A guide to the New East

Other Russias review

Victoria Lomasko mixes art and reportage in this powerful national portrait

As protestors gathered outside Moscow’s Basmanny courthouse on 23 August, calling for charges against detained theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov to be dropped, one emotion made itself heard above all else: anger. After the judge’s decision to place the avant-garde director under house arrest, a prominent publisher and cultural figure declared: “I am upset, angry and depressed.” In Victoria Lomasko’s Other Russias, anger is equally pervasive — indeed, it comprises the entire second section of this novel made up of textual inserts and graphical reportage. From organisers of an LGBT film festival in Moscow threatened with bomb scares, to truckers who protested a new toll charge for months during a bitingly cold winter, Lomasko’s work tells the compelling stories of communities striving for visibility, fuelled by angry resistance to an ever more indifferent state. The scene outside the Basmanny courthouse could well have served as the book’s epilogue. 

Split into two parts, “Invisible” and “Angry”, in Other Russias Lomasko has collated eight years of research, travelling to Russian cities and remote rural villages, speaking with marginalised communities on the edge of society. Lomasko’s work paints a comprehensive picture of some of Russia’s most pressing social issues, intensified by the urgency of her drawings. Illustrated live on the scene, as opposed to reproduced from photos, these compulsively engaging black and white drawings are vital in putting a face to the faceless, reminding us that real people, real lives are at stake here. Stylistically cartoon-esque but thematically dense, a potent tension oozes out of Lomasko’s pen. 

Though our narrator remains critical of the government in the short excerpts she is afforded, the authorial presence is relegated to the wings, inviting Russia’s forgotten citizens centre-stage. This, however, is no theatre production, but a brutal confrontation with reality. Alongside the subject matter — grim stories of slavery, juvenile detention, homelessness and prostitution — it is often the bluntness of the language used that is most shocking, suggesting that what sounds extreme to our ears is normality for them. In the chapter Slaves of Moscow, Lomasko writes of one Bakiya: “Her front teeth have been knocked out, her fingers are broken, and her ears torn;” Leila’s six-year-old son Bakhyt would have his head beaten “against the wall or against an iron safe” when he made mistakes in the grocery shop in which he was held captive. On 30 October 2012, 12 slaves, including Bakiya and Bakhyt, were freed from a grocery store in Moscow owned by a Kazakhstani couple. A singular triumph among a myriad of devastation. 

Equal weighting is given to “ordinary” citizens such as these and widely covered public figures such as Pussy Riot, as if to indicate that all human suffering is of equal importance and worthy of recording. Reporting from the Pussy Riot pre-trial hearing in April 2012, as Masha Alyokhina’s arrest is extended, Lomasko quotes persecuted Russian poet Osip Mandelstam: “All right then, I apologise, / But I haven’t changed a bit deep down inside.” Meanwhile, in a chapter entitled Black Portraits, an old babushka sits on a log with her dog and poetically laments, “I’ll be gone by the fall. A new dress, bloomers and even a handkerchief are ready on the back of my chair.” In what might pass as a pastiche of Mandelstam or Akhmatova, the old lady’s lyrical breath quietly connects her to her louder rockstar counterpart. Alyokhina and the old woman, a somebody and a nobody, are bound by poetry in the face of suffering and death. Poetry, perhaps Russia’s greatest antidote, is to be found throughout.

  • “I have a college degree. I’m not about to sweep stairwells.” / “We don’t have any boys at the moment.” Sex workers in Nizhny Novgorod

While the content of the work centres on poignant individual stories, its structure firmly belongs to the collective. With chapters entitled Slaves of Moscow, The Girls of Nizhny Novgorod, Political Show Trials 2013-2014 and Grassroots Protests 2015-2016, Lomasko captures the collective mood of the time, as these embattled communities struggle for justice. In the final chapter, Grassroots Protests 2015-2016, the language moves decidedly from the singular to the plural, mimicking the wider trend of unified, social resistance emerging in Russia today. “People need hospitals and kindergartens more than they need another church,” one woman protests at Torfyanka Park against the Orthodox Church’s 200 Churches programme; “When the Kremlin clock chimed, we listened to a video address by truckers instead of the president’s address,” one man reveals during the truckers camp at Khimki; “Dubki Park makes children and squirrels happy,” a young boy says as residents of the Timiryazev District in Moscow oppose the construction of a 22-storey building on the site of a former kindergarten and line of oak trees. Bound as they are by an impulse to fight for something bigger than themselves, Lomasko’s work leaves the reader with a sobering admiration for these unwaveringly determined communities. 

Despite the work’s brutal confrontation with relentless social injustice, calls for change crucially come from the characters, not the author. The withholding of Lomasko’s opinions allows those of Russia’s forgotten citizens to jump out further from the page. But for some communities, change is the enemy. Though imperfect, the preservation of the status quo is the most likely means for survival. In the chapter entitled The Girls of Nizhny Novgorod, one woman is staunchly opposed to the legalisation of prostitution, objecting to the additional taxes that would be levied against them, while another simply shrugs, labelling her profession “just a service”. Again, Lomasko brilliantly questions the emotional, at times moral judgement of the reader through the casual disinterest of the character. This is perhaps no more telling than when she writes: “Both groups of women were firm about the fact that what they did was a ‘normal’ job,” corroborated with the image of a busty, middle-aged women stating: “I have a college degree. I’m not about to sweep stairwells.” 

Not only is Other Russias an illuminating tapestry of the country’s social challenges, it is a mirror in which the reader traces their own emotional reactions. Encouraging us to confront our own hypersensitivity or desensitisation, the work is a profound comment on the way we tell and receive stories of human suffering today. 

Other Russias is out now from Penguin.

Text: Matthew Janney
Images taken from Other Russias

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