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By Andrew Jack

LONDON, 12 MAY 2007 — Britain has collected a gallery of influential Russians seeking political exile since President Vladimir Putin came to office in 2000, but Oleg Yanushevsky has a rather more original claim. He is the first contemporary Russian artist to win asylum because of cultural persecution.

In late 2005, he arrived at Heathrow Airport and announced his request to surprised immigration officers, triggering a lengthy period in waiting in Liverpool that has now concluded with his British passport and his  establishment at the Solana Gallery in London.

A few years earlier, such a move would have seemed inconceivable for him. Born in Ukraine, Yanushevsky trained at the Repin Institute in Leningrad (now St Petersburg). He established links with foreign artists and spent time during the 1990s in the UK and elsewhere abroad. But he felt then that his spiritual home, and the place offering the greatest artistic inspiration, was St Petersburg.

The son of a welder in Lugansk, Yanushevsky was encouraged at school in his art by his father—a committed Communist—and sent for lengthy summer holidays to relatives in Lithuania. Most were Old Believers—a group that split from the Orthodox Church in the seventeenth century—and included several icon painters among its ranks, including an uncle.

Oleg Yanushevsky: CD Icon 
Photo courtesy of Oleg Ikona

After military service in the early 1980s, which (thanks to his role as a operator of a powerful radio monitoring Cuba) gave him access to western music and information, Yanushevsky entered the Repin Institute on his third attempt, living on a shoestring with help from cultural friends.

While he considers himself an atheist, angels were already appearing in his paintings in the early 1990s. His first icons soon followed—based upon, but distinctly different from—those used in churches. While he has embraced many different artistic forms since—including performance art and photography—this one continues to dominate, to the point that he has even re-named himself "Oleg Icona".

His icons are partly inspired by the Old Believer tradition, which often includes abstract themes and partial representations of Christ, but co-opts and radically adjusts them. Some look fully religious at first glance, complete with classic thick gold frames and religious figures. But there are always unexpected twists in style, and with many containing switches, music and other interactive devices.

Oleg Yanushevsky: St. George
Photo courtesy of Oleg Ikona

Some contain very direct personal references, including Siberian Wind , which depicts his grandmother surrounding by swirling snow, and framed by a distorted red star, symbolising the persecution of the family, with relatives who disappeared into Stalin's Gulag. Another consists of little more than a standard-issue KGB leather jacket, with a chunky zip viewers are invited to open.

Others address more international themes. Before—After parodies cosmetic surgery in the US, showing two images of the same woman before and after a face-lift; Schwarzenegger depicts the body-builder; St George shows a beaming George Bush; and Kennedy and Lenin symbolises two saint-like figures for the two former super-powers.

The first sign of a problem with his work began with an explicitly politically-charged example with a religious undertone. B&G Icon was inspired by the sixteenth century persecution of Boris and Gleb from Pskov. Its heavy frame is based on a wooden moulding for casting military parts, which he says is symbolic of the persecution of the feudal-military state reminiscent of that suffered by his Old Believer ancestors.

Oleg Yanushevsky: B&G Icon
Photo courtesy of Oleg Ikona

Its explicit subject—highlighted by tiny "B" and "G" letters in the picture—was the harassment by the Russian state from the start of the Putin regime of Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, two influential business "oligarchs" who both rapidly ended up fleeing Russia—the former for France and then the UK; the latter for Spain, the US and Israel.

When Yanushevsky put the icon on display in Moscow in 2001, someone spat on it. But within two years, such reactions would seem mild.

A planned exhibition at the former Museum of Religion in St Petersburg was cancelled at very short notice in 2003, with the organisers hinting at concerns about "blasphemy". Works such as Big Mama, with large three-dimensional breasts that flash with blue laser lights, and Manpower , with a Christ bearing a flick switch in a sensitive place, did not go down well with the new rising mood of conservatism and tighter links between Orthodox church and state.

Oleg Yanushevsky: Big Mama
Photo courtesy of Oleg Ikona

But youth groups linked to religious nationalism also began reflecting a rising undercurrent of violence in modern Russian society. The Sakharov Gallery in Moscow was vandalised for a show of modern art criticising religion. Marat Gelman, the well-known Moscow gallery-owner, was careful to only show Yanushevsky's works by appointment, but he was targeted for showing other artists' work.

Yanushevsky's own experiences culminated in the events around his show at the Spas gallery in St Petersburg in 2004. When the duty employee became suspicious at visitors asking when he would appear, and called him on his mobile, he stayed away, avoiding an almost certain beating. But a group of masked people then appeared and sprayed many of his icons with paint.

 Photo courtesy of Oleg Ikona

The police moved slowly in their investigation—preventing him even from having access in the aftermath which would have reduced the damage—and ultimately dropping the case, warning him that he had been provocative.

In the months that followed, he and his family were insulted by acquaintances in public places, and he began to receive threatening emails and anti-semitic denunciations on religious websites. Then City officials started imposing surreal administrative hurdles that meant his artist's studio was under threat. It was subsequently fire-bombed. It was time to leave.

Oleg Yanushevsky looking at vandalized St. George
Photo courtesy of Oleg Ikona

Today, Yanushevksy is re-creating his life in London. There may not be the creative explosion and edgy tension that helped his work over the past decade in Russia, but he appreciates the tolerance and talent he comes across in the UK. And he sees plenty of scope for new "iconography" of his own sort, in multimedia and performance art as well as more traditional icons, in portraying consumerism and the tensions between East and West.

While drawing on the rich artistic tradition of his past, he is happy for now to be doing it from the greater safety of his current location.

Oleg Ikona Web Site

Andrew Jack is a senior journalist at the Financial Times and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform without Democracy? (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board of and last wrote on The Perfect Storm: Iran Sits in Eye of Political Hurricane.

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