I don’t know if I’ve ever expressed my fascination with Russia. I may not have, because a lot of my book reviews revolve around novels from the lovely Francoise Sagan and French literature and cinema, but I have to publicly admit, I absolutely love Russian literature, film and history. In fact, I love Russian culture. I don’t know what it is about Russia, I just find it so…fascinating! So, you could imagine my delight when I was listening to NPR in early March and heard this fantastic interview during All Things Considered with Victoria Lomasko about her new graphic journalism entitled, Other Russias. I was over the moon! Current Russian affairs in illustration form? Count me in!
A little background about the fascinating and brave Victoria Lomasko. Lomasko was born in Serpukhov, Russia in 1978. She decided at a young age that she wanted to pursue the arts and graduated in 2003 from the Moscow State University of Printing Arts, where she majored in graphic art and book design. She then went to a fancy art school in Moscow, where she quickly learned during and after schooling that her graphic reporting would not be accepted in the Russian art scene. Realistic drawings are seen as a public affront to the socialist ways of Russian life. Lomasko states in the beginning of her book that:
“my first work of graphic reportage was rejected out of hand. I was told that no one drew from life in the 21st century. But I felt the need to complete my drawings on the spot, to serve as a conductor for the energy generated by events as they happened. I refused to make drawings from photos and videos.”
She soon realized that the type of art that she wanted to pursue was deeply inspired by the traditions of reportage drawing (as practiced during the Siege of Leningrad, in the Gulag, and within the military), and has lectured and written about graphic reportage. Lomasko has become well-known for her graphic reporting during protests in Moscow, like the post-election protests in 2012 and the Pussy Riot trials. Lomasko still lives in Moscow, Russia, but her work from Other Russias is currently on tour through out the USA and Europe.
Other Russias is really unlike any other book I’ve read before, not only are the illustrations unique and truly capture each of the subjects, but they relay a side of Russia that would otherwise go unnoticed. This book collects Lomasko’s graphic reportage from 2008 to 2016, years that she spent traveling to Russian cities and villages to “speak with people who live on the margins of Russian society.” There are two sections: “Invisible” and “Angry”. “Invisible” contains stories about juvenile prison wards, teachers and students in rural schools outside of Moscow, migrant workers who are held as slaves with little help from authorities, sex workers and single women in the Russian hinterlands. These subjects are plentiful in Russia, however what makes these particular people distinct is their social isolation: they have no way to “move up” up in life and they have no way to publicly express their frustrations.
The second section of the book, “Angry,” chronicles people’s attempts to come together and take back their voice and rights from the state. This section focuses heavily on large opposition rallies during the 2012 election in Russia and subsequent trials of protestors, the Pussy Riot trials, an LGBT film festival, and most importantly, the grass root protests from environmentalists and truckers.
All of these stories culminate to make a book that gives a better perspective of how disadvantaged people are in Russia, yet despite this disadvantage, people are still coming together and fighting for a better and brighter tomorrow. Even the fact that Lomasko is taking the time to speak to these people and share their stories speaks volumes about the human spirit to be heard and share a collective experience.
One of the most striking voices and images in the entire book is the portrayal of women in Russia. This is not limited to sections devoted entirely to women, like “Feminine,” rather this is something that courses throughout the entire book. We see women from the beginning of the book until the end who are constantly at a disadvantage because of their gender. An old woman is homeless and is reduced to crashing on couches and sleeping on trains, desperate to tell her story to strangers, all because her son decided that he needed her room. Even Lomasko states:
“I became an artist, but I do not feel like a winner. In this country, these women’s life strategies and mine are transformed into losses. I look at the heroines in “Feminine” and find a part of myself in all of them.”
In Russia, women who are successful professionally are still seen as failures. It’s a society where no one wins, especially women. This is particularly evident during the section “Angry” that documents an ill-fated LGBT film festival. Despite the fact that the people participating in the festival are constantly threatened, many of the gay men are extremely sexist. Lomasko remarks, shocked:
“At Side by Side, I noticed that the LGBT community was not free of sexism either. Spotting my jury member badge, one young gay man asked me what movies I would be voting for. Hearing that I had chosen Blue is the Warmest Color and Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution, he said, “Those films are so boring. And lesbian sex is disgusting to watch.”
She also notes that most of the films are shot by male directors and dealt with gay love. Women are still oppressed, even within a community that deals with prejudice almost daily.
One of the most revealing sections regarding women is entitled, “The Girls of Nizhny Novgorod,” which deals with sex workers in Moscow. These women operate out of a rented apartment where sexual services are provided. Lomasko remarks:
“There is a striking difference between the images of prostitutes circulated by the media and the working girls I saw. They condemned the violent behavior of men (not just their clients), harshly criticized the authorities (both government officials and the police), and tried to maintain personal boundaries even while doing this kind of work, which seemed wildly unrealistic to me.”
The women can quit working at the office as any moment and seem to create a bond with each other. Each expressing their frustration with their circumstances, while also denouncing their customers. Below are some images from this section of the book.
There are other groups that are presented in Lomasko’s work, but I encourage you to read and connect with these characters first hand. To be quite honest, the entire book is absolutely fascinating. I think I took longer to finish and write this particular book review, simply because I did not want it to end. I could have read on and on about the various characters in Lomasko’s world.
So, would I recommend this book? Absolutely! Not only will you learn a lot about modern-day Russia, but you’ll absolutely love all of the beautiful illustrations. Go grab a copy right now from N+1! Go, do it! You won’t regret it!