Ukraine, 2023. Russian soldiers pose with their Kalashnikovs faced with a ruined city.
In front of them, a young woman can be seen carrying Russia’s flag and a bullet proof vest with the Z sign used by Russian troops in the offensive.
The scene is from a grand painting in a new exhibition in central Moscow called “We are Russians, God is with us” by patriotic artist Vasily Nesterenko.
The style of the paintings harks back to the realist tradition from Tsarist and Soviet times and the images are intended to promote support for Russia’s campaign in Ukraine.
“Stand there, near that painting which shows our victory will be final,” a moustachioed man told students from a military academy, dressed in black uniforms, visiting on a school trip.
The 56-year-old artist Nesterenko, who has received numerous awards from Russian President Vladimir Putin, is standing nearby posing for photos.
“Being in the military is for life, like being an artist,” notes the painter.
The Manege exhibition hall near Moscow’s Red Square is hosting the exhibition that includes paintings depicting Russia’s military through the centuries.
With the difficulties in its Ukraine campaign mounting, the Kremlin is encouraging artwork that emphasises Russia’s fighting spirit and the message that Moscow is fighting a defensive conflict against Kyiv and its allies.
At the same time, artists critical of Russia’s actions face repression.
Several officials in leading state cultural institutions who have chosen to remain silent over Ukraine have lost their jobs in recent months.
The state now needs Russian artists to show loyalty, as Nesterenko has done.
– ‘Always had war’ –
Born in Ukraine in 1967, he first became well-known for his religious paintings.
He decorated part of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow and, more recently, a church dedicated to the Russian army inaugurated in 2020.
Since 2004, Nesterenko has enjoyed the title of “people’s artist” — a legacy of the Soviet era — and has several important duties in the official cultural sphere.
“When the cannons start to talk, you cannot keep quiet,” Nesterenko told AFP, putting his own political engagement in the context of that of European painters during the 19th century.
For more realism, he has visited Russian forces in Ukraine and Syria.
Some of his works show ruins and civilian victims, while others are more focused on the camaraderie between soldiers.
The painting “Letter to Russia’s enemies” shows soldiers in a jolly mood writing a letter — a work very similar to historic Russian painter Ilya Repin’s painting of Cossacks writing to the Ottoman Sultan.
“My historical military paintings are well-meaning, optimistic, they do not show the blackness of the darkness like the works of Goya,” Nesterenko said.
“All wars have pushed our homeland to unite, focus and respond…. We have always had war. Whether it was against the Mongols, the Poles, the Swedes, the French and, several times, the Germans.”
The show presents Russian history as a necessary succession of glorious military ventures — in line with Kremlin thinking.
Nesterenko is a defender of classical European painting which he says is under threat — an argument frequently made by Russian officials, who often talk about the decadence of Western culture.
“I think there will soon be a time when it is only here that we will love your culture, your art and your religion,” said Nesterenko, who continues to travel to museums in Europe on a regular basis.
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