‘The most interesting part hasn’t even begun’ Yekaterinburg’s premier street artist on the war, his latest piece, and Russia’s rapid authoritarian turn
On June 12, Yekaterinburg-based street artist Timofey Radya posted a video and some pictures of his latest piece: the words “Live in the past!” bolted on the roofs of two nine-story buildings on the city’s Kosmonavtov Prospekt. Radya first had the idea for the project long before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but he waited until this month to bring it to life. Two days after it went up, the installation was dismantled by the city authorities — they simply knocked the letters off of the roof. Meduza spoke with Radya about why he chose the words he chose, why he’s remained in Russia during the war, and why he continues to make street art.
Often straddling the line between legality and illegality, artist Timofey Radya’s street installations have been part of Yekaterinburg’s identity for years now. A former philosophy student, Radya himself has been called “one of the fathers of Russian conceptual street art,” and since 2010, he’s worked with a team of artists throughout a number of cities to create various high-concept and always timely installations.
Like many of his works, Radya’s latest piece, “Live in the past,” incorporated text: it consisted of those words on the roofs of two tall buildings that sit between a missile-shaped monument to the Soviet designer Lev Lyulyev on one side and a building with a hammer and sickle on its roof on the other. The piece went up on June 12; on June 14, city workers took it down.
According to Radya, the removal came as no surprise.
“Actually, the fact that they left it up for two days was quite fortunate,” he told Meduza. “We were a little bit crafty: I installed the piece on the evening of the 12th, and if I’d done it early in the morning, somebody probably would have responded immediately. Since the work itself is fairly enormous, it looks like something official — when you’re standing at the intersection, you don’t think someone just climbed up there and screwed it in overnight.”
The artist and his team even filmed the installation’s removal, although the tone of the video is less serious than they expected; in Radya’s view, it puts the city employees’ incompetence on full display.
Radya said both the piece’s location and the content essentially chose themselves; in addition to the Soviet symbols framing the spot, there were two punctuation marks left on the buildings’ roofs from a Soviet-era sign, an em-dash and an exclamation mark, so the phrase “Live — in the past!” was an obvious one. Less obvious was the timing.
“I thought for several years about installing this piece, but it didn’t quite feel like the right time for it. It didn’t quite fit. But at the end of 2021, everything changed [and we started working on this project].”
But then Russia invaded Ukraine.
“When there’s a war going on, you have to speak out sharply and directly, [something this piece wouldn't have done]. So we decided to delay it. [Early June], I think, was pretty appropriate, because we’re now feeling the effects of the war in our society, in our domestic politics.”
Far from being just words on a building, “Live in the past,” to Radya, was an attempt to “hack” the Soviet propaganda that once occupied the same space — and to exploit the same aspects that made it effective.
“If you close your eyes and imagine how thoughts are entering your mind, [you’ll notice that] they’re coming from somewhere a bit higher than you can see. When I open my eyes and see the words on the roof, that’s a manifestation of that inner feeling. Combined with the scale of the project, it all creates something quite convincing. This persuasiveness gets exploited by the authorities, and that’s why those slogans are hanging from roofs. [...] And the question I asked myself was, how can we hack this form? [...] ‘Live in the past!’ is an assertion. And it’s important for me that anyone who hears it will feel that he’s being fucked over,” said Radya.
To him, “the past” isn’t a vague notion; the 2000s, when Radya himself came of age, for example, aren’t the past he has in mind. Instead, the phrase refers to a specific period during the Soviet era that he sees as being inextricably linked to Russia’s current problems.
“My friend Kuzma has a theory to explain what’s happening now,” he said. “The gist is that the golden years for the people currently at the top, the people causing all of this, was in the 1970s. The Era of Stagnation. And whether it’s conscious or not, they’re trying to recreate that time. [...] There it is — live in the past. Let’s do it like we did in the 1970s, when everything was bullshit.”
‘The highest-stakes game there is’
Early in the morning on February 24, when Radya first learned that Russia had launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, his thoughts immediately flashed to his many friends there. He began calling them to check in. Ukraine has always been an important part of Radya’s life: his own father was born there. In fact, his dad’s very first memory is of a German bomb hitting his town.
“It shattered the windows while he hid under his bed. Then his mom ran to him; she was still alive. Now he’s 87 years old. Imagine if one of his last memories ends up being a bomb falling in his hometown, only this time the bomb is from Russia,” said Radya. “Can you imagine anything more monstrous and terrible?”
Nevertheless, Radya feels secure in his decision to remain in Russia after the war began, though many of his friends left. He said he was taken aback by the number of people rushing to flee the country in the initial weeks.
“I truly didn’t understand why [they were leaving]. Of course, a lot of people are in real danger, but not everyone. In my view, the most interesting part hasn’t even started yet,” he said, laughing.
Indeed, his own choice to stay seems to have been driven by a mix of curiosity about what’s to come and a contrarian streak that’s to be expected in an artist whose medium inherently involves rule-breaking.
“Opposing the system in a developed democratic society is one thing; opposing it in Russia in 2022 is something completely different. It’s the highest-stakes game there is. And that makes it interesting,” he said.
Of course, like most activists, Radya is also motivated by a sense of responsibility. He thinks a lot about Russia’s younger generation and the fact that they didn't do anything to deserve the country they’re inheriting. But in order to change anything, he said, he needs to counteract the effects of the pro-government messaging that surrounds him — and much of his work is an attempt to do just that.
“For me, more than anything, this is research. I think about it every day: If scaring people [as the government does] is so easy, how do you remove the spell and win them back over?” he said. “That’s the question torturing me. But at the same time, it allows me to make constant discoveries. And I think the only way to find an answer to this question is from the inside.”
But counteracting the Kremlin’s ubiquitous fear campaign requires Radya to work to keep his own fear in check, too — something he says is a constant battle.
“Fighting fear [...] is a long path, and I’ve been on it for a long time,” he said. “I recently found a definition that made a lot of things make sense to me. ‘Terrorism is the instillation of powerlessness.’ I thought, that’s exactly how it happens. That’s a good way to describe Russia’s domestic politics. And when I ask myself whether I’m powerless, I realize that of course I’m not.”
Wherever it comes from, Radya maintains that he understands the impulse to wage war — the “romance of the battlefield,” to him, is “hard to overestimate.” But no matter how strong the emotional needs of the men fighting, he said, it’s not worth the cost of innocent lives.
“I think we need another planet so that all of the soldiers in the world can go there,” he said. “They can take all the coolest weapons with them. They can spill every drop of blood. We’ll livestream it, of course. It will be awesome — something truly epic. A fair fight. But why the fuck anyone would do that in a city, where civilians live, is something I’ll never understand.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale