Can Drawing Be a Crime?
A Russian artist finds herself in the middle of a government crackdown on artistic expression.
Nov 24, 2020
A drawing by Yulia Tsvetkova. The caption reads, “A family is where there is love. Support LGBT+ families.”
Tsvetkova had found herself at the unhappy collision of Russia’s top-down reactionary lurch in politics. It was manufactured and directed by the Kremlin’s political “technologists,” as they are known, and subject to the petty grievances, ambitions, and whims of local officials, who are left to interpret and act out the signals passed down from the federal center. The resurgent emphasis on conservative values dates to 2012, when Putin, facing reelection in the midst of the largest opposition protests of his rule, sought to establish a new base of legitimacy, drawing on a hodgepodge ideology drawn from anti-Western rhetoric, the Russian Orthodox Church, and skepticism about liberal values. It was also in 2012 that three members of the punk collective Pussy Riot were sentenced to two-year prison terms for their protest performance in a Moscow cathedral. The legislation outlawing so-called LGBTQ “propaganda” was passed the following year.
The mood further hardened after 2014, when a standoff with the West over Ukraine—Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and backed a separatist war in eastern Ukraine—led to a further turn away from all things that could be labeled Western, whether in geopolitics, art, or civic values. Russian state television became inundated with scaremongering tales of louche debauchery and gay-pride parades in European capitals; cultural events that challenged the new orthodoxy were cancelled or, in some cases, stormed by nationalist activists. Political critics were painted as moral and cultural outcasts, while artists and performers faced pressure to keep the new red lines in mind.
Over this span, a number of Russian artists had been tried for performance pieces that took the form of political actions, like Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” in 2013 or artist Petr Pavlensky setting fire to the door of the FSB headquarters in 2015. But these were artists in the “actionist” tradition, whose artworks were classified by the state as vandalism, hooliganism, or unsanctioned protest. In the meantime, plenty of exhibits, plays, and operas have been cancelled or disrupted; a significant number of artists—like the theater director Kirill Serebrennikov—who fell afoul of the authorities on aesthetic or political grounds were formally tried for unrelated would-be crimes (such as embezzlement in Serebrennikov’s case). But what is unique, and deeply troubling, about Tsvetkova’s case is that it marks the first time that an artist is being criminally charged not for an action or protest, nor for some other legalistic pretext, but simply for the contents of her art.
A card that reads, “Up to six years in prison for drawings!”
Joshua Yaffa is a correspondent for The New Yorker and the author of Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia.
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