This article by Lola Romanova was published in Novaya Vkladka on August 25, 2023. A translated and edited version is republished on Global Voices with permission.
Russian youth, who have returned to their hometowns after living in big cities, refer to themselves as the “Boomerang Generation.” Artists, poets, and urbanists have come back to Chaykovsky, a small town in the Urals, and have established a public cultural center there. However, they now face resistance from local officials and a lack of understanding from the local residents.
‘I either emigrate or return to Chaykovsky’
Daria Kuznetsova is a 25-year-old native of Chaykovsky and a graduate of Moscow State University. While she was studying in Moscow, she also dedicated her free time during vacations to giving lectures on art at the local historical and art museum back in her hometown, Chaykovsky.
But then the war began
“The first two weeks of February in Moscow were challenging. A sense of apathy had taken hold of me, and there was a constant white noise in my head,” recalls Daria. “I faced a choice: either I emigrate [from Russia] or return to Chaykovsky. I couldn't stay in Moscow any longer.”
Together with the team of other activists, Daria organized a project seminar and presented the results of the surveys the team previously conducted with inhabitants of Chaykovsky about their favorite places in town and the comfort of living there.
The activists invited city administration to this seminar to discuss how to make Chaykovsky more comfortable for its residents. However, none of the officials responded to the invitation. “We were informed that the head of the administration threatened to fire subordinates if any of them attended our seminar,” recalls Daria.
Realizing that they could not rely on support from the administration, the activists decided to crowdfund their projects. They rented a place near the former Horizon cinema building and created a public cultural center which adopted the name and became the new “horizon” for the youth of Chaykovsky.
Even Pushkin is explosive today
Horizon aims to help young people in developing culture in their hometown, not in an official but in a creative, free format.
At Horizon, they strive to understand and accept individuals with alternative views, and at the same time, activists do not allow themselves to become a part of the state propaganda machine.
For example, a poetry recital dedicated to the memory of the Eastern Front (World War II) at Horizon was arranged not on May 9 [celebrated as Victory Day in Russia, and weaponized by propaganda today] but on June 22 [the day the war with Nazi Germany officially began in the USSR in 1941]. According to the center, it can bring some new meanings to the Russian history. “June 22 is a day of mourning. Victory Day has a completely different connotation in our era, while June 22 emphasizes sorrow, sadness, and tragedy,” explains David Yakunin, one of the activists.
Creativity knows no bounds
However, Horizon finds it challenging to completely detach from politics.
One of the most unconventional artists whose paintings are exhibited at Horizon is Alexander Bessmertnykh. In August 2022, during the city’s “Point of Entry” festival («Tochka vhoda»), he staged a performance: dressed as a prisoner in striped clothing, Bessmertnykh used soot from a candle to draw on glass above his head. The concept behind the performance is to show that creativity is possible under any circumstances.
Nevertheless, contemporary art can be difficult for locals to grasp. According to Bessmertnykh, the main reason is the lack of knowledge of the field of art. Yet, activists believe that, with some assistance, citizens can change their perspective.
Street artist known as sane46 (this is how he signs his paintings), who returned to Chaykovsky from Saint Petersburg, describes working in his hometown as an “experiment.”
Several years ago, there was a street art school in Chaykovsky. At that time, you could find social-political graffiti on the city streets. For example, before the war, there was an intriguing masterwork: a portrait of television host Vladimir Solovyov with the word “LIE” written beneath it. The author of this work was a local resident who signed as Deks. Artist sane46 recalls that, on the wall in the central district, there was this portrait on one side, and an advertisement for illegal drugs on the other, right next to it. After February 24, 2022, the drawings featuring Solovyov were painted over, while the drug advertisement remained.
The street art school was closed when young people from Chaykovsky left the city, but the Horizon team revives this art form now. They have created graffiti based on paintings by Malevich and Botticelli on the walls of the old buildings. However, local residents wanted to see paintings from the era of socialist realism — the primary artistic direction in literature and art in the USSR. According to Daria, “bringing back paintings from the Stalin era is almost like trying to bring back the past.” After a series of discussions, the team of artists painted what they had envisioned. Since the mural has not been defaced by vandals so far, activists believe there is hope for positive change in people.
‘Where do we draw the line’
One of Horizon's goals is to learn to embrace different viewpoints, as explained by its members. That’s why they welcome individuals with diverse positions, including political ones. A young woman visiting the center for the first time expressed hope that thanks to organizations like this, a “humane society” could be created.
The center aims to maintain its independence, so its members do not seek support from city authorities, although it can be challenging at times.
In June 2023, Horizon received a gubernatorial grant for a festival of urbanism, ecology, and art. Among the other projects that received grants were patriotic initiatives. This triggered an internal conflict among the center's activists: on the one hand, they do not share the current policies of the country, but on the other hand, they are accepting government funding.
“…it’s better that this money come to us than to some patriotic lessons or an absurd military games festival,” says David Yakunin.
According to sane46, the key is to know where to draw the line. “A woman approached me and suggested I paint something related to the special military operation. I declined because I have my own views,” sane46 says.
Currently, Horizon doesn't have a large number of visitors, but the situation is changing. According to members of Horizon, the passivity of residents is a result of the suppression of initiative at the national level.
“This city, this country, belong to us,” says passionately Daria. “You can take responsibility for it here and now and create something yourself. And it would be great if the younger generation understood that they are not hostages of their own country.”