Barrikadnaya, but it proved impossible to organize a kitchen and sleeping space at the new location and thus live in the camp round the clock. Most activists came only in the evening for the general assemblies, during which further plans were discussed; everyone could express their opinion, and decisions were made by voting. Unity among people could still be sensed at Occupy Barrikadnaya. I remember a young woman who would come with plastic bags stuffed with sandwiches to feed the hungry activists.  Her sandwich gave me the strength to continue drawing for another couple hours. Another time, it started to rain, and nationalists gave me a raincoat. It was the police who poisoned life in the Occupy camp: they detained people, stole food, and once they seized a donations box for the camp. On May 19, Occupy Barrikadnaya was also dispersed by the police. In the following days there were attempts to reestablish the camp, but each time they were stopped by the police. Some protesters relocated to the Old Arbat, where Occupy degenerated into street gatherings involving peaceful songs accompanied by guitar, flirting, and idle conversations about various topics.

People on right: “Antifa are fags!”

June 12, 2012
. The second March of the Millions started on Pushkin Square. Columns of anarchists and nationalists marched on opposite sides of the boulevard ring, with the neo-Nazis shouting insults at the antifa. The march ended on Sakharov Avenue. The Interior Ministry estimated that 18,000 people attended the event, while organizers put the number at around 100,000.

Policeman: “Citizens, keep the peace!”
Crowd: “Mother of God, drive Putin out!”

August 17, 2012.
The verdict in the Pussy Riot case was announced in the Khamovniki District Court. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were sentenced to two years in prison. Hundreds of the punk group’s supporters surrounded the courthouse, and a spontaneous demonstration began. Police pulled people from the crowd—teenagers in colored balaclavas, old women with placards, and prominent opposition figures—and threw them into paddy wagons.

Nationalists: “Moscow without wogs!”

September 15, 2012.
After a summer lull, the third March of the Millions, the least well attended, took place. It repeated the route of the previous march. A fight between nationalists and anti-fascists broke out. People in the communist column blamed liberals for the petering-out of the protests. Liberals expressed their fear of both rightists and leftists. The event was scheduled to last until ten in the evening, but by five o’clock people had already begun to go home.  Sergei Udaltsov urged the hundred or so protesters who remained to organized a Maidan or veche. Udaltsov was arrested at 10:01 p.m.

2012 was an eventful year in Russia politically. What did the thousands-strong rallies and marches, the Occupy camps in Moscow, and the Pussy Riot trial change?

We have the trials of the “prisoners of May 6,” one of whom has already been sentenced to prison; the new laws on rallies; opposition leaders who are inscrutable (and unpleasant) to most of the Russian population; and the provinces, practically untouched by the protests. On the other hand, we see a growth in social activism and political awareness, which would hardly have been possible without the massive involvement of citizens in opposition rallies and protest actions. I feel that involvement in the protests has greatly changed me, and I see that my acquaintances who were involved in the protests have also changed.  The overall growth of civic consciousness cannot be measured in numbers, but we can hope that it will make itself felt again.

Editor’s Note
. Originally published (in Russian) in Volya 8 (40), December 2012; subsequently published on Liva.com.ua. Photo of Victoria Lomasko (with Volya editor Vlad Tupikin on her left) by Vlad Chizhenkov. Thanks to Victoria Lomasko for her permission to translate her chronicle and reprint her drawings here.


Filed under activism, contemporary art, political repression, protests, Russian society, urban movements (right to the city)

Victoria Lomasko: “Being inside the picture is a matter of honor for me”

Editor’s Note. It is no secret we think Victoria Lomasko is the best thing since sliced bread. And since Harvey Pekar, Joe Sacco, Love and Rockets—you name it. In the past year, we have published translations of her graphic reportages from the Pussy Riot trial and the trial against the Golos Association, and without her drawings of migrant workers, last year’s “Against Slavery” issue of our newspaper would have been right-minded but lacking a human touch and compassionate eye. Don’t take our word for it, though. In recent weeks, the German edition of her book Forbidden Art, co-authored with Anton Nikolaev, has been published. She has also produced a stunning series of illustrated reports on the case of the slaves recently freed from a Moscow grocery store. (You can find the first six reports here in English translation, and all seven reports here in the original Russian.) Last but not least and hot off the presses is the new, fortieth number of the newspaper Volya, with Ms. Lomasko’s illustrated “Chronicles of Resistance” as its highlight. So we thought it wouldn’t be out of place to translate and publish this nearly year-old interview with her from Artguide magazine. Our thanks to Victoria Lomasko and Maria Kravtsova for their permission to publish the interview here.

Originally published (in Russian) in Artguide magazine on January 12, 2012. All illustrations courtesy of Ms. Lomasko, except where otherwise noted. An abridged version of this interview has been published on the n+1 web site.


Victoria Lomasko:
“Being inside the picture is a matter of honor for me”

We are confident textbooks on twenty-first-century art history will include, along with photographs by the best photojournalists of our time, the graphic reportages of artist VICTORIA LOMASKO. In recent years, Lomasko has been in the middle of the most controversial social and political events, and she has drawn the trials of members of the contemporary art community and social activists, mass protests, and life in the Russian provinces. Critic MARIA KRAVTSOVA quizzed the artist about her attitude to Russian Orthodox activists, her experiences interacting with law enforcement officials, leftist identity and corruption in the art scene, and her parents and teachers.

lomasko_portrait_chizhenkovVictoria Lomasko, with works from her and Anton Nikolaev’s series Tagansky Justice, at the exhibition of Kandinsky Prize nominees, 2010. Photo by Vlad Chizhenkov


Maria Kravtsova: Graphic reportages from courtrooms, grassroots protest actions, and sketches of provincial life are artist Victoria Lomasko’s calling cards. I have never understood how you hold up in the courtroom purely emotionally. In my view, the level of aggression at such events is through the roof.

 01_blagoslovenieVictoria Lomasko, drawing from the book Forbidden Art, 2011. Old woman: “Do you have blessing to draw?”


Victoria Lomasko: I become a different person when I start drawing. I am grateful to absolutely everyone portrayed in my works. For example, the old Orthodox women from the courthouse during the Forbidden Art trial, who sat in the corridor and told tall tales about the artist [Avdei] Ter-Oganyan: I listened carefully to every word and every detail, and examined their kerchiefs and skirts. At such moments, the excitement of the artist awakens in me, the excitement of someone who runs like a hound on someone’s trail without knowing how it will end. Maybe the hound is chasing a bear that will smack it down with one paw. But this excitement—or rather, the fact of finding an interesting topic—is overpowering.


Victoria Lomasko, drawing from the book Forbidden Art, 2011. Old woman: “They’re a bunch of bums on a mission to discredit Russian Orthodoxy.” Priest: “This is only the beginning. We will sweep the unclean spirits from the face of the Russian land.”


МK: The aggression of the Orthodox activists, say, didn’t get on your nerves?

VL: Actually, it is easy to understand and pity these people. They are mainly old people who lived in one country, but ended up in another. Nearly all of them say they used to be true-believing communists, and some of them had even wanted to blow up churches. This man, for example, is a former communist. [Victoria shows me a drawing of an overweight middle-aged man with an icon on his chest.] He was a professional stonemason and restorer, and worked in the Kremlin, but then he was disabled and reduced to poverty. Now he travels the forests, restoring abandoned churches.


Victoria Lomasko, “Orthodox Activist,” from the series Black Portraits, 2010. Caption: The stonemason Sergei. A former militant atheist, now a Russian Orthodox activist. Sergei: “The west wants to destroy the bold and beautiful Russian people.”


МK: I don’t want to exaggerate my personal experience, but I have difficulty accepting [Russian] leftists, whom I know mainly from the art scene. With a few exceptions, like you, what I see are not leftists, but what they call the bohemian bourgeois or gauche caviar, that is, people who espouse leftist values only verbally. What does the leftist idea mean for you?

VL: For me, the leftist idea is embodied in grassroots assistance; moreover, I’m a believer in pinpointed support. It’s hard to see how things will end when a global idea is deployed in real life, but at all times and under all regimes there are plenty of poor, disadvantaged people and plenty of injustices. I’d rather try and fix one specific injustice than sign onto a global project only formally.

And that is why I am really glad I met the human rights activists from the [Moscow] Center for Prison Reform. These people are focused on selflessly helping others, and compared to them I feel like a nasty bourgeois, doing “projects.” I travel with them to penal colonies for minors and see these human rights activists, most of whom are in their sixties and seventies, dragging seventy backpacks of humanitarian aid on their back, because when the boys and girls are released from the colonies they often have no street clothes. Human rights activists do this regularly, but few people know their names. However, many of the wards in the colonies need not only material, but also psychological support, which we are trying to give them—by, for example, giving drawing lessons, as I do.

04_studyVictoria Lomasko, “Life Drawing,” from her graphic reportage on the girls’ penal colony in Novy Oskol, 2011


МK: There are two attitudes toward people in prison. Some believe they have only themselves to blame, while others believe that people who have committed crimes and are paying the penalty for them are victims of circumstance. As I understand it, you belong to the second group?

VL: I’m somewhere in the middle, because all cases are unique. For example, after learning certain details [of a particular case], you might feel disgust for a person, which in fact happened to me with one pupil at the girl’s colony. There are only three penal colonies for underage girls in Russia. While boys often commit violations out of foolishness and usually under the influence of alcohol, girls often experience more severe tragedies and commit more violent crimes. When you interact with such prisoners, a sense of revulsion often arises, and it is quite hard to overcome this feeling. On the other hand, even the Bible says you can condemn someone only if you understand what it is like to walk in his or her shoes. And the life circumstances of many young convicts are such that I’m not sure I could be honest and decent were I in their shoes. The worst thing is that when they get out of prison they return to the same vicious circle—alcoholic parents, violence and poverty—and there is no escape from this. As a result, they don’t have the psychological wherewithal, when they get out, to become normal, law-abiding people. They cannot find work, and so they either become dependent on their parents or, if that is not possible, they go back to stealing and robbing. And the state behaves meanly toward these people simply by failing to develop any program for rehabilitating them.


Victoria Lomasko, “Cafeteria,” from her graphic reportage on the girls’ penal colony in Novy Oskol, 2011


MK: Another aspect of your civic activism is coverage of rallies and protest actions. Do you think these are a waste of breath or in fact an effective tool for society to exert influence on the authorities?

VL: I think that protest rallies are concretely beneficial because the people who attend them can then plug into specific causes—protests against the demolition of architectural landmarks, injustices in the justice system, and so on. People have learned not to be silent. I also think it is necessary to go to court hearings. Judges have begun to feel public pressure: their faces are there for everyone to see, and they immediately become targets of caricatures and criticism. My personal arsenal of protests includes the trial against the administration of the Moscow State University of Printing Arts, which had illegally fired a number of teachers. As a result, the dismissed teachers were reinstated, while the rector got the boot. The trial was presided over by a good judge who took our side. In addition, several alumni and students drew in the courtroom, and the next day their graphic reportages were on the Internet. This was a real shock for the university administration. They had hoped no one would find out about the trial, that they would do their dirty work and get away with it. They blew a fuse when they saw how I was drawing them. “Who do you think you are?” they said to me, “How dare you draw us! We’ll expel you tomorrow!” And I thought, “Nothing will come of that: I graduated from the university a long time ago, and tomorrow the drawings will be in Advokatskaya gazeta and on Grani.ru!”


Victoria Lomasko, Rally against Election Fraud. Sakharov Avenue, Moscow, December 24, 2011. Woman talking on phone: “All of Moscow is here.”


MK: By the way, what is your education?

VL: I was educated as a graphic artist. I graduated from the [Moscow State] University of Printing Arts, also known by its Soviet name, the Polygraph [Moscow Polygraphic Institute]. I had loved Soviet illustration since I was a kid, especially the work of Viktor Pivovarov, and I wanted to become a book illustrator. I loved Ilya Kabakov’s amazing book “The Magic Apple,” as well as, of course, the illustrations of Erik Bulatov and Oleg Vasiliev, though I later noticed their work was quite similar to the work of another favorite Soviet artist of mine, Henrik Valk. Although in fairness it should be noted that in his memoirs Vasiliev honestly admits they took Valk’s graphic works as a template. Valk was no fool himself and quite deliberately developed his images of Soviet life—of Soviet children, Soviet nature and Soviet technology. Vasiliev and Bulatov not only borrowed this set of pictorial clichés, but also, to some extent, took them to their logical conclusion.


Victoria Lomasko, from the series Drawing LessonMozhaisk Juvenile Penal Colony, 2010. Yevgeny: “I take out my anger on the world by drawing.” Caption (lower left): Each drop is a grievance—it’s like rain. Caption (right panel): Yevgeny was a gambler: he was sent to the colony for breaking open a slot machine. He did not know how to draw and did not want to learn—he came to class to get things off his chest. Yevgeny always looked tense. He hated his surroundings and once said he wanted to kill. The skinhead Oleg took him down a peg: “Shut up. You don’t know what murder is.”


MK: How did your parents react to your idea of becoming an artist? Was it not clear to them that, with rare exceptions, it’s not a lucrative profession?

VL: I was not born yet (no one knew whether I would be a boy or a girl), but Dad was already insisting I would be a born artist. At the age of three, I was handed pencils and paints. My dad is a self-taught artist. He graduated from the ZNUI (People’s Correspondence University of the Arts). Moreover, he studied with the university’s founder, Mikhail Kriger, whom he visited at home and drank vodka with, and whose favorite student he was. But their relationship was simultaneously tragic: Dad did not understand Soviet art and socialist realism, but he did not know any other art and at the same time was always going off on tangents. So he decided to draw an iconostasis entitled “Madonna of the Century,” to portray modern women as Madonnas. Dad showed me his correspondence with Kriger on the topic. “What, have you perhaps lost your mind, Valentin Iosifovich! What Madonnas are you talking about? Look around, there are lovely Soviet female workers, women, in our country!” Plus, Dad never had the chance to show his work in Moscow or abroad. And I believe I have to make this up for him [through my own work].


Victoria Lomasko, from the series Drawing LessonMozhaisk Juvenile Penal Colony, 2010. Oleg: “A swastika is encrypted in Raphael’s pictures.” Caption (left panel): He draws a lot. He has his own views on Renaissance masterpieces. Caption (right panel): Oleg is a skinhead. It all started when, at the age of eight, he witnessed the murder of a friend: teenagers from the Caucasus killed him to get hold of his telephone. At fourteen, Oleg organized a “fight club,” in which he was the youngest member. The fighters “staged flash mobs at Caucasian markets.” Oleg said that in his small provincial town, the population was divided into skinheads, people from the Caucasus, and suckers. He was convicted of a gang killing. He expected to be rewarded for his patriotism, not punished. Oleg has kept up his spirits in the penal colony: he has been studying foreign languages, philosophy, and economics. He dreams of becoming a politician: “Yanukovych’s convictions didn’t stop him from becoming president.” In the autumn, he was transferred to an adult penal colony.


МK: Most Polygraph graduates calmly work in design and don’t fret it.

VL: After graduation, I went through real stress: we’d been taught one thing, but life was quite different. I absolutely did not want to work in design, and there were no commissions for books I would have wanted to illustrate. I was lucky, however: almost immediately after university, I was hired as a staff illustrator for the magazine Ekspert, despite the fact that nowadays it’s the rare magazine that has illustrators on staff.

08_papaVictoria Lomasko, from the series Black Portraits. Gannushkin Psychiatric Hospital, 2010. Patient: “When Dad got hit by a trolleybus, my life became quite lonely.”


MK: Many young artists with whom I’ve spoken have noted how they are taught one thing, while the demands of our time are completely different. What is the training like for printing arts students?

VL: There were two kinds of professors: ones who were engaged and often completely insane, and the other kind, who had come to terms with the fact they needed to teach us to work as designers. My parents couldn’t afford to pay for the necessary preparatory courses I needed to get into the Polygraph, so I decided I would take classes in their night school. I enrolled and began commuting between Moscow and Serpukhov, but I really liked the classes, because in the night school they had amazing professors like Vladimir Petrovich Kosynkin, who fell into the first, “insane” category. He didn’t care about what was going on in the world, the so-called demands of the market and the modern world; he had kept on drawing, and drawing was what he taught us. The assignments he gave us were awesome—for example, he set up a still life that crawled out of the room and descended the stairs. You could pick any chunk of this giant indoor scene/still life and draw it sitting on the steps, in the classroom, on the floor in the hallway, wherever you wanted. He taught us various drawing techniques and told us lots of things about composition via the theories of Vladimir Favorsky, Natalia Goncharova, and other theorists of drawing and printmaking.

But then, at some point, the rector decided I had to transfer to the regular degree program since I was the best in my class. On the one hand, this was really great because I was able to get a dorm room, but on the other hand, the teachers in the regular program turned out to be the decadent kind. None of them drew anymore and all they wanted to talk about was design. “Come on, you silly girl, you’re going to be a designer anyway, so learn how to use a computer,” is what I’d hear from them constantly. While Kosynkin had showed us wonderful books—Kathe Kollowitz, Alexander Deineka, the artists of the group Thirteen—in the regular degree program, catalogues of western computer-generated illustrations, which I hate and still believe to be inferior to handmade drawings, were constantly foisted on us as examples. As I’ve already said, they didn’t teach us anything at all about contemporary art. Although at a certain point I had made friends with Anya Neizvestnova, who took me to the NCCA (National Centre For Contemporary Arts) and the Zverev Center, and showed and told me about another, contemporary and conceptual kind of art. At first, I didn’t understand anything at all, but I wanted to, and this impulse led me to [Joseph] Backstein’s school (ICA Moscow), where I began taking classes with Stas Shuripa. In the end, though, I was disappointed in this part of my education.


Victoria Lomasko, “Found Guilty,” from her graphic reportage of the trial against the Golos Association, 2011. Judge: “[Its] guilt has been wholly proven insofar as the Golos Association published voter polls and its own research less than five days before the elections.”


MK: It’s strange to hear you say that, because I see that a lot of young artists, ICA students, simply adore Shuripa, quote him constantly, and practically idolize him.

VL: That is exactly what I didn’t like. He is entirely focused on his followers. If a person wants to do their own thing, Shuripa simply stops teaching them. He is very diplomatic: first he feels out potential followers to find out how willing they are to follow in his footsteps. At first, he liked me, as it were, but soon there was a rather unpleasant incident. I was getting ready for an exhibition in Sweden and came in to show him my work, which was a series of fantastical illustrations of what was going on in my life, these rather fairy tale-like, sweet drawings. He looked at them and said, “Yes, yes, these are pretty interesting, but there are too many allusions to the Soviet style. You need to redraw them exactly the same way, but so that part of the composition gets lost in the white space.” “Getting lost in the white space” is this western, European style I knew about without his telling me, and I had no idea why I should be emulating anyone. I refused to redraw them, and with that, my education was over. Like many other students, I continued going to class, but I was no longer in the loop. That is when I understood it wasn’t only the powers that be in our society who are divided into clans, but that these kinds of structures extend to all social strata. You have to attach yourself to a powerful person, create this quite particular relationship with the person and their milieu, manipulate and submit to manipulation, and never follow your heart.


Victoria Lomasko, “Seamstress,” from her graphic reportage on the girls’ penal colony in Novy Oskol, 2011


MK: Yes, that is what happens if an artist is geared toward what they call a career, that is, toward being integrated into the artistic community, if they are interested in showing their work at galleries and museums, participating in various biennales, and fame, albeit relative, in the west. It seems to me you distance yourself from being that kind of career artist out of principle, or even that you reject this idea.

VL: I try to work only with people who like my work, people who understand it. So far, I have found people like this only in the west. My work has been shown at the Angoulême International Comics Festival and Arte Mare Bastia. I have some offers from western publishers, but I’m not ready just to draw comics. Andrei Erofeyev could support me here if he weren’t in a difficult spot himself. He actually loves the art he shows, which is a rare thing among curators today.


Victoria Lomasko, “The Store Clerk Makhbuba, Kazan Station,” a drawing for Chto Delat newspaper,  2011. Makhbuba: “We came to earn money and teach our children how to provide for their future. Just don’t write in your newspaper that we are ‘wogs.’”


MK: I have been observing you for a long time, especially the way you draw during street protests. You stand or walk through the crowd sketching in your notebook, even though what’s happening around you—the crowding, the riot cops, flares lighting up, shouting, rain and snow—could really get in your way. But you could easily simplify the procedure and make it safer by taking photos at events that interest you and then drawing from them later.

VL: I think that drawing from photographs is a way for fake artists or artists who have gone lazy. Being inside the picture is a matter of honor for me. Photographs are a one-byte reality, whereas in my all drawings, time is layered, people come and go, the subject and the composition slowly emerge. I stand and wait for something interesting to start happening in the empty corner of my drawing, for people I find interesting to cross a bridge at the right angle. My role models are the artists from the Thirteen group, who talked about how an artist has to capture the flow of time. Just like a dancer dances to the music, an artist must draw to the tempo of what he sees.

04_terroristVictoria Lomasko and Anton Nikolaev, “Terrorist. Psychiatric Hospital in Burashevo, Tver Region,” illustration for the book The Provinces, 2010. Courtesy of the artists. Nurse: “Why did you take hostages?” Patient: “There were voices in my head.”


MK: As an artist, you are nowadays primarily associated with political activism. How did you come to this? How did you find yourself in a courtroom with a sketchbook for the first time?

VL: At a certain point I felt like I was suffocating from loneliness and that I needed kindred spirits. Then Anton Nikolaev suddenly appeared in my life. I met him by accident and had no idea that he was an actionist, the stepsonof artist Oleg Kulik, and son of the famous cultural studies scholar Ludmila Bredikhina, that he collaborated with Voina. When we were getting to know each other, he told me he’d just gotten back from Rzhev, where he’d been filming a documentary. Then I watched all of his movies and just fell in love with them. The next time we saw each other, when he said, “I’m planning a new trip to the provinces. There’s room in the car, do you want to come?” I gladly agreed. We went to different towns a few times. I made sketches and Anton made captions to them that I really liked. The result was the book The Provinces.


Victoria Lomasko and Anton Nikolaev, illustration from the book The Provinces, 2010. Courtesy of the artists. Younger man: “Did you steal this from your wife?” Old man: “No, it’s all my own stuff, from the garden.”


After that, Nikolaev invited me to the trial of the organizers of the exhibition Forbidden Art, to draw the performance staged by the group Bombila, “A Fascist Beats Up Themis.” Honestly, I was appalled during the first court session. But after the second one, the Orthodox community had completely captured my imagination.


Victoria Lomasko during the installation of her Walk On By Gallery show in a pedestrian underpass. Moscow, 2011. Photo by Maria Kravtsova


MK: You don’t collaborate with contemporary art galleries. Your work, however, can be seen not only in magazines and on the Internet, but also in very unusual places. I recently visited your solo exhibition for the Walk On By Gallery, in a pedestrian underpass in Moscow that functioned as a gallery for an hour.

VL: It was a gamble, and it was completely unclear how the audience—i.e., the pedestrians—would react.


Walk On By Gallery exhibition in a pedestrian underpass. Moscow, 2011. Photo by Maria Kravtsova


MK: It was obvious from the get-go the police were going to show up and take everyone involved down to the station.

VL:  I told Alexei Knedlyakovsky, who organized the show, that the police would come, but he assured me he’d staged four events in this underpass already and the police had reacted calmly. But at my show there were posters that said, for example, “Let Us Free Russia from Putin,” and after seeing stuff like that they simply would have to take us in. Nonetheless, I have to say I was happy with the police’s reaction to my work, how they looked over the pieces and asked me to leave them some posters as keepsakes. I gave them a few with my autograph: “To so-and-so and so-and-so from Victoria Lomasko.” I am really inspired by authorities reacting this way. I’m not one of those people who believe all cops are beasts you have to hate and despise. I think artists should reach out to people from all segments of the population. I would even be quite glad to give a lecture on reportage comics to police officers.


Victoria Lomasko, “Let Us Free Russia from Putin,” poster, 2011


MK: You also work as a curator. For example, you organized an exhibition of work by Argentine artists as part of curator Tatyana Volkova’s Freedom of Choice project at Proekt_Fabrika.

VL: I had never planned on becoming a curator, I just don’t like the situation described by the saying, “All the same old horses in the ring.” When you go to an exhibition and you don’t see anything new there, it’s all been online and in other shows. I wanted to push the boundaries. There are a lot of Latin American artists involved in civic life, who do systematic work in different segments of society. They don’t seek out themes they can exploit to make their career, but instead help people in prisons, migrant workers, the vulnerable and the poor. I’m very impressed by the fact that helping people is a mundane matter for them.

05_bazhanov_pokayanieVictoria Lomasko, illustration from Forbidden Art, 2011. Caption: One of the female Orthodox activists, an elderly woman who, it turned out, was well versed in nineteenth-century painting, had edifying discussions with NCCA director Leonid Bazhanov. Old woman: “Repent while you can!”


MK: Do you sell your work?

VL: So far, I haven’t sold a single piece.

MK: I meant something else. There are some artists who part with their work easily and others who can’t part even with a seemingly minor sketch.

VL: I’m in the second category.

Translated by Bela Shayevich and Chtodelat News



Victoria Lomasko, “The Future Belongs to Them,” from her graphic reportage of the trial of artist/activist Dmitry Putenikhin (aka Matvei Krylov), 2011. Lawyer: “The future belongs to people like Dmitry Putenikhin.”



Victoria Lomasko, “United Russia Party Member Golovnyov,” sketch from a polling station in Khimki, 2011. Golovnyov: “I have portraits of Putin, Medvedev and me hanging in my garage.”



Victoria Lomasko, “Heroes of Krapivna,” on-the-job sketches from the Krapivna state farm, for the Krapivna Newspaper, 2010



Subjects of Victoria Lomasko’s illustrated reportages holding the issue of the Krapivna Newspaper that tells their stories, 2010


Filed under activism, contemporary art, interviews, protests, Russian society

Victoria Lomasko: From the Tagansky District Court (Pussy Riot Hearing)

A Graphic Reportage from the Hearing of the Pussy Riot Case, Tagansky District Court (Moscow, April 19, 2012)

Drawings and text: Victoria Lomasko


Katya Samutsevich’s father

Because of the huge amount of press, the start of the hearing was delayed for more than an hour: police had to clear a path to the courtroom cage for the accused and their armed guards.

Natalia Sergeevna Alyokhina: “The investigator said he wasn’t obliged to explain to me why my requests to visit my daughter have been turned down.”

Masha Alyokhina’s mom had not seen her daughter since February.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s case was the first to be heard.

Nadya Tolokonnikova: “I wish those who put us here a life like ours in prison.”

Nadya Tolokonnikova gave a five-minute speech to the courtroom gallery, and then chatted for a few minutes with her husband Pyotr Verzilov and journalists, many of whom are her friends.

Key points from Nadya’s speech:
– Our performance was directed against the merger of church and state.
– Patriarch Kirill is always being shown on Channel One on the TV in prison. In fact, he’s shown more often than President Bear Cub [Medvedev].
– When you’re in jail, the only interesting thing is the fact that Putin has hijacked the country.
– Prison is a good place for thinking people.
– You people on the outside have no idea what solitary confinement is like: the doctor shows up only when you’re about to croak.
– Many prisoners pair up and live as couples in the cells.
– I am fasting, so only send me yogurt.
– My daughter draws her mother in a cage.

Regarding public support for Pussy Riot:
– The jailers and judges care about the opinion of only one person. They are prepared to bury us alive.

Judge Elena Ivanova

Instead of Judge Svetlana Alexandrova (familiar to us from the Forbidden Art trial), this time Judge Elena Ivanova presided.

 Tolokonnikova: “I have a headache that doesn’t go away, neither during the day nor at night. But in the pretrial detention facility they won’t even give me aspirin.”

Tolokonnikova’s lawyer, Mark Feygin, also pointed out several times that Nadya has been plagued by severe headaches in jail, and that she needs to be examined by a doctor.

Judge Ivanova: “Tolokonnikova committed a particularly severe crime motivated by religious hatred… Tolokonnikova can receive appropriate medical treatment at the pretrial detention facility… A young child is not sufficient grounds to turn down the investigation’s motion.”

Judge Ivanova reads out the court’s ruling. The investigator’s motion to extend Nadya Tolokonnikova’s arrest for two months is granted.

After Nadya’s hearing, Masha Alyokhina was led in by guards. She was carrying a book by Mandelstam.

Alyokhina: “No, I have no complaints about my living conditions in prison.”

When asked by loved ones and the press what life is like for her in prison, Masha replied that she plays ping-pong there, reads Solzhenitsyn, and is friends with her cellmate.

Alyokhina’s lawyers, Violetta Volkova and Nikolai Polozov, noted that Masha is active in the community: she has worked with environmental organizations, participated in saving architectural monuments, and given drawing lessons to children in orphanages and psychiatric hospitals as a volunteer with the Orthodox youth organization Danilovtsy. But these positive character references made no impression on investigator Artyom Ranchenkov.


Ranchenkov: “The Orthodox community demands harsh punishment.”

 Masha smiled helplessly as she listened to the investigator’s statement.

 Alyokhina: “While in prison, I’ve received around fifty letters from Orthodox believers with expressions of sympathy and support.”

Investigator Ranchenkov claimed that there were other letters — for example, a letter to the prosecutor’s office from a certain Ambrosian, who believes that Pussy Riot’s protest actions could destroy the country.

Judge Ivanova extended Masha Alyokhina’s arrest until June 24. When journalists asked Masha to comment on the ruling, she quoted Osip Mandelstam: “All right then, I apologize, / But I don’t change a bit deep down inside.”

Alyokhina: “All right then, I apologize, / But I don’t change a bit deep down inside.”

In an interview with Interfax published the same day, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin commented on Alyokhina’s statement: “Apologizing, repenting — unless it’s hypocritical apology and repentance —means changing a little bit all the same. I hope that this step won’t be the last or the only one. I hope that the persons under investigation hear the pain they’ve caused and will stop insisting on the ‘rightness’ of their action in the temple.”

Ekaterina Samutsevich’s case was the last to be heard.

 Samutsevich: “I don’t give interviews about our case. You need to be careful with names.”

Her statement to the press was the shortest. The accused said only that the trial was “political.”

Female police officer: “Give me your hands.”

When she heard the court’s ruling, a female police officer got handcuffs ready.

When members of the press left the courtroom at eight in the evening, people protesting in support of Pussy Riot were still outside the building. Eyewitnesses recounted that while the court hearing was under way, police officers had aggressively detained many of those who had come to support the young women. To applause and shouts of “Freedom!” Nadya Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina and Katya Samutsevich were taken back to the pretrial detention facility.


Our thanks to Victoria Lomasko for permission to reproduce her reportage. You can read the original reportage (in Russian) here.

To get updates about the case, find out about solidarity events in your part of the world, and contribute to the legal defense of Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samutsevich, who face up to seven years in prison and have been declared prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, go to freepussyriot.org.


Filed under feminism, gay rights, international affairs, political repression, protests, Russian society

Victoria Lomasko: The Trial against Golos

Editor’s Note. Today, December 4, is election day in the Russian Federation. As of 4:00 pm Moscow Time, the web sites of the following organizations and media outlets were not functioning, allegedly due to massive cyber attacks: Golos Association, Echo of Moscow, Bolshoi Gorod, Map of Violations, The New Times, and Slon.Ru. Zaks.Ru, LiveJournal, and Russian News Agency were also reported experiencing problems today and in recent days.



The Trial against Golos

On December 2, the court hearing in the case of the Golos Association took place. An employee of the organization asked me to make drawings of the hearing.

Golos was charged with violating Article 5.5 of the Russian Federation Administrative Code: publication of voter polls and its own election campaign research less than five days before the election.

Judge Svetlana Kalantyr: “[Its] guilt has been wholly proven insofar as the Golos Association published voter polls and its own research less than five days before the elections.”

The reason for the accusation was a banner posted on the Golos web site: when you click on it, you end up on another site: http://www.kartanarusheniy.ru/.

Grigory Melkonyants, deputy executive director of Golos, and defense counsel Ramil Akhmetgaliyev: “The site only contains a link to another site.”

At this site (kartanarusheniy.ru), the Golos Association and Gazeta.Ru [an online newspaper] have created a venue, “Map of Violations,” where voters send information about election campaign violations. It turned out that the United Russia party was involved in nearly all the violations.

The prosecutor’s office argued that the “Map of Violations” had violated voters’ rights.

Prosecutor Yevgenia Umpeleva: “The ‘Map of Violations’ affects the expression of the voters’ will.”

A letter from Vladimir Churov, chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, who has accused Golos of campaigning against United Russia, was grounds for the legal action.

The Golos Association received the subpoena to appear in court at eight o’clock in the evening on December 1, but the hearing had already been scheduled for December 2 at eleven o’clock in the morning. Consequently, defense counsel Ramil Akhmetgaliyev was unable to fully review the 100-page case file and write an appeal.

His verbal appeal for an adjournment due to the lack of time to review the case file and also because of the absence of Lilya Shibanova, director of Golos, who was away on a business trip, was rejected.

Judge Kalantyr: “The company Golos  had sufficient time to prepare its defense.”

Judge Kalantyr: “The attorney’s appeal cannot be considered by the court because it was not notarized in written form.”

The prosecutor also had no time to prepare. Her technical knowledge of “links,” “banners” and “screenshots” amused those attending the hearing.

Prosecutor Umpeleva: “Screenshot is this program that copies into the clipboard.”

Umpeleva, in the hallway of the court building: “I had to make a quick call and find out what a ‘screenshot’ was.”
The prosecutor also said that the west promotes the Russian opposition via Golos.

Since neither the defense counsel nor the prosecutor nor the judge had had an opportunity to thoroughly review the case and did not understand what was happening, the hearing was recessed several times for thirty or forty minutes. During these recesses, the prosecutor escaped to another floor [of the court building] and began calling someone, reporting on the progress of the hearing and asking for further instructions. Journalists attempted to eavesdrop on these conversations and find out what was being said.

The defense counsel said that the presence of the defense at such a hearing was a mere formality insofar as the court did not take its interests into account .

Ramil Akhmetgaliyev: “Any ruling made today will be illegal.”

The hearing lasted from eleven in the morning until seven in the evening.

After a two-hour recess the verdict was announced: the Golos Association was fined 30,000 rubles [approximately 720 euros].

The defense counsel said of the verdict: “The fine is a compromise decision.” He believes that the prosecutor’s office was in such a hurry to put pressure on Golos before the elections that it fabricated the case much too clumsily and was unable to get the court to apply more severe sanctions. He also suggested that the pressure on Golos would continue, which was borne out by developments the following day:

Grigory Melkonyants, deputy executive director of Golos, noted that such verdicts threaten any blogger who has posted an “incorrect” link.


Filed under censorship, contemporary art, political repression, Russian society

Chto Delat No. 33: Against Slavery

The latest issue of our newspaper — No. 33, entitled “Against Slavery” — is available online here. Produced in conjunction with the exhibition Towards the Other (State Museum of the History of Saint Petersburg, Peter and Paul Fortress, October 2011), the new issue features texts by Kirill Medvedev, Hito Steyerl, Ivan Ovsyannikov, Thomas Campbell, and Alain Badiou, artwork by Victoria Lomasko and Babi Badalov, and a migrant labor “board game” conceived and designed by Olga Zhitlina, Andrei Yakimov, Alexander Lyakh, Galina Zhitlina, David Ter-Oganyan, Tatyana Alexandrova, and Nadezhda Voskresenskaya.

Here is a sneak preview of the new issue, featuring our editorial, illustrations by Victoria Lomasko, and Ivan Ovsyannikov’s insightful, compelling outline for a “new abolitionism.”


This issue of Chto Delat deals with migrant labor, an issue today at the center of not only Russian, but also world politics. Although our world has always been “globalized,” the numbers of people migrating in order to better their existence, whether economically or otherwise, are unprecedented. Discussion of this issue is complicated by the fact that we immediately find ourselves on slippery terrain occupied by the shadowy figure of the immigrant, who like the Wandering Jew in its time has come to function as a synonym for danger, contamination and the alien per se. Racists and nationalists of all stripes and lands rally round (so to speak) this fictional villain as they defend the supposedly homely but no less fictional spaces of nation, race and tribe from invasion by aliens. Judging by recent election results in certain “liberal democratic” European countries and legislative innovations in US states such as Arizona and Georgia, the “commonsensical” and “down-to-earth” slogans and prescriptions of the tribalists really are sometimes capable of generating a “groundswell” of “grassroots support.”

Some people have always found it hard to share their homelands, hometowns and neighborhoods with different languages, skin colors, and ways of understanding world, self and community. However, it is all too easy to accuse “the common folk” of being the source and support of xenophobic sentiments. As British sociologist Paul Gilroy has argued, when left to their own devices the “working classes” and “common folk” (whatever their “primary” tribal allegiances) are just as often capable of creating a “convivial” existence together, a life where each person’s allegedly essential difference informs and shapes a totally unexpected common good, a new commons. In reality, it is more often the liberal (or, now, neoliberal) talking and ruling classes, whose experience both with conviviality and the (non)realities of ethnic difference is frequently limited to a fondness for certain cuisines and holidaymaking in the global south, who shape the xenophobic and nationalist agenda via the media they produce and control, via the obscurantist norms and repressive laws they promulgate in the public space. It is this “common sense” from above that is the main instrument for stigmatizing and excluding people who sometimes lack the right language to tell us both about their plights and their joys, who frequently lack the right papers to exercise their individual civil rights and their collective right to struggle for a better lot in life.

Amidst this latest flowering of xenophobia, leftists often invoke the spirit of internationalism, which is supposed to immediately infect everyone with love and solidarity for the newcomers. Just like the old appeals for communism, the slogan “No Borders!” is not enough for those of us who want to popularize and implement the ideas of equality and emancipation. To resurrect the legacy of radical universal emancipation (as Žižek writes) we need to fundamentally reassess the world we have made and attempt step by step to free ourselves from the prison of post-colonial and “post-imperial melancholy” (as Gilroy calls it).

But this task is not simple. Wars, hot and cold, rage around us. The difference in living standards between the first and third worlds grows, and each of these worlds “colonizes” the other, producing Mogadishu-like slums amidst the west’s great cities, and oases of luxury and refinement in the deserts of the Middle East. These contradictions can and do provoke a radical rejection of any emancipatory project, especially when it comes dressed in the idioms of culture, art and critical thought, often perceived as the latest projection of a faltering western hegemony.

That is why today, both in Russia and elsewhere, we need to set ourselves the “modest” task outlined by Badiou: to loudly and visibly manifest our respect for working people, especially immigrant workers. They are doubly exploited, even though our present prosperity is largely underpinned by their ceaseless, invisible labor. Their presence in our midst is an object of scorn and neglect, just like the uncomfortable fact that we share the same planet with billions of people in the Third World who do our dirty work, whose countries are poisoned by our toxic factories, and whose own essentially slave labor provides us with our beautiful consumerist idyll, an unsustainable (anti)utopia incapable of recognizing limits and borders.

We imagine that intellectuals, artists, and all other people of good will and sound mind should constantly expose these fundamental inequalities. Collective repentance and charity are probably wonderful things, but they are beside the point here. The real point is that if our planet is to have a future, it can only be a common future. And this common future will be possible only if we learn how to build it in common. By trying to figure out how we can do this, we immediately call into question the current capitalist system and force ourselves to seek ways of moving beyond it.


A Leftist Response to the Immigration Question

Russian Marxists do not often raise the issue of immigration. When the latest explosion of anti-immigrant passions puts the issue on the national agenda, leftists as a rule limit themselves to general declarations in the spirit of internationalism and humanism. However, a simple refutation of xenophobic myths or stating the obvious truth that the problems associated with immigration are the product of capitalism is not enough to counter nationalist propaganda and prejudices. A program is needed that would oppose both right-wing and neoliberal “solutions” to the issue of immigration.

Divide and Conquer: Xenophobia and Labor Market Dumping
The encouragement of xenophobia amongst workers is one of the oldest and most effective strategies employed by the oppressors. How it works is easily shown by a simple example from trade union practice. A South Korean corporation that produces automotive parts built a plant in a depressed area of Russia beset by chaos and unemployment. Faced with hyper-exploitation, the violation of elementary labor rights, and the boorish attitude of their foreign and Russian managers, the workers at the plant decided to organize a trade union. Using intimidation and repressive tactics, company management squashed this attempt at self-organization, thus reducing the number of trade union members to an isolated handful of activists. However, one of the main deterrents was the threat of mass layoffs and the hiring of “guest workers.”

Not content with verbal threats, plant management set about putting them into practice. Within several months, the number of immigrant workers from Central Asia at the plant had increased several times, while the hiring of local residents was practically curtailed. Hostility towards the newcomers began to mount both among the plant’s workers and in the surrounding community.

The roots of this resentment are understandable. Local workers perceive “guest workers” as unwanted competitors on the labor market. Wholly dependent on their employers and the government officials in their pockets, the immigrants are willing to work for lower pay, to slave away from dawn to dusk, on weekends and holidays. The unpretentiousness of these people from Central Asia, where the elimination of large farms and de-industrialization have led to truly appalling poverty, makes them ideal targets for exploitation.

Sensing their social superiority to these “Ravshans” and “Jamshuts” [translator’s note – Ravshan and Jamshut are immigrant-worker characters on the Russian TV satire program “Our Russia”], the locals likewise sense the total fragility of this superiority. And since the fear of job loss, the absence of successful experience in organizing collective actions, and a lack of confidence in their own strength prevent them from speaking out against their employer, their anger is directed against people who are even more downtrodden and powerless.

Other – cultural – factors complicate this picture even further. Thus, the unsanitary conditions in which the immigrants often dwell (which are partly the fault of their employers, and partly due to habits imported from their homelands) often cause revulsion against them on the part of Russians. For example, at the plant we have just been discussing, local workers have demanded separate tableware for immigrants who eat in the factory canteen, for fear of contracting hepatitis and other serious illnesses. Their irritation is also aroused by the poor qualifications of the newcomers – everyone pays for substandard work and delays in meeting quotas. The language barrier, as well as the social isolation of “guest workers” from locals, also does not contribute to rapprochement between the two groups.

Is Solidarity Possible?
The classic leftist response to the challenges posed by immigrant labor is to declare that local workers and immigrants should battle exploitation side by side, demanding equal rights, pay, and work conditions. This approach is fundamentally sound. As long as the demand for a cheap, disempowered labor force is maintained, no police measures, no quotas on the recruitment of foreign labor (which merely increase the share of illegal workers), and, of course, no nationalist terror can stop the slave trade. On the contrary, the more downtrodden and isolated from the rest of society foreigners are, the more profitable is their labor for Russian and transnational capital.

However, the simple desire for solidarity amongst workers regardless of their country of origin is clearly insufficient in order to make this solidarity a reality. There are many formidable obstacles – both objective and subjective – on the path to self-organization and protest on the part of immigrant workers, and to their recruitment into the labor movement. The first such obstacle is the weakness of militant trade unions in our country, which still have not managed to permeate any notable strata of relatively high-paid and skilled workers at modern manufacturing facilities. Much more vulnerable categories of workers – employees at failing enterprises, service industry workers, temporary workers, and immigrants – will probably be able to join the organized movement only after the more advanced strata of the working class show them successful examples of militancy and acquire enough strength to defend the class’s weakest members. However, no matter how hopeless the task of trade-union agitation amongst “guest workers” at plants with mixed workforces might seem, this work has to be done. If they fail to recruit temporary workers and immigrants to their ranks, progressive trade unions will be condemned to live under a permanent threat that will deter and even completely halt their development.

However, the foregoing considerations in no way imply that immigrants, the most oppressed segment of the working class, are incapable of independent resistance and should be regarded as “scabs” or followers. It suffices to recall the heroic 2005 strike at the Don-Stroy construction company in Moscow, as well as the other, lesser-known strikes by construction workers in Yekaterinburg (2008) and Russky Island in Primorsky Krai (2011). In many ways, these events are reminiscent of the labor protests that typified the nineties in Russia. In all these cases, the cause of work stoppage was the non-payment of wages. The strikes broke out spontaneously and did not lead to the emergence of any sustainable forms of organization. Apparently, if protests by immigrant workers do continue to occur, then they will occur only in the form of sporadic, radical outbursts, which may affect government policy but are unlikely to have a significant impact on the development of the labor movement in Russia.

The organization of immigrant workers in manufacturing is not the only possible form of militancy, however. The problems associated with immigration concern broad sections of the Russian populace. The fact that ultra-rightists now wholly occupy this “field” should not frighten leftists away, but encourage them to advance an alternative program for solving the issue of immigration. The xenophobic rhetoric of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) has to be countered with a stance that we might characterize as a new abolitionism – a movement against slavery.

A New Abolitionism: Outline of a Program for the Left
The favorite “anti-fascist” argument of liberals is to point out that immigrants are useful and necessary, that they do the “menial” work that no Muscovite or Petersburgers would consent to perform. The very existence of an entire sector of labor relations in which slavery and poverty exist at a level outrageous even for hard-to-shock Russians provokes no protest on the part of liberals. They call on society to be tolerant towards the Ravshans and Jamshuts, but not more than that.

In fact, aside from the greed of corporations that exploit cheap human resources from the peripheries of the former Soviet Union, there is no objective basis for the existence of this vast sector of what essentially amounts to slave labor. We hardly need to underscore the excess profits raked in by the construction sector, which is closely linked to the political elite. However, it is precisely the construction industry where the exploitation of immigrant labor has become most widespread. A similar situation can also be observed in the new industrial enterprises owned by transnational corporations. Thus, according to the Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (ITUA), immigrants make up seventy to eighty percent of workers employed in production at facilities in Russia that supply parts to the Hyundai plant in Petersburg – and this despite the fact that in 2011 this Korean corporation ranked first amongst foreign auto manufacturers in Russia in terms of cars sold.

When the populists from DPNI propose introducing a visa regime and securing the borders with the republics of Central Asia and Transcaucasia, they of course conveniently forget that there are depressed areas with enormous levels of unemployment within Russia itself: it suffices to recall the Russian hinterlands, not to mention the North Caucasus region. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “Over the past twenty years, the population has flocked to the Central Federal District, primarily to the Moscow area. Seventy to eighty percent of the increase in immigration is accounted for by an influx from other regions of the country, primarily from within the Central Federal District itself.” However, the situation of “Russian guest workers” is often no better than that of their counterparts from Central Asia, as is shown by the scandalous story of how female workers are treated at the Babaevsky chocolate factory in Moscow. The prescription proposed by the far right thus amounts not to eradicating poverty and criminality, but to Russifying them.

A system of quotas is just as useless. In practice it leads only to an increase in the proportion of illegal immigrants, as was illustrated by the situation in 2008, when a sharp reduction of quotas put thousands of foreigners outside the law overnight. As Nikita Mkrtchyan, a researcher at the Institute of Demography at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, rightly notes, “Quotas […] do not perform any of the functions invested in them. They do not protect the domestic labor market because all workers not covered by quotas swell the ranks of illegal immigrants – the most powerless, lowest-paid and, consequently, the most attractive workforce for business, a workforce that has a de facto presence on the market. […] The number of foreign workers that are needed is exactly the same as the number present on the market, if you add up the legal and illegal segments. The majority of immigrant laborers come to fill jobs that already exist, by prior arrangement with employers or their intermediaries, the so-called foremen. There are very few workers willing to buy an expensive ticket from, say, Tajikistan, to collect money from relatives [for the trip], without being sure that they will find work.” However, the abolition of quotas, now being pushed by the Federal Migration Service in defiance of the Ministry of Health and Social Development, is unlikely to produce any significant change. In fact, this measure would amount to a consolidation of the status quo, an admission that the previous system was useless. Whether “legalized” or not, immigrants will remain slaves as long as slavery is still in demand.

As concerns the police measures of control over immigrants strongly advocated by the fascists, they are useless in the absence of a coherent policy for eliminating the social causes of crime, as is shown by the entire history of policing. Drunkenness, drug addiction, theft, rape, and murder – all the long-familiar “charms” of modern life – flourish in any impoverished society without any help from immigrants. When they become part of such a society, newcomers are not always able to avoid its vices. According to data from the Federal Migration Service, however, the contribution of foreigners to crime statistics is small – only 3.5% of all crimes committed – although there are between seven and twelve million immigrants in Russia (that is, they constitute five to eight percent of the overall population). The myth of terrifying, criminal migrant workers is beneficial, especially to our truly terrifying and criminal law enforcement agencies, who pretend to be terribly busy fighting crime even as they collect tribute from silent Uzbeks and run protection rackets for the capitalist slave owners who employ the labor of illegal workers.

In the public debate about immigration, leftists should talk not about vicious Tajiks, Uzbeks, Moldovans or Chinese, but about the enormous numbers of the working and unemployed poor. It is obvious that without eradicating this vast island of humiliation and poverty it is impossible to talk seriously about combating the problems generated by immigration. This means a total ban on temporary and agency labor and other forms of precarious employment, and raising the minimum wage to match the real cost of living. Depending on the region, the minimum wage should in any case be no less than fifteen to twenty thousand rubles a month [approx. 350 to 450 euros], with obligatory annual indexing for inflation.

It is necessary to combat illegal employment, of course. But this campaign should be directed not against guest workers, who in this case are victims of a crime, but against slave-owning businessmen. At present, the penalties for employers who use illegal workers are laughable, which cannot be said of the immigrants themselves. Here is a typical story. After an inspection by the Petersburg prosecutor’s office, the construction firm LenSpetsSMU-Komfort was fined 825,000 rubles [approx. 19,000 euros] for employing forty-seven illegal workers during construction of a power plant. That is, the company paid out 17,500 rubles [approx. 400 euros] for each of its virtual slaves. It is also reported, however, that the workers were prosecuted under Article 18.10 of the Russian Federation Administrative Code, which stipulates a fine of two to five thousand rubles [approx. 45 to 115 euros] and possible expulsion from the country. Even government officials, however, acknowledge that most immigrant workers become illegal through no fault of their own. “For various reasons, not everyone wants the immigrants to be visible – for example, when an employer did not participate in the quota or it is simply not to his advantage to do this,” said Federal Migration Service spokesman Konstantin Poltoranin in 2009 (that is, before he was fired from the agency for his tireless concern over the “survival of the white race” and the “proper mixing of blood”).

Fining and deporting illegal immigrant workers is tantamount to punishing a victim of fraud. Is it any wonder that the vast majority of employers who use illegal labor go unpunished? For, unlike Russian workers, who fairly regularly appeal to the courts and the labor inspectorate, immigrant workers do not file complaints against their employers, who can always come to an understanding with police and bureaucrats.

It is an obvious truth that if a person works (and thus benefits society), he or she should work in humane conditions and be protected by labor laws that are identical for all working people. If labor laws are violated, then it is the employer who should be held responsible for the violation, and no one else. Instead of rounding up illegal immigrants, holding them in detention centers, and either deporting them at public expense or releasing them so that they can join the army of the homeless, the government should force their “owners” to restore the violated rights of workers: to provide them with a work contract, decent housing, medical insurance, a pension, and safe working conditions.

To the working people who today, echoing nationalist propaganda, accuse the newcomers of taking jobs away from Russian citizens, we reply: the only way to limit the influx of immigrants is to provide absolutely equal conditions for all workers, whether they are citizens or not. It is not Uzbeks or Tajiks who take away our jobs, but the capitalists and bureaucrats who profit at their and our expense.

Immigration Should Serve Society
We owe the fact that Russia’s major cities have turned into typical Third World capitals, where grinding poverty exists side by side with Asiatic luxury, to the collapse of the Soviet Union, along with its planned economy and well-developed social infrastructure. Migration from peripheral regions to places where heavy industry is concentrated, from the countryside to the towns and cities, has always existed, and it was never more massive in scale than during the twentieth century. However, the millions of peasants who were the ancestors of the majority of today’s city dwellers did not merely migrate to the cities. They were absorbed by the growing industrial sector and integrated into urban culture. They were provided with education and the other benefits of civilization. Whatever the horrors that accompanied the Stalinist industrialization, during that time the allocation of labor resources did not occur spontaneously, but according to plan. New regions of the country were explored and developed; new cities and gigantic industrial complexes were built. Yesterday’s peasants and residents of the former imperial hinterlands were given the chance to receive an education and job skills, to move up the career ladder.

Today, of course, everything is different. As Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes, “Even given the political will and economic opportunities […] there are no benchmarks of any kind, and ‘policy’ in this area is entirely reduced to ritual incantations. […] In the foreseeable future, the formation of poles of growth in the country’s eastern regions will be almost exclusively due to large-scale projects for the extraction of mineral resources. However, these do not require the hiring of large numbers of specialists and can be implemented using workers on a rotational basis. So there is likewise no point in counting on business having a stake [in solving the problems associated with immigrant labor].”

The new Russian capitalism, which emerged from the ruins of Soviet industry, requires skilled specialists less than it does arms and backs obedient to their master’s will. We can stop our large cities from overflowing with beggars and semi-impoverished people, and from nourishing an army of menial laborers, the unemployed, and déclassé elements, only by developing the economies of our country’s regions. We need a policy aimed at re-industrializing the country, a policy that introduces intellectualized forms of labor, revives agriculture, and creates conditions from relocating workers from depressed areas to new industrial centers. In other words, we need to make the transition to a socialist planned economy. Only in this case can immigration be transformed from a festering societal sore into a powerful lever for our country’s progressive development.

Ivan Ovsyannikov
Russian Socialist Movement

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