This piece originally appeared in the Strand Magazine's Autumn 2019 Edition
Summer 2019 became the time when Russia witnessed global warming at its fullest. This is not necessarily about the forest fires, which took away more than three million of Siberian hectares. This is about the political climate, which changed from Putin's coldness to the opposition's heat. The unrest began with protests supporting journalist Ivan Golunov, charged with a fake case of selling drugs, and the Khachaturyan sisters, facing prison for self-defence against their abusive father. Other events had also lead to the climax of civil unhappiness—when independent candidates were not allowed to run for the Moscow council elections, thousands of people took to the streets. During August weekends, the capital's warm air was filled with smoke grenades, police violence and citizens' anger. On one of the Saturdays, 1373 people were detained for 'participation in unauthorised protests', including those walking towards underground, minor Muscovites, and pensioners; one man went for a run and had his leg broken by the police. Tens of criminal cases have since been recorded (known as the 'Moscow Case'), with people facing possible prison sentences for threatening policemen's health by touching their helmets or throwing paper cups at them. Dozens of searches have been carried out in the opposition's homes, and more governmental lies have emerged. Despite having separate aims, all the above protest events have been united by a common reason—Russians are fed up with the corrupt and brutal government. However, instead of listening carefully, the authorities are taking a familiar approach to keep their influence—abuse of power and absurd political repressions.
While fashion is a mirror of the current affairs, political references are often employed by the industry as marketing tools rather than as instruments of change. Yet, Kultrab (an abbreviated portmanteau of kulturnaya rabota—'cultural work'), a Russian oppositional brand, carries a heavy burden of merging fashion and politics to highlight the barbarous political problems, give a voice to liberators and achieve positive outcomes through culture. It is hard to restrict Kultrab to the term ‘fashion brand' since its creators, Alina Muzychenko and Egor Eremeev, have built something grander—a community of activists, creators, and artists that fight for a free Russia. They aim to motivate as many concerned citizens and activists as possible. The brand is affiliated with Mediazona, a media resource covering issues of the Russian judicial system and prosecutions. It has also collaborated with Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.
On the National Flag Day, August 22nd 2019, Kultrab dropped a new collection of t-shirts of four designs created by artists Sonya Borisova (@sonyasabotage), Alina Karotkaya (@belapapera), and Roman Durov (@9cyka): a portrait of Lenin with cats, a comical representation of the 'affectionate' special force police, Molotov cocktail, and Tolokonnikova's passport decorated with doodles and the loud statement 'Bug out yourself.' The drop happened in the times when going to prison for an internet remark (Vladislav Sinitsa has been charged with six years in prison for leaving a tweet ‘urging violence' against policemen's children) is more likely than for domestic violence in Russia.
Such reality does not only immortalise in stone a portrait of contemporary Russia but also reminds us that history is a cycle. Kultrab transformed an ordinary clothes release into a political statement by turning its campaign Sami valite—'Bug out yourself'—into a photographic protest. It alluded to the Soviet Union's coup d'état of August 1991, when there was an attempt to overthrow the current government to keep the USSR in place. Tanks entered the Moscow streets, and the Swan Lake ballet streamed in between the breaking news (nowadays the national TV chose to be quiet about the protests or provided false information about them). Similarly to the last summer, back in the 20th century, the government forbade protests, rallies, and demonstrations; it also violated the freedom of the press. Kultrab's campaign-protest was shot on a tank in the Victory Park (dedicated to the WW2) and in front of the White House. It features the young generation as a reflection of the country's inner confusion and chaos. Excess kitsch fashion details help to depict a version of today's Swan Lake (think of the ongoing political masquerade) when freedom is far from being in excess. The imperative ‘Bug out yourself' conveys endless debates on one's political participation. This is also a direct reference to a common suggestion to leave Russia, given to people who point out the country's problems. In this way, Kultrab offers the ‘freedom doctors', giving such advice, to leave the homeland themselves, while Kultrab and its followers stay to continue the battle for changes.
Back in the 1991 people won—the USSR fell down. Today, Kultrab states that 'there is a chance to write a new history.' This has been demonstrated by the three burning months during which people were not afraid of action. Kultrab group does not 'promise anything, but has a plan. Independent media, political representation, the release of political prisoners, accessible medicine, a violence prevention law, and everything else, which is important for the development of a healthy state.' As the new Russian political climate needs to be brought to favourable human temperatures, activist communities like Kultrab work hard to achieve this by uniting politics, culture, art, and fashion.
Check out the Kultrab's campaign to get a bitter taste of modern Russia. Careful, watch out for the tricolour!
P.S. A few days before the magazine went into print, Alina Muzychenko, Pussy Riot's members, and other Kultrab associates, were detained while leaving home on their way to another activist performance. The group was held in a police station for six hours and eventually was dismissed without much logical explanation. The Moscow council elections finally took place, and while many results were falsified as usual, it was the first time in a while when many pro-government candidates failed to keep their power.
11/10/2019 update: During September and October 2019, the Moscow courts have been overloaded with trials concerning the 'Moscow Case' with sixteen people undergoing procedures. At the same time, the nation's response has been a screaming one—with more than ever citizens expressing their opinion, support, and resistance to the government's absurd through peaceful protests and various activist campaigns. Due to this public resonance, some sentences have been appealed—people like Pavel Ustinov (faced prison for just standing next to the underground station nearby which a protest was happening) and Alexey Minyaylo (participated in one of the demonstrations) either had their cases closed or being reclassified from criminal to administrative offences (which is still a highly unfair outcome for completely innocent people). Yet, six people are still under investigation for non-existing cases.
Photography: Gosha Bergal @gosha_bergal
Creative Direction: Alina Muzychenko @alinamuzalina
Stylist: Liza Mikhaleva @liza_mikh
Makeup & Hair: Margarita Art @margarita__art
Photo Direction: Photo in Media @photo_in_media
Models: Nika Nikulshina @protrezvey, Valery Grachev @spelendora, Ray Sinkevich @reisinkevich, Varvara Nekrasova @nekrasowaw, Liza Mikhaleva @liza_mikh
Assistant: Aleksandra Skopina @sssc0p
You can find out more about Kultrab and purchase their items at www.kultrab.com or through their Instagram: @kultrab