12 May 2022 For years, Victoria Lomasko has been documenting other Russian countries, giving a paper life to smothered voices, misunderstood bodies and suppressed lives. Just after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the most famous Russian cartoonist fled to Brussels with the help of production company Clin d'Oeil Films, which followed her for the past two years for the documentary series Draw for Change!
"I arrived in Brussels on 5 March, after a flight that took me past Istanbul and Paris. In Paris, I was still thinking, 'Aah, why aren't those guys from the film crew French!'" laughs Victoria Lomasko. "But honestly, I really fell in love with Brussels. Seeing and experiencing all those cosy lives of yours, that's what I needed. It was as if I ended up in Tolkien's Shire, in a fairy tale with fabulous creatures. While Anna (the Russian director of Victoria Lomasko's episode in the six-part documentary series Draw for Change, about female cartoonists who fight for a better world through their work, ed.) and I spent those first days, morning to night, without interruption, like two sad dwarfs, reading from our books with terrible stories: 'This one was arrested, this one was tortured...' It is an interesting experience to end up in a place that is the complete antipode of today's Russia. I would like to stay, but my visa expires at the end of the month. I am looking for solutions, but it is not easy. If the visa becomes a dead end, I will apply for asylum.
Victoria Lomasko at work on her monumental painting 'The Changing of Seasons' in GC Nekkersdal. © Ivan Put
Asylum seeker. It would be a wry open-ended experience for the graphic journalist who has just spent the last few years trying to give the voices, bodies and lives that are stifled, misunderstood and suppressed in Russia the right to exist. Who has worked her way into the international spotlight, museums in New York and Angoulême, and publishing houses in France, Spain, the US and Germany, among others, with reportage on the periphery of Russian society.
Victoria Lomasko draws and talks to people at protest demonstrations against Putin's regime and strikes, with farmers, truck drivers, teachers in village schools, migrants, orthodox activists, the lgbtq+ community, sex workers, juvenile delinquents, people with disabilities, psychiatric patients... She reports in word and image on what happens in political trials, how the government and forces of order brutally silence dissenting voices and abuse their position of power. "For me, real art is about showing the diversity of the world. Everyone is important," she says. "More than freedom - a relative term - it is what I seek and what drives me."
As Invisible As Possible
That diversity is in stark contrast to the unshakeably homogeneous idea that Putin wants to send out from Russia. "My situation has changed a lot under the regime. In 2012, I became a very visible person when I took part in a large opposition protest. I took part in every demonstration and documented everything. I did interviews in which I spoke out about Putin's regime, sometimes also about him personally. When that opposition movement was brutally crushed, that was the end of it. A lot of people left Russia then. And I started losing jobs, never explicitly because I am a political artist, but for the most absurd reasons. A lot of institutions that had been showing my work before, had to close their doors, suddenly found no more room in their calendar or had to make repairs just then. And the media where I published had to make changes to their staff and no longer wanted anything to do with me.
"The proliferation of repressive laws, political trials and violent reprisals forced me into permanent fear even before the war. I had only one thing on my mind: how can I exist here as invisibly as possible? All my work goes against what is allowed. By the regime's standards, that makes me 100% a foreign agent, a spy who is in league with the Western enemy. If I want to do what I do, I cannot stay in Russia. There is no place for me there anymore. That's why, when the war broke out and it was clear that Russia would slide completely into a fascist dictatorship, I immediately started thinking about how I could leave."
With one suitcase, her cat and the help of the Belgian production house Clin d'Oeil Films, Victoria Lomasko ended up in Brussels. She can't go back, she says. Her work is too sharp for that and she has been too explicit about the war since her flight. In interviews - such as Collective Shame, drawn by the founder of the comic strip reporter Joe Sacco, which appeared in The New Yorker in mid-April - but also in new work. Like in her book The Last Soviet Artist, which will be published this summer and tells about her participation in the mass protests in Belarus in September 2020, after the disputed re-election of Lukashenko, about her support for opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who is now behind bars for years, and about the how and why of Putin's dictatorship. "That alone could cost me five to 10 years in prison," she said.
Conflict of Generations
Or as in The Changing of Seasons, the painting that, in the absence of a Russian wall, she entrusted to four large panels in Brussels, totalling three by seven metres. First in the Philippe Vandenberg Foundation, in the former studio of the Molenbeek artist (son Guillaume Vandenberghe is, together with Vincent Coen, showrunner of Draw for Change!, ed.), and then in GC Nekkersdal.
Victoria Lomasko's imposing painting unites past, present and future: from a bleak and ominous Patriot Park an hour's drive from Moscow, where glorious military history is revered and Putin's dictatorship is cursed in protests, to a scene from Bolshoi and the death of what she calls the post-Soviet reality, to the changing of the seasons and a colourful proliferation of nature and creativity. On the canvas, the feet of young people raising their voices flow into the roots of an older generation. "Because this is also a conflict of generations," she emphasises. "On one side you have people who read independent media and feel despair and shame about the war, but don't know what to do. On the other hand, you have a generation that grew up in the trauma of the Soviet Union, completely isolated in a closed country, where no real personal life was possible because at any moment someone could invade that life and tell you what you could or could not do. People lived in miserable economic and personal conditions for most of their lives. And found causes for that life in the hatred of the West portrayed by the regime."
What that generation feels today is a certain pride, says Victoria Lomasko. "'Yes, we have a hard time, but at least we were able to protect our country.' They feel a stirring nostalgia for their younger years, when they showed themselves strong through their suffering in the face of an enemy that today wants to minimise Russia's role in the Second World War, erase 'us' from the history books and preferably destroy it altogether. That is what is in the minds of many people. This whole 'operation', they hear from the state media, is due to a provocation from the West, and from the US in particular. This is not a war of Russia against Ukraine, but a war of Russia against the West. And with the sanctions, they now have evidence of that hatred. That is a persistent idea, you know. I have heard on Telegram channels mothers who were in total denial about their fallen sons, whom they see as heroes."
The Inseparable Artist
Victoria Lomasko laughs when I ask her if circumstances have never made her doubt being an artist. "I was born into a family of artists, with my pencil and brushes in hand. I can't divorce my artistry, it is part of who I am, of my identity. I once had the choice to build a family with children, but before that I should have become a designer or a teacher. And I wanted to be a real artist. To shroud myself in silence and stop making my work, no, that is impossible. How could I betray all those people I have been drawing all these years, turn my back on them? I know what they gave up, how they suffered, struggled and suffered, harder than you can imagine, because they were protesting against the regime."
"In Belarus, I saw how thousands of people took to the streets, despite the risks. How the police arrested those people, tortured them, even women. When I hear now how in the West not only the Russians but also the Belarusians are hated, what should I think about that? To me, they are people who are oppressed, against whom even their government does not shrink from using weapons. The Russians know that Putin is behind this and that he would strike even harder at home. If you're looking for a reason for the lack of Russian street protest, well, that's one."
That is why the zeitgeist today cuts so mercilessly into her soul. The artist who devotes her life to showing diversity is today also coming up against a dominant homogeneous gaze in the West. gaze. "You know, I fully support the sanctions, I understand them, they are important, but on the other hand there is a problem. Because they produce a view that is ruthless and totally isolating. A view of Russia as one nation, one pariah, which includes the entire population without distinction. While I know that the Russian population, like any population, is one of differences. This is about millions of people who will also be living in this world tomorrow, how do you continue that coexistence? You cannot answer hatred with hatred."
"I experience the sanctions myself. Institutions that used to host my work are now reluctant to cooperate, courses by me are cancelled... Just because I have a Russian passport. I even notice it on my Instagram, where I am taunted, called a liar, told that I should be ashamed to draw attention to myself in these times of Ukrainian suffering. Why? What do they know about my life, about what I have been doing all these years? Nothing. But I am a Russian and so I lie."
"I hesitated so much about whether it was the right time to make that short comic with Joe Sacco about my flight, about the shame I feel about the Russian regime and the invasion, and about my own precarious situation. Joe Sacco convinced me. He is the greatest comic book journalist in the world. He is fearless, has depicted several wars and defined the genre. 'This war is terrible, but it is not unique,' he wrote to me. This story has happened many times, has been told many times, only with different characters. Telling this story is your role! You are a graphic journalist, if you don't portray this improbable situation, who will?' He was right. It's not my choice, it's my duty to tell it."
"I try very hard to remain professional, to do everything perfectly, but a few days ago I collapsed. I had a huge nervous breakdown and cried incessantly. That helped me. Many of my friends who are still in Russia cannot do that. They want to cry, but they cannot. I sincerely hope that Ukraine will come out of this horror with the support of the whole world. It will be immensely hard for them, but they have beautiful ideas of what their future should look like. But my heart bleeds when I see that in Russia there is no such prospect of a future. Instead, you are faced with isolation and enormous mistrust. How do you recover? It is sad, but I fear that only a great tragedy will change anything."
The Changing of Seasons can be seen at CC d'Uccle, where Victoria Lomasko will talk to journalist Salwa Boujour and sign her books on 14 May at 5pm. Afterwards, the painting will move to the ULB, the VUB and the Erasmushogeschool Brussel.