A debate between Artemy Lebedev and Alexei Navalny, which we should comment on, was being held yesterday. Let’s start with the context.
Lebedev is a Russian designer and founder of the Art. Lebedev Studio, the biggest design studio in Russia. Navalny is a Russian opposition politician that declared his intention to participate in the Russian presidential elections in 2018.
Until approximately 9th September 2013 Mr. Lebedev wrote positive or neutral posts about Navalny in his blog. Starting with this post most of the publications about Navalny became negative and Lebedev began to mention Navalny from time to time in various posts. An example from a post about the archives of the United States: “In this value system Navalny would never become famous in the United States since it makes no sense to fight with a clown. And in our society, a clown becomes a national hero at the expense of taxpayers” [posts tagged “Navalny”].
In his last publication about Navalny Lebedev questioned Alexei’s competences as a Russian president and this time Mr. Navalny replied Lebedev attaching a list of government procurements received by Lebedev’s studio. Information that needs to be in the public domain (“contracts, costs, acceptance certificates”) is absent. As a reply to Navalny’s words “<…> if information and contracts are hidden it means that people are stealing and a lot. They inflate prices and give bribes” Lebedev challenged him to a debate on the Rain TV channel, which was held yesterday.
Personally, in my eyes, Lebedev lost both the battle prior to the debate as well as the debate itself. Though this article includes Navalny in its title, it will still be more about Lebedev, as in this situation he is a good example of an artist in cooperation with a non-democratic state.
Architect Albert Speer in Nazi Germany comes to mind and to a much lesser extent the recently deceased Zaha Hadid (also an architect), who worked with non-democratic countries and has been criticized for that. In our case, Lebedev is a graphic designer and that undoubtedly makes the situation even more interesting.
I shall begin with the fact that I respect Mr. Lebedev for his work. For Russia and the CIS, he is some kind of a modern Pushkin, only in the design field. I would even say that Lebedev is undervalued, and it is the future generations that will stop judging him for his rudeness and will appreciate this cursing weirdo for his work.
Saying that there is a problem with design in Russia is like saying nothing. There is almost no design as well as almost no modern architecture in Russia. Almost everything here is done in a slipshod way, starting with the roads and ending with the ugly A4 prints on the buildings that say “NO PARKING CLOSER THAN 10 METERS!”
And for the fact that in this Russian hell Mr. Lebedev has created something truly beautiful and gorgeous, I respect him. He and his studio have created something to be proud of. A sort of “beacon” that helps lost travelers in a storm or fog.
Every time I walk into the Stalinist Moscow metro named after Lenin, pass through the gray metal detector arch, the pyramids of Tutankhamen and wait for the blue train with an ugly brown carpeting, idiotic inscription “DO NOT LEAN [on the door]”, and indifferent people, despite all this — She meets me there.
Yes, sometimes the metro staff do a poor job at sticking it to the wall: they make a scratch or write something on it, but it is there after all. I’m talking about the map of the Moscow metro.
This map is the beacon that says: “Everything is OK, we’ll make it”. This magnificent scheme, about which the majority of passengers don’t care, but this map that gives hope. A hope that someday we will have good graphics, good design, good architecture and everything like in a normal country.
Doesn’t matter how bad my day is, when I am on the train I can always admire this kind of “Mona Lisa” — its colors, fonts, texts, colors, print quality and so on. I’m sure Lebedev and his colleagues expressed their love and respect for all the people who will use this map: they thought about our eyes, our visual satisfaction with what we will see and, of course, thought about the utilitarianism of this map — it has everything that a metro visitor needs. Don’t know about others, but I feel this love every time and for that, I am very grateful to Lebedev and his team.
If anyone thinks that Lebedev’s studio made only the metro map, it’s much more than that. Most of the visual transformations that occurred in Moscow and Russia in the recent years happened because of Lebedev. The design code of the facades of the buildings, websites and logos of major Russian institutions and companies (the Central Bank, Gazprom), logos of cities and the airport in St. Petersburg and much more. One can also recall that the studio was one of the popularizers of the ruble sign. The influence of Lebedev and his company is huge on the Russian design and it has finally started to have a positive effect on the Russian realities.
As we can see, the actions of Lebedev and his team have put Moscow and Russia on the same level with the developed countries and sometimes even ahead of them. Personally, I can only welcome this, because it is impossible not to note the changes in Moscow and Russia in terms of design.
How did Lebedev achieve this? I don’t know. The changes began to occur in the last few years at the same time when the studio began to acquire more and more clients from the Moscow’s (and the Russian) government. My personal attitude to this? Definitely positive. I don’t really care whether Lebedev has honestly won all the tenders, lobbied his works or took the right officials to saunas with the girls. Even if Lebedev and his studio are stealing millions of budget money, then so be it.
My position should be clarified. I don’t see any sense in fighting with ordinary artists like Mr. Lebedev, especially when their activity (even if it is sometimes corrupt) brings clear benefits to the whole graphic industry in the country. If, as Navalny suggests, Mr. Lebedev is corrupt, in any case, it is necessary not to struggle with Lebedev, but to confront other people who are way more powerful and steal billions, not millions. And not only they steal, but they create and control the current system. A fight with Lebedev is a fight with the consequence, not the cause. Who is the cause and the head of this corruption pyramid is already clear to everyone.
Let’s now move from admiration to the other side of the medal. About once in a couple of months, I visit Lebedev’s blog and check out what I’ve missed. I’ve noticed that lately, Mr. Lebedev started to “casually” condemn “liberals”. Sometimes it happens so abruptly and out of place that looks artificial and not objective at all. Using the “liberal” tag we can see that this has started recently — since December 2015.
And that is the political position of Mr. Lebedev that looks dubious and generates antipathy. Mr. Lebedev says that he doesn’t support any political party, he doesn’t “give a thing” about everyone (in a more rude way), but he does not pass an opportunity to create a logical chain of such type: “He is a liberal. All liberals are the same. The opposition is no better [or even worse] that the current government.” Moreover, all examples are very biased and the word “liberal” is often used out of place.
I can understand Lebedev, who somehow got an opportunity to work with the Moscow’s government and really improve the visual environment for the better and also increase his own wealth. I’m only glad for this “win-win”. Let the money be used by Lebedev rather than it will be laundered for ten years through a construction of another useless tunnel in Moscow.
At the same time Lebedev’s attacks on the “liberals”, Navalny, etc. look very pathetic and artificial. It is possible to skip these “minutes of hate” and do your work, that he always shows off by saying that he “plows” while others “do nothing”. Another “plowman” and “galley slave” comes to mind, who in 17 years has very controversially “plowed” the whole country. And since we are talking about Navalny, let’s give his quote: “Therefore, paradoxically, a very corrupt person [in the Russian government] is the one who works a lot.”
The whole situation with the debate with Navalny looks very unattractive for Mr. Lebedev. For years stating very controversial things about Navalny, Artemy finally got some attention from Navalny. After it, he himself proposed the debate during which he tried to defend his honor with a sometimes trembling and stuttering voice, but otherwise, most of the time he looked like a schoolboy in the principal’s office, who remained silent while the adults were talking. My respect for Mr. Lebedev, as an artist, didn’t go anywhere. As to his objectivity, integrity, and credibility — here, unfortunately, Mr. Lebedev has lost his position.
Particularly striking is the confident and peremptory style of writing in the blog and an inarticulate performance at the debate with flat jokes about “Mr. President” and gifts. Unfortunately, it turned out that Mr. Lebedev is only tough online, but not live. And, of course, it’s nice to see when bullies (and in this case, Artemy is a real bully) get what they deserve, but it’s still unclear — what was the point in being so provocative? In order to show loyalty to the government? Perhaps it is the case (posted on 26 February 2014): “The recipe was surprisingly simple. Write something bad about the opposition — you instantly get an order to improve the appearance of the city. Shit on Navalny — get an order to make the metro map. Kick a white-bander [note: someone who wears a white band, a symbol of protest in Russia in 2011–2012] and a creacl [note: representative of the creative class] — get an order to design all construction banners in the city. Here is it — the magic formula! If you know any other successful formulas, write in the comments. To get an order to design the manhole covers in Moscow I am ready not only to shit on liberals but on hipsters as well.” Perhaps, after the debate, Mr. Lebedev will get the position of the Russian Minister of Design, not less.
Artemy Lebedev, as an artist, is at a very difficult crossroad. On the one hand, he can remain the same person who he is — an eccentric designer, but a true professional who was doing a good job (doesn’t matter if some corruption took place). He can save his reputation for political impartiality, neutrality or non-participation.
Or, in return for work, the state may ask Mr. Lebedev for even greater cooperation — even more notes about the liberals, bad Navalny and so on. Only in this alternative, it is very easy to cross a line and turn into another Tsereteli or Mikhalkov. Or Kobzon, who received a medal “Hero of the DPR” and left for treatment to Italy (because health care in Russia is great, but the doctors decided that it is better to heal Mr. Kobzon in Italy). Before this situation with Lebedev and Navalny, I was surprised how artists become minions of politicians. After I reading Lebedev’s unimpressive excuses all my questions disappeared.
Of course, Navalny can be wrong and Lebedev is absolutely clean, and his opinion about the liberals and Navalny is indeed his opinion, but in this case, one should reconsider his attitude do Mr. Lebedev. After all, a man who talks about the liberals as a granny and praises the current corrupt government — that person by definition cannot be objective. If Navalny is incompetent than what is, for example, the competence of the current Russian president? Serving in the KGB and the construction of a palace in Gelendzhik?