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East meets West: Russia’s Blossoming Pop Culture

Monday 24 June 2013
Words Spindle

When one thinks of Russia perhaps you visualise Putin, maybe crave a vodka or the words of Tolstoy resound in your head but one would assume the general consensus is probably not an overload of stored information suddenly rushing to the forefront of our brain. And no wonder, as Russia is not a culture which we encounter daily nor is decisively prominent in our Western society.

This is something Calvert 22 are out to remedy and as a non-for-profit organisation this is all fuelled by pure passion and a desire to share their culture with us, here in Britain. I’ve caught up with Igor, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Calvert 22 Journal to deliver some insight into how they are building a bridge of knowledge between Russia and the West, to expose the current creative juices that are flowing in contemporary Eastern Europe.

Calvert 22 was set up in 2009 by Nonna Materkova, who had been living in the UK for nearly 10 years at the time she created the foundation. “She was increasingly aware that people had this huge astonishing gap of knowledge about what was going on in contemporary Russia. I think it was a really personal passionate decision to try and fill this void so she invested her money in this place.” Igor tells me. “She then found a new strategic partner and that’s why we don’t need to sell any artwork and the main mission of this space, unlike many other contemporary art galleries set up by Russians in London, is to educate, to promote and to cherish creativity so we can afford to work with less established talents – allowing it to be a bit more conceptual with a true flavour.”

Russia has been home to many great writers, architects, painters and photographers but their country still seems a strange far away land for many of us, inevitably fomented by the country’s political and historical circumstances in which its isolation from the rest of the world became a defining factor of its regime. As Philip Moronav, an artist living in his native Russia, tells me “Russian culture is great, we got pretty big and well known theatres, ballet dancers and opera singers. Very good and rich traditional museums. But if you take less academical spheres such as contemporary art, pop music, films – it’s still very weak. Old Soviet systems were broken at the end of 80s and new institutions are still not established well.” Igor says “Russia has its own internet culture and now you get  information from the West really freely and easily these days, so you don’t need to try and sneak in to some kind of secret library to try and smuggle some western magazines like in the 1980s.” Also, those who express themselves through forms of art, like the band On-The-Go feel that “right now it is a lot easier to express yourself'”, explains frontman Yury. “Two or three years ago, it would have been impossible to release such an album as our debut November, nobody would listen to that. They would say ‘that is boring. What’s all this dreaming?'” Dmitry, the bassist, underlines the importance that “we can really say what we want musically in Russia. I think the time has come and the people in Russia, the youngsters, they can understand what we say.”

So it would seem that Russia is now in the process of blooming their popular culture and the creative minds of this vast land are forming their own identity which has been enabled, among other factors, by the internet and media. Igor, as a journalist, explains his fascination with this concept: “We have realised that each prominent city in Russia, even in Siberia and Far East, they have their own scene of blogs and magazines. They are a catalyst in getting together all the like-minded people, because these days not as many people are going to clubs or meeting at cafes as they are spending more time online so those blogs, forums and magazines have managed to unite everything together. This for me is astonishing as there is such a beautiful variety of DIY media.” Philip Moronav underlines “there is an analogue for Facebook page called “public” – and a lot of people are using it to create their own blogs or magazines.”

With this annulment of pre-existing boundaries, Russia is more free and has many ways of exporting culture in order to challenge stereotypes and preconceived notions that have been sold to us and that do not represent the country authentically. Igor expresses, “I think promoting culture is possibly the only way for a country to have its voice heard and improve its image just a little bit. I think it is almost impossible and will take centuries and centuries to change the perceptions and stereotypes, but what we can do is show that Russia is vast and diverse, with different time zones and climates. We want to pinpoint those interesting regions, cities and towns which might have a much more accessible appeal over here. It might still feel that Russia is a mystery, an enigma, a strange, cold land but if you know that Moscow is a cool place for bars for example, or museums then you will probably relate easier to this place rather than just thinking of it as a foreign grand design.”

And what is it that is feeding these people’s expression which they diffuse through various creative outlets?

Well, as always, a mixture and combination of factors but without forgetting a long standing favourite when it comes to all forms of art and expression: politics. “If you look at the riots this is the tip of the iceberg because there are so many other provocative radical extreme artist practices all fuelled by politics. You have this anger, this positive anger, against the regime which by no means represents the wider Russia and that is why this all mixes together and creates this astonishing splash of art, music and creativity”, explains Igor. Philip Moronav says that “Russian authorities want to underline differences of our country from Europe when we want the contrary and want to feel ourselves as a part of global civilization. So the main difference right now in 2013 is political issues. Here, people want to make decisions by themselves after seventy years of decisions that were taken by authorities.”

Have a look at the Calvert 22 website and the Calvert 22 Journal for information on exhibitions and great articles.

Words: Irune Chamberlain-Ortega

Illustration: Stefan Mosebach