Oxana’s great grandfather was dekulakised – deprived of his property because he owned a modest portion of land and livestock in Russia after the revolution. Her grandfather was exiled to Siberia by Stalin’s regime. Her dad grew up fatherless, tormented by schoolmates because he was the son of an ‘enemy of the people’ he never even knew. No doubt as a result, he was always distant with his own children, never the one who was there to deal with their joys or crises. Both he and his father were finally politically rehabilitated – in 2004, thirteen years after the Soviet Union broke up. Oxana lives outside Russia now, although she’s still torn with love as well as hate for her country.
Right now she’s in London and last week she and I found ourselves in a room of Soviet posters in the Tate Modern gallery. The posters were attention-grabbing, as they’re intended to be, but just as interesting was watching everyone else looking at them with a view unaffected by personal history. Admiring their style (and they are super-stylish); laughing at their naïve messages, their ridiculous utopian ideals or their unapologetic savagery (Death To The Child-killers! Women Workers, Take Up Rifles! Drive The Kulaks Out Of The Collective Farm!). Subtlety was not the USSR’s strong point.
Oxana laughed too at some of them. You can buy reproductions of these posters in Russia and Ukraine; people have them on their walls as an ironic statement. The one of a soldier and peasant snogging has been adopted by the gay community. Slogans and images have been vandalised, adapted, re-written to apply to everything from drugs to prostitution to copyright piracy – the reality rather than the propaganda of society and politics; all the jokes Soviets used to make in the privacy of their kitchens finally brought out into the open now that it no longer matters.
I admired their style as well. I even wanted to admire some of the messages, thinking it would be nice to believe in a sentiment like ‘Death To World Imperialism’ that simply, that much. But mostly I was thinking about Oxana’s childhood; the commonplace Soviet tragedy of her family and the sadness in her now, as she lies under the birch trees outside Tate Modern that remind her of home in Siberia; of all the things that were wrong and are still so wrong in her country.