The “elite vs. populist” divide that, we are told, now runs in various guises through global politics appears in the first pages of Victoria Lomasko’s Other Russias, but with a uniquely Russian twist. Two portraits glower at each other from across the page, sketched in Lomasko’s unmistakable style. On the left, a bulky man wearing an icon of Nicholas II—the last tsar of Russia, whom the Bolsheviks shot and the Russian Orthodox Church canonized—declares that the “West wants to destroy the bold and beautiful Russian people.” To the right, a mordant professor of political science rests his face in his palm and says, “Russians are shit. But me, I’m seventh-generation intelligentsia.”
The division recurs throughout the book. In the provincial village of Nikolskoye, where the local school employs 10 teachers to instruct 23 students, first-graders cannot name their country’s capital. “‘Well, and so what?’ winces their teacher, who considers Moscow a big dump,” Lomasko writes. In return, her Muscovites regard the countryside with a mixture of indifference and contempt.
Mutual ignorance and social isolation, even among natural allies, is a theme that runs through Other Russias. Lomasko practices what she calls “graphical reportage”—immediate, on-the-ground sketches of real people swept to the margins of Russian society: sex workers, juvenile prisoners, striking truckers, urban slaves, political protesters, older women. Lomasko draws “from life,” face-to-face with her subjects. Her illustrations are spare yet evocative, interspersed with explanatory text. The result is an extraordinary view into the lives of “everyday” Russians, whom Lomasko finds “had scant notion of how other social classes in their own country lived.”
A Moscow-based artist and activist, Victoria Lomasko hails from Russia’s minority of urban liberals, a group that Putin’s regime has long sought to suppress, co-opt or buy off (in one case, via new bike lanes). Since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 amid widespread protests, his government has shifted toward more outright repression and nationalism, criminalizing unauthorized protests, recentralizing power away from the provinces and dialing up jingoism on state television. In response, Russian liberals have by and large gone back to ground. Lomasko, however, has not, and unlike many of her compatriots continues to focus her attention outward, toward cultures and milieus not her own.
Perhaps none of Lomasko’s subjects faced greater isolation than the 12 slaves whom activists liberated from a Moscow grocery store in 2012. Almost all women from Kazakhstan, they had come to Russia for work. Upon arrival, the store owners confiscated their passports and forced them to work 20-hour days without pay, some for as long as a decade. Beatings and sexual abuse were routine. Several women gave birth, but their captors dispatched the children to Central Asia, where their mothers were told they died. A few children were among those freed, including a five-year-old boy whose chest had become deformed from years spent tied to a radiator.
Lomasko’s portraits of these women and their children are intimate and respectful, even tender. While her text does not flinch from the extreme violence that the captives endured, Lomasko’s art conveys resilience and, perhaps, recovery—all captured in small details from life post-bondage. We see the women eating together at a fast food joint, recounting stories and relaxing with their kids. Lomasko mentions that the women refused to talk about the violence they suffered in front of witnesses, yet we see scenes from their one-on-one testimonials with lawyers: “The boss lady ordered the guard, Beka, to break the fingers on both my hands,” one tells her lawyer matter-of-factly, arms crossed.
Far from unique, the case of the 12 Moscow slaves is a glimpse of a complex system of forced labor in which thousands are trapped and authorities are complicit. The women reported that police knew about conditions at the grocery store, but were bribed to stay silent. Prosecutors charged the couple who owned the store with false imprisonment, but the case was later dismissed. Authorities have shown little inclination to investigate allegations of widespread forced labor and human trafficking in Russia. Other Russias conveys the systemic, structural nature of exploitation in Russia through small, closely observed scenes—without turning its characters into tokens.
The book’s second half, titled “Angry,” moves from stories of survival to resistance. Lomasko sketches courtroom scenes from the infamous 2012 Pussy Riot trial, in which three women from the punk band were convicted of “hooliganism” and “religious hatred” for performing a combination song-protest on the soleas of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Lesser-known trials catch her eye, too. Evoking Stalin’s purges, Lomasko documents what she calls the “show trials” of the Bolotnaya eight—a handful of seemingly random demonstrators plucked from the 2011-13 wave of mass protest in Russia and charged with assaulting authorities. In her scenes, the accused peer at the courtroom from metal cages, while the presiding judge, phlegmatic and monolithic, stands in for Putin’s justice.
Toward the end of Other Russias a few of Lomasko’s isolated pockets of resistance manage to breach the walls dividing them and unite. In response to drastically hiked tolls, a group of long-haul truckers stage a protest on the outskirts of Moscow, parking their rigs in a central shopping district. At first adamant that they want nothing to do with politics, the men grow savvier as the months drag on, eventually organizing a nationwide truckers’ strike. In time, the truckers get to know another group of community activists, which has been protesting the construction of a church in their neighborhood park. When the latter are attacked during a public vigil, the truckers rush to their aid. Both groups come to acknowledge that their best chance of success is via large-scale, collective action—or, in another term, politics. Lomasko implies that, in Russia, politics and civic activism cannot be separated.
Other Russias’ stories are all of suffering, survival and resistance, which play readily into Western preconceptions about Russia and the post-Soviet world. A natural comparison is Svetlana Alexievich, whose experimental reporting introduced the voices of Chernobyl victims, veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and suicidal Belarusians to a Western literary elite. Like Alexievich, Lomasko creates with remarkable economy the impression of a direct line into others’ lives. And like Alexievich, the presence of an urban, educated and ultimately Western gaze feels inescapable in Lomasko’s work. The other Russias of Lomasko’s title are those unfamiliar to the comfortable and powerful, and her project is to represent some fraction of that reality to the subset of insiders willing to listen. Unlike Alexievich, however, whose free-floating (and, one suspects, heavily processed) snippets of poetic suffering are all too easily subsumed into stereotypes of the “Russian soul,” Lomasko does not attempt to dive so deeply into her subjects’ lived experience, at least in text. Her prose is utilitarian; her images, often deceptively simple, do all the work.
Photo by Viktoria Lomasko, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. The author’s work on display at an exhibition.