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Fleeing Russia: Exiled Artist’s Work Traces Soviet Roots of Ukraine Invasion 

Fleeing Russia: Exiled Artist Traces Soviet Roots of Ukraine Invasion
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Several hundred thousand Russian citizens are thought to have fled their home country since February of last year, when the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine. While no official figures exist, some estimates put the figure at close to one million people.

The exodus includes Russian citizens seeking to avoid mandated military service, as well as political activists, journalists and artists. Critics of the war face imprisonment for “discrediting” the Russian military or spreading what the Kremlin calls "unreliable information.”

Those who fled Russia’s government crackdown include Pavel Otdelnov, an artist whose works often critique Soviet and Russian history and politics. The 43-year-old found sanctuary in London and just completed an exhibition for Pushkin House, a Russian cultural center in the British capital.

‘Acting out’

Otdelnov said the exhibition, “Acting Out,” was about the humanitarian catastrophe associated with the war in Ukraine, along with an attempt to find the signs hidden in history that led to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

One of the first works, a painting titled "Money,” showed old Soviet banknotes stored inside an unused missile silo, something that actually happened with the collapse of communism. The work is embellished with fragments of real bank notes.

“In 1991, under [then-Prime Minister Valentin] Pavlov, monetary reform led to the impoverishment of the population,” Otdelnov explained.

“Many people lost their savings as they had to exchange the old-style bank notes for the new-style bank notes within only three days, and the amount to be exchanged was very limited. All the rest [of the cash] turned into worthless paper that was stored in warehouses and bank deposits in different parts of the Soviet Union and Russia, and later in missile silos,” Otdelnov said.


Otdelnov grew up through the collapse of communism. His art works parody Russia’s feeling of injustice at the outcome of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union broke up.

“This is a narrative that is very actively used in today's propaganda — this conviction that we were humiliated, that we were put on our knees, and that we are now finally getting up from our knees and showing the whole world how powerful we are. Putin's phrase that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century is very characteristic of this,” Otdelnov told VOA, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian laws

Shortly after launching its invasion of Ukraine, Russia passed a law criminalizing dissent against the war, punishable with huge fines and imprisonment. Thousands of people have been arrested at anti-war demonstrations and for voicing their opposition.

Otdelnov has exhibited his provocative works across Russia for decades. But like hundreds of thousands of other Russians, he feared for his liberty and safety. He left Russia shortly after the invasion began last year and was given a visa to live in Britain under the country’s Global Talent program.

Another of his works in the Pushkin House exhibition showed forlorn human figures lost in a vast sea of fog, apparently mirroring his experience. Otdelnov said the exhibit, “A Generation,” was about “those people who left their country, who do not see any prospects, do not see an opportunity to continue to live and progress and work there.”

Invasion of Ukraine

The final works in the exhibition addressed Russia’s war in Ukraine. One of the most powerful, "Cargo 200,” showed a railway wagon standing in a flat, snowy field — the winter landscape of eastern Ukraine.

“This is the refrigerated railway wagon that transports the bodies of the dead,” Otdelnov said. “This is the last work for this exhibition, and I decided to paint it when Putin announced mobilization,” he said.

“I thought about the fate of those people who will go to war, who will take up arms and who will be killed.”