Pointing Fingers: Russian Artists in Times of War

7 October 2022 - no responses

These days, I find it very difficult for me to focus on my own research, where I embrace critical feminist approaches. It is exactly the feminist perspective that hinders me from becoming vocal again. I feel like I, as a Russian feminist artist, have a position of privilege and thus, responsibility. This is a position where I should be helping others instead of pushing my own agenda and career. At the same time, my personal networks of artists, curators, and scholars were scattered by the war and I found many of my colleagues from Moscow or Kyiv moving to Leipzig or Berlin. In this conversation with Nataliia Zaitseva—my close friend, feminist, theater director, playwright, and writer – we discuss the paradox of the current state of affairs for people who are in one way or another connected to Russia as a state.

This talk was recorded in Leipzig six months after the beginning of the war in Ukraine.


Marina Vinnik: What do you think about how Russians should be speaking now, or should they be quiet for the time being? I mean in the Western context, I’m interested in you feminist perspective, because when you’re working on a text, a film, a curatorial project—that’s always a political question, right? There is always a zone of exclusion. For instance, no male artists or not that many monologues for male characters, the Bechdel Test, and so on. For you and for me, I think, it’s important to focus on female experiences, right?

Nataliia Zaitseva: “As a woman, I must speak. But as a Muscovite, I must shut the fuck up,” as my acquaintance put it recently. Well, I’m focused on the female experience just organically, because women for me are … the most important people! For me a man is always the Other. That is why I as a writer always start from myself and from my female experience. My close female friends are the closest people to me and they all have social experiences as women. Now I think that when I do a feminist theater piece and produce feminist texts, I do it not because my logic dictates me the imperative that I should give voice to the oppressed, no. I’m interested in a feminist perspective because it gives me an opportunity to study the power dynamics inside various structures and this is incredibly interesting. The way power as drops of paint stains social groups and the way it intertwines itself is quite strange at times. I’m teaching a course now for a project called “Write Like a Girl” on how to write a dialogue. And I teach that when we write fiction or non-fiction or conduct interviews, we connect to a specific person with their own unique set of identities. Of course, someone can be discriminated in some ways, but at the same time in a position of power in different ways. This unique set of circumstances in different combinations is my focus of interest. This uniqueness and such individual cases are much more interesting to me than these sacred doctrinal revelations from Facebook that everybody repeats now.

M.V.: So today you’re interested in all voices?

N.Z.: Yes. Because now the individual voices that appear are never just separately Ukrainian or separately Russian, separately male and separately Queer. That’s never the case. Those monolithic groups do not exist. How can you…You can only approximately imagine some situations, but to say that some people are in a worse situation than others and therefore we should forget about the ones who are in less need and they should be quiet—this is such a simplification. It’s a simplification that leads in the historical perspective to a black-and-white worldview that itself later can lead to wars.

M.V.: Well, the feminist movement is also in some sense black-and-white. For instance, when male voices try to be heard and dominant in feminist spaces, or in the few feminist academic spaces, it’s annoying. On the one hand, sure, it’s not cool to exclude someone because of their sex, but on the other hand, men have so many platforms to speak from they are already in a dominant position. I personally curated multiple exhibitions that were exclusively for women artists and organized educational programs where male artists were not permitted to apply. At this moment the so-called “Ukrainian voices” in art and literature have suddenly become loud during the war, but here in Western countries in the end they are still very quiet and few. We can just see a lot of projects now, during this wave of compassion, but it’s temporary and even now many German institutions are closing those programs that they have set up for Ukrainians. Now people are talking about Taiwan. So, when we say that this is important to hear Russian voices, for example, there is a direct competition with those Ukrainian artists who are in the spotlight now.

N.Z.: But I’m not saying that we must listen to the Russian voices!

M.V.: What are you saying then?

N.Z.: I’m saying that you need to be sensitive to different topics and different stories. Aside from the criteria Russian/non-Russian, man/woman, there are many other criteria. For instance, your body normativity, your class, your language knowledge. What languages do you know? If a person can speak English, she’s more privileged that a person who can’t. In English, you can be heard from anywhere. But you can also become quiet. Or you can think about what to do in order not to be quiet. How can I be quiet without eliminating my artistic practice? If I’m quiet in my own native language, can I try to produce art in German, Ukrainian, and English? I think you can continue to work with things that interest you as a Russian artist. However, you shouldn’t go on endlessly about the situation of poor Russians, their poor Russian identity, on how to live with a heavy conscience, not all Russians are bad… This is just bullshit. Though now after saying this, I even think, “Why not? Maybe people need to hear that too.” It could be connected to the theme of collective guilt, national responsibility, the idea of a nation-state—these are all interesting topics. The question isn’t who is talking, but rather what is being said. If someone could conduct research on how the Russian language has almost erased Karelian, Urdmurt, Tatar, and many other languages, that would be quite useful. You see, I don’t want to turn this difficult discussion into a Facebook post, where the general sentiment sounds like Russian artists should shut up, because now it’s time for Ukrainian artists to speak. What Ukrainian artists? What Russian artists? What should they shut up about? And so on. I don’t want to participate in it, because it places me in some sort of a simplified scheme. And I don’t want simplifications, I don’t want this rhetoric. Now there is only one task and that is to supply the Ukrainian army with weapons. Well, I can’t find a place for myself in this scheme.

M.V.: Nowadays this is very black-and-white at least for many people that we know. That’s just a fact.

N.Z.: It is very black-and-white right now, but my life isn’t endless and it will end at a certain time. Why should I submit it to this black-and-white age? Should I just be depressed and do nothing? I don’t want to live like this, I don’t think that this is fair.

M.V.: Well, there is one nuance here. Contemporary art is in general a Western project. No one in the city of Uglich who makes miniature paintings of churches thinks that she’s a contemporary artist. It’s the same with theatre. At the moment you decide to join the contemporary art scene, you enter into a dialogue with the collective West. You must read tons of literature, know the terms, know the key names, concepts, and so on. And when you talk in this contemporary art context, it’s not just a monologue or self-reflection. You’re speaking in a very peculiar environment and I think that now it’s extremely difficult to find the right way for Russian artists to speak. For instance, comic strips by Victoria Lomasko just arouse a lot of negative reactions without being thought through. As an artist from Russia, she got an opportunity to publish in the New Yorker and she makes pictures about Russians who are afraid to get arrested and she complains that her visa card isn’t working. It’s really sad and out of place, politically speaking. So for me the question is how can one work within the Western project of contemporary art while Russia is basically at war with the West.

The Night of Victory 2016 (c) Marina Vinnik Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hV6szfE_mQs (c) Victoria Lomasko. Collective Guilt. 2022.


N.Z.: Wait, why did the Russian identity become stronger than the identity of a person with mental health issues in Russia? This Russian identity is so important now and it scares me. Why isn’t Yulia Tsvetkova, who is doing theater plays in Komsomolsk-on-Amur and has already spent several years under arrest, not become important for the Western project of contemporary art after the 24th of February? How is she at all connected to Putin’s regime? Besides the fact that it imprisons her. Or Viktoria Lomasko that you’ve mentioned, she has always done some sort of protest art.

M.V.: Lomasko documented protests, yes. The thing is that until February 24th, the standard way for a Russian artist to sell herself in the West was to play dissident. “Hi! I’m from Russia and I’m against Putin”… Or, “We are working on a critical project about how the Soviet Union was the worst ever. We are doing a project in support of Russian protests and we want to eliminate Putin’s regime. Here is our oppositionist agenda.” That was a standard and it also formed expectations accordingly. What could you do now? It’s impossible to continue in the same way.

N.Z.: Why is it impossible?

M.V.: Well, first you can’t do protest art activism casually: now you can get 10 years in prison for changing stickers in the Supermarket or posting on social media. There will be no new Pussy Riot any time soon. And second, you can’t meaningfully act as a victim of Putin anymore, because now it’s blatantly obvious that the victims are not Russian opposition artists fluent in English.

N.Z.: Art can be very different. It can be created as a source itself; it can work with old and controversial sources. People have family archives, personal archives. My female friend lives in Sweden and now she’s working on a project about her grandmother who was a Finnish communist and was imprisoned. You see. A project about Russian emigration or Russian visas that don’t work even for people who protested might be the first thought that comes into one’s head. But it’s so on the surface. If you want to avoid it, you need to take a break and think a little longer. You know, this war taught Russian feminists and artists that they should maybe step down from their perfect tribune of the oppressed and feel what it’s like to be in a mixed position when you’re simultaneously the oppressor and the oppressed. And this brings us to the complexity of the surrounding world, which artists should address. And you can do that only if you will very seriously listen to your inner voice and not stop yourself when you have a wave of feelings and words that are not meeting your standards of a good feminist. Those words and feelings need to appear and then you can look at it from a distance and maybe add something.  Because all this black-and-white rhetoric, you know, it was so comfortable to be in that position all the way. And now I think it’s time to rethink it and do something with this grandstanding. Numerous people in Russia continue to work in city hospitals, schools, other municipal structures. And if we don’t change our grandstanding, those people will be turned into fascists who knew, who saw the smoke billowing out of the pipe, but did nothing about it. Ok. Something is wrong here. Something is wrong in this scheme, really. And I personally know Russian tourists who, while visiting Germany in the museum saw an installation about the firebombing of Dresden. They felt that this war crime was justified for them: Didn’t the people of Dresden know about the Siege of Leningrad? Didn’t they notice that Jews were being exterminated? Why is anyone surprised that Dresden was bombed? I think that exactly this black-and-white position and the consensus that was established after the Second World War in Europe brought Russians today to the point, where you see yourself very justified while fighting fascism, you can just call someone a nationalist and they need to be killed. If only on some deep level people had an understanding that the world isn’t black-and-white, that cities consist of people who are of different genders, bodies, health, class, age. And if this understanding that each and every society isn’t homogenous is constantly on the forefront of your thinking, you will never be an Islamophobic or Ukrainophobic fanatic who wants to free some other country. If people were able to think like that, maybe Russia wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine. And concerning our Russian society, especially feminist circles in the past six months, I realized that we all used this grandstanding, this homogeneous gaze that’s so typical for feminists. Do you remember how feminists used to laugh if any woman said, “moi ne takoi” (“mine isn’t like that”, similar to #notallmen)?

M.V.: Sure.

N.Z.: That was really a homogeneous gaze. And we thought, yeah, we’re so right, we’re so cool, we finally understood that all men are evil. Fuck no. We were looking at all different strains of people with their lives and histories as if it was just black, poisoned irritation. That this darkness is in men forever and it’s not possible to exterminate it. That was an absolutely black and white gaze.


By: Marina Vinnik


Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hV6szfE_mQs

 The Night of Victory 2016 (c) Marina Vinnik

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