Kultrab are a young art-activist collective in Russia, through exposing the reality of the justice system and the lack of freedom of speech in there, they have curated and produced several incredible clothing collections and photography exhibitions exposing their findings. We speak to Egor Eremeev and Alina Muzychenko, co-founders of the brand, about how they inspire the future of journalism and activists to speak their minds to create a freer, more environmentally sustainable Russia than the one the world currently knows. Touching on the pandemic's irreparable impact on physical contact and the importance of acting as the megaphone for marginalized communities, Kultrab is changing the world as we know it, for the better.
How did the founders of Kultrab meet? Was there a specific societal event or injustice that kickstarted the Kultrab collective and put your visions for justice and free expression into motion?
It’s a love story. In 2013, I worked as a part of Alexei Navalny’s campaign team for the Moscow mayoral election. Alina Muzychenko and I met at one of these meetings. Alina came to Russia from Belarus. She directed plays connected to social causes including some about HIV-positive people and people with addiction but her ideas were censored, and she was denied in locations for performances. She was also threatened, so she had to leave. After that, for a few years, she worked at a private school for troubled teens; then she was engaged in the creation of amusement parks.
Alina was 30 when she realised that she wanted to go back to working with social issues. I suggested creating a project that would broadcast social problems through visual language, also introducing new people to them. By the time MediaZona’s (a media outlet focusing on judicial, law enforcement and penal system in Russia) crowdfunding campaign started, we had already gotten married. We decided to express the way a media outlet works through clothes. It was our experiment, and it became a success.
Kultrab is officially 3 years old – a lot has changed in the world in one year, never mind 3. How fixed is the collective in its founding morals? Have you found your ideals evolving or expanding alongside changes in society? Are there any societal issues or topics you have addressed that you never originally imagined the collective would cover in 2017?
Everything we speak out about, we take close to heart: that’s how we reflect. The world around us is certainly changing and we analyse what’s going on. This is how the themes for our collections and other projects, not involving clothing, are born.
For example, 2 years ago, we did a streetwear drop with pieces asking the question, "Who poisoned Petya Verzilov." He is our friend, the publisher of MediaZona and a Pussy Riot member. We were having a beer together one day, and a day later he was poisoned. At that moment, we were shocked and decided to completely change the collection. We made a T-shirt that said: "Who poisoned Petya Verzilov" without a question mark and a banner-like scarf that said "We’re so fucking surprised" as the answer to the question. KMBU (Kak my blyat’ udivleny — 'We're so fucking surprised') is a reaction to the events that are terrible but are obvious within the existing state and political system.
These are the events that we speak out against, but which don't come as a surprise. This reaction is often used by Sergei Smirnov, the editor-in-chief of MediaZona. We also launched a sticker campaign by putting stickers that said "Who poisoned Petya Verzilov" everywhere.
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What other politically-charged issues have you touched upon?
The projects we work on are often a reaction to the events in the society that we cannot ignore and that we try to influence. For example, the Summer of 2019 was the summer of protests. That's when we turned into a media outlet. Broadcasting from different parts of Moscow, we shared what was happening on the streets through our Instagram, and we managed to organise a headquarters quickly. It all took off from there.
Through art and fashion, Kultrab has created several striking projects which cover important issues in society to amplify the voices of young activists – one of which is your most recent environmental project, Black Sea Coast Mutation, and statement clothing collection I want to hug you, but I can’t. I read on the Kultrab website that whilst deciding on the theme and title, it changed several times. Can you tell us some of the runners-up and why the team decide on the current title?
We, too, were worried and reflected on what we felt and on how the world was going to change during and after the pandemic. We didn’t want to make slogans as in that case it seemed inappropriate to us; we wanted to show how we feel and how people feel during the lockdown, finding themselves in an economic and psychological crisis. We realised and felt that what hurt the most was the inability to touch each other, the inability to communicate with others not just because of the closed borders but also because each individual posed a potential danger to other people. We came up with the name straight away, but the way we were thinking changed a few times as well as illustrations and names of the pieces.
For example, the long-sleeved shirt Alchemy depicting a chalice and a snake – the Bowl of Hygeia, which has been used as a symbol of pharmacy since the 18th-century. We added dove wings to it – a symbol of peace. Chalice, serpent, wings – this is the symbol of medicine in a new world. At first, there were wings of a bat on it symbolising the spread of the pandemic but we decided it would be better with dove wings. After all, doves are city dwellers, and the pandemic came as a destructive power to change our streets.
Related to this, what can you tell us about how things are being handled in your home country of Russia when it comes to the pandemic?
A lot of people tried to find reliable information about the pandemic but here in Russia the statistics are falsified, low-sensitivity tests are used for diagnosing, and it's not clear what we can do about it. Moreover, during the pandemic, the amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation were approved, preceded by a huge agitational campaign for votes, so people were overloaded with information and felt helpless. his is the context for many beginning to feel anxious. Anxiety – that’s the name we originally gave to the shirt we dedicated to the feeling. It depicts a puppy sleeping under a security camera, not quite understanding that what it was made to do for the sake of security is actually dangerous. The collection was made in collaboration with designer Evgeniya Egereva and artist OUR.V.
Many are saying COVID-19 was not the only killer during this pandemic, do you feel the lack of physical connection is a big killer as well?
Yes, for sure. Tactile communication is a tool of connection and interaction among people and other animals. Physical touch plays a vital role in the demonstration of support, which is especially needed in times of global panic. Nevertheless, we weren’t allowed to express our feelings through touch or closeness during the lockdown.
The lack of socialisation due to the Covid-danger has created a lot of pain. We all know the stories of parents who were isolated from their kids for months; lovers who were separated and lost connection as they were unable to experience physical closeness. The pandemic caused the growth of asocial behaviour and mistrust between people. Once, in a shop, I’ve noticed people whose body language signified their fear and anxiety over each other. The world seemed wild.
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Within this project, there is an interview with Tatiana B. from Delfa Wildlife where the founder described how dolphins live in captivity in Russia. Tatiana draws a comparison between a dolphin in a dolphinarium in Russia and a human self-isolating in a small toilet for their entire life. Tatiana also highlights how dolphins are dependent on family, they are social animals and do not cope well without social interaction. Do you think this comparison holds more depth and could resonate with humans more after living in their own version of captivity since March?
It’s not a coincidence that the worst punishment in prisons is solitary confinement, which literally drives some people mad. After the lockdown, I still felt like I’m pretty bad at communicating and can’t fully express myself. I would meet with friends, but I didn’t really understand what was going on. I was hypersensitive. It seems like I grasped what it means to be lonely and became more conscious about lonely people.
Dolphins don’t have the same communicational opportunities as we do. This is why we have to take responsibility for those who can’t take care of themselves. This is the only way to restore balance in society and on the planet. We need to be careful and protect this connection between people and nature. We already destroyed so much and now is the time to fix it.
In the Black Sea Coast Mutation project, there is a great focus on the obstruction of natural order and cultural history by the modern human. Specifically, the vandalism and obstruction of the ancient dolmens. Do you think we are almost facilitating the human-driven destruction of our history due to the lack of special status or governmental responsibility for the dolmens themselves?
In Russia, there are laws that aim to protect historical and cultural objects, although these laws are not always respected. There are some impressive clusters of dolmens that were converted into museums. That’s good, but generally, the situation looks like we are in the Mad Max movie: some dolmens are controlled by gangsters who set a high ticket price, others are free but have members of cults or pseudoscientific groups hanging around, others are just destroyed. That's why the key to cultural heritage protection is the rise in social consciousness through learning our history and understanding the impact we have on the world. When we start feeling contact with each other and our land, it won't be difficult to unite and solve any issues.
A particularly striking photograph in the collection – the model sitting in front of a Dolmen with the gigantic speakers and floodlights – mixes urbanisation and history, what was your thought process behind this specific shot and the intention of the composition?
In the picture, the girl is holding a remote control in her hands, which is a modern tool for control. According to the scenario, this tool helps to transform nature so that people could feel comfortable living in it. Some people still think they can dominate nature without taking into consideration the consequences of their influence on human beings. Humanity is closely connected to nature and we reflect each other’s states. This is what the project is dedicated to. Nature remains a space of chaos, which you can’t fight, but which you can only take care of.
When researching and reading the texts in the Black Sea Coast Mutation project, I myself as a reader felt guilty and sickened by some of the photographs of our human bodies slowly mutating with the increasingly damaged natural world – I understand this was the intention. What were the impact on yourselves and the crew of witnessing the social and environmental destruction first-hand in your home country?
It's painful to witness events like this. When there is such a large-scale catastrophe you just stop noticing it or pull yourself away from it. Therefore, the purpose of the shooting was to pull people out of the worlds they created for themselves, make them feel uncomfortable, make them think over what's really going on and show them ways to improve the situation. We, as a collective of artists and activists, see this as our mission. It gives us the strength to, among other things, cope with the pain we experience when we see social and ecological destruction.
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After one of your most recent projects, the event Russia Day 228 and the other events held on June 12 surrounding the controversial narcotics law, do you think younger activists have become more aware of the corruption surrounding activist Yulia Tsvetkova, for example (a young activist jailed for six years), in the civil justice/activism scene thanks to this project?
Russia Day 228 is a unique event. In Russia, there is a law against drug propaganda. You literally can't discuss it in the media and, especially, organise public events associated with this theme. Nevertheless, our event took place, and the police didn't interrupt because of the right timing; that day there was a large protest in support of the arrested journalist Ivan Godunov. The police planted drugs on him for his journalistic work and he was facing a long time in prison. We think that the police were simply scared to cancel Russia Day 228 so that people wouldn't get even angrier.
Talking about the connection between the Russia 228 event and Yulia Tsvetkova's case. There is a non-formal protest movement in Russia, which is constantly growing as it's joined by a younger generation of activists. Events such as Russia Day 228 are a point of entry – you come there, meet many people who care, you get to know them, to listen to lectures and understand that fighting for freedom, civil rights and a better life is essential, and most importantly, that you aren't alone. We believe that each event makes the activist community stronger and unites more people together, that join in support of victims of absurd injustice, such as Yulia's case. People learn about this injustice in the media and consider it their civic duty to fight against it.
Following on from this, do you feel that Kultrab is more accepted in the journalistic scene after your projects showcasing the reality of governmental justice, or is there still stigma and fear around expression in this format?
When we were searching for a venue for the Russia Day 228 party, we got rejected by five clubs. They all liked the idea but gave us the 'you know how it is – it's a hot topic and we don't want to deal with police' attitude. Yet, things have changed since then. Many people have come to understand that nothing will change if they don't speak up and act. I think that after the 2019 protests, fabricated '212 article' cases, illegitimate Constitutional amendments and the pandemic more people started 'waking up' and educating themselves on laws and rights.
Everyone understands that this doesn't guarantee security, but counting on ourselves, supporting each other, and rejecting the illusion of the trustworthy government is all that is left. There is still a stigma towards Kultrab today, and there are laws that allow blocking any media outlet. However, we still find ways to speak up and be talked about due to the artistic nature of our work. We attempt to act genially, like punks, and make our visual language both entertaining and accessible.
Another previous project Kultrab released was Solidarity, in partnership with activist Polina Titova, which was a feminist calendar that replaced patriarchal holiday with key dates in support of the marginalised communities in Russia such as World Coming Out Day. I consider myself a feminist and was moved by this project in particular. My understanding is that Russia is potentially harmful and dangerous for people of the LGBTQ+ community, was Solidarity one of the first projects in support of these marginalised communities? If so, how was it received?
The main goal was to increase the visibility of this group and of the issues they have to deal with. It’s a taboo to speak about gays in Russia because of the ‘Russian gay propaganda’ law, which is a real danger for queer people and literally ruins people’s lives.
2 years ago, we participated in the Nevinovata (Not to blame) feminist festival. We also regularly support the Nasiliu (No to Violence) foundation and the Consortium of Women's NGOs, providing lawyers to victims of domestic violence for free. On the fourteenth of February 2020, we launched the I Love Myself project in collaboration with the photographer Emmie America and journalist Sima Piterskaia.
It consisted of three visual stories and interview queer people, who talked about their experience of self-acceptance and self-acceptance in a society where the 'gay propaganda law' exists. The ('Cunt') t-shirt created in collaboration with Pussy Riot and @9cyka became a symbol of feminism in Russia. 
Do you and the artists you collaborated with feel this project will leave a lasting impact on the marginalised communities in Russia?
I believe that this project can inspire and support marginalised communities, show them that they are not alone. Besides, it can inspire other communities, businesses, and projects to collaborate and create similarly orientated products based on solidarity and mutual support. Artists are almost always glad to join our projects. We try to look for and work with people, who view participation in a project as an opportunity for personal statement and expression of their views.
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