ODESA, Ukraine – Before the Russian invasion, Odesa-born artist Ihor Husev achieved considerable success at home and abroad with his disturbing and dreamlike paintings: a dancer stands on the train tracks in the snow; a motorboat sits in a trailer by a lake, under a threatening sky that suggests that summer is just a memory.
“It takes a month to make them,” he said, pointing with his hand at a stack of oil-on-canvas paintings he made before February 24. “But now it’s all irrelevant: we are experiencing a moment of transformation.”
That moment began when Ukrainians in Odesa and elsewhere that morning woke up with a “nightmare,” he said, as Russian rockets fell in and near the country’s cities.
Like millions of people in Ukraine and elsewhere, it was a nightmare he didn’t expect to come true despite tens of thousands of troops massing at the borders, threatening words from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and US authorities warning that an invasion on a grand scale it could come every day.
“Putin announced everything so ostentatiously and endlessly that I thought it was just another one of his scary fairy tales,” Husev recalled.
The invasion led to a new twist in Husev’s art and a fairy tale figured in a drawing he posted to Facebook on the first day of the invasion – the first work in what he calls “World War 3 Series 2022”.
Husev drew the tomb of Lenin walking on blood dripping chicken legs and wrote “the Russians are coming” under the image, the meaning of which would not be lost by almost anyone in Ukraine or Russia: The mummified past is approaching and it is scary as Baba Yaga, an evil witch and the last villain of Slavic folklore.
Husev was also frightened. “But what could I do?” he asked him. “My wife and I realized that we would rather die in our bed than run away, and I decided to keep people’s spirits up by doing what I do best: drawing.”
And it’s doing it with a sizable splash of Odesa’s best-known product: humor.
“If you can laugh at something, you stop being afraid, and when you stop being afraid, you are already a winner,” said Husev, 46.
As the death and destruction wreaked on Ukraine continues with no end in sight and mistrust has spread to Odesa, which has been bombed but has escaped capture, it is humor with a dark streak.
There’s Lenin’s tomb, uprooted from Moscow’s Red Square and leaving bloody traces as he strides over chicken legs like Baba Yaga’s hut.
There is a drawing of cultivated fields and a road that strangely evokes misleading and optimistic Soviet-era art and is subtitled with a play on words, which says both “It will be all right” and “Everything will be fertilizer. “.
And there is a drawing that echoes a famous 19th-century painting by Russian artist Vasily Surikov, only here a snow sled brings under arrest not a noblewoman dressed in black but a shiny white washing machine – a reference to looting. by Russian soldiers who sent these goods back home from Ukraine.
In May, he published a simple piece showing the Ukrainian and Russian spelling of his city name – Odesa and Odessa – with a fiery bang in place of each letter “s”.
Husev attracted attention with his new works, finding himself invited to appear on the news in his country, where the invasion increased the solidarity that had already been on the rise since 2014, when Russia took over the Crimean peninsula, to southeast of Odesa, and stirred up war in the eastern region known as the Donbas.
What strikes almost anyone who comes to the largely Russian-speaking port city in the fourth month of the invasion is the proliferation of blue and yellow national flags that are painted on the walls of countless buildings.
“The janitors who painted them are the real artists of today,” Husev said, speaking as he walked into his sunlit studio filled with books, plants and sculptures. “Unlike some of my artist friends, who continue to paint flowers and landscapes.”
Husev’s wartime drawings, meanwhile, are all made on the pages and covers of old books he bought at Starokonka, a flea market in Odesa. The remakes of images from the Soviet school book Mother Tongue are among his favorites.
He believes the works of art he posts on social media are popular precisely because this aesthetic of torn books, deconstructed classics and ridiculous Soviet heroes resonates with today’s audiences.
Some of his works have been printed and displayed at Odesa’s central book market, which has become a popular meeting place – a venue for jazz concerts and theater performances – as the city tries to come back to life after the initial shock caused by the war, despite constant attacks.
“We all live in an altered state of consciousness. There was a psychedelic revolution in art in the past, and today there is bombardirovka, “she said, in Russian for bombing.
To people enjoying their morning coffee at the book market, Odesa seems calm. Military experts say that as long as Ukraine’s defensive line is maintained in Mykolayiv, more than 100 kilometers to the northeast, the city is safe.
With thousands of IDPs moving in and out, a daily curfew and mined beaches against the threat of an amphibious attack, anti-Russian sentiment appears to be growing in Odesa.
In mid-April, five Russian sister city plaques were removed on a central square and the mayor promised to replace them with the names of cities that offered help during the ongoing war.
Husev, who describes himself as a Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriot, argues that the past and identity of the legendary city must be rethought with caution.
“I wouldn’t just dismantle the statue of Catherine the Great, who founded Odesa,” he said, referring to a controversial monument in the city center. “It is a great piece of architecture, unlike the stupid copies of Lenin that we have rightly got rid of.”
“I’d rather put a blue and yellow scarf on her neck,” he added.
Husev said he believes that while Russia is wreaking reckless destruction on Ukraine, Odesa will be able to break with its Russian heritage in a self-reflective way because at its heart it has always been a cosmopolitan and European city.
“What Ukrainians and Russians are seeing right now is a war between KVN and KGB,” he said; the first is a television comedy contest that has been popular since the Soviet era. “It’s a conflict between laughter and anger, trust and brute force.”
KVN, where comedian-turned-president Volodymyr Zelenskiy first attracted attention, is proving more efficient, said: “After all, the enemy that was supposed to crush us turned out to be stupid, lazy, greedy and corrupt.”
And that is why he remains optimistic.
“We will win this war anyway. The only question is at what price, “she said.