Creating and Enforcing Moscow’s Aesthetic of War

A giant ribbon of St. George in the shape of a Z hangs on the face of the Tabakov Theatre in Moscow. Source: RIA Novosti, Russian state media
Contrasting sanitized representations of the war on buildings in central Moscow with accounts from Ukrainian media, James Gregg looks at the Putin regime’s attempts to control the narrative
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on the war in Ukraine.]

On May 1st, the Russian Military Historical Society in Moscow suspended two bright white and gold banners on their outside wall spanning the third and second floors. The design compliments the yellow and white neoclassical building of the society’s central Moscow museum just across the street from the famous Tretyakovsky Gallery. Expertly designed with a minimalist style, the large posters profile the faces of two men killed in action fighting in Russia’s war on Ukraine. One depicts a Russian national guard special forces officer, Maxim Kontsov, and the other is Vladimir Zhoga, the commander of Sparta Battalion from the armed forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Zhoga in particular stands apart on his banner, showing the double golden stars of Hero of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and notably Hero of Russia, despite neither being a Russian citizen nor serviceman. Both men’s formal head shots enlarged on banners the size of small cars are tacked directly to the edifice below the words “Real Heroes”.  A two-lane road runs between these buildings, but this is foremost a space for walking. Coffee shops dot nearly every street corner. The wide sidewalks and short distance from the Moskva river make this a popular place to stroll during the May holidays as people begin to roam for the first time in shorts and feel the sun emerge from Moscow’s usual wet and cold Spring.

The images of Maxim Kontsov and Vladimir Zhoga, killed while fighting Ukrainian forces currently hanging from the Museum of Military History RVIO “Streletskie Palaty.”
Source: RIA Novosti, Russian state media

Founded in 2012, the Russian Military Historical Society is the primary organizer of war-reenactments as well as military historical expositions. The purpose of the organization has been to formulate a consumable aesthetic of Russia’s military history packaged together with political performance. Participants reiterate “the right history” and establish close emotional connections to a national sense of self. Moreover, the organization has become a Kremlin mouthpiece when other cities formerly under Moscow’s control dismantle Soviet monuments. Whether the people participating are players or observers in these events and exhibits, pedestrians on Lavrushinskiy lane become part of their show as they walk by. Today, walking along this space, people look up and see the war in Ukraine brought home as an artful commemoration, void of the violence and destruction seen in the cityscapes of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Volnovakha, Shchastia, and countless others. The uniforms of the dead are clean and they smirk with a confidence defiant of their apparent demise. The profiled faces hang like icons above the thoroughfare. In her 2021 piece, “Staging the Great Victory: Weaponizing Story, Song, and Spectacle in Russia’s Wars of History and Memory,” Catherine Schuler notes the often bloodless representation of Russia’s road to victory in political performance. Both to mobilize politics and instill patriotism and pride, the connection between death and destruction is conveniently avoided. Better yet, it can even be sexualized. She argues how Vladimir Medinskii, the founder of the Russian Military Historical Society and former Minister of Culture constructed representations of history to give the youth “a pantheon of heroes that must ‘be treated like canonized saints of the Church’”.1Catherine Schuler, “Staging the Great Victory: Weaponizing Story, Song, and Spectacle in Russia’s War of History and Memory,” TDR 65, no. 1 (March 2021): 95–123. With the war in Ukraine contextualized as an unfinished battle of the Second World War, this canonization process has wasted no time.

Zhoga’s face was known to relatively few prior to his death on March 5th and the ensuing memorialization on the Moscow streets. Arguably his predecessor, Arsen Pavlov, known better by his nom de guerre “Motorola”, was more famous and effectively captured the imagination of Russian media outlets and the Russian language blogosphere as a romantic volunteer migrant fighter from Komi. In Ukraine, however, news outlets portray his brutality and execution of prisoners of war. Nonetheless he developed such a cult of personality among his battalion and locals that he became the subject of statues and murals in Donetsk. He met his end from an explosion in his apartment’s elevator, his phone records revealing the paranoia of his Russian intelligence handlers. His successor, Zhoga, was killed in action in the Ukrainian city of Volnovakha, and per propaganda outlets he was assisting civilian evacuees flee to Donetsk.

From this spot below his image in the days before the May 9th Victory Day celebration, pedestrians could look up and see a squadron of MiG-31s flying over the city practicing a Z formation, in reference to the now ubiquitous identification markings of military vehicles participatory in the Russian invasion. The aerial Z was to be one of the only concrete visual references to the active war in the parade (apart from the Russian armed forces themselves), but due to capricious late Spring weather the expected sunshine was interspersed with wind and hail through the May 9th morning. They never flew on the holiday.

Despite nature’s intervention, the Z symbol has become the predominant change to the cityscape. Upon the facade of the Oleg Tabakov Theatre on the second outer ring road, the Z hangs as a giant translucent ribbon of St. George, the symbol of victory in WWII and a persistent object of conflation between the Second World War and current war in Ukraine. Though the banners to the dead and the Tabakov Theater Z required approval and likely planning from the authorities, the Z has become a widespread form of state approved guerrilla art. Vehicles drive around the ring roads with white taped Zs on the back window or rear bumper. In black or white, it is spray painted and scratched in alleyways, elevator doors, and stairwells.

The Z’s visual styling, ease of reproduction and immediately recognizable symbolism seemed to be built for urban proliferation. The anti-war effort lacks such a snappy symbol. Initially a green ribbon represented silent opposition after the mass arrests of the initial protestors, but it was extinguished as police targeted commuters sporting the fabric as they entered the metros in early March. Nonetheless, two months later, on the train from the blandly named Moscow Grazhdanskaya (citizens) railway station to Krasniy Baltiets railway station, the corrugated concrete barriers along the side of the tracks revealed dialogue to a local friend of mine. Zs sprinkle across the barriers as the train rolls by. Sometimes a former Z is transformed into a stylized leaning swastika; other times they are crossed out entirely next to the words “нет войне” no to the war and “Первый канал врeт” Channel 1 lies. They reveal a plurality of thought for the Moscow commuter, at least from those inclined to do graffiti, in favor and against the war. By mid-May, along this route through the Moscow Agricultural Academy park, he told me how these interchanges were already painted over in white as authorities attack the urban dialog not on the Z side.

Two low contrast images taken of the grey interiors of a Moscow apartment elevator near Rechnoi Vokzal, to the left “Putin is a murderer” and to the right “Putin is great” with swastika.
Photos courtesy of a collaborator in Moscow who wishes to remain anonymous.

Meanwhile, over a thousand kilometers to the South of Moscow, Volnovakha was a town of approximately 20,000 residents. Formerly a massive train interchange point, the town was divided across the central railroad tracks. To get to one side from another, locals would walk across a thin central pedestrian bridge spanning the twenty-five separate rail tracks. Unlike Moscow, where anyone with a visa could explore today, Volnovakha is inaccessible except for the those who live there, and the Russian forces who have taken the town in conclusion of a two week battle from late February into early March. Per the words of the Ukrainian military administration, the city no longer exists. This is hyperbolic in that the city remains, albeit in ruins, as do many residents. Yet for them, the urban space has been unimaginably altered with over ninety percent of buildings damaged to some degree. The visualities of the town are framed by media outlets with limited access. Ukrainian sources show corpses in the street covered with aluminum siding, and the inky burn marks rising from hollowed out apartment windows. One video from News of Donbas shows the local hospital destroyed. Medicine drawers are left open in the pharmacy and drywall covers an MRI machine. The camera pans toward the open cupboards of patient records. A woman cries and explains how her colleague was killed. A burned out tank sits in the street. This town and its destructive visuality is where Zhoga died while assaulting Ukrainian defenders. As these images take hold, Moscow has quickly interceded to regain control of the aesthetic of the town that it destroyed. On May 9th, the newly installed Russian-backed authorities filmed the lighting of an eternal flame, and the performance of patriotic songs in the local park. By staying away from urban infrastructure and splintered trees in their news pieces, they erase the destruction, and shift focus to the political spectacle among untouched blossoming greenery rather than the site of battle itself.

Screenshot showing the destruction of the Volnovakha hospital.
Source: News of Donbas Волноваха разрушена бомбардировками. Без комментариев.
Russian occupiers paint over the Ukrainian state seal in Volnovakha.
Source: May 8th post, Volnovakha local telegram group Вiдгуки Волноваха.
Source: RIA Novosti, Russian state media

The visual representations of the war on the street and online from Moscow and Volnovakha are linked, yet simultaneously obfuscated from one another. In her recent analysis of Russian news media and representations of WWII memory, Tatiana Zhurzhenko describes how centralized narratives radiate to the periphery, a process she calls “echoes”. The echoes are not always perfect, though, as local media groups must contend with the tension between proscribed top-down versions of history and local embodied knowledge of events.2Tatiana Zhurzhenko, “World War II memories and local media in the Russian North: Velikii Novgorod and Murmansk,” in The Memory of the Second World War in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia, ed. David Hoffman (New York: Routledge, 2021), 202–228. Due to the propaganda value of media from the war in Ukraine, Moscow will not leave anything to chance. The echo will be clear or nothing at all. Zhoga’s representation in Moscow and the representation of the war as whole is an aestheticized and curated political performance that does not touch upon the burnt bodies, broken glass, and crumbled buildings that it creates in Ukraine. Instead, it protects Moscow by creating a conveniently disembodied war in the imagination of the city and it enforces this representation under penalty of prison.

From Moscow outward, this erasure of trauma and promotion of the capital center’s vision of war spreads to occupied territories. Moscow’s vision also borrows enough from the war, such as the real use of the Z, that when city dwellers removed from the actual conflict view more graphic materials online, the content is already primed into the Moscow sense of place, the emotional comfort of home, and ultimately the political desires of the Kremlin for a non-oppositional populace. The Z on the tank is connected to the banner over the theatre and the bumper sticker on the car, that is to say safe, clean, business-as-usual urban life. The fighters, even in death, are cleaned up, and should you wish to go against the prescribed aesthetic and write oppositional thoughts or symbols about how you relate to the war, the authorities will eventually just paint you over.

Notes[+]

Gregg, James. "Creating and Enforcing Moscow’s Aesthetic of War." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 2 (June 2022)
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