Russia has a lot of closed gay men

"Everything indicates that it will get worse"

It shows unofficial Russia: drawings by the Russian artist and political activist Wiktoria Lomasko can be seen at the Fumetto comic festival. A conversation about violence against gays and lesbians in Russia and how Russia is turning into a dictatorship.

By Thomas Bürgisser

Tightly embraced couples and young dancers at the bar, smoking and drinking, conversations at the bar, intimate looks and touches, deep kisses. The scenes from the Infinity lesbian club in St. Petersburg are presented by the Moscow artist Wiktoria Lomasko at the Fumetto comic festival in Lucerne. Snapshots, taken from the nightlife, drawn in rough strokes with Indian ink and felt pen, sometimes colored in bright colors. Everything looks immediate and authentic, pulls the viewer under its spell.

These images will not shock anyone in Switzerland. In Russia, on the other hand, homosexuality is very politically charged. In 2013 a law against the «propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations» was passed. Via an audio installation, those affected provide information in interviews about how they are stigmatized by society and homophobic legislation.

WOZ: Wiktoria Lomasko, the lesbian scene in Russia is actually an invisible subculture. How was the contact with this scene for you?
Wiktoria Lomasko: The first time I went to the Infinity Club, I was really shocked. This is real underground: a place isolated from the outside world. People are tense because it is dangerous to go there and dangerous to go from there. I also saw for the first time real women hugging and kissing. With us you don't see that anywhere on the street. We have a very patriarchal culture, the focus is always on the man. He is the King, the God. The women are competitors who vie for the favor of men. Here, on the other hand, all the attention was given to women among themselves. Had a man got there, he would have gone nuts.

Where does your interest in the subject of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) come from?
In 2013 I was invited to participate in the jury of a well-known LGBT cinema festival in St. Petersburg. Very terrible things happened from the beginning. As soon as it opened, the police cleared the cinema due to a bomb threat. Violent homophobic activists then lurked in the streets. They came every evening. That is why you were not allowed to move outside the guarded festival area alone, it was too dangerous.

In fact, there are also numerous other attacks on LGBT people, they are beaten, doused with urine or paint, and this can even lead to murder. Everyone knows that you will never be held accountable for such acts because the violence is aimed against a group of citizens who are “bad” and “not right”. I was interested in what kind of life it is when you have to be so afraid every day. You can only understand what these people really feel, how these people think, if you put yourself in their shoes.

Why is there such aggression against LGBT people?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, people no longer wanted to hear about politics and ideology. But then the government came to the conclusion that in order to stay in power it had to give people new ideas.

It is about going back to the old formula of the tsarist empire: Orthodoxy - autocracy - nationalism, i.e. nationalism. I first met activists of Orthodox Christianity during the trial of the “Forbidden Art” (see “Comics from the Court” following this text). It was then that I saw for the first time what was going on in these people's heads; it was like visiting the Middle Ages. This Christian Orthodox ideology penetrates Russian society through the media and schools. Russia is a holy land, an empire, they say, that has to go its own way. Vladimir Putin is our sole leader, unique and irreplaceable. The enemy is the "immoral West". If marriages between gays or lesbians are allowed there, that's a shame that we can't allow.

You are generally interested in social groups on the fringes of society ...
Yes, there are very many of them in Russia, but there is no objective reporting. Sooner or later, practically everyone ends up in a stigmatized group: for example because they are sick, old or single. Normal is only someone who is young and healthy, has a good job, a network, a family, children - all of whom must be normal and healthy ... But that is not reality.

It is especially difficult for women not to fall into a marginalized group. If you are not married, everyone asks you: "Why not, what is wrong with you?" If you are married, your husband may leave you. Society doesn't help these people. On television, in the press, you can see everywhere: There are real citizens and there are those who have to disappear. I think that everyone has to be given the right to be themselves. Otherwise we must all be afraid of being judged and out of this fear we will attack others. I want to show unofficial Russia. We are completely alienated from one another and each lives for himself.

What role can art play here?
Art can play a huge role, but only if it finds access to the masses. Russia is a very literary country. That is why the connection between text and image is so important to me. It was never clear to me why art should only be for people who deal with it for professional reasons. What's that good for? I began to orientate myself on the tradition of the Peredwischniki. This was a group of painters in Russia at the end of the 19th century who were interested in social and political topics and who wanted to convey their pictures to a broader population with traveling exhibitions.

Do you see yourself as a kind of drawing journalist?
There is no other way to find out about others than to become a journalist. I started with drawn court reports about various political trials that have been carried out against artists and activists in recent years. Hardly anyone reads newspaper reports about it. People think: Ah, politics, that's boring. But you look at pictures, you think they're cool, maybe they captivate you and you start reading. Many people who read the comic report on my blog about migrant women from Central Asia who were kept as work slaves in the middle of Moscow for years hadn't even known about it. It was reported in various well-known magazines.

Do you think that society can be changed that way?
Until recently, I thought that I could actually make some contribution to making people understand each other better. Especially in 2012, during the citizens' protests, it somehow worked. The most important exhibition of my life was in Tschistye Prudy Park, as part of the Moscow Occupy movement. There was a camp there with activists who tried to create a civil society here and now. There was a people's kitchen, a library, lectures were given, people exchanged ideas. I spent the whole day there, drawing people from morning to evening, trying to feel the atmosphere. My pictures were exhibited and discussed on easels in the camp. I felt happy, not because of my personal situation, but because it was as if a door was opening: people who normally went through life tense and closed suddenly began to look at each other, approached strangers, talked to each other about politics and listened to each other. They began to understand that a multitude of different opinions can coexist and that these can mutually enrich one another. For Russia it was a rare and precious experience.

What has become of it?
The occupation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine fundamentally changed Russia. The long apolitical society became politicized very quickly and in a brutal and absurd way. In 2012 we fought together for social programs and a new government, which is no longer talked about today. Only war is a constant topic everywhere. Left activists have also quarreled about it and some of them no longer talk to each other. Anyone who continues to deal with critical social and political issues must fear being attacked in the street or at meetings by nationalist activists. The brightest and most committed members of the protest movement have been imprisoned or have emigrated. Everyone is paranoid. The new repressive laws are very vague. You have no idea whether and how something will be punished. Even those who write critical posts in social networks can be punished with huge fines or even with imprisonment. Everything is subject to the arbitrariness of officials and courts. Because of the crisis, everyone is also afraid of being laid off.

The worst thing is the scissors in the head, the self-censorship. There are many examples in history of how a society isolates itself more and more, gradually transforming itself into a dictatorship. I am now an eyewitness to such a process. It is a very profound experience when they take away your freedom, when the boundaries of what you are allowed to do and say become increasingly narrow. With each word, you have to weigh whether it's worth the risk. I used to have a lack of understanding of how artists behaved in Stalinism in the 1930s when they were brought into line. Today this is my own, practical, physical experience. It tightens my throat.

What's next?
I would love to answer something optimistic, but everything indicates that things are going to get worse. The country is closing up, becoming more and more repressive. It is quite possible that the war will flare up again and open conflict will break out. The government needs an enemy to whom it can blame for the social problems, the devaluation of the ruble, and unemployment, otherwise people will get the idea that the government itself is to blame and that they have to be replaced. Anyone who wants to make any critical statements in public space will be strangled immediately. This leads to an export of important topics abroad, where understandably hardly anyone is interested in them. A huge number of young activists, artists and intellectuals want to leave Russia or have already left. Every conversation with friends sooner or later leads to the question: Do you already know where you are going to emigrate? What? No? But how do you want to survive here?

Viktoria Lomasko and Anton Nikolajew: «Forbidden Art. A Moscow exhibition ». Matthes & Seitz publishing house. Berlin 2013. 171 pages. 33 francs.

Comics from the court

Wiktoria Lomasko, born in Serpukhov in 1978, studied art and graphics at Moscow University. Since 2008 the artist, curator, journalist and political activist has mainly been working with social graphics and drawn reports.

She became known through the comic report "Verbotene Kunst", written with Anton Nikolajew, about the trial against the organizers of the art exhibition of the same name (in German by Matthes & Seitz, Berlin, 2013).

Lomasko documented various politically motivated court hearings against female artists, journalists and members of the opposition such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky or the punk band Pussy Riot. With “Chronicle of Resistance” she wrote a highly acclaimed photo report on the street protests against the government in Moscow in the winter of 2011/2012.

At the Fumetto comic festival in Lucerne (March 7-15, 2015) Lomasko is presenting some of her current works with artists from both countries as part of the Russian-Swiss exchange project “Pas de Deux”. Lomasko also documents her activities on her blog soglyadatay.livejournal.com.

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