Graffiti is not something you think about when it comes to the Soviet Union. For the large part, until the tail end of the USSR’s existence, it wasn’t something that was particularly visible. One notable exception was a group of crude and crudely drawn messages plastered around the Ukrainian city of Odessa, memorable to anyone who spent time in the city in the late ʼ70s and through the ʼ80s. Written largely in bathrooms, at train stations or in theaters was the note “Clara Budilovskaya is a prostitute.”
Clara apparently pissed off someone who was determined to make her infidelity known, and even though vandalism was prohibited, the message became ubiquitous alongside the standard bathroom graffiti of the word “dick” and the like. Urban myths spread: first that Clara didn’t exist and later that she wanted to change her last name because of the hubbub. Then the message, as well-known as New York’s “Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar,” created a series of city in-jokes to the point that the message was occasionally written on cakes and even inscribed on rings. When one message about Clara was removed, dozens more cropped up, with the mysterious author’s writing catching the eye of copycats and going viral to the point that the graffiti spread to other cities like Kiev and Moscow. Joking rebuttals emerged, like “Hands off Clara Budilovskaya” and “Clara Budilovskaya, an honest woman.”
Police opened a case on the matter but were long unsuccessful in finding the vandal. Reportedly he drove a bakery truck around Odessa, taking time in the early morning hours to make his marks unnoticed. He was eventually captured after Clara gave the police a number of names of whom the culprit could be, and he received two years in prison for his writing. (Clara, described as “a quiet and unattractive woman,” did in fact eventually change her surname.)
The judgmental words about Clara, though certainly some of the more memorable instances of Soviet graffiti, were not the only countercultural expressions plastered around the Soviet Bloc—and far from the most controversial. These other instances, because of their initial rarity, also sparked investigations by the KGB against the supposedly agitated individuals trying to undermine the state’s authority. The messages at that time weren’t overtly political, writes University of Toronto doctoral student Alexis Zimberg at Post-Soviet Graffiti, focusing instead on “the soft politics of [Afghani] war protest, … American imperialism, [expressing an] anti-nuclear armament sentiment, and the freedom to musical and artistic expression.” Zimberg tracks this sort of graffiti—and not the state-sanctioned kind, which “likely dates prior to the formation of the ninth century[‘s] Rurik Dynasty [and] largely served” as advertising or labeling—to the early 1970s, largely coming from football hooligans who were proclaiming their proclivity for one team or another.
Historian John Bushnell, in his 1990 book Moscow Graffiti: Language and Subculture, said it was in 1983 that the Minister of Ideology Konstantin Chernenko decried the punk and rock graffiti that had also sprung up in the ʼ70s as “causing ideological and aesthetic harm to the Soviet [social message].” Naturally this announcement led to a crackdown on the communities that the graffiti came from, with the subsequent repression and censorship of the rock and punk communities and their beloved music. Black market tapes, samizdat, emerged and added to the element of counterculture surrounding the prohibited material.
Political messages continued to make their way onto walls, writes Zimberg on Post-Soviet Graffiti, with “political advocacy efforts [focusing] on the moral wrongs of war and violence. While state threats of detention and arrest frequently derailed [graffiti writers’] demonstrative efforts, pacifists remained undeterred [and spoke] out against the wars that they opposed. Alienated from the censored Soviet press and public sphere, Soviet anti-war demonstrators used graffiti to publicize their opposition.”
Skinhead and Russian nationalist graffiti also began to emerge in the early 1970s, ironic both in its support for a regime that Hitler fought against and by its participation in the counter-cultural space they claimed to hate. Sentiments like “Love Your Own Race,” explains Post-Soviet Graffiti, maintain a presence to this day. Anti-fascists responded in kind, with modern antifa members now countering with their own slogans, the sort of which also exist in the U.S.: “Good Night White Pride,” “Art Without Fascism” and “Yellow, Red, White, Black, We Are All the Same.”
By the mid-to-late ʼ80s, attitudes in the Soviet government had changed. With Mikhail Gorbachev’s introduction of glasnost, an openness to the culture that existed beyond the Iron Curtain. Areas where graffiti was permitted, known as “fan walls,” began to pop up by 1988 once the state allowed fans to express admiration for the music that had finally been made available after a long period of repression.
In her master’s dissertation, Zimberg identifies breakdancers as having paved the path between Soviet and post-Soviet graffiti. A breakdancer and graffiti artist named Basket explained that it was watching a 1984 movie called Beat Street that encouraged both practices among the members of his group.(The movie also apparently introduced hip-hop culture to places like East and West Germany—one of the few cultural elements to break the Berlin Wall’s barrier). Basket, limited by the range of colors of spray paint available at the few shops where it was for sale in his home of Saint Petersburg, headed to a paint factory to get materials for his own cans and eventually learned to write in freehand and bubble letters. Basket explained that the police would occasionally turn the other way when it came to their “painting,” and that elderly Russian women came to “[support] the artists because their pieces brought beauty and color to their otherwise dull, cement-lined apartment complexes.”
MTV came to the Soviet Union during its collapse in 1991, inspiring a whole new group of individuals to pursue graffiti. As Western corporations descended upon the Soviet Bloc, companies like Nescafé held events, including snowboarding exhibitions, where graffiti competitions were incorporated into the goings on. Basket was often hired as a judge.
He explains that a second wave of graffiti artists came about around 1997-1998, influenced by MTV. It was at that point that Basket briefly opened a school where he taught street art to “a lot of children of rich people who wanted to be cool.”
Some were opposed to the cultivated counterculture that had arisen. Moscow graffiti writer Misha Most explained that he “didn’t like it at all” and would spray paint over the graffiti competitors’ work in the sanctioned spaces with a tag that read, “Graffiti Should Be Without Frames.” “Legal and illegal writers belong to separate categories,” Most explained.
Certain graffiti artists acquired sponsorships from paint companies or “corporate clothier[s].”
“For most artists in the ʼ90s,” Most said, “street art was less about politics and more like lots of advertisements. You can tell how graffiti became more of an industry.… You can buy the caps, the gloves…. You buy two videos, a couple magazines, 10 different cans of spray paint specifically designed for graffiti. It’s really less interesting from certain points of view. I remember the old times, when we used to mix the paint ourselves. You feel the process more. You make the cap yourself; you make the color yourself.… You learn from the photos of your friends, not from magazines or on the internet.”
Most says a lot’s changed. He continued, “It’s a different thing now. Graffiti has become an industry where any businessman can put his money into it…. It’s free advertising and [the companies] make the young kids do it.… I consider it a bad thing when graffiti artists are used to design a product for free.”
Most eventually created Zachem (Russian for “to what end?” or “for what?”), the first serious graffiti crew in Moscow, which “sought to wake the apathetic masses from their newfound hyper-consumerist and over-indulgent lifestyles.” They tagged zachem all over the city, covering walls and advertisements trying to get viewers to question their current relationship to the ex-Soviet Bloc’s corporatized second wave of graffiti. As was the case with the messages about Clara Budilovskaya, copycats joined in and “soon the word coated major Russian-speaking centers across the post-Soviet sphere from Russia and Belarus to areas of Poland and Latvia.”
Most moved on to create his own sort of nationalist graffiti, this time not focusing on neo-conservative identity maintenance but instead on the question of what, exactly, this post-fall identity meant. “Since the collapse,” he said, “[there’s been] something new to think about [when it comes to trying] to define national identity.”
By 1999 police focus on street art had increased again, and “sentencing writers for vandalism or hooliganism… became as commonplace as the bribes paid to avoid these charges. Older writers… simply learned how to avoid spots frequented by the police.” Wall-cleaning, or “buffing,” by the government emerged in order to counter work that was felt to be “controversial, vulgar, undesirable, and most of all [expressing an] unsanctioned message.” Buffing increased with the 2008 presidential election and became so widespread that it “[necessitated] the mass employment of foreign workers.… No longer was the battle between the writers and the police… but rather it became a matter of situational absurdity between two parties—the writers and the buffers—neither of which possessed legal ownership of the streets by capitalist definition.”
Some graffiti artists, like Kirill Kto, became buffers themselves—but not for the same reason as the state-sponsored ones. Kto used the method “to censor hateful, unappealing, or poorly executed subculture or corporate graffiti… to criticize [other writers’] unfounded attempts to dominate an area that does not ‘belong’ to them.… Advertisements are not usable… so we damage them and harvest the parts to create something useable.”
Street artists also took the methods of corporate graffiti to subvert their capitalist-based authorization by “copying advertising visuals or taking over central billboards… to project illegal art projects to a large population of viewers and to increase their perceived legitimacy.”
Graffiti artist Igor Ponosov wrote in his book Objects 3: Russian Street Art that “the art of the 2000s was a new form of backlash…. Artists turned streets into a battlefield where they [fought] against advertising for public attention. They [would] mock ads, redefine them and, like pop-art artists, use their contents to create original art.”
Even Basket himself eventually came to “paint primarily for money” to support his family explaining, “We, too, need money.”
As censorship returned to Russia under Putin’s strong arm, street art re-emerged as a means of expressing public dissent rather than simply advertising products. “By the turn of the twenty-first century,” writes Zimberg, “the purpose of graffiti was no longer limited to territory appropriation or the pursuit of fame [but now extended into] explicitly political themes, layered social critiques, intertextual references, and the sharing of otherwise-censored information.… During Moscow’s March 2012 election period, the graffiti commissioned by and supporting political parties dominated the city’s walls. Stickers and stencils about partisan politics, opposition meetings, and presidential candidates saturated the streets.”
Work criticizing Russia’s electoral practices emerged, with walls offering the only recourse to the revival of extensive censorship. But writers with more moderate—or rather local—messages came about, too, with a number of groups like one called Partizaning “seek[ing] to work with the local government… [using] guerrilla street art to call for increased pedestrian rights, a more child-friendly locale, and the re-appropriation of the city through better street signs and stricter parking laws.”
In a sense, no matter what the method or purpose, non-advertorial street art has come to represent a way of destabilizing apathy and even poking at the status quo, something that Russian society generally dampens or disavows. (Such nihilism is clear to anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of Russian literature). It has resulted not only in turf wars but also in an uneasy battle concerning the purpose of graffiti and whether it’s to express personal opinion or call out an individual, corporations or cultural or governmental attitude. Yet while its position has waned between being disruptively countercultural and functional, its presence on the streets remains strong, police and buffers be damned. Nothing, it turns out—not even cultural attitudes—can stop the Russians from making their feelings known.