It is no secret that journalists and artists are under increasing pressure to steer clear of touchy subjects and unflattering portrayals of the Kremlin in today’s Russia. Victoria Lomasko, whose work stands at an intersection of art and journalism, understands that better than most.
From the lives of sex workers to juvenile prisons, her graphic reportage casts light on sections of Russian society that she says are largely invisible both at home and to the outside world.
Lomasko’s work presents the stories of her subjects through drawings and direct quotes. With an eye on marginalized members of society, she has reported on opposition protests, trucker strikes, and Russia’s LGBT communities.
Her most recent book, Other Russias, gathers her graphic reportage from 2008 to 2016, presenting vignettes of a Russia in transition. Among the events chronicled in her book are the trial of Pussy Riot, the anti-Putin protests of 2012, and a strike by long-haul truckers against a new highway tax.
The Ellison Center caught up with Lomasko ahead of the opening of her exhibit at Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in Georgetown to talk about her work and about how Russian politics are affecting cultural exchange in the region.
Lomasko’s work will be on display at Fantagraphics Bookstore through April 5.
Your work is unique in that it pulls from both journalism and visual art. What led you to this style of media?
I liked to draw and write during my childhood. My father was the one who wanted me to be an artist. Writing was something that I did in response to my own needs and desires. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I began incorporating text into my work. At first these were things that I overheard when eavesdropping while I was drawing.
I didn’t have a sense of what I was doing or what genre I belonged to, but I didn’t want to only draw people. I wanted to write down what they were saying.
With every single story, my approach moved closer to journalism. I would develop relationships with other people who wrote and I began incorporating different methods and approaches that journalists use in their work. I’m interested to see how much information I can convey through an image and what information is left over that I need to describe through text.
I’m not as interested in separate images as I am in the narrative—the rhythm and how the story develops.
My education is as a book illustrator. It was profession taught during Soviet times. Recently, the way I work is that I immediately imagine the story laid out as a book. I see where I would place an image and where text would go. That is how I figure out the work and make it fit as a whole.
I’m also interested in sociology. I have friends who are sociologists, and I try to include their methods in my approach.
Here in the US, and I think this is increasingly true in Eastern Europe, people want instant information. With social media and smartphones, we are used to getting news and images right away while events are unfolding. Your work is more thoughtful. It takes more time to produce and to consume. What kind of audience are you trying to reach with this approach?
My stories have been published in different ways and different forms. If something is going on and it’s breaking news, it might just be an image that is published with some small text. But then I can work on the subject longer. It could be a month, and then the story will be published in a different way.
After the Pussy Right trial in 2012, you said you saw the church becoming more involved in policing art and media in Russia. How is the situation now?
I would say that the state controls the church and that the Orthodox Church we have today was created as a means to control contemporary Russian culture. In my view, most priests are just bureaucrats wearing different clothing. I think a lot of people see them that way.
It seems like we are being forced to submit to a new ideology, but it’s the same ideology that existed in Russia before the revolution—Russian Orthodoxy, sovereignty, and nationality.
You tend to cover topics that not viewed very favorably by the Russian authorities, especially events that openly oppose the government. Do you think things like protests and opposition rallies are still effective tools in Russia?
If they had been effective in 2012, we would be living in a completely different society now. I think the most effective methods are probably strikes. They are what the government is most afraid of now.
The government did a lot to get in the way of unions. Many union leaders were beaten or killed. My new book ends with a story about long-distance truckers who carry out large-scale strikes. The government was very afraid of them and shut them down.
How has the arts culture in Russia changed since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012? Is it becoming more tight-knit?
No, it’s not really getting more tight-knit. A lot of people have emigrated. A lot are living between countries. Those who have stayed in Russia are not doing well because of the economic decline. The situation for them is very bad. There is a lot of competition between them.
I think that it is becoming a time of individualism. The political processes that have been going on for the past couple of years prove that. People have to work alone and risk their own lives and well-being.
When you work with other journalists, what is the prevailing attitude about covering opposition-led events?
Journalists are often attacked. I can count on my fingers the number of journalists who are actually trustworthy and who write about important issues.
A lot of publications and media outlets are being shut down altogether or the people in charge are being forced out.
People who make news and are involved in cultural issues are put into a difficult situation. In order to be relevant and important, you have to write about what is happening here and now. But if you try and do that, you can immediately lose access to most outlets and platforms and you won’t be able to tell your stories.
While we are talking about what has been in the news in Russia, what are they saying about the situation in Ukraine now?
News, especially television, is structured like a television drama. People are losing their jobs, they can’t get basic services like medicine or education. So they go home angry and turn on the television. A soap opera begins and the TV tells them, “look how it is in Ukraine. They are all fascists there. You are living well here in Russia.”
A lot of people believe this. It’s a common attitude that, well at least we have stability and we don’t have a war here like in Ukraine.
I know a lot of refugees from Eastern Ukraine who are also the kind of people who are only watching Russian television, so they ran away because of what they saw on television.
Ukraine now has a growing art and fashion scene that has been getting some press abroad. Is there much communication between the Russian and Ukrainian arts communities?
There were very strong connections before the war. But a lot of Ukrainian artists don’t want to participate in projects in Russia on principle.
What about Russian artists?
It’s not clear why Russian artists should go there now. They should show work that addresses the situation, but that kind of work isn’t really being made. Criticizing the war in Ukraine is a taboo subject for us. Saying that Crimea doesn’t belong to Russia, for example, is basically a crime against the state because you are speaking against the unity of the federation.
Not long ago, Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan was arrested in Minsk because of his ban from Russia. Do you see politics disrupting cultural exchange in the region?
My attitudes toward this are pretty clear. It feels like anything you do puts you in danger and any decision you make can mean that you will have to answer for it.
What else do you think is important for us to know here at the University of Washington?
Everyone is probably interested in the connection between Trump and Putin. I can assure you that we do not control Donald Trump.
For a while, news about what was happening in America was getting into the official press, and everybody was getting so excited thinking that Trump loved Russia and he was going to cancel sanctions and everything was going to be great. They reported that he believed Crimea was part of Russia. Of course, it turned out that all of this was fake news, so eventually Putin ordered the media to talk less about Trump.
Victoria Lomasko’s graphic journalism is on display at Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in Georgetown through April 5.