As of writing, it has been sixty-four days since Vladimir Putin ordered his invasion of Ukraine. I’ve previously written about developments relating to the war, like when Russian troops destroyed work by one of Ukraine’s greatest artists when they burned down a local museum. I’ve also written about the renaming of a Degas pastel drawing of folk dancers now known to be Ukrainians and not Russians as many had previously thought. But I have yet to write about the Russian home front. So far, thousands of incredibly brave Russian civilians have taken to the streets to protest against the war, fully aware that they risk arrest and possible torture at the hands of Putin’s security services. But now, the Russian arts have taken a blow with the criminal investigation of Oleg Kulik, one of the country’s most prominent contemporary artists.
Kulik is a Ukrainian-born Russian performance artist who has been active in Moscow since the 1990s. He first gained attention when he would behave like a dog on the streets of Moscow, led on a chain by his friend Alexander Brener, to highlight what he saw as a cultural crisis in post-Soviet Russia. In 1995, he launched a parody bid for the Russian presidency against Boris Yeltsin, promising to moo like a cow for five minutes as his first public address to the nation. But while much of Kulik’s work has involved animals and shows the animality of humans, animals had nothing to do with his recent troubles. Though known primarily as a performance artist, Kulik is also a sculptor. His work entitled The Big Mother was created in 2018 and displayed as part of an art fair at a Moscow shopping center from April 13th to 17th of this year. A wooden frame supports a central figure, a nude, heavyset, almost lumpy female figure raising a sword and throwing her head back in a savage war cry. Other smaller figures lower down on the frame hang onto ropes tied to the warrior woman, seemingly trying to bring her down.
To many Russians, the sword-wielding woman is somewhat reminiscent of one of the country’s greatest monuments. The Motherland Calls is an enormous, monumental statue; the largest in Europe and the twelfth largest in the world. It is a 285-foot-tall personification of the Soviet nation calling the people to arms to fight against the Nazi invasion. Only thirty feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty and its pedestal, the statue is situated in the city of Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad. It was the site of a five-month battle during the Second World War that claimed the lives of over two million people (half of them civilians), but proved to be a turning point in the war when the Soviets began to beat back the Germans. Since its completion in 1967, The Motherland Calls has become a symbol of Soviet, and later Russian nationalism and the Volgograd region.
Though the similarities between The Motherland Calls and The Big Mother are clear and probably intentional, is it worth the time and effort of Russia’s Investigative Committee? Well, it is. Authorities have opened an investigation, and Kulik is being charged with the “rehabilitation of Nazism”. This is a relatively new crime in Russia. While laws criminalizing Holocaust denial and the display of Nazi symbols have been on the books for a long time, a law from 2014 is what made the rehabilitation of Nazism a crime. The law criminalized speech and actions that “publicly desecrate symbols of Russia’s military glory,” among many other things. While denying the Holocaust and the display of Nazi symbols is a crime throughout Europe and in Israel, this recent expansion may be a bit of a stretch. Censors and security services in Russia are likely on high alert because of the domestic response to the invasion of Ukraine. So this act of parody by a Ukrainian-born artist may have been too much for them to handle.
If convicted, Kulik can serve up to three years in prison and a $42,000 fine. While the authorities have already questioned Kulik, it is unknown whether he is under arrest or not. Despite many of his colleagues fleeing to Western Europe and his own harassment, Kulik intends to stay in Russia.