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Russia's Rebels

Russia's Rebels

At great personal risk, Russian dissidents are contributing their art to the Resistance and Opposition Arts Review. AP speaks with the journal's founder about what the West still gets wrong on Russia.

Linor Goralik, Carolyn Stewart

In the days following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Linor Goralik was inspired to create an arts magazine dedicated to pushing back on Putin's murderous actions. Now in its eleventh edition, the Resistance and Opposition Arts Review (ROAR) has become a rich collection of texts, prose, music, and artwork that highlights Russian dissident expression. It offers a platform for dissident opinions to be heard, artists to practice their craft, and a window into war perspectives that are significantly different from the sanitized perspectives of mainstream Western media.

In the interview below, she talks about the deeply psychological nature of the art being created, the instrumental role of social media in amplifying oppositional art, and how the West still misunderstands Russia.

Carolyn Stewart: In the last two years, the nature of Russia’s war against Ukraine has changed greatly. Has there been a shift in how the Russian and some Ukrainian artists featured in your magazine have portrayed the war?

Linor Goralik: I feel this shift very strongly, the shift from shock to deep reflection. We began publishing ROAR very early, we started to gather materials for our first issue on March 10, 2022. And the first one or two issues were trembling with shock and disgust at the invasion. Now we see more materials that oppose the current Russian regime in general, the Russian totalitarianism and the violence against Ukraine as well as against the private citizens who dare to speak up. We also see more and more entries about withstanding life under the totalitarian regime as a dissident and not breaking. This is extremely impressive and sometimes heartbreaking. We meet here with authors’ deep reflection on what war does to everyday life—which might be taking place in Russia, sometimes in Ukraine, and many times, in other parts of the world, since so many Russian-speaking artists and thinkers migrated because of the war. So, for me, as a person who reads every single material in ROAR repeatedly, the shift is very obvious.

CS: As Putin escalates his crackdown on free expression and thought in Russia, has that forced ROAR to adapt how it communicates with artists?

LG: Amazingly, we have, in my opinion, less anonymous artists and less pseudonyms. As far as I can judge, the crackdown, surprisingly, has meant fewer pen names and more artists writing under their own names, even though they are living in Russia.

I personally know artists that first published their work in ROAR as anonymous and switched to their full names later. Their attitude is, "I live in Russia, and I should probably use a pen name, but fuck them. I won't do it." It's a very personal choice, and I fear for everyone who makes it. I feel this fear because we publish what we publish. I feel it because ROAR is officially banned by the Russian government. You can only read it through VPN in Russia. I feel it because I personally was proclaimed by Russia to be a "foreign agent," which is literally enemy of the state, and everyone who collaborates with me in this way or another doesn’t do themselves any favor. I'm, by the way, also very much scared scared for those members of the ROAR team who are in Russia, and there are quite a few…

But at the same time, some people are in tremendous fear, and it feels occasionally like the fear is oozing from every pore of the country. I sense this fear in how part of our authors writes to us sometimes. Even people who left Russia might write to us saying that they want to use a pen name because their family is still in Russia, and I absolutely understand them. I can't imagine living in Russia now and doing anything that reminds you of free expression and not being scared. So I know that even the authors who write to us anonymously, from anonymous accounts, understand that they risk themselves. They risk their freedoms, at least. But still, they do what they do, and I appreciate it beyond imagination.

CS: How porous are the borders between those in Russia and the dissident community outside of Russia?

LG: It's a huge topic, “those who left and those who stayed”, and it’s constantly discussed in the dissident Russian-speaking world. Technically, the communication is fantastic, especially compared to the previous big waves of Russian emigration, given the internet and Facebook and everything (Russians use a lot of Facebook; as far as I can see, it's one of the significant platforms for Russian intellectuals). The question of understanding each other is the discussed question, of course.

I suspect that the idea of an emotional and intellectual split between these two groups is intensively promoted by the Kremlin's propaganda machine and their social media teams. I follow the Russian news extremely closely, and it is easy to see clearly how the Russian government makes an effort to make an enemy out of those dissidents who left the country. Part of this effort is a concentrated attempt to separate the oppositional Russians on both sides of the border. Nothing special comes out of this and the connection between “those who left and those who stayed” is still pretty strong, but I try to remember it is strong despite the possible schemes to ruin it.

CS: In a recent American Purpose discussion on Russian dissident culture, you mentioned "culture one," "culture two," and "Z culture." Could you give us a quick breakdown of the dominant subcultures right now?

LG: There is a wonderful Russian-speaking artist, Vladimir Paperny, who had stated in the seventies that there are two cultures in Soviet Russia, "Culture One" and "Culture Two."

Culture One was the official Soviet culture that existed, first of all, in the public space–say, on television and on radio. The officially recognized Soviet art and books, for example, also belonged to Culture One.

And there was Culture Two, which was created in stealth mode. It was created by dissidents, by the people who didn’t want to participate in the official culture, who didn’t want to publish through the official networks, who didn’t want to play the official cultural game. Back then, dissidents published their books using the typewriters. They exhibited their artwork in their kitchens. Dissidents read their poetry at their homes and in the homes of their friends. They played concerts in their homes. It's much more complex than that, but that's the basic gist of it.

So, right now, the world is less dual, but I think that we are starting to see Culture One and Culture Two reemerge. It’s been years since many Russian intellectuals discussed whether it's acceptable to appear on Russian TV when you're invited, and on which channels and programs it's acceptable to appear. In my opinion, that probably was the moment when the culture started to separate, like water and oil, into Culture One and Culture Two again. And right now you can't find a Russian intellectual of Culture Two who is ready to appear for any reason on, say, the Channel 1 (the main official channel) of Russian TV. That would be ethically unacceptable to them, their view is, “These people promote war. These people promote Putin. We can't be there.”

Likewise, the Russian government has also started working on the separation between cultures One and Two. The government prohibits bookstores from selling the books of certain authors, for example. Slow and steady, the gap gets bigger and bigger, as far as I can see.  

CS: What is the role of social media, the internet, and apps like Telegram when it comes to Russian oppositional culture?

LG: They are indispensable, in my opinion: they are the main tools of free speech today. And speaking of ROAR, if there wasn't social media we wouldn’t exist. I started ROAR because I saw on social media how my colleagues–poets, artists, writers– were expressing themselves in the first days of Russia's invasion into Ukraine. I felt that if I gathered it all together, it would sound stronger than in separate, and I did that (with a tremendous team of volunteer translators, editors, correctors and layout specialists). That was all.

Each time we begin working on a new issue, we do open calls on social media. We post something like "we are starting the new issue of ROAR, please, until this and that date, send us your works." ROAR is intertwined with social media very strongly.

There are very well-known authors who publish in ROAR, people we have known for years. But there are also young people who hear about us for the first time over social media. They send us notes, "I'm fifteen, I read you on Telegram and on Facebook and decided to send you my antiwar poetry, please tell me something about it.” There are many letters to ROAR that I do not have time to answer, unfortunately, but letters like this, letters from the fifteen, and sixteen, and seventeen year olds I always answer, and I try to publish them in many cases. I do my best to be in touch with these people.

CS: When we think of culture-makers, we tend to think of writers, artists, musicians. But just as critical are platforms like ROAR that not only create opportunities for artists, but also cultivate and grow audiences for them.

LG: Speaking about the audience: we are in a very strange situation. We know almost nothing about our readers and viewers. We are banned in Russia, as I have mentioned. So, on the one hand, you can't read us from there unless you use VPN. You technically can't. When you try to reach our website from Russia, you get nothing. But many people do use VPN, yet we don’t really know whom: VPNs prevent analytics from being measured. On the other hand, we publish every issue of ROAR as PDF thanks to one of our wonderful volunteers, and we know people send PDFs to each other. But we can't get statistics from PDFs.

But we do have some people's reactions. We know that there are people who read us. And sometimes we discover that people read us in places where we don't expect to reach at all. Very young people, for example, or people who don't seem like dissidents. Or people who proclaim they are not interested in contemporary culture. It's a fantastic, amazing feeling. But in general, we know nothing about who reads us. We just do our job and hope for the best.

CS: To introduce Western audiences to ROAR, do you have one or two artists who you think people should start with? I'm asking you to choose your "favorite children."

LG: That's very dangerous. You know what, I don't want to choose favorites, I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. Or I will be nervous, and just choose somebody whom I remember from the last issues. It wouldn't be fair. Just start anywhere, from any issue. We have English version of every issue. Start anywhere and move from there.

CS: I can attest in my own experience that that yields great results. I just read a poem by Vitaly Zimakov, "It all started with St. George." It transported me immediately in a way that no news coverage could.

Have you had experience with Russian authorities trying to send you a message, trying to interfere with ROAR's ability to publish?

LG: We are banned. They literally send a very clear message: “You are banned. You shouldn't continue. You are in danger.” We were so heavily hit by a DDOS attack (distributed denial-of-service) on the day ROAR was first published that readers could hardly reach the site. That was a message too. Then it was a very clear message when I was proclaimed the enemy of the state, the foreign agent. My friends and my lawyer have many versions of why exactly they proclaimed me the foreign agent, and one reason is ROAR, obviously.  

The other reason is probably my other media project, "News-26—Russian Politics for Teenagers." It's a Telegram channel where we publish daily on the Russian news and politics for 12- to 14- year olds. We explain current Russian affairs to the teenagers, because in my opinion, they have the right to know what happens in their country, and they have the right to have this explained in the ways that they can understand. This project is also banned by the Russian government. Another reason might be my latest novel, called Bobo, which is extremely anti-war and extremely anti-Putin.

I get threats, including murder threats, regularly, just about every week.

Sometimes every day, depending on what I do that day. But [these threats] seem to be from private people. I am used to ignoring them. My mom’s Telegram was hacked some time ago, and the only thing deleted was the history of my conversations with her. I see it as a threat as well. But I had an extremely interesting conversation with my close friends recently. When do you have the right to feel fear from all these threats? When do you have the right to switch from just feeling paranoid to the feeling that you are in real danger? I don't feel like I'm there yet.

CS: Is there something that Western audiences struggle to understand about the whole situation, in your view? Is there something you wish they understood more clearly?

LG: Let’s take something in particular. For example, there is a lot of writing on the subject of “what the Russians want.” Do they want war, peace, Putin? Russians—and here I mean Russian citizens, not Russian nationals—are all very different people with very different wishes. As a marketing consultant (this is my job, by the way, the job that feeds me) I work pro bono with many dissident anti-war projects and anti-totalitarian projects. Some of them try to reach people who are not dissidents—not the warmongers, but just Russian people.

The thing that so many journalists don't understand (in my opinion!) about them is that, like every person in the world, most of these people want decency. They want to live decent lives. Just like everybody else. They want to put decent food on the table and have a decent feeling when they send their children off to decent school. They want to do work that feels decent, with a decent relationship with their boss or manager. They want to be able to say that they did decent things at work. And they want to go home to watch decent things on TV. They want to watch something that speaks to them, that doesn't feel dishonest. They want to be entertained and not feel disgusted, this way or another. And they want to go to sleep and feel that they lived through a decent day.

When it comes to their country, Russia, they do not want to feel two things (again, as I see it!). One: that their country is despised by the whole world. And two: that it's threatened by the whole world. Propaganda tells them that we're threatened. And dissident counter-propaganda in many, many cases tries to tell them that their country is despicable. They don't want to feel either. They want to feel that their country is decent. They want to be decent people in a decent country. That's all. And I deeply believe that that's a decent goal. It's a decent wish. Like every single person in the world, like you, like me, like probably every Western person, like probably every person, they want this. Yes, it’s a huge wish, and to fulfill it, they would have to do a lot of things for a lot of time. But it can’t be flattened into “they want peace,” “they want war,” or “they want Putin.”

Everybody understands the word "decent" in a different way. But the feeling of decency is probably the same for all of us. This is what I call “emotional equality.” We can be very different in what we want, but on the emotional level we can probably understand each other. So maybe we should use our sense of emotional equality to understand what it means to want to be a decent person in a decent country.

Linor Goralik is a Russian-born Israeli writer and the founder and editor of the Resistance and Opposition Arts Review (ROAR). She is the author of Found Life: Poems, Stories, Comics, a Play and an Interview (2017, Columbia University Press).

Carolyn Stewart is the managing editor of American Purpose.

Image: Members of the Russian diaspora in Krakow protest Russia's war against Ukraine in March of 2022. (Wikimedia Commons: Silar)

This interview was originally published in Liberal Currents on February 21, 2024.

AuthoritarianismCultureDemocracyEastern EuropeUkraineTechnologyPolitical PhilosophyRussiaInterview