19 September 2022 The graphic artist Victoria Lomasko (Sérpukhov, Russia, 1978) publishes L'última artista soviètica (Godall, 2022), a reportage book that portrays the former Soviet republics with very honest texts and illustrations that she herself makes of the characters and situations she finds there. A great lesson in journalism given by a dissident who decided to leave Russia last March.
Victoria Lomasko (Sérpukhov, Russia, 1978) is a graphic artist transformed into a reporter on internal and ex-Soviet dissidences. If in her previous book, Altres Rússies (2020), Lomasko portrayed the movements opposed to Putin, in L'última artista soviètica (2022) she travels around the former Soviet republics as an expert sociologist. The publishing house Godall, which already published Altres Rússies, on the advice of the translator of that work, Marta Nin, is now publishing this book with a translation by Arnau Barios.
Its title, L'última artista soviètica, is a declaration of principles about the author's identity, what she has been and what she is.
Why do you call it L'última artista soviètica?
For three reasons. The first is that I belong to the last generation that lived and is aware of having lived in the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, I was a teenager. I have friends who are six years younger who no longer have any memories of that time. The second reason is that I was born into the family of a Soviet artist who produced tons of propaganda.
Ideologically, your father was close to the regime, too?
No, he hated the Soviet system, but that was the only way to make a living. When I was a little girl, I was always surrounded by his reproductions of Lenin, of the pagan with the skirt, of all these models.... That's why I have a complex relationship with all this: I was surrounded by all this imagery, my father is the one who created it, but, at the same time, my father hated all this. The last Soviet artist doesn't mean that I share the ideas or that I'm in favour of that system, but it's something that left a strong mark on me and I can't escape it.
And the third reason?
The third reason is that, although I studied at the Centre for Book Illustration when the Soviet Union no longer existed, all the teachers there came from the Soviet era and the style was the prevailing one in the USSR.
What is this background to your work?
I believe that the task of an author is not to deny certain opinions but to observe and comment on what he sees, with a predisposition to look at it and portray the details. It is a fairly independent stance, because the majority position among the most committed is to say "we hate that time and the Soviet revolution, we renounce all that and join, if you like, the European Union". This is the position of the liberal dissidents in Moscow, who consider everything Soviet to be fascist.
Do you have a love-hate relationship with the Soviet era, in the sense that you admire the Soviet style of propaganda -because it was made by your own party- and reject the political system?
I wouldn't say it's a love-hate relationship, but there is a much wider range of feelings. If feelings were colours, we would have the whole palette. Not all of the Soviet era is monolithic and not all Soviet art is homogeneous. It is not known in the West, but in Russia they are not even aware of the extent to which the art produced at that time was diverse. My friend Nadia Plungian, to whom I have dedicated the book, studies Soviet art. She organised a series of very interesting exhibitions where she discovered all of Soviet art. For example, she held one entitled "Surrealism in the country of the Bolsheviks", which exhibited, for the first time, works by various artists who had made them themselves. They had made them and then stored them in a box. And they could be works so full of energy and sincerity! It is very revealing to compare these works with commercial art in the West, where works were made that were already designed to be sold at a very high price. These USSR painters made them knowing that they would only be seen by their circle of friends. In the history of Russia there has always been this dichotomy between public art and the art that artists made for themselves. This second type of art is very close to me. For many years, I myself have not exhibited anywhere else in Russia. Although I've had a lot of success in the West, especially after that article in The Guardian about the exhibition in London, in Russia it hasn't done me any good. No Russian gallery has worked with me. It's quite a hard thing to live in your own country and not have your work published or exhibited there. That's why it was so important for me to study these artists and to know what it was that made them continue to create despite the fact that the whole reality was against them.
In The Last Soviet Artist, Victoria Lomasko travels through the post-Soviet space, the most unknown republics that became independent with the fall of the USSR and some regions of Russia, such as Ingushetia and Dagestan. From 2014 to 2020 he travelled to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Yerevan (Armenia), Tbilisi (Georgia), Osh (Kyrgyzstan) and Minsk (Belarus), and has produced the most comprehensive, simple and frank portrait of all the reports on this changing world. Because Lomasko knows how to talk to the people, he has access to women - the views of whom are often silenced, willingly or unwillingly - gays, activists and people on the street. Unlike reporters who travel with a photographic or television camera, Lomasko sits next to the women who are having lunch in a courtyard in Armenia and starts a conversation with them; while she draws them. She explains this scene in L'últim artista soviètica: "They were very welcoming, they sat down at a table and offered us coffee, but the conversation about what social changes were happening in Yerevan did not end up going well. The women asked my friend in Armenian how old my non-existent children were (they were convinced that she had them), and they tried to marry her off to theirs. They only asked me one question and, after I answered them, they lost all interest in continuing the conversation [Estàs casada?] In this way, he delves into the customs, political opinions, prejudices and frustrations of societies as complex as those of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, but also into his own way of seeing the world.
Gorbachev's death is very recent. What do you think of the last president of the USSR?
I have an ambiguous position. He gave me the free world. Without Gorbachev I don't know what kind of artist I could have been. For example, when I was a child it was very clear to me that there were many countries in the world where I could never go and I didn't understand it. How could it be that a large part of the world was closed to me? On the other hand, the fall of the Soviet Union took place without any control and perhaps everything that has followed, including the war in Ukraine, is the fault of having done it in such a spontaneous way. But it could also be that no politician - neither Gorbachev nor anyone else - was prepared to deal with the situation, because it was the end of an empire and there was nothing to do.
How did you live through that moment?
In the West, you can't imagine how terrible the nineteen-nineties were. I remember that there were assassins on the street; I remember that bandits tried to break into our house twice, with the whole family inside. My father would wait by the door with a gun to shoot them in the head if they managed to get in. In the nineteen-nineties, my father used to carry a hook about this big [hands half a metre apart] to defend himself if they attacked him. Normally, my parents didn't leave me alone at home, but if they ever had to, they would say to me: "If you feel that someone is trying to get in, start to bite the radiator and shout loudly 'They're killing me, they're killing me'". And we never went hungry, but we spent a lot of days in the house. Mai t'atipaves.
You write at the end of your book: "In the summer of 2020, when the votes were being held to introduce changes to the Russian Constitution, I was taking notes at the polling stations and the old people were the ones who gave me interviews with good grace: 'With the money from retirement there is no way to live', but 'we voted for Putin', because 'the important thing is that there is no war'". These people must now be feeling depressed?
Unfortunately, I don't have direct contact with these people. The people closest to me hate Putin and hate the war or, quite simply, they are afraid. My parents are horrified by this war and totally against it.
-Do you think those people really thought they were voting for Putin to avoid any war or was it an excuse to vote for Putin and that's it?
Maybe yes, but to be able to say that, I would have to be able to talk to them. In my family I have a sister who was a convinced patriot and her husband a Putin fan. They were very happy that Putin occupied Crimea and, from then on, they went there every summer to spend their holidays. They shouted "Crimea is ours! Crimea is ours!" I was close to these people and my mother talked to them, but never about politics. Even so, my mother says that they are horrified by what is happening. What's more, they have a son over 18 years old and, if there is a mobilisation, they can call on the army. This is a boomerang effect. Now, my sister fears that, after her support in Crimea, they can now send her son to war and turn him into a corpse.
You, who have travelled through practically all the former Soviet republics, have you seen more USSR support inside or outside Russia?
It's not a question of geographic space but of generations. Those who miss the Soviet Union the most are the generations before mine, those who spent most of their lives in the USSR. Many of them miss it because their lives were thrown into the Soviet system and they were never able to refer to it. At the beginning, there were professions that practically disappeared; then many shops were closed down. A very common situation was that of the experienced, highly respected and highly paid engineer who, of course, at the age of retirement had to work as a taxi driver. And the issue is not just economic. People lived in a kind of capsule: the state decided everything for them. But, at the same time, everyone knew that no one would end up living on the street, that they would receive an education, a flat, good access to health care.... In the end, it was a kind of non-adult thinking to believe that the State can take care of all your things. And many people have never fully grown up; that's why they feel this nostalgia for the times when they felt protected. In the end, it is a question of choosing between a situation of absolute control in which you are protected or a situation in which you are only responsible for your actions, but you have no protection from the state. Perhaps my generation was the first to choose: "chaos and danger are better, but we will be responsible for our own lives".
In which former Soviet republic is Putin seen as the most real threat?
Surely, in the Baltic republics. The problem is that there they not only look down on Putin, but they look down on any Russian. I'm not saying that this happens at the level of the people on the street - there is no Russophobia among them - but the hate speech is so intense that it's embarrassing. Many dissident journalists from Russia went to the Baltic republics. The entire editorial staff of Meduza - the most important opposition media - went to Riga (Latvia) or Lithuania. And many of those who had a flat in Moscow sold it and bought a flat in Riga or another city in this area because they had nothing more to do with Russia. Now, these people find that the politicians of the country where they live say that "any Russian is dangerous, because in all Russians there is an imperialist conscience and that, even the opponents inside Russia, do not do much opposition". But I can't explain this in detail either, because I'm not there and I read media that can make propaganda in this sense. I hope that, on the street, everything will work as it should.
In other former Soviet republics that you have visited, such as Dagestan or Kyrgyzstan, no?
It's not so much in these independent countries as in regions of Russia, such as the North Caucasus. In all these places, people's lives are under absolute control. That's the case of Ingushetia. I had also intended to go to Txetxènia, but every now and then journalists are arrested and disappear there, and no one wanted to take me in. In Ingúixia they treated me with a lot of mistrust, because they feared that I was a collaborator of the police.
Victoria Lomasko, The women of Crimea.
What is your next artistic project?
Now, all my plans depend on whether I get a new visa. That's the main question. If they finally give me the visa, at the end of September I'll have to go to Brescia (Italy), because a museum there is holding an exhibition of me as a dissident artist. An exhibition that will also be called The Last Soviet Artist.
With her previous book, Altres Rússies, Lomasko realised that she could combine her illustrations with a sociological portrait of her country: explaining the dissidences, showing them without identifying them and portraying them without bringing in the people who supported the opposition parties or the protest movements. In fact, the book began with large illustrations and very little text and, little by little, the text gained prominence. From the chapter 'Els esclaus de Moscou' in Altres Rússies," she explains, "is when I really became interested in journalism, because I had to tell the story of the immigrants who arrived in Moscow and lived in conditions of semi-slavery and I had to invent a way of telling their stories without harming them".
In this way, without looking for it, Lomasko has initiated a journalistic genre: Altres Rússies and L'últim artista soviètica are graphic journalism, without the gossip of objectivity, because Lomasko is very honest with her point of view, but she does not silence the opinions of others, even if they are distant from her political and life views.
Lomasko gives a voice to prostitutes, LGTBI groups, Pussy Riot and all kinds of dissidents, but she also listens to - and reproduces - the opinions of Putin's supporters, those who complain that there are too many immigrants, and so on.
Your book is journalism even though it is not journalistic in format and does not pretend to be objective. Is that what you wanted to do?
When I started the reports in my first book, Altres Rússies, I had no idea that it would end up as a book.
But you did want to do journalism.
No, at first, the first pages of Altres Rússies are a lot of images and very little text. What I was looking for was to show the stories of ordinary people that don't usually appear in the media. I thought they were very interesting stories that deserved to be told.
Effectively, you managed to explain the human stories of anonymous people without the gossip of objectivity.
I can tell you that I started Altres Rússies as an artist who writes with great insecurity and I ended it as a journalist who draws. I began L'última artista soviètica as a journalist with sociological interests and ended it as a writer. I finished the book, no longer as a person who makes graphic reports but as an artist who can include in her work the symbols or images she wants.
The book ends as follows: "It is a joy to accompany the last Soviet artist, for whom political news was more important than the first flowers in the garden. We have before us people who no longer depend on anyone, the illusory and sensitive people of Victoria Lomasko". Does that mean you don't want to do any more journalistic reports?
I'd like to do some graphic work in the style of the last part of The Last Soviet Artist. Surely, at first I was moved by the desire to join the circle of human rights defenders, of committed journalists, but now what I want is to be an artist on my own.
How does a graphic artist take this path? Why do you choose to do reports instead of comics with made-up stories or other people's scripts?
I've never had the desire to make comics. It must be said that in my Soviet childhood, comics didn't exist either. Among the people of my generation in the West, there were many who grew up reading comics. Not me, no. I had read some comic strips in children's magazines, but the themes were "How should a Young Pioneer [of the Soviet Union] behave? When my first book, Art prohibit, came out, the French newspaper Libération asked me if I wanted to collaborate with them, and they asked me for comics: on political themes but in the format of a comic. Now, however, when I am looking for a publisher in Germany, I find that many comic publishers tell me that this is not the case.
I thought that I didn't have to limit myself to the comic format. I want to do what I think is best for each case.
That's more original: it's an illustrated book and at the same time a very personal report.
The most important thing is that everything is drawn at the scene of the events [he says, pointing to the illustration of a demonstration]. I can't take these drawings and put them inside a frame. If I were to put it in comic format, I would have to recompose it in such a way that it would lose its meaning. But I can't draw it again, because I've done it at the place of the events. I can't repeat the same energy I had then.
It is a testimony of that moment. Like a photographer.