Sunday, October 7, 2007

RUSSIA - the diesel engine of art

RUSSIA – the diesel engine of art

The question about the Russian architecture or Russian art is the same as the question of the Russian soul. The Russian soul is big, it is very wide, it is sort of old and it is definitely very close to heart. Judged by the modern media or the modern urban art the real Russian soul today has no value. Also for the Russians the soul is in mental crisis – it appears.

Russia has produced the biggest steps of contemporary theater after the Greeks. Russians invented the big movies. Russians build Kremlin and St. Petersburg just to laugh for the West - half drunk and in straight connection to the mysticism of the chanting of the monks and dieing of the land slaves. Russians stole all Hitler’s paintings. Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Gogol – they were not Russians for joke and the biggest of them all: Tolstoy. All the ballets and symphonies Revolution in painting (Malevitch), revolution in architecture (Constructivism), revolution in cinema (Eisenstein), revolution in politics (Lenin).

And now: boring. Barbie –style glass architecture. Fake lesbians singing pop songs in English. Two Lenin –copy middle aged men posing to American 50 years old cheer leaders in a fancy air conditioned coffee shop.

Power Architecture

In Russia art has for long had a special meaning for the normal people. They feel that the art is for them and they are proud of their great culture. In the communist times the normal citizen could go for free to the finest museums of the world like the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. All the museums were for free, theatre was for free, cinema for free, circus for free and so on. Art was everywhere for the proletariat.

It did not matter weather you walked the boulevards of Moscow or St. Petersburg or on a muddy road of a collective farm Kolkhoz, one thing granted was public art. Dynamic sculptures of the Soviet Realism praising the heroes of the Great Patriotic War. Lenin rising to the skies even in the smallest of the villages. Also posters of high end graphic art all around the walls.

In Soviet Union the fine arts did not mean art for fine people, but as the Constructivists in the 1920’s proclaimed: we will drive a train of art to the places where art has never been seen before.

Of course the art as the Soviet Constructivists too served one cause – the revolution. In the beginning of the Bolshevik revolution Lenin realized how to use art in engaging and mesmerizing big publics. The Constructivists were perfect for his cause. They did not mind of the traditional disciplines of art but freely mixed architecture with sculpture, movie, theatre and all the other performance arts. They produced to him striking posters and agitative movies and as they promised, they constructed even trains to drive the Bolshevik art to the remotest of the villages. These trains were called Agitation Trains.

Soon the peasants and factory workers could see themselves as heroes of work in the graphics all around the empire and in the post stamps. They were farming even in the money. They were told that for them was build the amazing constructions of industrial or ultra modern urban architecture. Eisenstein made them almost religious icons in his movies like Battleship Potemkin or The Strike.

The Constructivists run wild till the end of 20’s but then Josef Stalin put his heavy hand on art and architecture and the tone became more serious. No longer did the art and architecture serve the cause of the proletariat but to underline and manifest the power of Stalin. A new era of Stalinism became.

When you visit any of the great cities of Russia you will meet the power architecture that of Stalinism. Brutal and dark color classic style concrete buildings or the so called Tooth of Stalin, the obligatory skyscraper as straight from Fritz Lang’s movie Metropolis rising above city as if guarding it like a watch dog.

Every state office was a Stalinist colossal monument and people felt very small to enter. To house the common people the Soviets developed the new style of social architecture called the Soviet Realism. Tens or hundreds of thousands of people were moved into the newly build concrete element satellite towns around Moscow or any big city. These buildings still exists and you will meet them when you visit Moscow or St. Petersburg. But they are not alone. There was a long time of Russian history before the Bolsheviks and now some 15 years of the modern era of the post-communist Russia.

The Cry of the Architects

The time before the communism is easy for the Russians to handle. This is the classic period that produced the great literature of the 19th hundreds, the ballets and so on. The was build the two great capitals of Russia too: Moscow from the Middle Ages onwards and St. Petersburg in the 18th century. In these two cities the Russians can feel their soul articulated in the finest ways architecture can ever do.

Red Square and Kremlin is the heart of Moscow and Russia while basically all of St. Petersburg is more or less an outdoor museum in a good sense like Venice. The both cities are full of Czar time classic buildings and Byzantine churches along wide boulevards and ring roads. Parks are plenty and people use their cities in a very physical way enjoying their cities as their home. Both the Muscovites and the St. Petersburg people are extremely proud of their home cities, but the city of the pride is the old city - the new time after the collapse of the Soviet Union is more traumatic.

Go to Moscow and the bank buildings are already surrounding the Red Square – the holiest of the holiest. The big oil-giants flashing their neon names like Jukos or Lukoil facing the tomb of Vladimir Iljich Lenin – how far can you go? Is Russia dead?

No: still the Red Square rules. Maybe the most hard core urban space in the world. Nothing can touch it. The forever mushroom towers of the cathedrals carrying both the Orthodox Christian cross as well as the communist red star in a pure balance. As when the Christians had to deal with the pagans and the Shamanistic Russian peasants in the Middle Ages (see: Andrei
Tarkovsky: Andrei Rublyev) so had the communists to deal with the gold framed icons and the mysticism of the Byzantine. Vladimir Putin on top of Vladimir Lenin on top of Ivan the Terrible. They all breath the same air of Russia. Not the same air as in the air conditioned coffee shop.

St. Basil’s Cathedral of the Red Square was started in 1552 by two Russian architects on the commands of the Czar Ivan the Terrible to build up a monument celebrating the final victory over the barbaric Tartarts. Hallucinating colors on the twisting top of the towers and the fantastic red brick work – the building breathes - it is not a building anymore, it really exists. Ivan the Terrible liked the work too. He made the architects blind by boiling their eyes with a red hot dagger so that they could never make another cathedral like St. Basil’s again. Russians love the Cathedral – Ivan, he united the country, Jukos and Lukoil are just hanging around. You can still hear the scream of the architects on the Red Square. Then go to Mc Donald’s just around the corner.

While on the Red Square you can feel Ivan the Terrible in the Russian Dark Ages making his decisions to destroy the Tartars on the shopping streets of Moscow you just feel poor. Moscow is really one of the most expensive cities of the world and the most expensive what comes to the rents. St. Petersburg – very expensive too. The rich elite walking in high heels and mini skirts in -30 degrees cold having their champagne and caviar for breakfast. Nothing has changed since Tolstoy. The upper class and the peasants have always been way apart in Russia and it seems to be perfectly okay, as being part of the soul. Bolsheviks made a short gap for the rich to parade the boulevards but now the citizens are proud to announce: they are back. In Moscow more US dollar millionaires than in any other city of the world.

St. Petersburg is phenomenal. Build in the 18th century by Czar Peter the Great the city is called the Venice of the North. The original swamp delta of the river Neva was then controlled by elegant canals, countless bridges and whole city was build in neo classic style to open a gate to West. Moscow is in the middle of Russia, while St. Petersburg was created as a port city to the Baltic Sea.

Compared to Moscow’s 10 million hectic citizens the 5 million St. Petersburg people walk slower their wide boulevards and they have art museums comparable to the Louvers of Paris. For many of the Russian elite Moscow is the city to work and St. Petersburg the city to be.

The Barbie Byzantine

What comes to the architecture of the time after the collapse of the Soviet Union – nothing much to say. All the money and gold was taken over by the nowadays elite of the Russians - the Oligarchs, who control the banks, the oil and so on. Since the Proletarian State is no longer the host of the architects and artist they now please the new king and architecture and art has become decoration for the rich.

The both centers Moscow and St. Petersburg have become so expensive in their city centers that normal people have nothing to do in there. The old buildings are mainly remained untouched while the communist era buildings are being knocked down one by one to be replaced by the strangest constructions of glass and stainless steel. They are truly a fascinating mix of star ship utopias (Juri Gagarin – first man in space) and dream works of a Barbie castle with a tip of Byzantine twist.

You can see housing areas of the gypsy mafia (Perm and Yekaterinburg cities in the Ural are controlled by a gypsy mafia matriarch) where the separate and ultra security one family houses are literally looking as cream cakes. You can drive in a pastry shop of architecture guarded by Caucasian machine gun men. Anything seems to go and the Russians are a bit ashamed. After such an intimate previous relationship with the art the people ask, where did the artists and architects go?

Also the monetary elite does not believe in their new money architecture either. They live in the old classic stone houses with modern interiors only to escape as often as they can to the countryside and into an old wooden forest house – Dacha to live like the elite always has lived in Russia, breathing the clean country air and slaving the rest of the people. Dacha though is pretty much alike the houses of the peasants.

No matter of the architecture Moscow and St. Petersburg are very different cities in the different seasons of the year. In the winter the both cities are really cold, clean, silent and somehow very physical. People are ice-skating on the frozen rivers and make barbeque in the city parks when the spit literally freezes in the air. The smoke of the cars is hanging behind them almost white and everybody has a similar fur hat. Air is sort of a good to breath. The windows of the houses are frozen and the houses look very intimate. When somebody lights a candle in his window table the ice on the window will melt and you can see in and inside seems to be very warm. In summer it is hot and polluted and people scream aloud. Anybody who can will withdraw to the countryside. The buildings are grey and the windows are black. Autumn is time for crying and romantics and the Russians do cry a lot. On Spring time the hell breaks loose. The ice on the rivers cracks away, you pick up the frozen bodies from under the snow and the cities are born again.

Toplo - the Heat

The surface of Moscow is hard, but inside is pulsating still the big Russian soul. By the citizens Moscow is treated more as a soul than a city and they are proud to be part of if. This soul finds it hard to take shape in the new architecture. Also for other arts all kind of revolution seems to be far away and a new kick is wanted. Or a very old one.

In the late years the Russian artists and architects have stood aside from the more western dominated genres of the international contemporary art / architecture Biennales and Triennials. Also the curators have been shy to go Russia and not so much invited either. Much of this is inherited from the times of the Iron Curtain when world including the art world was divided in two and Moscow was the center of the other one.

Back then inside the East and Soviet Union was happening enough. In the 1980´s the small Taganka theatre of Moscow with Vladimir Visotsky as its star could shook the whole country and Soviet system by critical plays and ballads. Everybody in Russia knows the then forbidden songs handed hand to hand on C - cassets recorded on the plays. Architecture looked back to the Constructivism movement of the early revolutionary times and started to mix architecture with other disciplines of art - like poetry or punk -rock. Architects like Vilen Künnapu could be forbidden to construct anything, because the buildings were too powerful and challenging the Stalinist doctrine. None of this happens anymore and the Russians feel that the artists have left them watching the posters of money.

For the Russian contemporary art and the connection between the East and West the summer 2006 will be most interesting. The both capitals of Russia Moscow and St. Petersburg have come together to launch the biggest contemporary art event in the Russian history ever. The venue is called Toplo, roughly translated to something like Heat. The both cities are challenging 10 international and 10 Russian individuals or groups to intervene in the two cities by different disciplines and methods of contemporary art and architecture to gain a straight interface with the heat of the city or the soul. Sort of an attempt of urban acupuncture to bring the Chi of the city to meet the surface. Nothing like this has ever been seen in Russia and Toplo is also in the very focus of the international art world during the summer 06.


Toplo is supposed to answer and show what is the Russian contemporary architecture and art today and what is its position in the world. Before Toplo, to talk about the Russian soul or art it is better to leave the city.

Outside the city you can see something interesting, like something that can really to be described as Russian architecture. This is the small house. The same small wooden house from the East border of Finland to the Pacific ocean all the way across Siberia. In the Europe and West the small house would be build on a stone foundation – to make it permanent, so that the timber would not get wet and rotten. For the Russians, this stone foundation does not exist. For them the Eternity is not to build your house on the stone foundation but straight to the wet ground and let the lowest logs rotten for good. Then you change them or then the house tilts to some of the sides or what ever – this change, fatality and accident is more close to the Russian Eternity than a house that is build to stand straight. There is not one hut standing straight in the whole Russia and people live happily in them. They can be hundreds of years old - with Internet.

This housing is something between the nomads and urbanism. Like some sort of a transit area that later on has been found to be exiting. There is countless of similar kind of villages or collective farms / Kolkhozes around Russia with exactly the same house. The house lives in a very close connection to the nature and will get another coat of chopped fire wood on the Northern side during the winter. This house has no monetary value, the only value that exists is the humanistic value – it is my grandmother’s house.

Babushka, the grandmother is bigger in Russia than anywhere in the world. In general the man population drinks themselves to death by the age 53, so no grandfathers around. The grandmothers will stay in their native villages while young men move to cities. The cities turn out to be violent, aggressive and stupid like the young men. The villages are soft and run by the grandmothers. They preserve the old values including the architecture. On the fields you will see many women and an occasional sober man. When you enter a Russian city you will feel unsecured. When you enter a Russian village you will feel very humane and welcome.

Russia is a country of great contrasts – between the cities and the countryside, between the modern times and the eternal Russian ways, between the people and the elite. Everyone in Russia believes in the common Russian soul though and that it is generated by the common Russian people. To get a good picture of the power of the Russian art and architecture see Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker from 1978.

It is said that the Russian soul is slow to wake up but when woken it is unbeatable. For the same reason the Russian army is compared to a diesel engine – no fancy tricks, slow to warm up but then again runs forever. I have a feeling that the great Russian soul of art has been sleeping now for quite a while and is possibly about to wake up. This diesel engine has caused revolutions before. It is interesting to see what the Toplo Contemporary Art can produce. What is cooking inside Russia now? They have been silent too long.

The pictures on this article are taken during a car trip from Finland to Japan across Siberia in summer 2002 and on a motorcycle trip from Finland to China across Kazakhstan in Autumn 2004.


Miss Nikita Wu from Taiwan will participate in the Toplo 2006 Contemporary Art in Moscow and St. Petersburg as an invited artist. She will join an international task force C-Laboratory ( to create a work Urban Acupuncture for the both cities. The work will move between architecture, urban planning, installation art and performance art. Miss Wu will also be the editor in chief of a free newspaper “Covjek” to be produced for the Toplo exhibitions in the both cities.

Published in Taiwan Performance Arts -magazine, 2005

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