Artistry Through Turbulence

More than 20 years after an epic struggle, he finds harmony in the same place: his paintings.

Aslangery Uyanayev was part of a group of artists who squatted at Pushkinskaya 10 in St. Petersburg, Russia, to demonstrate the power of art during a time of tyranny. Today, he lives in the same place, with scuffed floors beneath dried-out brushes, plastic dishes of muddy water and canvases covered with vivid, chaotic paint strokes.

Photo by Hallie Golden

In 1991, Uyanayev joined with other protesting painters, musicians and writers at the end of the communist era (when many artists and art forms were restricted). As the chaos of a transforming country grew around them, the group’s aim was to establish an independent cultural center. They ended up doing much more. The artists’ work, including many informal concerts and art shows, formed a type of protective buffer between them and the tumultuous times in which they lived.

“We moved into the house with the world collapsing around us,” said Uyanayev.

Photo by Hallie Golden

Russia’s history is marked by wars, revolutions and corrupt regimes, but it continues to produce world-renowned artists, from 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky to 19th century realist writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky to poet Alexander Pushkin. How can life be disrupted but never art?

“There is a point of view that all these achievements in the arts and literature and music are related to the absence of political freedoms,” said St. Petersburg State University student Nikolai Vokuev.

“When you have no political freedoms, you search for freedoms somewhere else and you find it in the cultural things.”

After Ivan the Terrible gained power and Russia officially became a nation, tsarist regimes reigned. It took a revolution in 1917 and the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family for Russia’s communist government to take control. Seventy-six years later, Russia’s current government, which calls itself a “managed democracy,” took power.

Throughout this often violent turbulence, Russian artists were both persecuted and used as puppets by the government. In both cases, creativity flourished.

No Russian artist’s life better represents this tumultuous cycle than Dostoyevsky’s. Before writing “Crime and Punishment” in 1866, Dostoyevsky’s life was full of hardship. His mother, father, wife and brother died. He endured four years in a Siberian prison camp for his participation in a liberal group called Petrashevsky Circle and was then forced to spend more than four years as a soldier in Semipalatinsk. All of this happened before he turned 45.

Dostoevsky used fictional realism to depict the hardships of life and the ethical questions that every human faces. His candid novels have made this St. Petersburg resident one of the most world-renowned Russian writers.

“It’s difficult to imagine how people manage to live in these kinds of climates or regimes,” said 23-year-old Moscow student Ivan Fomin. “The only way for a person to survive here is to create some alternative reality.”

Fomin, originally from Omsk, Siberia, cited the Soviet Union era as an example. “It seemed to be such a huge and cruel machine,” he said. “You just had to imagine things to somehow deal with this fear, with this depression embroiled by this regime.”

L.D. Raigorodski is an example. He graduated from college at the height of the Soviet Union’s reign. While his interests were in science and art, he became a professor straight out of college. Whether he did this because it was the only way to finish his degree or because he was manipulated by the Soviet Union isn’t the point. Forty-five years later, he is still teaching – his personal legacy from the Soviet era.

But it is Raigorodski’s handmade clocks, which he has been working on for 35 years, that seem to provide the clearest glimpse into his soul.

One, titled “The Ties of Time,” depicts a man hanging by his neck behind an executioner who kills a woman with his ax every hour. While explaining the work, Raigorodski said, “We all are the prisoners of our time.”


Photo by Hallie Golden

Another work, “The Prayer,” features a twisted man on all fours, screaming at a giant clock. “We wanted to make clocks that would not only display time, but also would show its characteristics,” said Raigorodski in his recent book, “The Images of Time.”

It wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that the communist regime, which many believed would never collapse, fell. A new constitution was ratified in 1993, establishing the Russian Federation.

While comprised of an elected president who appoints a prime minister, and two governing bodies (similar to the United States’ Senate and House of Representatives), the Federation is not the democratic system it appears to be. “Most of the oligarchs live abroad or have children studying abroad, or have outside bank accounts,” said Nikita Maslennikov, an economics professor from St. Petersburg. “It’s like an outside force is ruling the country.”

Leaving Russia is exactly what 15-year-old violinist Olja Voronenko plans to do. Until then, she will continue to use her violin as a release from a public education that ranged from abusive to indifferent.

“My first teacher in my usual school was very crazy,” said Voronenko. “She was shouting at people and even beating some of them. I was really afraid at that time and didn’t want to go to school for several years.”

When she was eight years old and in her third year at school, she began to study violin. By the time she went on to the next level of education, Voronenko’s teachers were more concerned with results than their students.

Photo by Hallie Golden

Now Voronenko, part of the next generation of Russian artists, is in a new school that entails only once-a-week private academic lessons. She has won three important music competitions, two for violin and one for her composition.

Although isolated from her peers, she fills her time with what she loves most, the violin. She plans to continue to put her energy into her music, which has the power to take her out of her environment – both physically and mentally.