Photographs by Anahit Yakubovich.
The Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA) recently hosted an exhibition called What happens to others. An intimate show tucked in the back of the museum, What happens to others featured art by 29-year-old Moscovite Ekaterina (Katya) Muromtseva. Katya is part of a special generation of Russians born on the border between two histories: their passports read “birthplace USSR,” but their home has always been a country they call “Russia.” In her show, Katya examined the transition from the Soviet Union to Russia. It’s a process that has taken place her whole life and is nowhere near over.
The exhibition’s setting was perfect, reminiscent of the days of the Soviet underground. To find it, you had to walk past the cloakroom, down a narrow, dimly lit corridor that deposited you into another world. Windowless and completely impervious to Moscow’s sounds, the space allowed you to meditate on the surreal, yet totally relevant question Katya poses: how are the Russian people creating a new culture? How do they choose to remember the old one?
Each room was thought provoking and visceral, but as far as I’m concerned, the star of the exhibit was a video called “In this country.” It’s based on essays written in 2017 by a class of Moscow middle schoolers to the prompt: “What was life in the USSR?” Katya pulled quotes from the essays, offering a balance of good and bad emotions about an era that looms large in the minds of their parents but is as real as a fairytale to them.
Some students are clearly parroting the adults around them. “Women always wore red dresses on holidays,” says one student. Another writes, “People in this country all had the same dreams. They especially dreamt of going to space.” Others had more whimsical interpretations. “This country had lines. The line for a sausage was twenty-kilometers long. The sausage produced by one factory was even green.”
In a park outside the museum, Katya and I drank juice and ate string cheese from a nearby bodega as she told me about her exhibit. One of her goals was to capture the nuances of the Soviet era. “It’s impossible to say that the Soviet Union was all good or all bad,” she said.
When not making work for Russia’s centers of contemporary art like the Garage Museum and MMOMA (pronounced like MoMA), Katya spends much of her time in rest homes and community centers. She teaches art to elderly Russians. This is her true art practice, she tells me.
She sits with this generation – the last who will remember World War II and the death of Stalin – and asks them about a world long past, preserved only in them and the spaces they’ve crafted around them. With Katya, they paint images of rugs on the walls of the rest homes. (Hanging rugs is a Russian tradition, but in the homes they’re prohibited as a fire hazard.) Some of her students have gotten really into art, including a woman who now posts her creations on Instagram with the handle @babushka_jenya.
Katya told me that for this generation, the collapse of the USSR was an incomprehensible loss. For them, the Soviet Union was easy to love. “The world was really organized, and your life purpose was clear: you were here to usher communism into the world.”
In her art, Katya finds herself coming back to the notion of culture building, looking at how it is possible to make a whole nation of people (or at least most of the nation) believe in an idea that can sustain the country, whether that idea is actually working or not.
“They believed in communism,” she told me. “They were true believers.”
Photographs by Anahit Yakubovich.