When the Avant-Garde Met the Church: A Clash of Two Strands of Modern Russia | Wilson Center

When the Avant-Garde Met the Church: A Clash of Two Strands of Modern Russia

Photo: Aerial view of the calligraphic artwork by Pokras Lampas. Image taken from Instagram, @pokraslampas, photo series credit: Photo: Aerial view of the calligraphic artwork by Pokras Lampas. Image taken from Instagram, @pokraslampas, photo serise credit: @ural_geographic and @denbych Albert Gabsatarov and Dmitry Bychkovsky/“Stenograffia”

Photo: Aerial view of the calligraphic artwork by Pokras Lampas. Image taken from Instagram, @pokraslampas, photo series credit: Photo: Aerial view of the calligraphic artwork by Pokras Lampas. Image taken from Instagram, @pokraslampas, photo serise credit: @ural_geographic and @denbych Albert Gabsatarov and Dmitry Bychkovsky/“Stenograffia”

BY NIKOLAY EPPLEE

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Last month the Russian street artist who goes by the name of Pokras Lampas created a huge calligraphic artwork on the pavement of one of the squares of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city. Although the piece was produced as part of a contemporary art festival, it was nearly destroyed just three weeks later.

The local governor had to intervene to stop the workers who had begun paving over the piece with asphalt—not a task easy to do quickly anyway because of its dimensions. The size of a football field, and visible in full only from an aerial point of view, the work featured a black cross against red background, a reference to the Suprematist imagery associated with the Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich. A quotation from one of Malevich’s artistic manifestoes is inscribed in the cross in Cyrillic.

The local Eastern Orthodox activists supported the demolition of the image. “Please paint over this ‘Suprematist Cross,’” the director of the local Museum of Sainthood Oksana Ivanova wrote on Facebook, calling on the city authorities to stop what some perceived as sacrilege. “It is disconcerting for the faithful to step on a cross even if it is a piece of graffiti,” she said.

The regional governor and the city’s mayor later said they would restore the artwork at the city’s expense. The artist said he would be happy to cooperate in fixing the damage. It is still unclear who gave the order to refresh the asphalt on a zebra crossing incorporated into Pokras Lampas’s work, or why.

Two closely related and passionate strands of today’s Russia have entered this—relatively benign—collision over a piece of contemporary art. When they met, they did not even recognize each other. Meanwhile, they have a lot to discuss.

The city of Yekaterinburg, the Urals’ informal capital, has already made headlines because of a public showdown two months ago over a plan to build an Orthodox cathedral in one of the city’s parks. The much smaller provocation of the Suprematist Cross helps reveal the conflict’s essence.

One might mistake this episode for a conflict between the Russia of forward-looking values and the Russia of traditionalism, between the Russia that breaks with tradition and the Russia of faithful continuity. But a deeper look reveals a much more interesting argument.

Malevich’s cross might be seen as an organic fit for Yekaterinburg’s history and culture. It fits the place as nicely as Pokras’s picture fits the square on which it was drawn. “Suprematism, constructivism, futurism are the artistic currents that I feel attracted to and are important for our country’s history. They answer well to Yekaterinburg’s industrial pedigree,” the artist wrote on his Instagram feed.

“I had been preparing carefully for the art festival, I had read about that square’s history, about the neighborhood, when I took on that project. My thinking was that the Uralmash [the Ural Heavy Machinery Plant, around which this part of the city was built] needed strong, solid, Russian avant-garde. If there is a place in Russia where one should do courageous projects, it is Yekaterinburg.”

The Uralmash, which started production in 1933, was one of the key elements in Joseph Stalin’s industrialization of the Soviet Union. The plant’s residential neighborhood is one of the best examples of constructivist urban planning. The Square of the First Five-Year Plan, the one that is now adorned with Pokras Lampas’s work, is the plant’s symbolic center. Three thoroughfares, Stalin Street, Ilyich Street and Culture Street, lead up to the square at equal angles to make it easier for workers to get to the plant; the main entrance of the plant is also right on the square. The square’s pavement featured shapes resembling a cross even before the artwork was created, so it only highlighted what was already there.

A revolutionary drive to break with tradition and create new, often utopian projects is part of Yekaterinburg’s history. The artist Lev Epplee, who settled in the city after completing his labor camp term, put together a design for an imaginary constructivist city, Peshegrad. Sverdlovsk (the Soviet name of Yekaterinburg) was the birthplace of post-Soviet Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin. In the 1990s the city was notorious for its organized crime group, whose name was eponymous with the plant’s. In the 2010s Yekaterinburg became Russia’s preeminent stronghold for liberalism, in large part because of the work of Yevgeny Roizman, the city’s last freely elected mayor.

The city has a strong traditional streak, too. Local Eastern Orthodox communities have established a cult of Nicholas II and his family. In 1918, Russia’s last emperor, his wife, children, and their immediate entourage were imprisoned in Yekaterinburg and then shot by the Bolsheviks. When Boris Yeltsin was Sverdlovsk’s party boss in the 1970s, he ordered the house where the murders were perpetrated, called Ipatiev’s House, razed to prevent it from becoming a place of pilgrimage. Later, as the democratic head of Russia’s government, he led the process of exhumation and entombment of the bodies in the Cathedral of Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg.

In post-Soviet times, an Orthodox church, the Church on Blood, was built where Ipatiev’s House once stood. A monastery, the Czar’s Monastery, was established near the place where the bodies had been buried. Pious worship of the royal family as martyrs and passion-bearers has developed in Russia, and Yekaterinburg is the movement’s capital. Every year the city celebrates Czar’s Days, when the Orthodox believers walk in a procession from a cathedral that was built over the place of the murders to the monastery near the place of the former burial site. Radical followers of the movement consider Czar Nicholas II Russia’s redeemer, whose death, for Russia, is equivalent to Christ’s death to redeem the entire world. The Russian Orthodox Church officially considers those teachings heretical.

This monarchist and deeply conservative movement, which is often in conflict with the church leadership and is headquartered in a city that has undergone a sweeping makeover under the Soviet modernization program, is not in fact a conduit of typical traditionalism. It is a vehicle for realizing the modernist drive by other means. The obsession with building as many churches as possible is an illustration of that trend. The first church built in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union went up in Yekaterinburg, not far from the square in question, and was said to be funded by the Uralmash gang. One other church in the Uralmash neighborhood is the only church in Russia designed in the constructivist style.

This movement looks conservative only at a superficial glance. In fact, it is as resonant with notions of breaking with tradition and reshaping the surrounding reality as Malevich or the designers of Uralmash were. Yekaterinburg’s (Sverdlovsk’s) toponymy is witness to that. The Church on Blood stands at an intersection of streets named after the Russian Bolshevik Nikolay Tolmachev and the German communists Karl Liebknecht and Clara Tsetkin. Part of Tolmachev Street is called Tsarskaya (Czar’s Street): the local residents did not acquiesce to renaming the street, only agreeing to call a part of it devoid of residential housing Czar’s Street.

On the one hand, the city is the place where Russia’s last czar was murdered. On the other hand, the city’s streets still bear the names of those complicit in the czar’s murder. One the one hand, the house where the czar was shot was razed; on the other hand, the czar’s remains received a ceremonial burial. Those are not two opposing traditions but one, and the same people are often behind both.

It is not two separate Russias that meet at the Square of the First Five-Year Plan but two aspects of one. It is the Russia of breaking with tradition. Russia’s place in the world history is scarcely that of a place obsessed with preserving traditional values. Russia is the cradle of revolution that is not just political but also artistic and spiritual.

In their day, Diagilev’s ballet or Chekhov’s drama became known outside Russia as examples of forward-looking art, not as examples of traditionalism. The Soviet Union was the birthplace of constructivism, which cast a long and influential shadow over twentieth-century architecture. The artistic language of the avant-garde is recognizably Russian—and it is so recognized all over the world.  

The Russia of the avant-gardist Malevich and the Russia of the Church on Blood are reacting to each other’s behavior on an instinctive level. One side is bursting to defend a work of contemporary art; the other is fighting to revive a tradition. Dialogical skills are absent or lost. And yet those two strands of Russia have plenty to talk about. They are informed by the same spirit, a spirit that is too easily paved over with asphalt. And here is Malevich’s quote that was almost asphalted over:

“I say to all: Abandon love, abandon aestheticism, abandon the baggage of wisdom, for in the new culture, your wisdom is ridiculous and insignificant.
I have united the knots of wisdom and set free the consciousness of color!
Remove from yourselves quickly the hardened skin of centuries, so that you may catch up to us the more easily.
I have overcome the impossible and formed gulfs with my breathing.
You are in the nets of the horizon, like fish.
We, the Suprematists, throw open the way to you.
Hurry!
— For tomorrow you will not recognize us.”

Russian society still has a lot of work to do on what Russia is and what it represents. Is Russia the Third Rome, the place of avant-garde art, the stronghold of traditional values, or some other Russia? Stories like the one in Yekaterinburg might help us get closer to an answer. And it will not be the same answer for all of us.