July 20, 2014

Selling Red Square

Public Art & Nation Branding In Russia

Not many would question that art in public spaces, especially art created under extremist regimes, can be considered a form of monumental propaganda or as an attempt at nation branding. Take North Korea, where national identity is clearly communicated to the rest of the world through a closely monitored, monotonous Socialist Realist aesthetic. But what about everywhere else? Seemingly trapped in an era of so-called ‘globalization,’ where the concept of the nation-state is rapidly disintegrating, national identity and aesthetics are replaced more and more by global consumer culture. Think of McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign—a slogan that has probably been translated into as many languages as Harry Potter. (Definitely saw it a few times at the FIFA World Cup…)

Russia presents one of the more interesting examples of nation branding in the public space because notions of “public” and “private” space have an especially charged history.


The Soviet Space
Photo of Vladimir Tatlin’s model of Monument for the Third International, 1919.

Photo of Vladimir Tatlin’s model of Monument for the Third International, 1919.

When Vladimir Tatlin unveiled his Monument for the Third International in 1919, he was presenting more than an architectural model—it was propaganda on a monumental scale. Every element of Monument had meaning: its height, materials, structure, and utility. In the words of contemporary Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky, Tatlin’s tower was not only made of iron and glass, but “revolution.”[1] Perhaps the most famous building never built, Monument was an attempt by the Bolsheviks to re-claim and transform the public space for Russia (“re-branded” as the Soviet Union). Constructivism was an aesthetic demonstration of a new national brand—one that remains just as iconic to today’s viewer as a “Soviet aesthetic.” (Later appropriated by artists like Shepard Fairey.)

Moscow’s Red Square, through its divergent architectural styles, illustrates the battles within nation branding during the Soviet Union through to today’s Russia. Outside of the Kremlin, with its 15th century Italianate walls, stand two opposing structures—St. Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s Mausoleum. While St. Basil’s is an elaborate adoption of a vernacular Russian folk style, the Mausoleum adopts a harsh Constructivist style. Ironically, although Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square bears some of the stylistic aesthetics of Constructivism, the ideological implications of embalming an individual in a pyramid built of stone is in direct opposition to notions of socialist collectivism. Here, the symbolic aesthetics of the public space reveal the continued struggle for a national identity throughout Russia’s history: modernity versus tradition.[2] Aesthetics have been used to communicate national identity, even in the midst of contradiction.

Later, when the Constructivist imperative was dismissed under Stalin, the Socialist Realist aesthetic was adopted and enforced as the state standard, as it is in North Korea today.[3] With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, modern Russia has struggled to re-brand itself. In our post-modern era of globalization, it is a unique case of nation branding. Russia’s internal struggle with its Soviet past reveals itself in the public space. Aesthetic styles have a direct impact on the modern Russian viewer, especially given the long period of state-controlled aesthetics. To the post-Soviet Russian, modernism is “associated with Socialism—and not, as it is in the West, with progressive capitalism.”[4] Boris Groys illustrates this modern Russian state of mind:[5]

The post-Communist subject must feel like a Warhol Coca-Cola bottle brought back from the museum into the supermarket. In the museum, this Coca-Cola bottle was an artwork and had an identity—but back in the supermarket the same Coca-Cola bottle looks just like every other Coca-Cola bottle.

The monotony and universality of Socialist Realism has encouraged a nostalgic look back to pre-Communist Russian styles and an embrace of heterogeneity. This struggle manifests itself on Red Square, where aesthetics reflect the political, religious, and commercial forces at play in the modern Russian public space.

The issue of the translating and defining public space in Russia is intrinsically tied to the idea of public domain. As prominent Russian curator Joseph Bakstein writes, life for the former Soviet comrade was “split into two realms: one ‘public’ which was regulated by the state; and the other private, to which, in various ways, the state also laid claim.”[6] The lines of the private and public realms become blurred. Communal apartments can serve to illustrate the extent of the conversion of even the most private of spaces into public spaces.[7] (A lovely, slightly romanticized, clip from the film Stilyagi ‘Hipsters’ (2008) illustrates this somewhat.) Because of the disintegration of private realm, the concept of collective “ownership” of art objects, especially in public spaces is particularly poignant. The legacy of the Soviet period is a “binary logic of destruction or tolerance, especially in relation to the public statuary devoted to Party figures.”[8] In Russia, public art operates in extremes. Public art and public spaces have implications beyond simple aesthetics.


The Post-Soviet Space

President Vladimir Putin has attempted to re-brand modern Russia today as a culturally unique, historically significant, and economic super power. As one of the biggest platforms in the world, the 2014 Winter Olympics gave the Putin administration the opportunity to tell Russia’s story in its own words—some of which it did rather well. The spectacle was monumental in budget and in scale and the choreography was specifically designed for the square of the television screens at homes around the world. [9] In this sense, I would consider it public art. The Sochi Opening Ceremony depicted medieval and Soviet-era Russia with sugary nostalgia—Peter the Great’s westernization and the early Constructivist period were fraught with equal measures of terror and anxiety.  Emphasis was placed on uniquely “Russian” cultural achievements such as classical music, ballet, and the Cyrillic alphabet. George Tsypin, the Russian-born and New York-based set designer who envisaged the design of the Ceremony, said that the Russians tasked him with creating “the biggest show ever.”[10] This was a particularly impressive feat, considering the British and Chinese precedents set in past years. In a sense, the Sochi Opening Ceremony was a re-iteration of Tatlin’s tower. The monumental propaganda provided an interesting backdrop to reality of the political aftermath in Ukraine and Crimea.

In Russia, more localized notions of public art receive less state funding than the bank-busting spectacle in Sochi. Last year, Garage, the Zhukova-Abramovich funded contemporary art space, collaborated with the American conceptual artist John Baldessari on a billboard in Moscow’s Gorky Park, in tandem to an exhibition held at the foundation. The medium of a billboard was an interesting choice for the public art project, because it not only blurred the lines of art and consumerism, but also revealed a rapidly advancing commercial culture within post-Soviet Russia. Returning back to Red Square, we can see a post-Soviet Russia embracing conspicuous consumption. Global luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Dior have had little trouble taking over such a politically and ideologically charged space. In 2013, both brands installed temporary monuments to consumerism in the government-owned and UNESCO-protected space.[11] This new Russia, no doubt, has Lenin rolling in his mausoleum. Perhaps this is the whole idea.

In the absence of an engaging national public art programme, public art is often crowd-sourced. We see this in street art around the world, Russia included. The art group Pprofessor’s “Red People” (Красные Человечки, Krasniye Chelovechki) project serves to illustrate the reclaiming of the public space by political and artistic outsiders. Pprofessor’s pixelated figures are constructed from thirteen red wooden blocks that can be configured to form many variations of a man. They can be freestanding or can interact with existing architectural spaces. Each configuration of the Red People is unique and site specific. Their original purpose was to act as a type of graffitti ‘tag,’ simply marking where an artist has been. The appearance of the Red People in Perm coincided with the construction of government-funded PERMM (Perm Museum of Contemporary Art), an initiative spearheaded by Marat Guelman, who notoriously brought Warhol and Beuys to Russia in the nineties.[12]

Pprofessor’s Red People, 2008-2014, Perm, Russia. (Middle image: Слава труду “Slava Trudu” is a Soviet joke meaning “Thank Labour.” One would say, “Thank Labour” versus “Thank God” in the USSR.)

Pprofessor’s Red People, 2008-2014, Perm, Russia. (Middle image: Слава труду “Slava Trudu” is a Soviet joke meaning “Thank Labor.” One would say, “Thank Labor” versus “Thank God” in the USSR.)

The Red People were seen as a way to re-engage the bland Soviet architecture of the city while irritating state officials.[13] The figures have become so emblematic of the “cultural revolution” happening in Perm via PERMM, that the local Ministry of Culture has been removing them, even though the local government was the initial force behind the Permian “cultural revolution” begun in 2008.[14] They plan on relocating the Red People to a single location, which recalls the infamous ‘graveyard’ of fallen Soviet monuments that quietly lives next to the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

The Red People are an adoption of Constructivist principles for a younger, artistically engaged Russia. Because of its distance from Moscow, the provincial museum has acted as a test ground for more avant-garde contemporary art projects under the leadership of Guelman (who has since been fired). The spirit of PERMM and its “cultural revolution” did not fall under the conservative national agenda put forward by the current administration. In a way, this anti-nationalist agenda became its own form of nation branding—in this case, as an attempt to re-brand post-Soviet Russia through a new “cultural revolution.” In the case of the Red People, simply aesthetic forms (that were not originally tied to any form of nation branding) became politically charged.

Public spaces are historically, politically, and contextually charged. They have a past, present, and future and constantly interact with the people that pass through them. In Russia, as in the rest of the world, public sculpture can serve as a time capsule or as a mirror.

Adapted from an essay I wrote in April 2014.



[1] Viktor Shklovsky, trans. Richard Sheldon. “The Monument to the Third International,” in Knight’s Move (London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2005), 70. Stalin’s Palace of the Soviets provides an interesting foil to Tatlin’s Tower. See Boris Groys, “Beyond Diversity: Cultural Studies and Its Post-Communist Other,” in Art Power (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2008), 160-161.

[2] An earlier struggle was Westernization under Peter the Great. This can be seen in his modernization (and Latinisation) of the Cyrillic alphabet as well as military and cultural efforts.

[3] Groys, “Educating the Masses: Socialist Realist Art,” in Art Power, 141.

[4] Groys, “Beyond Diversity,” in Art Power. 158.

[5] Ibid., 157.

[6] Joseph Bakstein, “Private and Public Spaces: Art and Community in the Former Soviet Union,” Art & Text Issue 42, 1992, 38.

[7] Bakstein’s description of the “communal settlement” dismisses any romantic notions about this destruction of private space. His description invokes Freudian terminology and narrates the bodily functions that permeate a shared living space. Bakstein, “Private and Public Spaces,” 39.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The $50 billion opening ceremony was broadcast to more than 3 million viewers. “If They Pull It Off It’s Going to be Fantastic,” Today Show, accessed April 24, 2014,

[10] Interview with George Tsypin and Meredith Vieira for The Today Show, “Meet the Man Behind Sochi’s Opening Ceremony,” National Broadcast Network, February 7, 2014, accessed April 24, 2014,

[11] An enormous Louis Vuitton housed an exhibition of trunks formerly owned by celebrities (November 2013); the mirrored Dior cube housed a fashion show and dinner (July 2013). See “Louis Vuitton Suitcase on Red Square,”, November 26, 2013, accessed April 22, 2014, and Vika Gazinskaya, “Dior Walks the Red Square,”, July 10, 2013, accessed April 22, 2014,

[12] Barbara London, “July 14, 1998 Dispatch,” InterNyet: A Curator’s Dispatches from Russia and Ukraine, The Museum of Modern Art New York, 1998, accessed April 25, 2014,

[13]“Is Taking Contemporary Art to the Regions Colonization?,”, July 14, 2007, accessed April 18, 2014,

[14] Yuri Kuroptev, “Perm to Bury the Remains of the ‘Cultural Revolution.’ No more festivals?,” The Art Newspaper Russia, April 15, 2014, accessed April 17, 2014,