A recent issue of The Economist had a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the cover with the headline “A tsar is born”. To ensure the irony was not lost on people, cover had another line below: “100 years after the Russian revolution”. The rise of the former intelligence service strongman and his vice-like grip on all things Russian are well-known stories by now. Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine, the country’s role in the Syrian crisis, and the President’s belligerent pronouncements have given rise to visions of a new Cold War – even if US President Donald Trump professes friendship with Putin.
But how is Russia actually doing under Putin? Despite its so-called openness after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, not much news on the lives of the common people has made its way into the western media. From outside the country, it appears that Russians have very few questions to ask their president. This is where Victoria Lomasko’s book of graphic reportage, Other Russias, comes in.
Lomasko makes the reader familiar with protests, anger, suffering and despair amongst Russians, all of it flying under the media radar. With her here-and-now series of sketches and matter-of-fact reports, the cartoonist-activist’s interviews portray lives that are a far cry from a Russian oligarch’s glittering mansion and glitzy pursuits in Moscow. She does not tell a single story through conventional panels, but strings together a series of standalone sketches that provide multiple views and perspectives.
With all the sketches in Other Russias were done on-site, it took Lomasko eight years to complete the book. There were no photographs as references, and in some cases she sketched as she spoke to her subjects, with no chance of a second interaction. There are images of live events too, their subjects being in motion as waves of protests crashed on the streets. Lomasko was the proverbial fly on the wall, watching and meticulously recording speeches, statements and casual chat in her sketchbook.
The art may not evoke the kind of response that a more meticulously drawn Joe Sacco album might, but the quick black-and-white sketches capture the moments in all their rawness, exuberance and sincerity. This isn’t the sort of art that the cartoonist learnt during her art school training, but one that helps build a bridge of empathy between her subjects and the reader. But, far from being idle doodles, these drawings suit the style of close-up documentation of life in all its sordidness and helplessness.
The choice of art form is also the cartoonist’s protest against the contemporary art scene in Russia. The death of Soviet socialist realism led to the growth of new Russian art that rejected real people, places and things as subjects. Lomasko successfully counters the argument that all great art has to be abstract. According to Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts, comics are “fairly” art – a mixture of fair text and fair art. The book does “fairly” well on Schultz’s definition and more.
The sketches and the associated brief reports are broadly divided into two sections – “Invisible” and “Angry”. The first section, as the names suggests, covers the cartoonist’s interactions with migrant labourers, inmates at juvenile detention facility, old people taking refuge with the Russian Orthodox Church, sex workers, people at forgotten rural schools, and so on. The most striking sketches and stories in this section are on modern day slavery in Moscow. These reports are based on Lomasko’s interviews with young female “slaves” freed by civil society from a grocery store run in the city by a couple from Kazakhstan.
Lomasko documents the stories of rape, torture and other abuse with great care and empathy. Lured by a canny Kazakh lady with the offer of a better life in the city, these girls from an erstwhile Soviet republic were enslaved on their arrival with their passports snatched away, and then brutalised by the store owners. Even the children born to them were not spared. All the while the Moscow police looked the other way. These are not stories from the seamy underbelly of the Russian capital, but from a grocery store frequented by Muscovites right under the nose of the Kremlin.
“Angry”, the second section, covers people’s movements – some unknown even to Russians – to reclaim their rights. From Pussy Riot supporters to truckers, people have been up in arms against censorship, arbitrary increases in tax, the political gagging of Putin’s opponents, farcical electoral practices, and high-handed action to silence the public. Lomasko’s art and text capture the mood through the people she depicts – it allows her to add faces to otherwise nameless protests.
Many of these reports have not featured mainstream media. The Russian authorities have the necessary resources to stamp out dissent. Despite the nature of the protests and her role as a street-level activist-cartoonist, Lomasko does not lose her sense of humour in her book. One interesting example is recorded in a sketch of two policewomen in conversation during a protest in Moscow.
“‘When is this going to end so we can get weekends off?’
‘It doesn’t hurt to dream.’”
Another example, which also reveals Lomasko’s eye for detail, is the writing on a placard during a 2012 protest: “A woman’s work is revolution, not soup.”
Despite many of the characters, places and events being unfamiliar to readers from outside Russia, Other Russias is surprisingly engaging. Many of the issues highlighted are universal – corruption, ramshackle rural infrastructure, homophobia, and the ills of the market economy. It is a portrayal of contemporary Russia that often gets overshadowed by the overtly masculine, tough-talking president.
“E Kolkata r moddhye aache aar ek ta Kolkata / Hente dekhte shikhun.— Shankha Ghosh
(Within this Kolkata lies another Kolkata / Learn to walk so you can see it.)”
These lines by the celebrated Bengali poet Shankha Ghosh come alive in Other Russias. The people on the margins of a society seething in anger populate Lomasko’s view of Vladimir Putin’s Russia from the pavements.
Other Russias, Victoria Lomasko, translated by Thomas Campbell, Penguin.