Commended by the judges for the 2018 Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, and given a special award for 'Best Book in Translation', Victoria Lomasko's 'Other Russias' is propelled by the idea that everyone has a story worth telling. For the past eight years, graphic artist and activist Victoria Lomasko has been travelling around Russia and talking to people as she draws their stories. She spent time in dying villages where schoolteachers outnumber students; she stayed with sex workers in the city of Nizhny Novgorod; she went to juvenile prisons and spoke to kids who have no contact with the outside world; and she attended every major political rally in Moscow. The result is an extraordinary portrait of Russia in the Putin years - a country full of people who have been left behind, many of whom are determined to fight for their rights and for progress against impossible odds.
Tell us about your background: why did you become a graphic artist?
I never made such a decision consciously. It just happened to be this way. One day I started doing graphic reportage (I prefer this term). There wasn’t a discussion in my family about me becoming an artist – my artist father had decided on that even before I was born. I was never though attracted to easel painting – if I needed to draw, I would rather draw in the graphic design format. I wanted to become a book illustrator when I was a teenage girl. I graduated from Moscow State Print University as a “book artist”. After that I spent several years as a commercial magazine illustrator, also trying to do something in the sphere of contemporary art. I felt happy, everything fell into place, only when graphic text appeared in my work. With each work text acquires a more and more important role – it is not just some commentary to drawings, as it used to be the case in the beginning, but the drawings themselves become illustrations to the text.
Who are the artists who have inspired you?
Firstly, they are Russian-Soviet artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Unfortunately, Russian-Soviet Fine Art, even though it is of a very high standard, is practically unknown abroad. Simply because Russia is not the First but Second, or even Third, world. This is why I appreciate this material so much – who but an artist living in Russia now can continue the tradition of these artists and endeavour to bring themes of the contemporary Russia to the attention of foreign audiences? Perhaps, the biggest influence on me has been an artist called Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939), especially his books, also illustrated by him: “Khlinovsk”, “The space of Euclid”, “Samarkandia”.
Do you think the graphic novel format helps communicate social issues more effectively or to a wider audience?
To be honest, I am not that concerned with this question. Firstly, I do my work for myself. Of course, I am pleased that other people like it, that it gets exhibited, printed and published as books in many countries, but I think, this is not because of the format. It is impossible to compare what is more effective – an article or some graphic series. There are comics - accessible in their form and presentation - which none the less are not viewed by anyone, and there are long articles which have been read by millions. It all depends on the standard, on the level of a concrete work of art. And the level depends on the ability of the author to produce things which are really interesting to herself or himself and on the depth of her or his understanding of the interconnections, interrelations in the world.
What made you decide to research “Other Russias”?
In 2008, when I began making a reportage series accompanied by text, I had hardly left Russia, so I did not have a lot of choice in selecting the object of my studies; almost all the series were drawn in Moscow or the areas around Moscow. It seems obvious to me that it is impossible to produce relevant work from different countries without having properly understood your own country. I did not have the initial idea that all the reportage series would be gathered and published under one cover. I was simply and gradually answering the main questions that I was preoccupied with in those years: “Why is Russian society so divided?”, “Why do we respect neither ourselves nor other people?”, “Who can be modern, contemporary heroes in this country? What are they like?”, “Where is my own personal place in this overall picture?”
What was the most surprising experience for you during your research?
They are two chance meetings, which happened to me in one day. At first, I was drawing an Orthodox prayer service in the centre of Moscow and one Orthodox activist, who was being drawn by me, declared: “The West want to ruin the beautiful and brave Russian people”. Then I went to a fashionable bar around the corner, where a typical representative of the Moscow intelligentsia sat next to me and dropped into our conversation: “Russians are shit! But Me, I am an intellectual in the seventh generation!” So the diptych from the “Black Portraits” series was born. I was struck by how these concrete people represented at the same time real archetypes. Then I also thought about how, in the contemporary Russian reality, these two individuals didn’t have even the slightest chance to start a dialogue – that’s how strongly these two social groups hate each other.
Given the bleak opinions expressed by many of the people you portray, are you optimistic for the future of Russia?
I don’t believe in a normal future for the contemporary Russia. And this is not only due to the economic crisis, wars in Ukraine and Syria, sanctions, the absence of developed manufacturing, the destruction of the last remaining infrastructure of the Soviet system of medicine, science, education, pensions. The worst thing of all is that people in this country are used to being so humiliated that they don’t even notice it. To notice it one must become an independent researcher, to have one’s own developed environment, to travel abroad often. But this is inaccessible to most of the population. In comparison to the Western World the people have very little understanding about their rights and the responsibilities of the state. And the increasing persecutions decrease their chances to learn, to unite and demand their rights.
Have your critical views caused any criticism or problems for you within the country?
At least not until now. I simply have hardly any opportunities for my work to be exhibited and printed inside the country.
What is your next planned project?
I am working on two new topics at the moment. The first is a research trip around the Post-Soviet space. I started the project in 2014, I have made a graphic reportage series from the Russian Northern Caucasus (Dagestan, Ingushetia) and from Georgia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan. These are spaces where the Russian language is still more or less maintained, it means that I can fairly freely take an interview. I am interested in documenting the drawn-out process of the last links inside the post-Soviet space disappearing. I want to make my next book about that.
The second topic is a book about my native Serpukhov, a small town 100 kilometres away from Moscow. I recognise Serpukhov less and less with each visit. I want to describe things which are still connected with my Soviet childhood and Perestroika youth.
Victoria Lomasko was born in Serpukhov, Russia in 1978. She works as a graphic artist and has lectured and written widely on graphic reportage. The co-author of the book Forbidden Art, nominated for the Kandinsky Prize in 2010, she has also co-curated two major art exhibitions, The Feminist Pencil and Drawing the Court. Her work has been exhibited in numerous shows in Russia and abroad. She lives in Moscow.
'Other Russias' is published by Penguin (and first by n+1 in the United States) - copies are available from the Pushkin House Bookshop. Victoria Lomasko was interviewed for Pushkin House Russian Book Prize by Andrew Jack and and translated from the Russian by Olga Utrivanova.
A Pushkin House podcast, recorded with Victoria to accompany her recent exhibition at Pushkin House can be downloaded here.