For a long time, many of the former Soviet nations have found it difficult to define what their culture does, and should, encompass – how to negotiate the Soviet legacy, and what do terms like “East” and “West” and “us” and “them” mean now, when the divides are no longer as clear as they were thought to be 25 years ago. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the former Soviet nations turned their gaze towards the West, hoping to shed the often negative perception of belonging to the ‘East’, as it was defined during the Cold War. Many post-Soviet countries also struggled to establish a balanced relationship between the different nations and cultures in territories that were (re)established in 1991. Even now, more than 20 years later, some of these issues still do not seem to be resolved. We met up with Sandra Kosorotova and Gustav Kalm to discuss the relationship between Russian and Estonian culture in Estonia, and to talk about their newly-founded organisation, UVKE (New Russian Culture in Estonia).
Keiu Krikmann (KK):To start off, I’d like to you to talk a little about how you two met, how you discovered that you both had an interest in bringing the Estonian and Russian cultures closer, and at what point did you consider founding UVKE?
Sandra Kosorotova (SK): I think we started talking about it at a party when I mentioned to Gustav that I had been thinking about the Slavinavia project, and he found it interesting. A few months later, we met up and started discussing it again, and so we came to the idea of founding UVKE. We made a plan to go forward with it after Gustav had finished his studies and come back to Estonia.
Gustav Kalm (GK): We both had been thinking about these issues, and had previously tried to find some kind of an outlet for them. However, UVKE is quite different from what we initially imagined – but I think that’s a good thing. So, when I got back to Estonia, we had so much to discuss and figure out – how and what to do, where to find the funding, etc. It wasn’t easy.
SK: We’ve been constantly working on it since September 2013, and only a year later will we finally have our first exhibition. Although we did organise an artist talk a few months ago…
GK: We’ve been really doing a lot of thinking…
Slavinavia. Sandra Kosorotova, Tallinn. Photo: Johan Tali
KK: But I mean, how did you come to the conclusion that something like UVKE is needed in Estonia?
SK: Because I speak Russian, I often visit Russian websites and I also have friends in Russia; I lived in Moscow at some point and I know what’s going on there, in terms of contemporary music and culture. And it’s a pity that no one in Estonia is aware of or interested in these things. It makes more sense to people to look towards Europe or the US, yet geographically and culturally, Estonia and Russia are really quite close to each other.
GK: The post-Soviet stuff is definitely similar. Still, I hadn’t maybe previously considered focusing on Russian culture in Russia, but more in Estonia. The thing that’s always bothered me about living in Estonia is that the physical space of the city I live in is shared by two communities (Estonian and Russian), who somehow still seem to live in parallel worlds – I find it disturbing and I want to brake these barriers. But I hadn’t thought about doing it through art; to me it was more social and political. I wanted to find a way to bring the two communities together, so I was really glad to meet Sandra who shared many of my ideas, but saw these issues from another angle.
KK: Aren’t you afraid to be seen as just another integration programme, like the hollow-sounding campaigns we’ve previously had in Estonia, and which never really seemed to be effective (and which I doubt were taken seriously by anybody)? Is it even possible to go beyond this image?
GK: We are trying to avoid being associated with campaigns like these; we do not want to get involved in everyday politics. Although, what we are trying to do with UVKE is, nonetheless, political – it is not about which party you support, but it is political in terms of your general outlook on the world. The biggest mistake these large campaigns made was that they were never sincere – they always distinctly had an air of having been commissioned. Yet we still have these two communities here, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t find out about what’s interesting in Russia, but for some reason we don’t do it. So, I guess UVKE was something that had to be done. Neither of us wants it to be written off as an empty integration programme.
KK: I get it, of course, but the reason I’m asking is that it seems to me that in Estonia, these issues are almost exclusively addressed through large integration campaigns with no results.
GK: The way we do it is not a campaign; instead, it is something that makes sense to us – it’s not anything extraordinary. Also, when we look at the historical development of Estonian intellectuals and the Estonian creative environment in general, we see that around the previous turn of the century, the city with the largest number of Estonians was St. Petersburg.
KK: But coming back to the events you’re organising – was Sandra’s “Slavinavia” exhibition – that by now seems to have become a permanent urban installation – your first project?
SK: It is not directly linked to UVKE, and even though it focuses on similar issues, I still consider it my own personal project. But it does address many of the same themes in an artistic and playful form.
UVKE at Rundum. April 2014. Sofia Apunnikova, Sandra Kosorotova and Gustav Kalm
KK: So, the first event you organised was the artist talk at Rundum, as a part of their event series titled “How to make it as a (freelance) art worker”? (By the time this interview is published, UVKE will also have organised a poetry reading featuring Sveta Grigorieva, Ilya Bogatyryev and Artem Astrov. – KK)
SK: Yes, we invited a graphic designer from St. Petersburg, Sofia Apunnikova, to Tallinn.
GK: It was a great event – instead of the one hour we had planned, the discussion went on for three. And that shows that it worked, that people are interested.
SK: I was really glad that about half of the people there were Russians and half were Estonians. People spoke both Estonian and Russian, and we also translated when it was necessary; everyone asked questions. We also met new people, both from Estonia and Russia. And that was our goal, to bring people together, into one physical space – and to have that is not that common at all.
KK: So, UVKE’s main focus is organising cultural events? You’ve mentioned exhibitions and also concerts. What are your plans for the future?
SK: We’ve got two exhibitions coming up in September. The first show is Egor Kraft’s personal exhibition, and the other one is a group show – we’ve invited three young emerging Russian artists to participate. We suggested a theme for them to interpret…
GK: It is about what the world would be like if things could talk. We wanted to address big questions in the language of things – if the Turing test was reversed…
KK: I’ve kind of gotten the impression that the older generation of Russians who lived through the Soviet era have nostalgic and fond memories about Estonia – how they spent their holidays in Tallinn, etc. The younger generation doesn’t have that experience, so what appeals to them about showing their work here?
SK: My Russian friends consider Estonia to be a European country, and that’s fascinating to them…
UVKE at Rundum. April 2014
KK: At the same time though, in terms of the art world, Estonia is not a centre of any kind – it’s a periphery.
GK: They are not necessarily interested in Estonia, but they do want to show their work. Still, Estonia has its own distinct vibe, a mélange of East and West and a pleasant atmosphere.
SK: Also, Estonia and Tallinn have a lot of great music. And the art scene is becoming increasingly international.
GK: But it’s also true that Tallinn will never be London, New York or Paris. Yet people are interested in coming here. This is only my speculation, but Estonia might be intriguing for young Russian artists because during the last 20 years, the former Soviet countries have developed in rather different directions, and it’s fascinating to see that. Not that all was the same within the borders of the Soviet Union either, but still.
SK: So far, everyone’s been really positive when we’ve talked to them.
KK: Another thing I think is really important is to create an understanding of contemporary Russian culture. In Estonia, Russia is mostly associated with Pushkin or something from the Soviet period. People forget that a contemporary culture is also very much there.
GK: That is exactly what we want to do. The main things imported here are the more traditional forms of culture…
SK: Theatre and orchestras. So, people get the impression that that’s all there is.
GK: Or strange pop culture! Yet there are so many things that could be relevant to people in Estonia as well, that are relatable because of our similar background. Maybe no one is trying to find out what’s going on in contemporary Russian culture because young people just haven’t done that for 20 years.
KK: And something else I wanted to ask – your name, “new Russian culture in Estonia”, suggests that you’ll be importing Russian culture or highlighting local Russian culture. But do you maybe plan to start exporting at some point as well?
SK: Sure, we’ve got all sorts of plans.
GK: We are taking it step by step right now.
SK: But it’s not a bad idea and we’ve discussed it. Bringing artists here will help us find contacts and create links for artists from Estonia to explore Russia, too.
KK: Yes, definitely. Well, I guess it’s time to wrap it up! It was really great talking to you, thank you!