Perhaps more than anywhere else on earth, the Crimean peninsula has become a locus for abstract and grand notions. A ragged dash of land that staged the legend of the Light Brigade, that saw a Ukrainian national awakening and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the suppression of Russian Imperial expansionism such that it would only ever come back stronger — Crimea is a jag of rocks, shoring empire and ideology against itself. This is the picture art gives us, at least. We see oiled-in horses charging down barren distances, generals in badges and smoke and grey skies. We see pride and loyalty to Empire, to Communism, to Putinism, all writ large in the plume of battles, but we never see Crimea divorced from these notions.
That’s what makes the work of Stepan Mamchich, one of the few Crimean painters, interesting. Here, the peninsula is defined by red roofs arching their backs under late-afternoon sun, stippled light through vine leaves and the slapped blue of surf on Black Sea beaches. Bright yellow grass and purple mountains keen towards a Fauvist ideal of nature that is decidedly Western. In 1962 however, Mamchich was accepted into the USSR Union of Artists. This was a government sanctioned grouping of artists that were deemed to conform to Soviet ideals, as opposed to the myriad non-conformist creatives that were banned.
Yet, in contrast to the battlescapes of gunmetal military uniforms, proud beneath zags of Communist red, and the predilection for the industrial that typifies other Soviet-sponsored art, Mamchich’s work marks a striking change in sensibilities. Instead of intimating the proud overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the triumphant proletariat’s endless struggle, his paintings are all about the small contentedness of fishermen untangling wire or swifts skirting the sea-edge. The picture they give is of something equally as expedient to the Soviet Union, yet far less publicised, as the evils and strife of Capitalism. They show the touristic side of the USSR – Crimean peninsula as a holiday destination.
Throughout the 60s, people from across the Eastern Bloc, flocked to the “Ukrainian Riviera” for their holidays – it was even the chosen refuge of the Soviet leadership. Because of this and Russia’s gifting of the peninsula to the Ukraine in 1954, the peninsula had a trans-cultural identity that the Soviet Union used as exemplary of its own unity and success as a political project. To paint it as idyllic and blissful was to paint the Union as idyllic and blissful.
Now, of course, that transfer of Crimea to the Ukraine, which before only served to underline the Union, is now the source of major international conflict, with large swathes of the population supporting the Russian annexation in 2014, against the wishes of their own government. The insurgencies of the pro-Russian rebels and the interventions of Vladimir Putin’s government have led to thousands of uncountable dead, between Crimea and the Donbass. In post-Soviet Russia, where Putin pushes an intensely nationalist agenda, trans-cultural identity and cosmopolitanism are no longer useful. The idyllic and blissful is now the nightmarish and uncertain.
This is in large part due to Putin’s manipulative use of soft power, which falls fully in line with the ideological abstraction of Crimea. For him, art and culture are weapons. The Soviet-born journalist Peter Pomerantsev has often likened what Putin’s personal advisor, Vladislav Surkov, has done to Russian politics to a farcical piece of Post-Modern theatre. Putin continually repeats falsehoods, reveals their falsity, says he will do something and then doesn’t do it. He deals in large performative displays, before real action. While telling the world he is not interested in annexing Crimea, he orders the drilled theatrics of his military, pocked with the chop of helicopter blades and tanks churning earth, to parade the Ukrainian border.
When Putin did invade, he re-enlisted the Cossacks, a people with ethnic ties both to Ukraine and Russia, to help. In doing so, he claimed the iconic Cossack uniform, the cultural significance of these steely masses gripping long coats and turning bearded faces against the cold, for his own. He turned their liminal ethnic identity into a pro-Russian image of power. Their tall, furred hats were as important as their guns.
Now, four years after the annexation, Crimea is only Ukrainian in the sense that Western maps represent it as such. In truth, the de facto authority in the area is Russia and many of the people that live there identify Putin as their leader. Still, though Putin continues to use ideological power to consolidate his hegemony: just this year, he announced the building of a multi-billion dollar bridge to link Crimea to the Russian mainland; even more recently, he began stepping up cultural engagement, with state-sanctioned art centres and museums on their way; and, going full circle back to Mamchich, he is encouraging Russians to holiday there again.
Once more, Crimea is becoming a badge to show the world what Russia means. The gap between the peninsula as a real place and as a theatre for the existential conflicts of nations, portrayed and played out in art and culture, remains insurmountable. It remains obscured by the shifting and equivocating structures of power and representation, which have become and will continue to be inherent to its makeup.
Main picture: Balaclava, 1961, oil on cardboard by Stepan Mamchich