Capitalism over culture? Moscow’s artists face eviction amid urban renewal.
Why We Wrote This
For culture to thrive in a society, artists need patronage. In Russia, the most viable avenue for that support is the state. Should Moscow be kicking artists out of subsidized studios in favor of urban development?
People stand in front of "Portrait of Leonid Brezhnev" by Soviet painter Yuri Korolyov during a press preview of the exhibition "NotForever. 1968-1985" at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, July 6, 2020.
December 16, 2020
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By Fred Weir
Ever since the Soviet era, Moscow has been a haven for Russian artists, who have received subsidized, specially built studios to practice their crafts. But that has come to an end in the past few months, as hundreds of artists have been evicted from their workspaces amid an urban renovation project that is rearranging the entire Moscow landscape in favor of big real estate developers.
The Soviet state regarded everything in terms of production. It recognized that artists and other creative people needed special conditions to ply their craft. Accomplished artists were handed workshops and given lucrative state orders to fill.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the system of subsidized workshop space for recognized artists continued under the patronage of longtime Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. But that era appears to be over.
“A new generation of city officials has decided to weigh and measure everything in terms of its monetary value,” says Sergei Alexandrov, a well-known Russian painter who has received his final eviction notice. “It doesn’t matter anymore how famous you are, or what work you have done. Now you’re not needed. Or at least the state doesn’t believe that culture is its concern anymore.”
When Yana Gavrilkevich, a painter and art teacher, got the notice that she was being evicted from her art studio, it was “a catastrophe.” And she was not the only one being turned out.
Most of the units in the large, 1960s-era apartment building in eastern Moscow in which her studio sits are simple ones. But the entire top floor consists of 14 large, high-ceilinged studios, specially built for artists in Soviet times and quite different in design from the apartments below. Generations of artists have worked here, painting, sculpting, illustrating, and such, enjoying the perks of a now-defunct system that once gave them work, premises, and a high social status.
But now the artists – not just in this building, but hundreds all across the city – are being kicked out of their subsidized studios, as Moscow officials appear to have decided that the care and feeding of culture is no longer their problem.
“This is not merely where we work. It’s also where most of us keep our working materials and collected art,” says Ms. Gavrilkevich, who inherited a studio here from her father, a noted Soviet portrait artist. “It’s not just a workplace, it’s a place of artistic continuity, memory. And now we’re just to be thrown out into the street.”
The workshops are now mostly empty, as their former occupants bow to the inevitable demolition of the building under a grand Moscow plan to replace old city housing with new buildings, as part of a much larger urban renovation project that is rearranging the entire Moscow landscape in favor of big real estate developers. But while the regular inhabitants of the building are being provided alternative housing by the city, the artists are being shown the door, with the implicit message that it’s time to start adjusting to life under capitalism.
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“A new generation of city officials has decided to weigh and measure everything in terms of its monetary value,” says Sergei Alexandrov, a well-known Russian painter, who has received his final eviction notice from the small studio he has occupied for decades. “It doesn’t matter anymore how famous you are, or what work you have done. Now you’re not needed. Or at least the state doesn’t believe that culture is its concern anymore.”
Denis Rudikh (left) and Yana Gavrilkevich stand in a studio in a soon-to-be demolished apartment building in eastern Moscow, Dec. 1, 2020. Both artists, along with at least a dozen others, were evicted from their own studios in the building by the city, without compensatory space.
Cultivated by the Soviets
The workshops came into being as part of a generous Soviet system that trained large numbers of artists in specialized schools and put them to work decorating public spaces with ideologically themed murals, monuments, posters, and other adornments; illustrating film sets and book covers; and much more. But it also provided them with private studio space where they could pursue their own projects. Most of the Moscow workshops now under threat were established in the 1960s, a time of relative economic prosperity and a great deal of political and cultural ferment in the USSR.
The Soviet state regarded everything in terms of production. The world was a big factory populated with workers fulfilling their assigned roles in socialist society. It recognized that artists and other creative people needed special conditions to ply their craft. Accomplished artists were handed workshops by the Union of Artists, and also given lucrative state orders to fill.
Even today, a walk around any Russian urban space will reveal many of those old gems. Not just the grand monuments to Soviet heroes and the palatial metro stations, but also murals calling for world peace that cover entire apartment blocs, sculptured fountains in parks, and mosaics dedicated to children’s play in kindergartens or to book-learning in schools. While much of the output of Soviet artists is regarded as dross today, some of it is highly prized and can be found in top museums and art galleries.
“The later Soviet period gave us these workshops, but it also stimulated very fruitful nonconformist trends in art,” says Ms. Gavrilkevich. “State investments into culture may have served an ideological goal, but they also drove an explosion of creativity.”
Today, the workshops are assigned by the Moscow Union of Artists, which holds leases on all the threatened studios that are valid until 2025. But three months ago, the Moscow government told them to leave. The final notices arrived in early December.
Around 500 studios are currently on the chopping block, involving about 700 artists. That’s the lion’s share of some 900 such workshops that remain in the entire city. The Moscow government is carrying out the evictions with little public discussion, and it has so far attracted scant notice in the Moscow media.
In response to questions from the Monitor, the city property department offered a brief, unsigned response: “Under the terms of contracts concluded with the city, in the event of reconstruction or demolition of the building where the public organization is located, it must vacate the occupied non-residential premises.”
The statement added, without explanation, “It is possible to place these creative workshops within the previously provided areas.”
That note of official ambiguity is giving hope to some, but Yelena Yanchuk, a Communist deputy of the Moscow City Council, says nothing is likely to change unless public opinion gets engaged with the plight of the artists.
“At some point Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said that no artists will be thrown into the street,” she says. “But he made that remark in passing, and no clear instructions followed. So, maybe the city officials are waiting for orders. Meanwhile, the situation looks like a mass ban on the artists’ profession.”
Mr. Alexandrov, who has exhibited his Russian tradition-themed paintings in the U.S. and other countries, says the tragedy is that the state is depriving artists of their few remaining Soviet-era perks at a time when Russia still lacks the developed art markets, rich benefactors, foundation grants, and other buffers that are available to help struggling artists in Western countries.
“We want to integrate into the modern world, but our state has no idea how to aid us in that transition,” he says. “We have the impression that we are just not needed; we are disposable. For many artists, these evictions will be a professional death blow.”
Left fallow by capitalists?
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the system of subsidized workshop space for recognized artists continued under the patronage of longtime Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.
“Under Luzhkov, many artists were evicted from places that had become prime real estate, but the city always found them alternative workshops,” says Denis Rudikh, an artist and Moscow Union of Artists activist. “The state stopped purchasing artistic production, but made it possible for us to survive by seeking private orders, teaching, doing things that kept body and soul together, but also enabled one to still have the identity of an artist.”
Of course, many graduates of Russia’s still-prestigious art schools find lucrative employment in the private sector today, in advertising, film, media, and corporate PR. It’s possible they regard the older Moscow artists clinging to their Soviet-era workshops as dinosaurs. But some of those artists retort that consumerism has sucked the essential creativity out of art.
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“I teach young children, and the more I teach, the more I sense a growing lack of empathy, a disconnect in emotional development,” says Ms. Gavrilkevich. “Western consumerism developed over a long period of time, but here it just exploded into being overnight. It seems like everything in this world is in the here and now. Take what you can get today, and there is no room for emotional growth, tradition, or continuity.
“In retrospect, it feels like the Soviet system, for all its faults, gave us space to create, time to reflect, and art that was intended for everyone.”