27 March 2022 Russians critical of the regime receive little support abroad. Victoria Lomasko talks about the reasons for her flight.
Dangerous Protest: Drawing from Lomasko's book The Last Soviet Artist.
Like so many other artists, Victoria Lomasko left Russia after the outbreak of the Ukraine war. The comic artist is known for her political, often ironic drawings of everyday life in Russia. She has not been able to publish them in her home country for years because of her critical stance towards the regime.
taz am Wochenende: Ms Lomasko, you left the country immediately when you heard about the outbreak of war. Why?
Victoria Lomasko: Leaving Russia is becoming more difficult every day. Russians can easily leave only to Central Asian countries, Armenia, Serbia, Turkey or the United Arab Emirates. When the war broke out, I didn't have a visa, but it was immediately clear to me that I couldn't possibly stay in Russia with my dissident work. The authorities are classifying critical voices in particular as "foreign agents" and it was only a matter of time before my name would also be on that list.
Due to the sanctions and the fall of the ruble, I lost almost all my savings. So I could only afford a ticket to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, where I was already working. I love the country. I also realised that most people would probably flee to Armenia or Georgia and that the government would not allow it so easily. The night I left Russia, almost all flights to Yerevan were cancelled. This was a bad joke by the government, because they also knew that people would fly to Armenia.
What was the next step from Kyrgyzstan?
I was very lucky. Before the war, a Belgian production company started making a documentary about me and the situation in Russia. They were already planning to invite me to Brussels to finish filming here: After the war broke out, they quickly realised that the main character of the film would be stuck in Russia for a long time, so they immediately tried to get a visa for me. There were problems with the Belgian embassy, so I got a French visa just hours before I got on the plane. France is a country that appreciates political art.
Are most Russians fleeing because they are worried about their own safety, or is it more an expression of protest?
When I arrived in Brussels, I felt like I had left Mars and arrived on Earth. Because of the pandemic, I couldn't leave Russia for two years because we don't have internationally approved vaccines. Those two years were not easy. Putin's regime passed one repressive law after another. They didn't even look for an excuse for the new rules! The whole world is now wondering why the Russ:inds are not taking to the streets to protest against this war.
This is because our society is deeply divided, into a young and an old, Soviet generation, into people who are against and for Putin. Many people are also apolitical. Independent voices are hardly heard in our country. Only an estimated 20 to 30 percent of Russians are against Putin and the war in Ukraine. When I woke up and read about the invasion of Ukraine, I knew immediately that Russia would be a closed-off fascist country.
How freely could artists express themselves before the war?
Because of the strict censorship, I did not publish or show any of my work in exhibitions in Russia for many years. During the pandemic, I worked on my new book "The Last Soviet Artist", in which I describe all the political changes in Moscow during the last few years: protests, repressions, constitutional changes. Although it won't be published in Russian, of course, I wouldn't have been able to stay in Russia after publication anyway.
Another example: My last book "Other Russias" we wanted to publish in Russia. Lawyers I asked for their assessment said that publishing it would get my publisher and me a few years in prison. So that idea died. I no longer ask anyone to exhibit or publish my work.
The current wave of emigration is now being compared to the exodus in the wake of the Russian Revolution, when many intellectuals and artists left the country. Do you think this comparison is appropriate?
Not really. When people left the country back then, many received support abroad as dissidents. Now Russians are just boycotted everywhere. I mean, I'm in Belgium now, but what's the next step? I have no money, I can't open a bank account, my visa is expiring. There is a lot of discrimination against people with Russian passports. Nobody wants Russians with them at the moment.
Can you understand it if Ukrainian artists boycott Russian art at the moment?
I can't and I don't want to criticise Ukrainians. They are suffering a lot, they can say what they want and I will accept it. But as for the rest of the world ... I have a friend, a Russian director. She has to read every day that Russian directors are banned from more festivals or film platforms, regardless of their political opinion. This boycott makes no sense.
What options are left for Russian artists to protest in the country?
They can close their doors and paint pictures for themselves and show them to very close friends. Even the social networks are now listed as extremist organisations, so it's hard to share your art with the world even if you dare. Even before the war, it was extremely difficult to make political art in Russia. I could only do it because I was absolutely invisible in Russia. At the moment, anyone who is against the war in Ukraine is very visible in Russia.
Are voices from abroad heard inside Russia?
I have been drawing and writing against the Putin regime every day since I left Russia. I hardly sleep. But criticising Putin and the war when you are outside Russia is as easy as breathing. The problem is that the number of people who are against Putin is very small. And the sanctions imposed by the war have made it even more difficult for this group. I'm not talking about the sanctions against the government, the banks and the oligarchs, but those that cut Russians off from the outside world. Payment service providers and Western media that stop operating in Russia, the boycott of Russian culture.
What has to change for more people to protest?
People feel left alone in Russia. I know people who still protest in the streets, they get arrested and beaten up by the police. For me, they are heroes. These people need emotional support from abroad. Try yourself to go out on the street alone or with ten others and protest, even though you know you will be arrested for it. Many people who support Putin know nothing about the outside world, they have never visited Western countries and have no points of contact with Western people. They see the sanctions imposed on Russia and take Putin's word for it that the West is the enemy.
Translation from Russian with the assistance of Peter Isachenko