“There are no sanitary pads left in my country and I have blood on my legs, and I have blood on my hands.” This is the narration to a video, around 20 seconds long, made by a Russian animator who chooses to remain anonymous.
With this work linking menstrual blood to the blood of war victims, the creator hints at the shortage of tampons and other staples in Russian stores in the first weeks of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. By mixing blood with blood, the video expresses the sense of collective guilt tormenting many Russians since February 24.
“It’s a video about the feeling of belonging to what’s happening that I and everybody around me had,” the anonymous creator told Haaretz. “While it’s true that I live in a certain bubble, all these people still felt guilt. They didn’t know what to do with it, but they also didn’t take the route of 'we’re not Putin, Putin isn’t Russia, we have nothing to do with it and can’t change anything.'
One animation video simulates St. Petersburg being bombed and shelled by China; The creator's family experiences what families in Mariupol, Kharkiv and Izyum experiencing.
“I very much wanted to share this feeling; I don’t even know who with first – the Ukrainians experiencing the aggression or the Russians who might feel something similar but don’t let themselves. It was a feeling that really had to be expressed.”
The feeling finally was expressed, but the video was hard to find online. At the Tel Aviv Cinematheque last week it was screened alongside works by other Russian and Ukrainian creators at the Animix film festival.
Against the backdrop of censorship laws passed in Russia at the start of the war, artists are afraid to express themselves. Early last month Alexei Gorinov, a neighborhood council member in Moscow, was sentenced to seven years in prison for giving a speech against the war at a council meeting. He called the war a war, not a special military operation, and called Russia “a fascist state.” He reminded his listeners that Ukrainian children are being killed.
Meanwhile, the country's courts are handling dozens more cases where Russians are accused of spreading fake news about the war, proving that the artists’ fears are well-founded.
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And yet, videos, GIFs, comics and drawings are being made in Russia – and abroad by Russian-speaking artists – who are trying to express their protest against the war, if only allegorically. No less importantly, they're giving voice to their despair at the situation at home.
The YouTube and Instagram pages Animators Against War feature short videos with anti-war messages, like a dove defecating on a figure resembling Vladimir Putin, a couple dancing against the backdrop of a mushroom cloud, and a woman curled up in the fetal position with images of war peeking through her window.
But some artists in Russia continue to act without hiding their identity. Svetlana Nagayeva, an artist and animation director, has spent the last few months uploading her paintings onto Facebook. The subject and location are always identical: people sitting in a Moscow subway car, usually staring into their phones – with a dead body or bodies at their feet.
There's a man lying prone with his wrists bound behind his back (the images the world saw after the Russians withdrew from the town of Bucha near Kyiv). There's a man sitting and holding a hand peeking out of a plastic sheet (the father who was too late to say goodbye to his son who was killed in the shelling of Kharkiv last week). Each time there’s a human tragedy that the subway passengers try to ignore.
After Liza Dimitrieva, a 4-year-old with Down syndrome, was killed by a Russian rocket in Vinnytsia in southwestern Ukraine, Nagayev added a caption to the image; she mentioned Timur, her young son who also has Down syndrome.
“I was horrified when my acquaintances – neighbors from the yard, a mother from the kindergarten and so on – said that what’s happening is fine,” Nagayeva said in a video chat.
“I had no doubt that our country was capable of such deeds. We're all victims of violence, only with different resources. Some people find it easier to live in denial and paint the letter Z [signifying support for the war], and some people prefer to leave as soon as they can.”
But the most famous Russian-language animated video about the war has been made in Israel. Oleg Kuvaev, creator of the character Masyanya, who moved to Tel Aviv suburb Ramat Gan from St. Petersburg around 16 years ago, dedicated the last three episodes of his beloved web series to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
In the first episode, Masyanya convinces Putin to commit hara-kiri. The second episode is about “how to discuss the war with children,” and the last – and bluntest – which amassed over 4 million views in its first two weeks, is called “St. Marioburg.”
It simulates St. Petersburg being bombed and shelled by China; Masyanya’s family experiences what families in Mariupol, Kharkiv and Izyum have been suffering.
The most famous Russian-language animated video about the war has been made in Israel. Oleg Kuvaev's take on the siege of a city amassed over 4 million views in its first two weeks.
At the end of last month the video was taken off YouTube for a few hours following a complaint by a photographer claiming that his copyright had been violated; one frame was based on a photograph by him of St. Petersburg's St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Masyanya fans were outraged, Kuvaev appealed and the video was soon returned to his channel.
The migrant and refugee experience is also reflected in films made under the shadow of the war. Animators Yura Boguslavsky and Asia Kiseleva, who are currently living in the Armenian capital Yerevan, made two films along with Ukrainian and Russian teenagers.
The first, “We Flew, We Came Here,” is a clay animation film whose soundtrack is snippets of interviews with children who fled Russia with their parents. The soundtrack of the second film is a Ukrainian lullaby, as paper-cutting images tell a similar story of sudden departure, detachment, loneliness, confusion and homesickness.
But the Ukrainian animators' approach is devoid of melancholy. Before the war, animator Mykyta Lyskov created the award-winning film “Deep Love,” dedicated to his city of Dnipro in the period following the Maidan revolution of 2014. With pain and sarcasm, he describes life in the filthy, despairing city, refusing to change despite the Ukrainian authorities’ policy of “de-communization.”
Before the war Lyskov ran a Russian-language Telegram channel where he posted animation. Right after the Russian invasion, he switched the channel to Ukrainian and called on artists to send him videos on the death of Putin.
“I wrote that I would post the videos on the channel and I would edit them into a movie and show it wherever possible, and I began to receive videos every day,” he said in a video call from his home in Dnipro. “Then I posted it in English too and began to get videos from Europe. There were low-quality videos that I didn’t post. And there were professional videos and even videos that children made and parents sent to me.”
The videos in his collection, called “Putler Kaput,” are completely different from the Russian antiwar videos. Here there's plenty of black, unapologetic humor – with an extraordinary amount of blood, feces and urine.
There's a person (apparently representing Putin) masturbating in front of a television screen showing a red flag with a sickle and hammer. There's Putin’s head, adorned with a swastika, getting crushed by a fist in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. There's Putin getting eaten and then excreted out by a fearsome Russian bear.
But Lyskov says that since May the number of videos he receives has drastically dropped. “Even I felt like I didn’t have the energy to draw all of this. I was exhausted. We all realized that this war is for a long time,” he says.
“Before that we thought it was for a few months – we’ll gather our strength and kick them out. But in May we realized that it’s for a long time. We have to conserve our energy, carry on with our lives and make a living. This realization got through to all of us.”