When Victoria Lomasko returns to the Russian Federation following her US tour of Other Russias, she might be considered a foreign agent.
For more than five years, Lomasko has been spearheading Russia's graphic journalism movement. Her new book, Other Russias, translated by Thomas Campbell, documents and illustrates the plight of marginalized groups across the motherland: residents of vanishing villages in rural areas, far-right grassroots movements, LGBT film festivals carried out despite bomb threats, teens languishing in prisons, among others. You know, what we're dealing with right now in Trump's America.
Earlier this month, I met with Lomasko and her translator, Bela Shayevich, over steaming bowls of pho at Thanh Vi shortly before their presentations at the University of Washington and Fantagraphics, where her art is on view through April 5. Lomasko looks like an amiable Russian ninja. She sports short-cropped black hair accented with a side shave. She moves swiftly and elegantly, carrying herself like one of those people who are always just one step ahead of the world's chaos, always dancing in the fire but somehow never getting burned, as she talks about how she could become a target for government bullying in her home country.
For going on this American book tour, Lomasko says her name could be published on a website that tracks people who have "betrayed the motherland." Her appearance on one of these lists could result in her losing all possible platforms to show her work in Russia, though already her publishing venues are limited to independent news sites that have small reading audiences.
She's had close calls in the past. Several years ago, Lomasko says, she and other writers were looking for a venue to launch an anarchist newspaper called Volya, which means "Will" in Russian. A bookstore owner offered up his store for the event. The very next day, the police showed up: "Do you want to have a bookstore or do you want us to take it away?" After that, the owner unfriended everyone in the group on all his social networks and never spoke to any of them again.
In an interview with Chtodelat News, Lomasko says she grew up the daughter of a self-taught artist and a lover of Soviet illustration. Moscow State University of Printing Arts graduated her with a degree in graphic art in 2003, but she didn't want to work in design. Eventually she ran into Anton Nikolaev, an activist and filmmaker who invited her on a trip to the provinces. Then they attended the trial of the organizers who put on Forbidden Art, the exhibition after which she named her last book. It was during that period that her graphic journalism really took off.
Sometimes called "graphic reportage," graphic journalism is a tradition with roots going back to the 19th century, when newspapers commissioned artists to draw events happening on the front lines of various conflicts. In Russia, these artist-reporters covered the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, the wars of expansion, the siege of Leningrad, and the gulags. In the United States, they covered the Civil War and the trenches in WWI.
Lomasko gives me lots of practical reasons for reviving this genre in the 21st century. Some restricted areas such as courtrooms, prisons, or juvenile detention centers simply don't allow cameras inside. Many of her subjects—sex workers, migrant workers, and HIV-positive Russians, for instance—don't want to be photographed because they could face extreme consequences if recognized. And, finally, the approach gives her more freedom to select and follow the stories she chooses.
Journalists report on newsworthy stories, she says. They don't have the privilege to take time and explore a topic the way she can. Lomasko can afford to do long stints in the Russian countryside, for instance, or cover trials in Moscow of underappreciated Russian artists without having to worry about hard deadlines and timeliness.
Though she's almost never "breaking" any news, her drawings and reportage feel immediate. That's partly because the conditions of her subjects determine the qualities of her lines.
In "The Girls of Nizhny Novgorod," for instance, her story about Moscow sex workers, the women could talk to Lomasko only during 10-minute breaks between customers. The time constraint forced her to use markers, which allowed her to ink and sketch at the same time. The women are rendered in thick black lines that project a sense of power, as if their skin were armor.
The language Lomasko pulls from them reflects those lines and shows a form of strength and resilience Russian society doesn't often associate with sex workers. "Some of the clients ask us to piss on them, but I'd be happy to shit on them, on behalf of all women," one of the working women says. Another says, in true Russian form, "Laughter is our only salvation. And vodka."
One of the most eye-widening, heart-rending, I-cannot-stop-reading-this moments of witnessing in the book happens in a story called the "Slaves of Moscow," which involves a group of Kazakhstani slaves who were locked in the basement of a convenience store in Russia's capital.
Some had been enslaved for a decade, and they were released only when a group of activists discovered the situation and busted them out.
"They were fed slop made from rotten vegetables, and they were beaten and raped... Many of them had given birth while in captivity. Istanbekova [the slaver] had disposed of the children as she saw fit," Lomasko writes. Local police were allegedly covering for the store owner, and, before lawyers intervened, they even tried to arrest and deport the enslaved for being in the country illegally.
Lomasko juxtaposes drawings of these women and children relaxing in the general comfort of a hospital where she interviewed them with blunt descriptions of the atrocities they endured. The distance between the illustration of the boy playing on a computer and the description of that same boy being chained to a radiator reveals the startling everydayness of horror and corruption in Russia's capital city.
Lomasko's drawings of protests are the most fascinating examples of form following function, because they're composites. While she's out there, sometimes in negative 30-degree Celsius weather, she focuses on a few details that seem to her to be indicative of the march—someone carrying a giant sign while wearing a colorful balaclava at the Pussy Riot protests, say—and then she keeps referencing others in the crowd who are doing or wearing that same thing in order to complete the drawing. In this way, the solidarity of each protest is embodied in Lomasko's figures. Her arm is part her arm and her arm and maybe a little part of her hand.
In the book Other Russias, Lomasko splits her marginalized subjects into two categories: the "invisible" and the "angry." Though it might seem somewhat luxurious to read about local Russian politics at a moment when we still don't seem to be able to focus on our own, Americans could learn something from these stories.
A United States halfway through a third Trump term looks a lot like Russia in 2012. An authoritarian has illegitimately seized power (again), oligarchs openly dictate government policy, nationalists regularly lie about crowd sizes, show trials for artists and activists are routine, fledgling resistance efforts are atomized and flagging, and super-corrupt police run the villages and big cities.
After an era of big marches in the early part of the decade, cynicism about political parties has grown so strong in Russia that people only engage when the government tries to put a church in their own backyard. Or, you know, when it turns out a local shop owner is harboring slaves in their basement.
But these hyper-local protests can sometimes blow up into national resistance efforts, which is what happened for the long-haul truckers Lomasko covers in "Truckers, Torfyanka, and Dubki: Grassroots Protests in Russia, 2015–2016."
The Russian government levied a 400 percent tax on truckers who used federal highways and also introduced steep fines for those who couldn't pay the new tax. In order to collect the tolls, the government set up a system called Platon, which was owned by oligarchs within President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.
Some of the truckers revolted and drove their rigs to a small town outside Moscow where they set up camp. They stayed in their trucks all winter, from December to May. Eventually they organized marches, a national strike, and then their own union. None of this, Lomasko says, was covered by major news outlets.
Some liberals discovered the trucker resistance, though, Lomasko says, and descended on the camp to give the normally-Putin-supporting truckers some lectures on social initiatives and traditions of grassroots activism from around the world.
"Maybe it isn't such a bad idea to go and give lectures, but at the same time these liberals were writing [social media] posts about how scared they were to visit the long-distance truckers, how they were afraid to meet these savage men," Lomasko says, her Russian coming out fast, and me nodding and smiling with the rise and fall of her voice as if I had any clue what she was saying.
Meanwhile, she explained, other liberals were waiting for the truckers to storm the Kremlin and start a revolution that liberals could glom on to. The trucker crowd cringed.
"In brief, it can be said that the general population hates the cultural elite and the government, but maybe they hate the cultural elite even more," Lomasko says. "This is probably because the government speaks to the people in their language and caters to them. While people who represent the cultural elite are very snobby and don't hide it. I think that your Trump also found a similar kind of popular folk language."
There's your warning. When the people from Trump country start revolting because they can't seem to "access" health care anymore, urbanites who can't help but say "I told you so" should stay the fuck back in their ivory tower's easy chair and let the Midwestern Dems do the resistance recruiting. Or better yet—let them form their own anti-Trump coalitions. (Unless, of course, they become a bunch of nationalists—can we call them nashies for short?)
An older book by Lomasko, Forbidden Art, contains a similar lesson for America's artists. When the government tried and jailed a number of contemporary artists and curators in the early 2010s, those defendants got upset because they didn't garner huge support from society like the members of Pussy Riot did. That's because "nobody in the general population of Russia knew who those people were, and many people don't know anything about contemporary art, and nothing was being done to make them know," she says.
For Lomasko, part of the blame falls on the artists for making "high art" that a lot of people couldn't possibly care about, and part of the blame falls on the high art community for being socially exclusive dicks.
"In the many years that I was part of the contemporary art world, going to all the openings, not a single time did I see anyone there who was not part of that [high-art] circle. And nobody saw that as a problem," Lomasko says. "And if I would bring someone from the outside—like a student or a friend—they were always treated with a great degree of condescension, as if they weren't good enough."
The message is clear. Artists: If you want support from the people, make art that people understand. If you don't, don't cry when they miss the invitation to your show trial.
Just as Russia is more than Putin and his oligarchs, America is more than Trump and the Republicans. If we want to know what's going on in our country and so address its problems effectively, we have to consider the concerns and behaviors of marginalized people. Lomasko's book offers a good framework for artists and journalists to do just that.
As for her own work, she's nowhere close to finished. She's currently working on a new book about social issues in the "post-Soviet East" of Russia called Bishkek – Yerevan – Dagestan – Tbilisi. Migrants from this part of the country are viewed negatively by Russians, and there has been "very little research deconstructing [those] colonial and orientalist perspectives."
The stuff from this new project looks a lot like the stuff from Other Russias, but in color: a drawing plus a narrative with darkly funny or profound pull quotes. Lomasko doesn't quite have the comic artist's luxury of shaping her stories into panels and splash pages, but she doesn't much want it. Though her drawings sort of look like those you'd find in a comic book, Lomasko says "the form of comics isn't what's essential. What's essential is witnessing."