“There is no sex in the Soviet Union” — this famous phrase, uttered by Lyudmila Ivanova on the perestroika-era TV show US-Soviet Space Bridge, was never one to take at face value. The forbidden fruit was indeed tasted, albeit obliquely, on the pages of Burda and Krestyanka (“peasant girl”) fashion magazines and in the packaging for tights; women modelling swimsuits and naked legs being the most erotic images generations of Soviet citizens had public access to. Some people even used tights packages as wallpaper, turning their bathrooms into peep shows. Aerobiсs video tutorials were also high in demand, thanks to the garish, tight-fitting bodywear of the instructors. When perestroika came, Burda and tights were joined by illegal porn movies and Playboy print issues, for those who could get their hands on them.
The late 80s were also the time when so-called chernukha films like Interdevochka and Little Vera hit screens — the first Soviet films with scenes of explicit character, they attracted millions of viewers. The acid parties and oligarchs of the 90s hardly added elegance to the newly-born erotica scene in Russia, when collections of Playboy playing cards decorated the windscreen of every truck driver across the former Soviet Union, seedy shots from mass-market erotic newspaper Speed Info magazine lined the back shelves of teenagers’ rooms and midnight porn series were broadcast legally on the REN TV channel. Sex was a reality you didn’t even have to fight for. Rewatching music videos from the 90s, with Babylon by Angelika Varum among the highlights, it can seem like the new-found freedom that mattered most was the right to be naked.
Now, in 2017, in a reality probably as conservative as ever, the seedy aesthetics and unconscious imagery of the 90s is suddenly what we’re looking for again. Will nudity for nudity’s sake rule again in post-Soviet erotica? Here is our list of the magazines, projects and photographers reinventing erotica. Again.
In contemporary Ukraine, unrest and a lust for freedom blend with new national truths and audacity: this is what Kiev-based street artist and photographer Sasha Kurmaz treats with poetic irony in his nude series. Some of the images — a naked woman climbing the barricade, laddered tights collaged with a bombed building, a woman clinging to the black granite arms of a war-time monument — provoke discussion on nudity and vulnerability when contrasted with their Brutalist environment. Other works range from playful images of naked bodies and fake phalluses put together from toys from the 90s, to overtly erotic, even brutal scenes. Kurmaz’s portfolio comes complete with altar-like erotic installations reminiscent of post-internet digital collages and Surrealist paintings.
Join the Cool
For Kiev-based trio Mishka Bochkarev, Kristina Podobed and Genia Volkov, also known as Join the Cool, it’s the absurd beauty and depth of pop culture that inspires them to create their photo series. From images of dear friends and vacation shots in Kristina in the Black Sea to archetypal woman-warrior visuals in Love Hackers: soldiers in the field of life, Join the cool’s work provides an essential dose of the raw euphoria that love and sex, in the end, are all about.
Founded by Dasha Utchka & Nastya Pilepchuk, better known as DJ duo Maiden Obey, Areola mag is all about praising the beauty of the body. Areola models are conventionally sexy and beautiful and the series — mostly stunted, directed photoshoots with straightforward concepts — offer an exciting journey through contemporary Russia. Highlights include the rooftop series, full of twilight magic and charming youth, home-made erotica in the iconic khrushchevka bedroom with Soviet-era plywood bed and broken TV, an appreciation of Pamela Anderson’s erotic legacy, a tattooed mermaid lost in the Russian countryside, and an AES+F-inspired series featuring nun-styled naked ladies in Squat 3/4, a baroque steam-house-turned-dance-club in the centre of Moscow. Plus: a photo series with Ukrainian singer Luna.
Nominally a limited edition print magazine about fashion from Saint Petersburg, Meow Mag is in fact a refined visual experiment at the crossroads of commercial fashion and independent set design, with a special take on erotica. It is the sense of fairy-tale magic that makes the explicit nude series in Meow look so sensual and sophisticated, creating an entire narrative behind each photo story. And, above all, finally bringing men into the game.
Andrey Surnov’s Earth Mother
Andrey Surnov’s Earth Mother, instantly reminiscent of Gaugin’s Haitians, is a strikingly realistic digital myth, erotic and sensual on a subconscious level. But magic and myths aside, it could also be an ironic interpretation of the erotic sensation as such: something that does not need a romantic setting to express itself, found in banal environments like a living room with a Putin address on the TV in the background, or a school classroom with pictures of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy on the walls.
This fun DIY project from three Petersburg-based illustrators — Katya Tishina, Julia Malkovich and Natasha Andreeva — is a carefree manifestation of young romantic love in the form of a colouring book. 16 erotic sketches, all completed in less than 30 minutes, celebrate love, beauty and diversity, inviting us to unlock our own artistic talent.
Text: Masha Borodacheva