Dear friends and colleagues,
Today I resigned from the position as Curator of the Russian Pavilion for the 59th Venice Biennale, which was scheduled to open in April of this year.
My admiration and gratitude remains with the Russian artists Alexandra Sukhareva and Kirill Savchenkov, with whom I have been working to develop the project for the biennale. However, I cannot advance on working on this project in light of Russia’s military invasion and bombing of Ukraine. This war is politically and emotionally unbearable. As you know, I was born and formed in Lithuania when it was part of the Soviet Union. I have lived through the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1989, and have witnessed and enjoyed my country’s development ever since. The idea of going back to or forward with living under a Russian or any other empire is simply intolerable.
Before signing off, I share that my conversations with Alexandra and Kirill while developing the biennale project constantly inspired new ways of seeing both the past and the future as we intensely experience our present. They and so many other brilliant Russian artists are committed to the freedom of thinking, despite the fact that they live in an increasingly repressive context. I explicitly oppose the current assault and subjugation commanded by Russia. I also believe that people from Russia should not be bullied or cast-away solely due to their country’s oppressive policies and actions. I want to avoid the flat-falling divisions, and instead advocate for multi-leveled forms of solidarity where there are international forums for art and artists from Russia to express the freedom that they can’t express at home. It is not easy to live among warmongers, least of all for those who explore ways of being outside of normative structures.
Thank you for your understanding and support.
This letter arrived yesterday, around 16:00 on Sunday afternoon in Helsinki (and Vilnius). Some would say: It finally arrived. We had been waiting for this at least since Russia’s war in Ukraine started on Thursday, four very long days ago. No other decision was possible for the 48-year-old Lithuanian curator Raimundas Malašauskas. After Russia had been cancelled from the Eurovision Song Contest and Formula One, explicitly because its participation now would have caused irreparable reputational damage to the organisers, how was it still possible to imagine a Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale? We knew Malašauskas was writing his letter and some of us were thinking: ‘Will we even get to see it before the war is over?’
Others might say: This is a brave letter, written under immense political, professional, and emotional pressure. Those who were impatient to see it, like myself, added more pressure. The letter takes a firm stance against invasion, bombing, assault, subjugation – and war. Even if that word is now banned inside Russia for talking about the ongoing war. The letter defends those many people in Russia who oppose the war. Russian reality is now such that we have no way of knowing how many they are, but as I’m writing this more than 17,000 admirable people from all over Russia have signed the Open Letter of Russian Culture and Art Professionals, which has been online since Friday, 25 February. (The real number may be significantly higher, since the site is updating quite slowly.) They have exposed themselves to significant risk to make us, who live in the outside world, understand that not all people in Russia are warmongers. Very significantly, Malašauskas’s letter also defends those who may not fit inside the norms of what it justly describes as “an increasingly repressive context.”
Some passages are a bit strange. What, exactly, is “the idea of going back to or forward with living under a Russian or any other empire”? Is empire regressive or progressive? (In terms of direction, I mean.) And which other empires does Malašauskas have in mind? Yet I find it difficult to believe that his letter would be written in some kind of poetic code. It would seem to be too important for that, given the acute challenges that forced him to write it. He must have aimed for maximum clarity. Then there is one factual error. The Soviet Union was not formally dissolved until 25 December 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev, its last president, handed over his powers (and the nuclear codes) to Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation.
Around the time that Malašauskas’s letter appeared on Instagram, a certain Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin made it known to the world that he had ordered his military to put Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces on high alert. In a manner of speaking, it was a blast from the past.
The strangest things in this letter are those that have been left out. The biggest elephant in the room is the question everyone must have asked themselves. How come a curator who was, indeed, “born and formed in Lithuania when it was part of the Soviet Union” had chosen to do the Russian pavilion at all? I’m not suggesting this would be inherently inappropriate or even remarkable. Under conditions that might have deserved the epithet ‘normal’, such collaborations across national borders would be precisely that: normal. It just comes across as a bit unexpected right now, even when knowing that Malašauskas had been working for the wealthy V–A–C Foundation in Moscow for some years.
The recent grand opening of its new flagship building in a former electricity station in central Moscow, the GES-2 House of Culture, with an ambitious live re-enactment project by Icelandic star artist Ragnar Kjartansson, went famously wrong when the same V. V. Putin, guest of honour, let his host Leonid Mikhelson, Russia’s fourth or fifth wealthiest man, know that he was not fully pleased with the lavish new refurbishments by Renzo Piano. This is just to give some context; I won’t go further into details here.
And then there is the omission that must be retroactively filled in for Malašauskas’s letter (and a shorter letter of resignation by the artist Kirill Savchenkov) to become fully comprehensible. That is the identities, very discreetly (if at all) publicised outside Russia, of the two wealthy co-founders and co-owners of the company Smart Art, which has been contracted to produce the pavilion for the coming ten years. They are Anastasia Karneeva, officially listed by the biennale as the pavilion’s commissioner, and Ekaterina Vinokurova. In this context, it is impossible to understand who these elegant and well-educated women are without mentioning their fathers. Karneeva’s father is the former FSB (the successor organisation to the Soviet KGB) general Nikolay Volubuev, now CEO of Rostech, a company reporting directly to Putin and producing, among other things, state-of-the art fighter jets – currently used in Ukraine, we may assume. Vinokurova’s father should be a bit better known to Kunstkritikk’s readers: Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.
The sad and, in this case, infuriating truth about the art world is that it is, despite all the politically-engaged art, very often a plaything of the filthy rich, the so-called “0.1 per cent” or “oligarchs” depending on the region. Is it particularly infuriating when art-washing is performed by the highest-ranking members of an elite that is right now busy trying to violently upend the global security order at the expense of what they regard as mere vassal states: today Ukraine, tomorrow Lithuania or Finland? Yes, I would say so!
But now Malašauskas has resigned and the art world, its self-respect intact, can close ranks behind him and celebrate his salvaged integrity as a partial collective victory against evil. Or can it? What he could have said in his letter, but apparently wasn’t at liberty to say, was something like: “I can’t go through with this. It’s unbearable for art to become the whispering slave on the triumphal chariot of Empire.” He couldn’t say that because he himself had become enslaved. Now he is free again, at least.