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Silence as a statement. What brought about the demise of protest art in Russia

Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Russian art has been subjected to unprecedented repression. Exhibitions of contemporary art have been closed everywhere and artists and poets have been criminally prosecuted. “Blacklists” of artists have been sent to museums and galleries, denying them access to representation in Russia. In fear of repression, artists have ceased addressing “forbidden topics” and are producing careful, neutral art. The art community in Russia is ignoring the war and behaving like most Russians. The industry has been overtaken by self-censorship with artists explaining this by saying that “it’s not the time to speak out.” To avoid any issues, galleries are inviting “curators in uniform” to preview their exhibitions before they open.

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  • We have a cancellation!

  • From a social institution to an institution of power

  • The Theory of Reasonable Conformity

  • The Price of Silence

The Street Art Museum in St. Petersburg was getting ready to launch an exhibition called “Celebration Comes to You” in 2017, which was scheduled to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution.

However, before the opening, the museum received a call from someone who claimed to be a “curator” from the FSB named Alexei. He mentioned that he was in charge of three art institutions related to contemporary art - the Street Art Museum, the Hermitage Contemporary Art Department, and the Erarta Contemporary Art Museum.

According to Tatyana Pinchuk, the museum director, Alexei inspected the exhibition, which was not yet open to the public, and requested that some of the pieces be removed, including those created by Pasmur Rachuiko and Grigory Yushchenko.

  • Animals go to the Kremlin

When Tatyana asked Alexei whether his request was a suggestion or a requirement, the “special agent art critic” warned that if his advice wasn't followed, the museum could face difficulties.

Alexei remained vigilant and closely monitored almost every exhibition until the museum was shut down due to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In 2023, it has become a common practice for Russian cultural institutions to have “uniformed curators” who ensure that exhibitions comply with state agendas. However, exhibitions or artists may now face criminal charges if the “curators” disapprove of them, resulting in the closure of the exhibition.

We have a cancellation!

Just in the past year, several instances have occurred where Russian art institutions have either canceled or significantly altered exhibitions. The Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art decided to cancel the “Thin Citizens” exhibition, the Tretyakovka Museum shortened the ongoing “Change of Scenery” exhibition by Grisha Bruskin, the Voronezh exhibition of “Maps of Meaning” by Pavel Brat never opened, the state gallery “On Kashirka” withdrew the previously planned “Signage-Message” exhibition which was moved to the Zverev Modern Art Center, and the pro-Kremlin movement SERB managed to close down the “Autonomous Zone” exhibition at Open Space. Additionally, following a “blacklist” inspection, the list of participants in the “Thinking Landscape” exhibition at the Moscow Museum was significantly reduced, and a criminal case was initiated against Oleg Kulik for his “Big Mother” sculpture, which was deemed as rehabilitating Nazism. These incidents are just a few examples of a more significant problem.

The artist Pavel Otdelnov, winner of the Innovation Award, told The Insider that he, too, had apparently been blacklisted.

In November 2022, Pavel received a phone call from a well-known state museum informing him that, contrary to agreements and plans, his work would be removed from the exhibition. A “general affairs officer” had insisted on that.

According to Pavel, the issue isn't the content of his work but rather his opinions. “The work itself is completely neutral. The reason [behind everything that happened] is that I've expressed an anti-war position and possibly because I'm currently living outside of Russia, which may be perceived as a betrayal.”

  • Landscape with reflection
  • Landscape behind glass
  • Office

Another incident happened in early 2022 with the exhibition “Exit Through the Red Door” at the Tretyakov Gallery. One of the featured artworks was Otdelnov's “Landscape with Reflection.” Following the audit by the “uniformed curators,” the exhibition had to be rescheduled multiple times before it eventually took place, but under a different name. Furthermore, the museum website didn't even acknowledge the exhibition's existence.

Alexandra Selivanova, the former director of the Center of Avant-garde, confirms this. Based on her knowledge, the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts have had designated deputies since the summer. These deputies ensure that all exhibited works align with the National Security Strategy of the country.

In the summer, the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation required federal institutions to closely monitor content and clamp down on any manifestations of free-thinking. Curators are to monitor artists' social media pages, and artists who want to show their work in museums with state funding are now required to submit biographical information about their trips abroad over the past few years.

The state of Russian culture following the outbreak of war is not only lamentable but also illogical. Exhibitions can be shut down for either a lack or surplus of patriotism. As an example, in November of 2022, the Tretyakov Gallery chose not to open the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art the day before the scheduled opening.

The roster of participants allowed the exhibition to be deemed moderately “patriotic.” The artists for the Biennale were chosen by a council chaired by a prominent patriot, the Hermitage Director General Mikhail Piotrovsky. Sergey “Africa” Bugaev developed a project for the exhibition concerning the destruction of “Russian” monuments in Europe, while Anastasia Deineka intended to exhibit portraits of individuals from the Russian-occupied Donetsk in 2014.

“Contemporary art is regarded as on the fringes, with suspicion of hooliganism and nihilism, we are always suspected of provocative intentions. But there aren't any. In March 2022, we decided we should work for our patrons. The country and its people have been going through a difficult time. And we aim to contribute with dignity. At least we've tried,” the organizers explained themselves to the censors.

The failed Contemporary Art Biennale in Moscow

Later, however, KP reported that the Tretyakov Gallery canceled the exhibition due to its stance on exhibiting works that were deemed overly “patriotic” by artists from the “LNR” and “DNR.” During the writing of this article, Zelfira Tregulova, the longtime director of the Tretyakov Gallery, resigned from her position. She was replaced by Elena Pronicheva, not an art critic but a confident cadre and hereditary bureaucrat who is the daughter of Vladimir Pronichev, former head of the Russian Border Service and deputy director of the FSB.

From a social institution to an institution of power

Throughout history, art censorship has existed in various forms. In the days of princely and tsarist Russia, this responsibility fell on the church. As we recall from our literature classes, Alexander Pushkin submitted his works for review by two censors, one being the tsar Nicholas I, who referred to himself as the poet's “personal censor,” and the other being a civilian censor.

During the Soviet era, when borders were shut, censorship became an inevitable part of life for those working in creative fields. Multiple generations were brought up with the understanding that there was no alternative to censorship, which was ingrained in daily life. Only the most daring and non-conformist groups attempted to openly challenge it.

During the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a brief era of freedom emerged amidst the formation of the new Russia. At the time, the state was preoccupied with redistributing spheres of influence, resolving strategic business issues, and consolidating the bureaucratic apparatus, leaving little concern for artists and painters.

Censorship in contemporary Russia was institutionalized in 2004, during the preparation for the first Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. The organizers and participants were instructed that they had the freedom to showcase anything they desired, with the exception of three prohibited topics: the Church, Putin, and Chechnya.

In 2014, Marat Gelman, who was the director of the Perm State Museum of Modern Art at the time, was organizing an exhibition by Vasily Slonov titled “Welcome to Sochi.” The series of works delved into the delicate subject of the president's personal public relations and sportswashing, which were the main focus of the Sochi Olympics.

From the “Welcome to Sochi 2014” series
From the “Welcome to Sochi 2014” series
Vasily Slonov

The censors didn't like Vasily Slonov's work at all. “It turned out that Sochi was also a taboo subject. But no one warned us,” Marat Gelman told The Insider.

  • From the “Welcome to Sochi 2014” series

Following the events in Crimea and Donbass, Russia began experiencing cultural isolation from the global art market. This resulted in a kind of cultural sanction where Russian artists were not as frequently invited to participate in international exhibitions, gallerists were stripped of their representation at foreign art fairs, and the demand for Russian contemporary art plummeted worldwide.

Vyacheslav Surkov is considered to have been Russia's cultural policy evangelist at that time. His requirement was simple: “You can do whatever you want, but you must be loyal to the powers-that-be and their agenda.”

The professional art community in Russia generally accepted the rules of the game, and “sensitive” topics were not raised in institutions that were in one way or another affiliated with the state.

The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, founded by oligarch Roman Abramovich, showcased exhibitions by renowned artists such as Yaya Kusama, Urs Fischer, Takashi Murakami, and Louis Bourgeois in Moscow. When viewers have the chance to experience the work of such legendary artists, they do not question why Pyotr Pawlensky or Pussy Riot are not being exhibited; they simply express gratitude.

But the price for reproducing this illusion of normality was silence.

The Theory of Reasonable Conformity

Russian intellectuals may have believed in the theory of good deeds, but the reality was that relevant agencies were creating “blacklists” of artists and taboo topics that institutions diligently avoided. The state and private individuals donated funds to art projects that steered clear of sensitive subjects. “Neutrality” and “political disengagement” became the norm.

The story of the 2015 Innovation Prize is revealing. Peter Pavlensky and his performance “The Threat” were the clear front-runners for the prize. However, the award's organizing committee abruptly removed the artist's entry from the competition, providing no explanation or opportunity for debate. Strangely, this didn't create much of a stir in the art community. Only four members - Ilya Dolgov, Anna Tolstova, Dmitry Ozerkov, and Sergey Khachaturov - chose to resign from the Expert Council. As a result, the prize for the “Work of Visual Art” category went unclaimed.

Artist Pyotr Pavlensky in front of the burning entrance to the main building of the Russian Federal Security Service. “The Threat” performance
Artist Pyotr Pavlensky in front of the burning entrance to the main building of the Russian Federal Security Service. “The Threat” performance

The absence of a reaction from the community to prominent events reinforced a culture of conformity. The art market in Russia was dominated by opportunism and loyalty to the state for many years.

This resulted in few Russian cultural institutions making any sort of protest, even after February 24.

In contrast, when the sanctions were announced, Russian artists were acutely aware that they had been cut off from the global market. To compensate for this loss and international isolation, the state swiftly initiated a cultural import substitution. They offered artists a domestic fair in St. Petersburg called “1703,” which Tatiana Pinchuk describes as a “fair of shame.” There are rumors that the buyers were high-level managers from Gazprom, who made significant investments in Russian art. Russian gallerists and artists reportedly made substantial profits from the fair. Only a handful of galleries, such as Myth in St. Petersburg and Fragment in Moscow, declined to participate in the event.

There were few artists who had the courage to openly oppose the system. This was because being “blacklisted” meant that they were effectively barred from exhibiting their work at commercial venues within the country, as well as at international forums and fairs, which might have been organized by Russian galleries. As a result, many artists learned to be cautious and eventually became resigned to the situation. Therefore, when the war occurred, not everyone who was against it was able to declare their position publicly, either directly or indirectly.

The art community's response to the war initially showed promise, with over 18,000 cultural figures signing an anti-war letter condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

  • Linor Goralik launched ROAR, an online herald of oppositional Russian-speaking culture, where artists send in their anti-war works.
  • The SlovoNovo Free Culture Forum, founded by Marat Gelman, was quickly reformatted into an anti-war forum.
  • A number of Russian musicians strongly condemned the war. Noize MC and Oxxxymiron collected money at their concerts to support Ukrainians.
  • Pussy Riot has been touring the world and pouring urine all over a portrait of Putin on stage.
  • In their own way, some of the masters - Ilya Kabakov, Sergei Bratkov, and Sergei Anufriev – took a stand. These artists, who were once closely associated with Russia, now prefer to be identified as Ukrainians.
  • There was an underground exhibition of the PNI art group at HPP-2.
  • “Settings 2.2” was a performance where additional elements were incorporated into the museum's existing display. The audience had to search for these elements and then, after the prank was exposed (even though it had already succeeded) the museum's enraged director.
  • Pavel Otdelnov has been conducting exhibitions of his anti-war work in Sweden and Great Britain.
  • Victor Melamed has been portraying civilians killed in Ukraine every day since the war began.
  • Graffiti artists Slava PTRK, Kirill KTO, and Vladimir Abikh created artwork that expressed moderate opposition to the war.
  • Kirill KTO
  •  Vladimir Abikh
  •  Valery Kuzkin

A number of new media initiatives have surfaced that feature collections of anti-war artwork, including the Feminist Anti-War Resistance, Media Partisans, Worst Artists Association, and Anti-War Art Activists.

However, all of this is only a drop in the ocean. The question remains: why aren't the voices of Russian artists as resounding as many had anticipated? The answer lies in both subjective and objective factors.

The first of these is self-censorship, which many Russian artists have practiced for a long time with some success. Prior to the war, this was mainly motivated by practical concerns, as artists did not want to jeopardize their livelihood by being blacklisted. However, after the war, fear was added to this equation. It should be noted that artists have not yet faced criminal charges for creating either “fakes” or “discrediting the armed forces.” The case of Aleksandra Skochilenko stands apart, as what the St. Petersburg artist did was more of an individual act than an artistic statement.

An example of anti-war “price tags” with facts about the Russian military invasion of Ukraine
An example of anti-war “price tags” with facts about the Russian military invasion of Ukraine
Feminist Anti-War Resistance

The extent of self-censorship can be quite significant. For instance, Pavel Peppershtein, the renowned Moscow artist and curator of the exhibition “Dreams of Milk. Semiotic Studies for the screen adaptation of the novel “Mythogenic Love of Castes”“, himself invited the censor before the opening, resulting in the rejection of several exhibits. When exhibitors expressed their discontent, Peppershtein justified the censor's visit and the anticipated sanctions as part of an artistic statement reflecting the new reality that surrounds us.

The government's censorship, arrests, and “blacklists” left no doubt that in Russia, artists could only operate in compliance with the state. As a result, many artists resorted to self-censorship and found ways to avoid addressing the most pressing social and political issues.

THE WAR IS NOT YET OVER, by artist @kuril.chto - Lisbon, 24.02.2023
THE WAR IS NOT YET OVER, by artist @kuril.chto - Lisbon, 24.02.2023

Since the war began, the main focus in the art world is now on Ukraine, which is understandable. European gallerists who previously worked with Russian contemporary art and sold it well have started actively seeking out Ukrainian artists, resulting in their exhibitions being held in various cities around the world.

The second factor that contributes to the silence of some Russian artists on the issue of war is that they have been marginalized and are no longer considered relevant in the current art world context. The main focus in the art world now is on Ukraine, which is understandable. European gallerists who previously worked with Russian contemporary art and sold it well have started actively seeking out Ukrainian artists, resulting in their exhibitions being held in various cities around the world.

The recent Frieze and Frieze Market fairs in London were held for the first time without the participation of Russians.

Marat Gelman has suggested that a “Ukrainian lobby” exists, which he claims deliberately excludes Russian artists from participating in significant art projects.

One example that confirms this suggestion is the collective exhibition held in Krakow during the spring of 2022. The exhibition featured Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky as one of its headliners. However, the inclusion of Pavlensky's artwork “Stitch” in the exhibition and its associated posters was met with protest from Ukrainian artists and activists. Despite this, the artwork was ultimately defended and allowed to remain in the exhibition, thanks to the principled stance taken by the museum director against any attempts to discriminate against artists based on their ethnicity.

It's understandable why Ukrainians may be discontent with artists who remain silent and produce “neutral” work that avoids addressing anti-war issues. However, it's important to note that Russian artists who publicly oppose the war should not be subject to this same criticism.

Despite this, artist Pavel Otdelnov, who has consistently criticized the war and produced art that is strongly anti-war since February 24, admits to feeling cautious when working with European institutions.

The issue of legalization in other countries remains prevalent. Some well-known artists have chosen to leave Russia, but the majority have done so not because of persecution, but rather due to military mobilization. Many have moved to countries such as Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey where visas are not required and living expenses are low. However, these countries offer very limited opportunities for artists to continue their work.

Only a few have been able to migrate to Europe so far. Nevertheless, the European Union has expressed its willingness to offer support to Russian artists by granting them special visas. These Artist Visas are relatively simple to obtain in countries like Germany and France.

Even those who have successfully left Russia and seemingly protected themselves from “the most humane justice in the world” are still fearful of speaking out.

Numerous artists remain noticeably apolitical. According to Valery Chtak, Cosmoscow fair's Artist of the Year, “As long as you avoid addressing religion and power, nobody really cares who you are or what you do.” Chtak further adds, “I don't want to offend anyone, but if you want to get involved in resistance and politics, go abroad. Here, you just need to make sure your artwork is good.”

The predicament lies in the fact that while yesterday the state demanded avoidance of “forbidden subjects,” today they prohibit speaking out against the war. Tomorrow, it may not be enough to remain neutral. In order to survive, one might even have to glorify the war.

Marat Gelman has termed this phenomenon the “Prilepin point,” referring to the point at which being loyal is no longer enough, and one must “actively display patriotism.” Gelman believes that the “wave of Dugin-Prilepin ideology will eventually engulf anyone who attempts to remain detached and uninvolved with real-life issues. However, by then, it may be too late, and their statements will remain in history, just as they are now.”

It appears that fear has taken such a firm grip on Russian society that artists, who are meant to be the embodiment of Russian culture, are frantically seeking justifications for their silence and lack of action.

The Price of Silence

The authorities have accomplished their objective. In Russia, censorship is no longer necessary as self-censorship among artists and art activists appears to be just as effective in aligning with Kremlin narratives as Prigozhin's sledgehammer tactics.

Presently, the situation necessitates heroic action, a risk that many artists are unable to take for various reasons. Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect them to do so.

Marat Geulman has a simple explanation: “Being an artist is not a profession that necessarily entails heroism. Those who aspire to be heroes usually pursue a career in the military or activism. However, being an artist is more than just a profession; it is an essential social role that demands a personal statement. If an artist is unable to express themselves, then they should consider giving up their profession.”

Several artists, whom The Insider interviewed for this article, adamantly requested to remain anonymous and not be directly quoted.

Looking at it from a historical perspective, the insufficient public statements of prominent Russian artists regarding the war in Ukraine may have a detrimental effect on future generations' understanding of the true state of affairs. The fact is that most Russian artists do not endorse the war.

But the fear that induces self-censorship, uncertainty, apathy, coupled with other reasons, creates the impression that the Russian art community is silent, that it has nothing to say, or worse yet, that it does not want to speak out. This is because silence is also a powerful statement.

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