New East Digital Archive

‘We were robbed of our future and we want to take it back’: art collective Kultrab on Russia’s young political revolution

9 April 2021

At the start of 2021, a wave of anti-corruption rallies rolled across Russia. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in January and February to protest the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, wide scale corruption, police brutality, and increased political prosecutions. The protests united Russians from across different generations and backgrounds — although the overwhelming presence of Gen Z activists was palpable, both on the streets and online.

Russia’s young creative community are speaking out on the growing weight of politics on their lives — be it directly or through TikToks and memes. Yet among the creative projects actively involved in the political conversation, fashion label and creative collective Kultrab stands out. During the protests, Kultrab provided both updates on the ongoing events and legal and mental health support, while the group’s Instagram became a meeting place where those protesting could find comfort and solidarity.

Alina Muzychenko and Egor Eremeev founded Kultrab in 2018. Over the last few years, they’ve collaborated with Russian creatives and activists including photographer Sasha Chaika, feminist Daris Serenko, trans activist Maia Demidova, rap group Krovostok, several members of Pussy Riot, and photography students from Rodchenko Art School. They’ve also been outspoken about the importance of the fight for political freedoms and equality — and they’re not planning to stop.

In February, Eremeev was detained by the police at a protest in Moscow, which led to 14 days in prison. Using a mobile phone he sneaked into the cell, he documented his time in detainment. We talked to both founders about his arrest, growing political awareness among Russia’s youth, and why culture will always have the power to challenge the status quo.

There always has been a political side to your work. Why does politics matter to you?

One of Kultrab’s main goals is to influence social issues through culture. To achieve that, we work with different artists, musicians, and directors. Together, we learn how to build socially conscious messages into our work, and then show others how to do the same.

Everyone has dreams about their future: some people might want to be a scientist, an entrepreneur, a film director, or a designer; they might want to see less violence and discrimination, or for the environment to be protected. Everyone wants to live well and grow. But over the last decades, this future has been taken away from many people in Russia, and we want it back. That’s only going to happen if as many people as possible take an active part in solving our social problems, including the fight for political representation.

Tell us a little about your work during the recent protests. What were you doing during that time?

During the protests, we used our Instagram a lot. The platform itself isn’t particularly politicised but there are a lot of intelligent and active people using it, and it’s ideal for visual storytelling. Some of our content is taken from other sources, some of it is what we shoot ourselves, and some of it is still what we’re tagged in. On the day of each protest, our Instagram Story would end up being made of 100 different clips or images to help form a picture of what is happening. We need that, firstly because people need to understand what’s going on, but also because a lot of demonstrators were taking part in these protests for the first time — we were explaining how to behave there to protect yourself and others, and where to get help from lawyers and mental health support. We also posted a lot of memes and Tik Toks. They are just a new language: they are usually funny, and humour lets you talk about difficult topics without burning out emotionally.

Egor, could you tell us a little about what happened when you were detained?

My friend and I were walking to a metro station in Moscow. The protest was over, and there were only police left blocking the streets. I asked them if we could pass, and they took me by the arms and put me into an empty police van; my friend was not detained. Then, they brought two more detainees to the van and took us all to the station. Apart from us, there were only police officers there. They took my passport, then made me hand over all of my personal belongings and my phone. I only just had time to let people know that I was detained for the night. They tried to take my fingerprints; I refused, and they threatened me, saying that I should expect a fun night in my cell. Then they asked for my personal details. I only told them what was in my passport and refused to say anything else. Then they took me to be photographed. I tried to refuse and cover my face with my hand, but they made me comply by force, twisting my arm. They drew up the same detention reports for all of us, put each of us into different cells, and took us to the court in the morning. We were all given the same court ruling, word for word, and 14 days of jail time. By early next morning we were already in Sakharovo prision. We weren’t given our belongings back, but I had managed to hide my phone, which I had been doing again while I was at court.

This arrest didn’t impact my views in any way, because they had been formed a long time previously. But in terms of work, it has become clearer what needs to be done. We will respond to police brutality with even more powerful social work.

What was your experience in Sakharovo prison?

I was in a cell with three other people: there were two bunk beds, a metal desk fastened to the floor, a sink, and a hole in the floor for a toilet, with nothing but a screen for privacy. Radios weren’t permitted, visits from relatives were only allowed to run for 30 minutes; we were given a walk once a day and a shower once a week. The only difference [from one of Russia’s stricter penal colonies] was that we were wearing our own clothes, had more or less decent food, parcels from outside, and we could use a phone for 15 minutes a day. The prison staff were civil, but the police officers who arrived during the second week made crude jokes and searched our cells and personal belongings.

I shared the cell with a co-owner of a thrift shop, an employee of a photography lab, and a model; they were all young people, under 23 years old. I also ran into programmers, directors, scientists, musicians, designers, sportsmen, and students during my daily exercise. The editor-in-chief of media outlet Mediazona, Sergey Smirnov, was also doing his sentence at the time. I’d say a third of those detained weren’t even at the protest, they just happened to be in the city centre at the same time.

We talked a lot about politics and culture and laughed all the time. I had time to think about my life, and about what could be improved at Kultrab. Alina and my friends ended up coming to Sakharovo before I could call them, had the staff find me, and passed me food and stuff, which really helped me and my cellmates.

What impression did that experience leave you with? Did it impact your political work?

When I was released from jail, everything seemed so bright; home was the most luxurious place in the world. At first, I felt somewhat disorientated. I didn’t even want to use my phone. Then I started coming round slowly and seeing more people. I started working with a therapist from nasiliu.Net. In a week’s time, we already organised a Freedom party, where we were joined by lots of people who had also done an administrative sentence after the protests. It was something like a re-socialisation for all of us.

This arrest didn’t impact my views in any way, because they had been formed a long time previously. But in terms of work, it has become clearer what needs to be done. We will respond to police brutality with even more powerful social work.

Do you see a movement towards political activism among Russia’s artists and creatives, especially among the younger generation?

It’s important to specify what political activism means. Our friend Petya Gindilis, aka mix master kutyma believes that, speaking about the issues that concern you in your work is also political activism. He uses his label FuFu recordz to unite talented breakbeat and jungle producers, and he is also a part of underground rap collective 555trax555. Together, we organised parties themed around different social problems, from discrimination against drug users to political prisoners.

Read more Meet the political fashion collective giving young Russians a voice

Meanwhile, our friend Liza Mikhaleva uses her DJ sets as a platform to speak out about politics and social issues. It is important for her that the people who come to have fun would don’t forget that while they’re dancing, there are people being tortured in detention centres, people who can’t access contraceptives, people fearing for their mental health. At the same time, it’s not her goal to totally overwhelm anyone. To get those messages across, she uses irony, unexpected mixes and tracks, and just cool music. She also likes using her body and appearance as a platform for statements. People often say about her, “Oh, you’re that girl who made it a trend to dress up politically.” It’s true: for Halloween, she dressed up as a queer member of Russia’s National Guard and gave out copies of the “Queerstitution”. For her birthday, she reinvented the image of Baba Yaga, an evil witch from Russian folklore, as a feminist icon.

We also know that fashion students make social statements in their collections, but their teachers often restrict them. Among interesting works, we really liked Marina Aleksashina’s The Case Project, which was about censorship in Russia and the lack of freedom in our society.

What is the best way to support your work at the moment?

We think that Russia should be a part of the global world, so we are looking for non-profit, educational, business, and creative projects to collaborate and share and exchange experience. And if anyone out there is interested in that, then they should definitely get in touch with us.