August 07, 2022

Life Impacts Art

Life Impacts Art
An etching purchased at Moscow's Ismailovsky Bazaar.

Names have been changed and specific artistic endeavors excluded to protect the artists who contributed to this article.

“It’s like a set, like some kind of theater set. That is, everything seems to be the same, but in reality, it’s not. It’s as if everything is a little fake.”

Sasha, an artist who fled the country after Russia began bombing Ukraine, was reflecting on impressions from her recent return to Moscow.

Her conviction that the war is both hideous and unjustified, coupled with her decision to begin anew in another country, initially provoked both depression and panic attacks.

“I will say that, for the first several weeks [of the war], I had a very strong feeling inside that some social norms had shifted… and I no longer had the feeling that Moscow is a safe city," she explained via a Signal voice call. "I felt that violence could happen suddenly and without a reason. But now that feeling has faded.”

A scene from the controversial Moscow installation "Children are the Victims of Adult Vices" by the Russian artist Mihail Chemiakin. On the right, War is depicted; on the left, Poverty.

While Sasha now feels she has adapted psychologically, and is not taking antidepressants – a temporary remedy, she said, that is quite popular amongst artists, activists, and others who protest the war and yet decided to stay in Russia – she continues to struggle with the dissonance of a peaceful life in Moscow, compared to the carnage in Ukraine.

“The first three days of my return were very hard for me, I didn’t understand why people don’t just walk down the street shouting,” she said. “Well, I just wanted to walk down the street and scream, because cars are driving, shops are open, people go to the hairdresser, everything is in order there.”

Sasha said she believes it would have been much more difficult had she decided to stay.

“At the moment, I do not have exhibitions, I have not made any active public statements…That is, I just sit and do the things that I see fit, and, in general, no one bothers me.”

Like Sasha, Alyona struggles with the knowledge of the war.  She also worries about the actions she has taken against the violence in Ukraine.

“My main difficulty is the constant expectation that they might come for me,” Alyona wrote over Telegram.

“I know that I have done and said in public enough to be held accountable. And I also know that sometimes you don’t even need to do anything, and there are police who will plant evidence, and there are courts that will do it, as it IS NECESSARY.”

Alyona said she feels that she has been spared so far because she is just one of many. “I live in St. Petersburg, and I simply don’t stand out among other protesters, of whom there are quite a lot here in general… While there is no sense that anyone can now safely speak out against the war, at the same time, I see that many seem to have thawed out, and even just on social networks, more people are talking directly about the war crimes of the army.”

Despite what Alyona perceives to be an increase in online anti-war discourse, both she and Sasha share a feeling of being outcast and unusual.

"Dialogue about Life" - an etching purchased at Moscow's Ismailovsky Bazaar.

Sasha said she struggles to accept that Russia has closed the door on some of its most passionate citizens.

“It is hard to see and bitter to see how a group of people usurped power by criminal means and informed all of society that we, as it were, the most educated part of it, the most active, should leave because we don't belong here, because we don't agree [with them] – just like that,” Sasha said. “And we are actually told that trash in plain text. ‘Don’t interfere, and if you do not leave, well, we will put you in jail.'”

Alyona said she feels the contrast when confronting those who are more neutral toward the war.

“Many with whom I spoke, especially the older generation, declare that what is happening in our country is normal, the fact that everything has been and will be, and this scares me the most. I think that this is not acceptance, but apathy – just the fatigue of people who have been under the pressure of the regime all their lives; they have begun to forget general humanitarian guidelines.”

Both women, however, have found ways to cope with the heaviness of Russia’s responsibility through their work, spurred by various motivations.

“It doesn't sound like much,” Alyona said, “but fear motivates me. I feel that there is a lot of it, that this fear subjugates everyone, and that it is imposed from the outside. I want to confront it so as not to lose my dignity, so as not to lose myself.”

Sasha laughs at the inevitable passing of hours. “I understand that I am still a young woman,” she said, “so I'm going to live a long time. And I'm going to outlive Mr. Putin and his henchmen and associates.”

"Tangle" - an etching purchased at Moscow's Izmailovsky Bazaar.


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