You can tell everything you need to know about what Victoria Lomasko thinks of her homeland by the titles of this book’s two sections: ‘Invisible’ and ‘Angry’. A graphic artist from Serpukhov, just south of Moscow, Lomasko spent eight years documenting people from all walks of life across Russia, producing drawing and commentary about the ‘Russia that is hardly ever seen’. Many of her fellow citizens feel invisible. Almost all of them are angry. The effect of seeing this in cartoon form is disturbing, impressive and fascinating.
The subject matter she is dealing with is almost unbearable: juvenile prison wards, sex workers, protesters affected by Russia’s homophobic laws. Lomasko calls this ‘reportage’ and she has modelled her work on the albums produced by Russian soldiers and concentration camp inmates in the 19th and 20th centuries. She frequently engaged her subjects in conversation and added in their quotes.
In ‘Invisible’, she brings to life the people who are socially isolated: ‘They have no way to “move up” in life, and no access to the public arena.’ Often the encounters feel aggressive and the messages from her subjects are hostile. But she seems to draw them without judgment.
‘Do you have a priest’s blessing to draw us?’ asks one old lady who has taken refuge in the Orthodox Church. An Orthodox activist, his teeth black and eyes crazed, says: ‘The West wants to destroy the bold and beautiful Russian people.’ A woman on the Metro recites Pushkin’s ‘Ode to Liberty’ to herself, her face like that of a medieval hag: ‘Pushkin is our great poet. Everything else is tawdry.’
‘Angry’ is a fantastic insight into the warring factions inside Russia. ‘Lenin lives! It’s what I live for.’ ‘Way to go, Pussy Riot! I would have sung “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away” with them.’ She documents random protests we don’t hear about, including one in 2011: ‘A crowd of people who were poorly dressed, didn’t have iPhones and didn’t have any party allegiances.’ They carry balloons reading ‘Retire Putin’. In another section, homophobes routinely clash with LGBT protesters. It’s a portrait of a country whose people have too many ill-informed disagreements with each other to turn their anger on the government with any meaningful force.
Lomasko writes that in 2008, when she began this collection, her only desire was to avoid getting stuck in the sterile white cube of the gallery, and get over her fear of reaching out to ‘ordinary’ people. She has created an unusual and compelling piece of documentary art that stays with you long after you’ve finished studying the cartoons. One old lady tells nobody in particular on a train: ‘A chickadee landed on my window today. That means I’ll die soon.’
Viv Groskop's new book The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature is out in October.