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How a Russian Street Art Museum Defies Kremlin Censors

St. Petersburg's Street Art Museum, housed in a working factory, negotiates contemporary art, Stalinist kitsch, and potent dissent.

Courtesy Street Art Museum, St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is a museum city, its gold-filigreed heart pulsing with tsarist palaces, Baroque churches, and Art Nouveau mansions. The city’s historical fantasia charms millions of tourists every year, but some locals are itching to infuse their hometown with new life. The city’s Street Art Museum, opened in 2014 by father and son Dmitri and Andrei Zaitsev, aims to bring art to city-dwellers far from the center, and to create a cultural space that concentrates on change and movement rather than preservation. “We live in a dead space, built many years ago,” Dmitri Zaitsev told me at the opening of the museum’s annual exhibition in mid-May. “Nothing new has been built in 100, 150 years. It’s as if we’re walking with our backs to the future.”

The museum is located in a Soviet-era factory complex on Revolution Road, in the northeastern part of St. Petersburg. This neighborhood is unfamiliar to tourists, unprotected by UNESCO, and unreachable by metro, but it is home to nearly 400,000 people, an estimated 50 percent of whom visit the city center just once a month. According to Dmitri Zaitsev, who is chairman of the museum’s board and the owner of the factory complex, about 100,000 people visit the museum each year, half of them from the neighborhood. Apart from an annual large-scale exhibit open from May through September, the museum hosts concerts and dancing in its spacious courtyard.  

This year’s exhibit, co-curated by 27-year-old Andrei Zaitsev, is entitled “Brighter Days Are Coming,” a nod to the Soviet utopian promises that often sounded more like threats. The theme is revolution, in honor of the centennial of the Russian Revolution. The Street Art Museum’s location evokes the revolutionary industrial aesthetic, which inspired the Russian avant-garde as well as Stalinist kitsch—for example, Bright Path, a 1940 musical comedy in which the heroine sings triumphantly while inspecting a large number of mechanical looms. As a physical space, the decrepit factory turned street art museum offers a near-ideal vantage point from which to contemplate the last century of Russian history, when churches, palaces, and factories alike have been treated as temples, constructed with fanfare and then torn down, repurposed, or abandoned and left to crumble after the fall of the old regime.

The centerpiece of “Brighter Days Are Coming” is “The Hermitage is Ours”, a tongue-in-cheek facsimile of the vast museum founded by Catherine the Great. A massive stencil superimposes the Hermitage’s grandiose exterior onto a factory’s brick front, while flimsy cutouts stand in for the classical statues that top the Hermitage’s façade. The tsarist and Soviet styles collide; monarchism and elitism are imposed on the industrial, the everyday. St. Petersburg-based art collective Kuril Chto (Russian for “Smoked What”) rounded out its installation with a standard-issue Lenin, a Soviet relic donated by another factory that wanted to throw it away. (The statue broke in transit and had to be glued back together.) “The Hermitage is Ours” is a concise embodiment of the paradox and palimpsest that characterizes so much of Russian history, art, and daily life. Like the Street Art Museum itself, the piece also offers a scrappy, impudent challenge to the authority of Russia’s oldest cultural institutions. At the exhibit opening, guests received lollipops showing the Hermitage as if seen through a convex mirror. It was so beautiful that I was sorry to consume it, watching as the palace-museum shrank and disappeared. 

Though the Zaitsevs work with some well-known artists, they see a central part of their project as the cultivation of artists who have never made it into other galleries or museums. The exhibit was young, colorful, full of humor and traces of internet culture. It had little in common with the deadly seriousness of the Bolsheviks, though it often explicitly evoked the playful, boldly graphic Russian avant-garde of the 1920s, now one of Russian culture’s most valuable commodities on the international art market. (Many Russian avant-garde artists spent considerable effort on propaganda posters—another kind of street art.) The ardent dogmatism of 1917 seems almost unimaginable today; politics are flickering and ephemeral, menacing but ridiculous. An installation in one of the complex’s side buildings, a boiler plant, consisted of a large number of television sets showing a music video in which Pokemon stood in front of the Kremlin, singing “Everything is going according to plan.” The woman beside me swayed along in time to the video-game style music. Just two days earlier, a Russian blogger had been convicted of inciting religious hatred for playing Pokemon Go in a church and posting a video of it online; he received a suspended sentence of three and a half years. 

Russia is home to many museums and cultural centers located in former factories; one of the most famous is Moscow’s Winzavod, a contemporary art center in an industrial complex that includes a former brewery. Many of these centers cover up over the old surfaces, however, creating typical white-box gallery interiors or other modern-looking spaces. The former boiler plant that houses the Street Art Museum’s temporary exhibits has had only minimal renovation, just enough to keep it standing, and it has its own powerful aesthetic appeal, one that blurs the boundary between the museum space and its holdings. Sergey Karev’s “Infantry,” a group of fire truck red metal creatures—a heart, a slice of bread, a microphone—felt much more human, more alive, in the central hall of the decrepit factory than they would have in a white gallery space. As my gaze wandered up to the ceiling, I noticed black-and-white eyes painted inside octagonal openings that appeared to be a detail of the original architecture. The building was watching; the factory remembered what had happened within its walls.

Like many Russian enterprises, the Street Art Museum is a family affair. The factory complex was built in the 1950s but ceased operation in the 1990s, along with countless other industrial facilities in the defunct Soviet Union. Dmitri Zaitsev bought it in 2000 and started it up again, as part of the gradual (and only partial) recovery of Russian industry after the Soviet collapse. In 2012, Andrei was working at the factory as a lawyer. Bored by his day job, he held secret parties in the abandoned boiler plant next door; he and his friends painted on the walls, feeling, Andrei told a Russian interviewer, that they were transforming a Soviet ruin into a modern, progressive space. Eventually Andrei was caught. But he and his father worked to make the factory complex a safe space for street artists, a place to paint without fear of arrest. While building their “permanent collection” in the partially functioning factory building next door, the Zaitsevs began holding temporary exhibitions in the boiler plant.

The Street Art Museum’s working factory, which produces laminated plastics, is only open to the public during weekend tours; stern guards checked my ID as I passed through the gates with Katya, a museum employee who’d been assigned to give me a tour. The wall was adorned with a huge mural called “God at Work,” showing a classical statue in bubblegum pink goggles and overalls. According to Katya, the workers liked this one very much. Not all the art had won their hearts; for instance, they detested a mural in the next room that showed gray, machine-like shapes. Maybe it reminded them of work.

We went into the unused part of the factory, the door opened for us by a friendly worker who was wearing a “Russia, Forward!” t-shirt showing Putin as a bear hunter. Street artists can apply to paint murals and make other works in this space, which is so dilapidated that in the U.S. it certainly would have been condemned. Katya lit the way with her iPhone flashlight, warning me not to trip on one of the holes in the concrete floor. “This is art!” she chirped.

Windows were broken, and pieces of rusted metal hung from the ceiling like the vertebra of some huge animal. The space was nothing like a museum—in a good way. An installation by Alena Kogan exploited a gaping hole between two floors: an angular white cocoon dipped from one level down into the next, as if a huge caterpillar had taken up residence in the industrial ruins. As Kogan explained to me later, “the space was so interesting in itself—very hard, made of concrete and metal. I decided to make something that obviously didn’t belong, that had burst in: a paper cocoon, lit up from the inside.” 

 The Street Art Museum may have been born of Andrei’s nighttime transgressions, but Dmitri has developed a hearty philosophical justification for it. “We spend most of our time at work,” Dmitri told me. “We live at work, and we want life to be beautiful. Especially in St. Petersburg, which is so gray. I wanted to make a museum from a factory, and a factory from a museum. I wanted the museum to swallow up the factory.” This was a pleasing aphorism, but the factory is hardly the exemplary workspace of the future; despite Dmitri’s stated desire to look forward, his dream has a distinctly Soviet tinge. Some of the panelists during the exhibit’s opening forum offered what seemed a more realistic assessment of the future relation between work and art: Writer Alexander Sekatsky suggested that as employment continues to decline, more people will be moved to become artists, in search of self-realization.

The Street Art Museum offers a microcosm of the tensions between Russia’s artist elites and “common people,” along with hope for collaboration and dialogue. While Russians today hardly enjoy freedom of expression, Putin’s censorship is very different from Stalin’s. It is strategic, focusing mainly on media outlets with the widest reach—television, major newspapers—which are owned by Kremlin friends who can be trusted to censor themselves and their employees. Russian journalists investigating financial corruption, war crimes, and similar topics have long faced mortal danger, and ordinary citizens have been harshly punished for offenses like criticizing the war in Ukraine on Facebook.

Many of the recent developments in Russian censorship, especially in relation to the arts, have been connected to religious feeling, the Orthodox Church, and efforts to frame Russia as a wholesome alternative to godless “Gayropa,” as Europe is sometimes called. Recent years have seen initiatives to “protect” Russian youth from various types of information, including anything related to homosexuality, and books, art exhibits, and other cultural products are required to display an age rating: 0+, 6+, 16+, 18+. Some censorship-related cases are prosecuted by the state, the most famous example being the Pussy Riot trial. In 2015, a production of “Tannhauser” was cancelled after religious authorities complained that it desecrated the image of Jesus Christ; the directors were put on trial, though they were later acquitted. In other cases art works are attacked or threatened by independent “activists.” Last year, some of these activists blocked the entrance to an exhibit of photos by the American artist Jock Sturges and poured urine on the work, spurred by a Russian senator’s assertion that the images of naked girls constituted child abuse. Predictably, the police did not respond. Apart from these media spectacles, there are countless instances of quiet self-censorship by people and institutions unwilling to risk trial, harassment, attack, or loss of government funding.

The many high-profile attacks against controversial art serve to establish and reinforce a political narrative in which God-fearing ordinary Russians are under attack from the degenerate art of the country’s Europeanized creative elite. Like many of America’s own art scandals, such episodes grotesquely exaggerate cultural divides, in this case in the service of an anti-Western, Russian exceptionalist political agenda. Dmitri Zaitsev’s dream of the merging of museum and factory can be seen, then, as a way of reconciling Russia’s creative elites with its workers—in principle, an important political project. 

Street artists have the freedom to make whatever they please—with the important caveats that if they’re caught, they are subject to arrest, fines, and prosecution—not to mention the destruction of their art. A museum imposes limitations on the works shown within its walls on the basis of aesthetic, political, and other criteria, but in exchange it promises conservation, protection, and respect for its holdings.

For its part, the Street Art Museum has not shied away from potential controversy. Two years ago, it hosted an exhibit entitled “Casus Pacis” (“Motive for Peace”) with equal numbers of Russian and Ukrainian artists, in response to the Russian-backed separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine. Last year’s annual exhibit was devoted to the theme of migrants. But so far, the Street Art Museum has not had any political problems; as Dmitri Zaitsev explained, “We are friends with the authorities.” As a successful Russian businessman, he has to be. He said that members of United Russia, Putin’s party, have visited the current exhibit, “Brighter Days Are Coming.”

Still, he told me, “If you want to change something, start with yourself. You have to change the space around you. Art is a powerful instrument—that’s why it was so strictly controlled in the USSR.” I asked him what he wanted to change, curious about whether he would bring up specific political issues within Russia. “I want the world to have a thousand factory museums,” he answered, smiling.