Urban Art in Russia, Part 1: Attempts of art to come out into public space (1920—1990s)

In this moment we start serie of articles about Urban art in Russia. In 4 articles we try to describe story from Avant-garde, Moscow actionism to graffiti/street Art and socially engaged Urban Art with analyse today situation of expropriation by commercial and governmental structures.

This is the first part about attempts of art to come out into public space: avant-garde and non-conformism in the USSR, actionism of the 1990s.


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Malevich with students and Suprematist mural at Vitebsk in 1920


Back in the early 20th century the Soviet avant-garde artists struggling with academic stagnation, bourgeois art, and museumification proclaimed the coming-out of art into the city. Art manifestos and decrees[1] reflected their intention to "promulgate" bourgeois art by moving and transforming art objects into the urban public space.


Rodchenko. Advertisment mural in Moscow. 1924

The first attempts at reclaiming public spaces by avant-garde artists were seen in the early 1920s in Vitebsk and later in Moscow. Suprematism artists received an order for public occasions design, and in an era of New Economic Policy – for innovative design of advertising and propaganda materials. One of the typical examples of such constructivist graphic designs is still preserved façade of Mosselprom[2] in Moscow created in 1924 year after an outline by Alexander Rodchenko.

The era of avant-garde coming-out into public space was ubiquitous, but quite brief – already by the late 1920s many avant-gardists that were behind the cultural revolution in the Soviet Union fell into the list of "undesirable elements" and their works were searched for the traces of disagreement with the regime. The 1930s already marked the beginning of the period of socialist realism[3] based on the glorification of the collective labor. While avant-gardists had been previously the “designers” of a new society, now art headed for glorification of Communist goals and ideals. Art continued its path of invasion in the public domain, now in the form of monumental mosaics, sculptures and murals. In comparison with the attempts of suprematists, the program of Soviet monumentalism launched in the 1930s was much more ambitious – until now numerous mosaics of that period can still be seen in any Russian city.


Soviet mosaic from era of Lenin propaganda plan. Vyksa, 2013

The chosen direction and imperialist ambitions could be traced in architecture and urban planning as well. The city became not so much a comfortable place to live, as an area where achievements of national economy and military power were demonstrated. Broad avenues and large squares were named after prominent Socialists and generals and intended mainly for demonstrations and parades.

At the time of a harsh Socialist regime any engaged or public informal art was out of the question, it was even forbidden to think of it. In the turbulent years of Stalin's repressions millions of Soviet citizens were in the concentration camps. They did not even have to do something actually forbidden, as it was enough to tell an anecdote on an unwanted topic.


Gelfreikh, Iofan and Shchuko, Plan for Palace of Soviets (1933-35). Moscow


Only in the 1950-1960s, during the "Khrushchev’s thaw"[4], the so-called second wave of Russian avant-garde shaped representing a circle of nonconformists, which operated as a cohesive, closed, and secret informal community of artists that created works of social and political nature. Up until the 1990s they continued to work secretly, mostly showing their work to a narrow circle of spectators in their apartments and studios. This activity was closely monitored by the KGB, therefore, even though many of the performative practices were public, they still remained available only to community members who by leaving the city literally became spectators of some secret ritual[5].


Collective actions, 1977


Only by the 1990s with Gorbachev coming to power there was easing – the “iron curtain” gradually disappeared, and the USSR collapsed into 15 independent states. That entailed an entire crisis, which, however, initiated many different artistic movements.

One such a movement was Moscow actionism[6], which chose as its leitmotif the political agenda and acted in opposition to the established conceptual non-conformism of the 1960s. The daring actionism acted in the form of an artistic expression by way of a radical and provocative performance, which, by its nature, emphasized social issues and the reconquest of public areas.



Movement “E.T.I.” staged protests on the Red Square for freedom of speech and on the subject of presidential elections. Oleg Kulik consciously chose the image of an animal in order to show dreadful living conditions in Russia. By building barricades in the center of Moscow, Anatoly Osmolovsky quoted and actualized the situationists’ practices of the 1960s. These and many other provocations on completely different burning topics – ranging from politics to religion — were the agenda of modern Moscow life of the beginning of the 1990s. The sharp and radical actions marked the first step towards the return of informal activity on the streets of our cities.

The feeling of freedom, permissiveness and the lifting of censorship on Western culture gave way to new informal urban movements, which started to actively penetrate youth social classes. Among them there was rock culture, as well as hip hop with street break dance and graffiti.


[1] Decree No. 1 "On the democratization of art”, Mayakovsky, Burliuk, Kamensky, 1918. 
[2] The painting is made by request of the company "Mosselprom" in 1925. In the same year at the International exhibition of decorative arts and artistic industry in Paris Rodchenko receives diploma in the nomination "street art”. The work is restored in 1990-ies and is situated in Moscow.
[3] Socialist realism is a style of realistic art that was developed in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in various other socialist countries. Socialist realism is characterized by the glorified depiction of communist values, such as the emancipation of the proletariat, in a realistic manner.
[4] The Khrushchev Thaw – refers to the period from the early 1950s to the early 1960s when repression and censorship in the Soviet Union were reversed, and millions of Soviet political prisoners were released from Gulag labor camps due to Nikita Khrushchev's policies of de-Stalinization and peaceful coexistence with other nations.
[5] In the mid-70s an artistic group of conceptualists “Collective actions” organized their “Trips out of city” and during 30 years of its existence it has conducted more than 100 actions and performances in fields and forests.
[6] Moscow actionism is an art situation developed in Moscow in 1990s by efforts of several actionist artists.
Translation by Fania Balabanova.
Read: Part 2 — Infiltration of hip hop in the USSR. Formation and development of the street art community (1980s—2008)