Rebel Artist Recalls Historic Fight

Photos by Hallie Golden

“We moved into this house with the world collapsing around us,” Aslangery Uyanayev, an impressionist artist, said of a once-abandoned building in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Soviet Union was on the verge of dissolving and a group of artists and musicians took advantage of the political chaos by squatting in a building closed for renovations.

For years, the city government struggled to regain control of the building while the artists, whose work had only recently become legal, fought to establish a cultural center. The battle became one of the first and most famous examples of the political freedoms Russians enjoyed, if only briefly, as a new, more open government was developing.

“There was a feeling of unbounded freedom and hope after the collapse,” Uyanayev said. “People were more interested.”

Ten Pushkinskaya Street was undergoing renovations in 1989 when the artists moved in. Scores of painters and musicians looking for a place to live and work  squatted, much to the objection of the city government, in what would have become an upscale housing complex in the center of St. Petersburg.

Uyanayev, an impressionist artist, was in his late twenties in 1991, when he moved into what had become a cultural center called Pushkinskaya 10. This setting helped propel him into the spotlight. In the decade to follow, Uyanayev would have his work featured in a number of galleries throughout Europe and in museums in Russia and the U.S.

Now, at 48, Uyanayev has settled into his ways. He still lives at Pushkinskaya 10 and still paints professionally, although his fame has faded over the last decade. Once a rebel eager to test the boundaries of his new freedom, Uyanayev now feels a nostalgia for the way things were before elements of capitalism found their way into Russia.

When the government realized that a housing complex had been overtaken by squatters, it tried to drive them out. One plan was to cut off utilities to the buildings, but the squatters sent wires over to neighboring complexes. When the government sent electricians to fix that problem, the squatters had an easy solution for that as well. “I bribed them so they wouldn’t cut my wires,” said a grinning Uyanayev.

The fight went on like that for years. By that point, the story of Pushkinskaya 10 was well known, and many members of the public supported the creation of a cultural center.

As hard as some of the artists fought, Uyanayev credits the rock stars living in Pushkinskaya 10 for the victory. “Their fame really helped,” he said pacing around, unable to sit still. “They held concerts to raise awareness, and we even got a member of our complex elected to the city government.”

“Looking back on it now,” he said, “it’s strange that we were able to succeed.”

More than twenty years after the artists seized the building, Uyanayev is one of the few people left working there. “Some of them have left Russia, others have passed away, others have gotten old and changed,” he said, pointing to three other buildings that used to belong to the artists that are now residential.

Uyanayev blames this, as well as a number of his other problems, on the rise of capitalism. “I am a Soviet person,” he said. “That was how I was raised.” Uyanayev has never gotten along particularly well with the government.

Uyanayev’s nostalgia for Soviet times is not uncommon among Russians today, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet and fear for their futures. For him, though, it’s ironic, given that his work would have been illegal under the Soviet regime. The period he misses most, though, is the early 1990s, when a collapsing Soviet Union allowed him to paint what he wanted while Russians still embraced the collectivism of the past. It didn’t hurt that his work sold well, either.

Uyanayev is still able to get by today, thanks in part to government assistance. The city officials pay for his utilities and charge him the equivalent of $50 a month in rent, a great deal considering the high price of real estate on Nevsky Prospect.

“It’s easily worth ten times as much,” Uyanayev said of his three-room apartment.

Although not as fashionable as it once was, Uyanayev’s work still sells. His paintings are available online for no less than $1,000 apiece. “I don’t sell as many as I’d like to,” he said, explaining that he struggles with money.

Even so, Uyanayev sees his work as more than a source of income. “I am searching for harmony in my paintings,” he said. “Harmony between color and contrast, that unites cold and warmth.”

When asked to explain one of his favorite pieces, he responded “I like all my paintings.” Instead of using the non-answer to skirt the request, Uyanayev simply displayed all of the paintings he could easily reach against the back wall, one at a time. He took a moment to analyze each before going off to get the next.

As Uyanayev went through his recent works, it became clear that his style has dramatically changed since he began. Many of his earlier pieces used warm and cool colors in contrast. Now, images of faces, repeating numbers and large areas of black run across some of his paintings, giving the impression of a tortured mind. Others are comprised of calm, flowing blends of muted earth tones, mostly green and blue.

These changes don’t come as a surprise to him. In fact, he takes pride in them. Even after making it big in the Russian art scene, Uyanayev isn’t afraid to admit that harmony eludes him. “I’m still studying,” he said.