RUSSIA: POLITICS THROUGH ARTS

Three Years of Commentary

Left: Words are My Bullets. Photo from Internet Archives. Right: Makeup art and photo by Zarina Zabrisky.

I am an American writer based in San Francisco. All my published work (five books and multiple stories and poems in literary magazines) is in English. I translate from Russian when needed. (I was born and raised in Russia.) Lately, it’s been needed. Since 2014, I’ve been covering the differences in culture and mentality for American and international readers. I look at politics through the prism of arts and culture (it hurts to look through any other prism.) A Western Balkan magazine Antidot defined my work genre as “a photo novella.”

Left: Roy Lichtenschtein. Crak! Right: Novella.

Makes me think of Mexican soap-operas known as telenovelas.

Left: Telenovela is a popular genre on Mexican TV and stands for a soap opera. Right: Camila Cabello in her own telenovela-inspired “Havana” video, dedicated to Dreamers.

Call it what you will: here is a compilation. The subjects range from painting, ballet, film, mythology, poetry to politics, protest and scandal. Since Russia — yet again! — became a hot topic one might as well learn about it from an eyewitness and survivor.

“Russia is a Sphinx,” said a great Russian poet Alexander Blok in his last poem, horrifying in its imperial militarism and intoxicating patriotism. “Joyous,” “ “mournful,” “bleeding black blood,” and “staring, staring, staring into you, with hatred and with love.” Take a look.

Left: Comics reviewed by Dave. Ozymandias, by Shelley. Center: Sphinx and St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. The view I had when I walked from the Philological Department where I studied to the Academy of Arts where my father worked. I saw it every day. Right: The monument to the victims of political repressions, across the street from the prison Kresty, in St. Petersburg, by M. Shemyakin.

18 PHOTO NOVELLAS

Left: Program for The Afternoon of a Faun, ballet. Right: Un Chien Andalou, silent surrealist film by Luis Buñuel, 1929.
  1. My very first photo novella, Swamp Lake. In Russia, ballet and power always come hand in hand. Swamps are common. Tsars and dictators alike patronize theaters. Art serves the regime. These days, the Russian achievement in music, choreography and dance support the nationalistic hysteria of Putin’s regime. I even drew Putin as a Rat King. Look! Read!
Left: Rat King. Right: Swamp Lake. Yes, it’s blood. Illustrations by Zarina Zabrisky.

2. This photo novella was an invitation to join The Arts Resistance, an arts collective, in 2015. Artists resist propaganda and totalitarian regime. By questioning. By creating. Independent thought process and free expression are the only long-term antidotes to the autocratic state and slavery. At least that’s what I thought at the time…

Left: Books vs Bullshit. Poster. Right: Boom!

3. Then, the Russian cops busted into an art gallery. I know the artists via the Internet. It was still 2015.

“We feel somewhat like people who did not support the Nazi regime in Germany, in 1939. Russia has actually become a threat to the peace and security of mankind. We are in hard circumstances but we continue to fight, no matter what,” they said.

I wrote about these people. Little did I know. Give it two years and hop a continent…

Left: From an anti-Nazi protest in Berkeley, “Nazi Park” aka MLK park. Right: A billboard at UC Berkeley.

4. Then, we did the Arts Resistance’s event for LGBT rights: a literary reading and rock band concert. “Gay talk is always a camouflage or a trick… In the past, it happened before the Great Terror. Gay people are used as scapegoats and scarecrows, and gay issues distract from today’s economical and moral problems.”

Art by Stella Kisstiger. Acrylic on paper.

5. GOGOL’S HORROR STORY IN FRONT OF THE RUSSIAN CONSULATE.

This is a story in a story in a story — and, of course, you are reading this story inside of a story.

Art based on Rene Magritte images. Left: Repeating Infinite Loop by Freddiemade. Right: Watching Big Brother by Feliks Tomasz Konczakowski.

“On Friday night at the sundown, we came to the Russian Consulate, wearing witches’ wigs and masks. Many men in suits entered and exited while we were loading and unloading objects: a giant monster head of Putin, yoga mats, Gogol’s books.” Then we read Gogol and danced and howled, impersonating the evil. In two days, we got a call from the FBI because the Russians complained about our “terrorist action.” The FBI officer followed up and told me that we had the right to protest. It was 2015.

Left: The Arts Resistance actress in front of the Russian Consulate. Right: The monument to the Red Terror. Spent bullets on fabric. The Arts Resistance.

In summer 2017, black smoke came out of the fireplace of the Russian Consulate in SF on the record-high hot day at 103 Fahrenheit. The firemen were not allowed inside; the diplomats were just burning “a few things” before clearing the building to follow the executive order to close the Embassy.

Left: September 1, 2017. 103 Fahrenheit. The last day of the Russian Consulate. Right: “Don’t fear, my friends. The evil forces will go away. Manuscripts do not burn and philosophers do not die.”

6. Next came an interview with Evgeny Avilov, a young man who “draws blood with a syringe and paints — but does not consider himself an artist” and who “sprinkled holy water on Lenin’s mausoleum and got arrested.” Evgeny protested tyranny and war. Then he was attacked in Moscow — brick, head, blood— and came to the US to seek political asylum. (It was still 2015.)

Left: Evgeni Avilov. Self-Portrait. Right: Avilov being arrested in front of the Kremlin after sprinkling Mausoleum containing Lenin’s mummy with holy water.

7. Then came a very short photo novella about the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin strangling Russia.

8. PUSSY RIOT SAGA. In February 2016, I was invited to host Pussy Riot in San Francisco and interview them on stage because in 2012 when three young women were sentenced to three years in prison for a 40-second performance, I organized a protest in front of the said Russian Consulate. Four years later, the heroes were back and we met. Meeting heroes is a major clash between fantasy and reality.

Left: 2012, Protest in front of the Russian Consulate. Right: Protest on Hermann Plaza.

It didn’t go smooth. Like everything Russian, the show was intense, loud, messy, tortured, heroic, ridiculous, and, occasionally, profound. All at the same time. Here are the articles about the Arts Protest Movement history in Russia, including Pussy Riot.

8.1. Scandal: Insanity Art Language (*WARNING: GRAPHIC NSFW IMAGES AND LANGUAGE — we are talking about punk protests and extreme circumstances, without any censorship.) Then, lo and behold, this article was censored off the Warfield theater event page by the producers. It is not PG-13 or office friendly.

8.2. The Splendors and miseries of mythologies…

Left: The front cover of the Paris Match magazine that Barthes analyzes in Mythologies. Right: Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans, Honore de Balsac’s novel titled reprocessed by Musee D’Orsay for a poster.

A man walks into the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, undresses, climbs into a 2,000 years old Roman tomb and begins rubbing himself with a soaped sponge.” He washes the symbols of the ruling party “United Russia” off his body. This is my favorite of the articles in this series. I love Barthes. He twists my mind like no one else.

8.3. POWER AND OPPOSITION: SADOMASOCHISM, INC. What happened to the opposition?

A simplified vision of the world is dangerous because in the real world odd things happen. Life is not a poster-ready slogan. Good people are scared — rightly so — to act or speak up. Artists and activists get burnt out or distracted by their lives, their egos. They get manipulated by security services. Some want awards. Some want money. Some want copyright. Anonymous artists become celebrities. The anti-establishment goes commercial. Avant-garde always becomes mainstream.

8.4. Why the Pussy Riot show went wrong. So many reasons. Fear. Confusion. Money. Booze.

We also warned about Trump and Putin. It was February 2016. Nobody listened. Oh, well.

Left, Right: Puppets by The Arts Resistance at the Pussy Riot show in SF. Artist: Tsunami.

9. A very short photo novella about human rights violation in Russia. In December 2015, Ildar Dadin was arrested and sentenced to three years in jail for peaceful street protests. He is the first person in Russia to be jailed using the new law, that punishes repeated breaches of public assembly rules. I could not interview Dadin in jail but I had a chance to speak to his fiancée, journalist Anastasia Zotova. *Sadly, after Dadin was released from prison, it turned out that Ms. Zotova staged the marriage — either for PR or working for security services or both. A scandal followed but I didn’t look into it. See the above article on the dissolution of the opposition. It is never straightforward.

10. RUSSIA WILL BE FREE. About 20, 000 courageous people protested Putin’s regime in Moscow on February 27, 2016. The march commemorated the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, one of the leaders of the Russian opposition, shot in the back in front of the Kremlin in 2015. The mass media in Russia reported only 7,000 people present at the march. As I am putting together this compilation, in January 2018, protests against Putin shake Russia again.

Left: “Putin, you are NOT my president.” “Protesters shout slogans and wave Russian national flags in front of Russian Government Building during a rally in Moscow, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018 against Russia’s Central Election Commission’s decision to ban the opposition leader Alexei Navalny presidential candidacy. Navalny has been arrested in Moscow as protests demonstrations called by him took place across the country. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin).” Photos/text from Seattle Times.

There is little hope that Russia will be free anytime soon — but it will be free. One day. Maybe. I don’t really believe it but I want to believe it.

11. LIQUID SKY OF HISTORY. I lied — this is my favorite photo novella! It was fun to write, fun to share and it got picked by Medium staff and shared endlessly by readers — for which I am grateful. I love Liquid Sky— a poetic, gritty, and bizarre film — and I interviewed the crew since then.

Screenshots from Liquid Sky used in my articles.

Interviews appeared in paper magazines and some are forthcoming on Medium. Although, I am scared that the crew is… pro-Trump. The majority of Russian-Jewish immigrants are. But the film was great and I don’t feel like being more disillusioned than I already am. So I just never wrote back to them and asked. I wrote the articles before all this crap happened. Am I a hypocrite? It is just a memory of a film.

12. This is a translation of the last poem by Ilya Ehrenburg by an author and translator Jenny Alton. A poignant surreal summary of Russian political life by a poet, essayist, novelist and a propagandist Ehrenburg, an extremely controversial figure in the Russian culture.

Left: Ehrenburg, portrait by Matisse. Center: Ehrenburg with his great-granddaughter in a Moscow circus. Right: Picasso and Ehrenburg, by Picasso.

Was he a collaborationist? I don’t know. Things are not black and white.

13. In times of Evil, partying or praying will not bring salvation. Songs will. Poetry. Art. This is the main idea of The Arts Resistance. We staged Pushkin’s FEAST IN THE TIMES OF THE PLAGUE: TRUMP, PUTIN, HITLER just two weeks before the elections 2016. It was our warning. It didn’t work. Warnings do not work. Cassandras are not heard. I am not sure anymore that songs will bring freedom. I don’t know what will.

14. Here I wrote about the Medieval values, collective consciousness, the idea of the absolute submission to the authoritarian leader/father figure: husband, priest, Tsar, God, Führer — and the President and also about women being beaten.

15. America has entered the LAWLESSNESS zone. Like most Americans, you might have no resources to understand lawlessness and cannot relate but you can read my article, pay attention and be aware. The closest here is Pulp Fiction, really.

Pulp Fiction, poster and giffy art.

All former Soviet Union folks can smell it. We lived it and we are warning you — don’t let it happen.

16. Terrorist attacks as a political tool in Russia.

17. A St. Petersburg music group whips its intoxicating puzzle out of raw meat, rhinestones, corruption, and mafia state shards at the time of bloody censorship — and not just gets away with it but gets through to the masses. Photo-novella at its best. Maybe, a video-novella. “A Prison Tattoo-Artist.”

Left: A screenshot from the video “A Prison Tattoo-Artist.” Right: a tattoo if Putin. From Internet Archives.

18. As reported by The Washington Post,“An underwear dance video filmed in a college dormitory nearly got some Russian cadet pilots expelled and sparked a discussion among Russia’s political elite.” History on repeat.

Left: The Rolling Stone poster (not allowed in my high school.) Right: The “indecency” of this costume led to the firing of Vaslav Nijinsky, the greatest ballet dancer of all times, from Mariinsky (Kirov) Theater in St. Petersburg, in 1911.

16. Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch, takes an influential, high-rank Kremlin official Segey Prikhodko for a ride on his yacht and pays for the trip and escort services. One of the sex workers shares photos and videos on the social media. “ALL THAT IS SECRET IS NOW OBVIOUS…”

17. More on scandal… Learn how the KGB/FSB used sex scandal, sexpionage and honey trap as a political tool:

  1. Putin’s rise to presidency
  2. Destruction of opposition leaders
  3. How it was done: Recruiting and Blackmail
  4. Important Conclusion

Did you enjoy this ride through Arts and Politics?

This is a layered cake!

Sweet delights!

Center: PICTURE SPINNING GIF BY ANTHONY ANTONELLIS. Right: MASTER of the Cassoni Campana, 1500–1525

Fun!

Arcade juke box, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Find more! Enter!

Left: “Rythme couleur, N° 1076”, 1939 de Sonia Delaunay. Center: Doors of perception. From Internet. Right: Sonia Delaunay.

More episodes!

Left: Bukowski meets pop-art. Right: Andy Warhol fabric. From Internet Archives.

Photo novellas on the investigation of the collusion between the Russian oligarchy and Trump’s administration. Watch investigative journalism turn into political satire… Boy, isn’t that fun.

Left: Pop-art. Right: Roy Lichtenschtein. Whaam!
Propaganda (Agit-Prop posters.) From Internet archives.

We even have a YouTube Channel! Videos! WAAATCH!

And reports from the site —the MLK park that became known as a “Nazi Park” in Berkeley in 2017. Simon Rogghe and I even warn some award for a photo taken with an iPhone.

We were even promised some money for it! (Never got it, but the idea! Wow!) At your service, the unreceived award-winning photographers. Check this out! Berkeley Clashes, 2017:

Left: The Million Dollar Selfie by Simon Rogghe/Arts Resistance. Right: Fake Milo and Coulter by the Arts Resistance.
Left: This is not Berkeley, it is in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. Antifa vs Alt-right. We covered that, too. Right: Collage by Simon Rogghe.

This segment is a chapter of CLUSTERCLICK, photo novella by Zarina Zabrisky. For THE TABLE OF CONTENTS or to switch to another chapter, click here.

*All facts and photos are in public domain and available through Google. Links to the original sources are included.

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