On August 19, 1991, tanks began to roll into the centre of Moscow. Over the next four days, Soviet officials attempted to wrest control from then-President Mikhail Gorbachev. Fighting broke out in the streets of the capital near the White House — the seat of the Russian government — marking the start of the country’s turbulent transition to democracy. In homes across the nation meanwhile, hours of footage from the ballet Swan Lake rolled over on state TV, a last moment bid to paper over the ongoing revolt.
Eighteen years later, that rebellion inspired a group of young Russian punks — some wearing tutus — to recreate iconic Swan Lake poses outside the same parliament building. Just like their parents in 1991, they wanted to make a stand for democracy in Russia.
The moment was organised and captured by artistic collection Kultrab, with the clothes all part of the team’s latest collection, Sami Valite (or Bug Yourself Out).
The group produces designer merchandise to support Russia’s grassroots activism, working closely with media organisations such as MediaZona, which focuses on the country’s criminal justice system.
“It all started with a streetwear drop in support of MediaZona’s crowdfunding campaign,” say Kultrab’s co-founders, Egor Eremeev and Alina Muzychenko. The capsule, which encompassed hoodies, scarves and coats, emblazoned with the words, “Budyet khuzhe” (“It will get worse”), received a warm welcome on Moscow’s design scene. “[It] helped us realise that the daunting discomfort we felt about the Russian state was clearly shared by many,” say the pair. “There is a conflict between the young nation and an ageing state. We have inherited a system where domestic violence, police outrage and ecological decay are thriving, but the state is reluctant to make any changes.”
Kultrab are now the first to twist high-profile media stories, as well as national holidays such as the Day of the Russian Flag, into new opportunities for blithe artistic comment.
The brand’s name is short for kultrabotnik, a Soviet term used to refer to a worker involved in engaging the masses through culture and public events. The label has recently dropped mini-collections in support of Russia’s feminist activists, the LGBTQ community, and arrested Russian anarchists.
Although Eremeev and Muzychenko are the masterminds behind Kultrab initiative, an ad-hoc collective forms to work on each collection.
“Artists have a gut feeling and it’s important that we stand together. We love working with understated, young artists. They are raw and independent,” say Eremeev and Muzychenko. “But in the end, it really takes a lot of time to hunt down someone who has the right vision for us”.
Kultrab’s co-contributors range from Yakutian punk collective Youth of the North to avant-garde photographer Sasha Chaika. Emmie America and Pussy Riot’s Natalia Tolokolnikova have also collaborated.
But although Kultrab-clad gentry can be spotted at pretty much every Moscow house party — not to mention bars, film schools and creative communities — it is still difficult for Kultrab to operate in Russia. The label remains unashamedly political. Its Instagram account streamed protests and one-person pickets in Russia last autumn, fighting for digital space in a media landscape that largely ignored the movement. And in late November, when temperatures dropped below zero, Kultrab began donating hoodies to protestors detained in Russia’s pre-trial detention centres, where a lack of heating can often leave cells freezing. The result is that the team have been forced to move the premises several times already as landlords refuse to rent to them.
“Most buyers are not ready to work with us,” says the pair. “Landlords are scared of the police and there is a growing fear of being put in prison in the country in general.”
But both Eremeev and Muzychenko are keen to continue their work, despite the pressure they face. “We are idealists and we believe that our work can make a difference. Everyone in the team is equally contributing, everyone has a voice and a vision,” they say. “Working together really helps us to remain sane while the whole world seems to have gone crazy.”