When the country I temporarily live in was casually mentioned by Obama in the same sentence as ISIS and Ebola, I had to do some thinking. As the gap between Russia and the Western World gets steadily wider, is there anything that can bridge that abyss? Of course I always say that yes, there’s Dostoevsky and the Russian avant-garde – and that’s just two of the numerous amazing cultural things that Russia can offer. But, to enjoy these, you do not need to be in any contact whatsoever with Russia.
You can read The Brothers Karamazov in English – maybe an annotated version so you’ll definitely understand everything – and unless you want to see the Black Square by Malevich in real life and not just on a screen or in a book, you don’t have to do anything else than just go online. Believe me, it will be the first thing to come up on Google as soon as you type in as little as Russian paintings. (Although, I must admit, I just had the pleasure of seeing the mentioned artwork alongside many others in the Tretyakov Gallery. It was an amazing experience; worth getting a visa for.)
Unfortunately it seems to be mostly headlines that make it out of Russia these days, and they make the country look scary and discouraging. If you want to read or hear good things about Russia you have to do the research yourself, take the first step and probably many more. During my three months here I have realised that Russians enjoy insisting that they are different. Our grammar teacher, half-mockingly, half-serious, tried to console us by saying that it’s ok if we don’t understand verbs of motion – you would need a Russian mentality to understand them.
So, until I develop a Russian mentality I will look at the things that I can be fully receptive of. Since I’ve got a one-track mind, I immediately turned to contemporary Russian art, musicians, and producers for comfort, and to see if they can do any good for Russia. I wasn’t surprised at all to see that Russia has a major contemporary art scene. St. Petersburg has just hosted MANIFESTA 10, The European Biennial of Contemporary Art, and Moscow is the home of many fairs, exhibitions and workshops such as the Cosmoscow, International Contemporary Art Fair or the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. All these hubs create an inspiring and thrilling environment for up-and-coming young Russian artists.
The best thing about visual art and music is that they speak in a language that needs no translation – you don’t need to decipher Cyrillic to enjoy a photograph or a song. ‘Culture is a bridge, and this bridge must be the very last thing to be destroyed’ said Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum in an interview published on The Calvert Journal’s website, in which he was discussing the troubled cultural links between Russia and the USA and the lack of exchanging artefacts. This sentence sums up how painstakingly important culture and sharing art is between countries, and the devastating results it can have if we cut that link.
The Calvert 22 Foundation, a non-profit organisation, is doing an excellent job in bringing Russia and Eastern Europe closer to the UK. The online magazine, The Calvert Journal, managed by the foundation provides those who are interested with unlimited number of interesting articles about culture in modern Russia. You can read an interview with Pyotr Pavlensky, for example, the pain-artist known for having nailed his scrotum to Red Square in November 2013, and who in October of this year cut his earlobe off in protest against Russia’s psychiatric system. Also on the website is the photo series about a generation looking for a post-Soviet identity or simply just about the disconnected passengers of a the dimly lit Moscow Metro.
For those interested in Russia’s modern music scene – something a bit more relevant than Mumiy Troll – take a look at The Calvert Journal’s mixtapes. Every month they invite a Russian electronic musician to compile an hour-long mix of Russian music they think is worth hearing. The 16 mixtapes that they have uploaded so far take the listener on a guided tour in Russia’s hidden electronic scene. There’s no better indicator of how neglected the country’s music scene is than the fact that this year saw Boiler Room’s debut in the country as part of the UK-Russia Year Of Culture 2014 Programme. Nevertheless, once debuted, they also organised two other shows.
I guess in Glasgow everyone is busy preparing for exams, and at the same time strenuously looking for ways to procrastinate. Looking through Tumblr and BuzzFeed five times a day during your ‘study breaks’. Well maybe this time you can check out The Calvert Journal’s photo series or have a look at the Boiler Room sets in Russia. Oh, please, you can thank me later!