Russian artist Nadia Khuzina on politics and art

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I interviewed Russian Satirical Artist Nadia Khuzina who voiced her opinions about Putin, Crimea, art, and international relations. Here’s what she had to say.

Nadia Khuzina (Photo provided by Nadia Khuzina)
Nadia Khuzina
(Photo provided by Nadia Khuzina)

Cat Doss: How did you first get into doing art?

Nadia Khuzina: It’s the only thing I can remember doing, so I am not sure. If you mean professionally, it’s the only thing you can do with an MFA besides working at Starbucks. 🙂

CD: What made you decide to move to the US from Russia two years ago?

NK: It’s a long and seemingly endless story.

My future husband was living in London and Lithuania when we met (at his Russian friend’s wedding in St. Petersburg).

The UK Home Office assumes all Russian women are prostitutes or mail order brides, so I was unable to visit there. It was a degrading experience that didn’t end with the UK. Since it is literally impossible for foreigners to get residence status in Russia without bribery, great cost and being willing to stay more than six months out of the year, we decided on Lithuania.

Unfortunately, they changed the rules in Lithuania for citizenship, and I was looking at ten years before I could get citizenship, and my husband (who is a permanent resident there) was annoyed at his own citizenship plight. We weren’t really sure what to do.

The real chaos started when Lithuania gave me until midnight (it was already afternoon) to leave the country after losing an appeal to extend my visa and told me to wait the required two more months while my application was pending.

Soviet Pioneers KissingThey were just following the letter of the law, but it was disappointing since we talked with the head of immigration and expected a different result. So frantically, I packed my stuff for the 5 p.m. train to St. Petersburg (a 16hour long ride); and my husband couldn’t join me in Russia, he would have to fly to London to get a visa because the Russian government made new rules that forbid anyone but citizens from getting visas from any countries bordering Russia.

He flew back to London the next day to get a 90-day Russian visa (which costs Americans over $1,000), and we booked flights to meet in Hong Kong, one of the few places in the world that is visa free to both of us. He only got two weeks or so in Hong Kong, so we stayed this time, and rented an apartment in Macau where we both could stay a while after his 17 days expired. Then we flew back to St. Petersburg together from Hong Kong. This was not cheap as you can imagine.

We were then able to convince the Lithuanian consul in Russia to give me another tourist visa. It was still more chaos though. He gave us a real break. I think he felt bad for us, but he felt more pride for Lithuania than anything.

He advised us of a mistake Finland made. They failed to follow the rules for issuing my first visa, and he asked us to go visit him to have it canceled which would give me enough days in Lithuania as a tourist until my residence visa was processed. We went over to the Finnish consulate, and the consul there said she wouldn’t cancel the visa, which would allow me another visa in Lithuania under Schengen rules.

Obama Putin Romney Card GameThis sent the Lithuanian consul into a rage, especially after they told him rudely the same thing they told me. He was very angry that the sovereignty and authority of Lithuania as an EU member state was being disrespected. He said it wasn’t the first time he had an issue with Finland disrespecting Lithuania and let the Finnish consul have a piece of his mind. I really didn’t mean to start an international conflict.

After I got that visa, we then were able to live in our home again. However that wasn’t the end of the journey. We wanted to go spend New Years in the USA with family. That resulted in a comical battle with the US Consul General at the time there, Bradley Norton. I was denied four times for a tourist visa by him.

It didn’t matter how many documents we had. We had very important people write letters on our behalf, someone who had worked in the State Department, someone in the Lithuanian government …we had over 140 pages of documents. It was truly a surrealist scene for the last failed application. I took large canvas paintings that wouldn’t fit in the metal detector as evidence of my occupation (the consul had to be phoned for authorization). He said he couldn’t be sure of my occupation. To say that it was farcical would be an understatement.

Although we had never considered in a million years of living in the USA (we were thinking about Spain or Canada more), the only way for us to even visit there was to apply for residency as multiple people advised.

Putin Figure Skating for EqualityIt took about two months to prepare the documents for the application (you need police records from every city you have ever lived in proving you haven’t committed crimes), and once the application was submitted, Consul General Norton approved the application as probably his last act of government service (he was retiring since he would have been assigned next in Mexico). He made sure to be away when my interview was scheduled, and I never spoke to him again after the last time of being denied.

I’m not sure if it was an act of contrition that this application was processed in only a week (some people wait well over a year on the CR-1 application), or if it was fear of my husband who was not going to sleep until he was defeated. The State Department has absolute authority on tourist visas, and there is no appeals process. With a residency application, you can go to court, and there is discovery of everything he did. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want to ever speak to us again even if he thought he was right. My husband and my mother-in-law being very persistently annoying to him is what probably helped the most.

So that is how I got to America. It wasn’t out of a desire to be degraded by the immigration process. It was out of a necessity. I will earn citizenship this year, and we plan to move back to Europe with our passport situation consolidated. America definitely represents freedom for me, but probably in a different way than for most.

CD: What was it like moving halfway across the world and having to assimilate into a new country?

NK: It was easy. I was finally able to be together with my husband without having to think what chaos would come next. I don’t have many friends here, but I have adopted all the things I love about America. I like not only American humor, but that you can drive through to have a burrito at 2 a.m. and that you can even get married at one (drive-through) right in your car.

Food is extremely cheap here, at least one-third the cost as in Russia and the quality is much higher. You can eat melon every day no matter what season; it is amazing.

Putin in Sochi 2014 Gopnik CurlingCD: What made you decide to do your series on Vladimir Putin? Can you tell us a little bit about it?

NK: I admire a lot of the leadership qualities he has, but I am also intrigued by his less desirable qualities that show he bleeds blood, the same scared blood I do. A lot of other people are interested in him like this as well and with mass appeal comes ideas that can not only be a good mode of satire, but profitable enough to spend my time trying to deliver them through his likeness.

CD: One piece that really stuck out to me was the painting of Putin doing Olympic Curling. Can you tell me a little more about that particular painting?

NK: I had the idea listening to one of my favorite, ok probably the only, satirical Russian rapper Syava, who pokes fun at Gopnik culture. Gopniks love to do what is known in the West as the “slav” or “third-world squat.” I really saw a fit with curling, a sport where you are often squatting down — and drinking lots of alcohol.

This was the first work in the series (out of 15), and it inspired me to take a curling lesson here in San Diego. I really like the sport and hope to play more the next time I am in Canada.

What is funniest about this work is that after I was done, I found pictures of him curling recently. He really does do everything! My political art always seem to capture real life events I had never considered when creating them. Like my JFK work; and his real life connection to Cuban cigars, or Kim Jong Un flying in Mcdonald’s to North Korea.

Kim Jong Un 'i'm lovin' it'CD: What are your thoughts on the current political situation in Crimea?

NK: I’m not sure it’s possible to have an opinion on who is right. I don’t think one side here can possibly be completely right.

Putin is being made out to be the bad guy in the Western media, and he might be, but biggest villains are probably the US and EU in allowing Ukraine to fragment in the first place.

After the Orange Revolution, Ukraine was on the way to accession by the EU and NATO, but the US and EU made this needlessly difficult and the tensions caused by the slowness in progress allowed the dichotomized politics (like you see in the US) to swing back in favor of Yanukovich fan boys.

Yanukovich is of course a corrupt scumbag, but so was Yushchenko and his government. The West didn’t really see the people behind the politics, and focused too much on things that don’t matter and that could be cleaned up once Ukraine was admitted into the EU and NATO.

This has really been a lesson in revolutions to all those young people involved in the Occupy movement. I believe the Occupy movement was exceptionally close to disintegrating the U.S. as we know it. A lot closer than most people thought at least. All it needed was a catalyst in the form of a terrorist attack, or some martyr created for the cause.

Kim Jong Un Slot DictatorOf course the people camping out wouldn’t have been the ones to actually accomplish overtaking the White House. It would have needed the fringe groups to do the truly dirty deeds with their weapons stockpiles, just like in Ukraine.

So while I stand with those who opposed Yanukovich, I also don’t necessarily agree with anything that is going on now. I don’t like neo-Nazis getting any support, I don’t like the fact that the U.S. abandoned its 1994 treaty to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and I don’t like the idea of another Cold War. The people living in East Europe are not pawns of the U.S. or Russia. They are people who deserve to be left alone for once.

If you made me vote as a Ukrainian (I have Ukrainian family that this concerns as well), I would probably vote to become part of Russia. Not because I wouldn’t want to be part of the EU and be independent, but because of the direct threat to my life through instability. I don’t see many outcomes where Ukraine keeps all of its territory and everyone is happy any time soon. It is all very sad.

I think Russia is absolutely annexing Crimea whether anyone agrees with it or not.

The only hope the West could have to gain territory back from Russia is to blockade Kaliningrad, forcing Russia to give back this territory in exchange. It would be a strategic win, even if a total land area loss. I would definitely support Kaliningrad being returned Poland, Germany, and Lithuania at this time. There is also room to take land back from Belarus, where the borders are still incorrect.

CD:  What are your thoughts on the Pussy Riot situation?

NK: They are blowing their chance to effect positive change after gaining their well earned notoriety. Like many revolutionaries, they have no idea what to do once they’ve won. I think that summarizes Pussy Riot’s movement now.

Snowden and Putin KissCD:  Do you consider yourself to be a political activist?

NK: No. I consider myself a capitalist, and a trololo (someone who trolls for laughs). That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t ever take up a specific cause or fight for certain things. Most of the time I am choosing things that reflect unpopular or controversial opinions of mine. This is what seems to sell.

With activism you should have a generally popular opinion that has a support of a strong minority. You have to be able to win something with your time. It can’t just be a pipe dream. All of the things that piss me off enough to want to do something about them are currently very unpopular opinions. I can address them passive aggressively through my art at least.

Censorship, and the idea that children should be coddled and protected until a certain age really bother me. When I hear songs censored for language, or someone say that we should “think of the children” when deciding if something is moral or ethical, really makes me want to slap someone.

Unfortunately, “protecting the children” is a great ploy for winning popularity, so I tend not to share my views. When I say I support freedom, it means I support freedom for everyone, not just some people who are a certain age.

CD: A lot of your work seems to really defend gay rights. Can you tell me what inspired that?

NK: My first day in America (literally) I went to the San Diego Pride Parade. It was the first parade that LGBT people in the U.S. military could openly march. Seeing the joy on everyone’s face at finally being free really inspired me. This kind of thing is decades, maybe even centuries away from happening in Russia. For all the faults of America and the never ending bad things you could say, this is one of the things America can really be proud of.

It’s still perplexing politically though. The issue of equality very much is a Democrat vs. Republican ideological battle in the U.S. Republicans supposedly stand for personal freedom, less government and equality. I want all of those things, and I am a conservative thinker, but I wouldn’t ever call myself a Republican.

CD:  Can you tell me some of your artistic influences?

NK: It’s more a rejection of artistic influence than being influenced by anyone. In Russia, artists are trained to paint a certain way, like certain artists, and really not think for themselves. I don’t try to focus on things I dislike, but rather finding my own style. I can say that all the attempted indoctrination of my professors makes me really hate Repin.

Still, there are a lot of artists I find talentless, the most egregious ones people know would be Rothko, Picasso, and Chagall, but I always find something of value that can be learned from a successful artist’s business sense. If someone lived a satisfied and fulfilling life, I want to be like them. Art is a hustle like any business and this is the hard part. Being original is easy, executing a profitable business plan in the art world is not.

Brian Boitano and Putin Ice Dancing for EqualityMy favorite American artist is Norman Rockwell. He was good technically, but what I love most about him is how he was unbelievably prolific in his concepts and had an amazing work ethic. I also look up to him because he found a way to make a living his whole life doing what he loved despite being social awkward. He was the antithesis to say Pablo Picasso or Damien Hirst, who are true showmen and hustlers. Like Rockwell, I want to avoid doing certain things to maintain my happiness. I’m an artist not an entertainer.

CD: Would you ever go back to Russia?

NK: I own property there, so I will. To live? Probably not. It’s impossible to want to endure another Russian winter after living in San Diego. It is about geography for me in this case and not politics.

CD: Do you have any advice for young artists who might be living in a country where they aren’t 100 percent free to safely express their beliefs?

NK: Don’t bother expressing beliefs, just move to where you are free. Life is too short to try and reason with most of mankind. In the prisoner’s dilemma, you should always betray your comrade. It’s the same strategy when living under a repressive regime. You aren’t doing anyone any favors by not looking after yourself first. If everyone looked after their own personal freedom first, it wouldn’t be a repressive regime in the first place.

(All of the art work by Nadia Khuzina)