"The Motherland Calls" in Volgograd, Russia (photo by Marco Fieber via Flickr)

Oleg Kulik, a popular Russian contemporary artist, is facing a three-year sentence over a 2018 sculpture he exhibited at the Art Moscow fair last month. Following claims by Russian officials that the sculpture mocked a Soviet-era World War II memorial, an investigation is now underway, with the artist accused of “rehabilitation of Nazism.” Under Russian law, charges of “desecration of the symbols of Russia’s military glory” and “insulting the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland” can carry a punishment of three years in prison, three years of forced labor, a fine of 3 million rubles (~$42,000), or a fine of three years’ worth of wages.

 A screenshot of a Tweet by @nexta_tv (screenshot Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

Kulik’s sculpture, called “The Big Mother” and exhibited at the fair by Moscow’s Frolov Gallery, is a fleshy abstraction of a nude woman raising a sword while being tugged down by smaller figures. It was deemed a mockery of “The Motherland Calls,” a 280-foot monument commemorating Russian soldiers who fought in the 1942–1943 Battle of Stalingrad. It was unveiled in 1967 in the Russian city of Volgograd.

The head of the State Duma Culture Committee urged the prosecutor general’s office to open the investigation following outcry from pro-Kremlin figures.

“This is a pointed and intentional insult,” Russian senator Alexey Pushkov told the newspaper Izvestia.

Around 24 million Russians were killed in World War II. (By comparison, around 420,000 Americans, 450,000 British, 6.6 million German, and 2.6 million Japanese people were killed.) Nearly every Russian city has a monument with an “eternal flame” to commemorate the war, and dozens have imposing statues celebrating the USSR’s victory. Films about the war are an incredibly popular movie genre in Russia, comparable to North America’s Westerns.

The Kremlin also has a history of utilizing World War II as a political tool. To justify its invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly declared his plans to “de-Nazify” the country, among other unfounded claims.

In 2014, Putin signed a law that bans “wittingly spreading false information about the activity of the USSR during the years of World War Two,” a loose term that also bans talking about Russian war crimes.

Russian parliament deputy Alexander Khinshtein’s Telegram post accusing artist Oleg Kulik of mocking a Soviet poster (screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

Kulik, however, denies any political motivation. He has long made provocative art — he’s known for performances in which he acts like a dog and other animals while naked and on a leash, among other works. The artist stated that his 2018 “Big Mother” sculpture was not inspired by “The Motherland Calls” but by his separation from his wife. He contextualized the sculpture within his rather questionable theories on modern gender relations.

“Almost all the works from this series are about male and female, about the conflict between men and women and their unbreakable bond,” Kulik told Izvestia. “Modern women do not want to lead a traditional lifestyle and want equality with men, and because of that, there is such a dramatic struggle between them. This is everlasting love and hatred, and the world revolves around this.”

In an artist statement accompanying the piece, Kulik explained that the top figure in the work is a reference to “The Venus of Willendorf,” the nearly 30,000-year-old sculpture long associated with femininity, sexuality, and fertility.

The Kremlin, of course, did not take issue with Kulik’s dated views on gender, but rather with the sculpture’s ostensibly “unpatriotic” message.

“I really hope that Mr. Kulik will lose the opportunity to show his ‘art’ at Russian exhibitions, and will be engaged instead in decorating institutions in the penitentiary system,” Russian parliament deputy Alexander Khinshtein posted on his Telegram channel. Khinshtein stated that he had also urged the prosecutor general’s office to investigate Kulik for a painting exhibited at the same fair that he deemed a mockery of a Soviet poster, under a code of Russian law that prohibits “desecration of the symbols of the military glory of Russia, committed in public.”

In March, Putin announced a 15-year jail sentence for spreading “false information” about the war in Ukraine, and freedom of speech in Russia is continuing to decline as civilian deaths multiply in Ukraine. Evacuations from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol continue, and this morning, Russian forces struck a strategic bridge in the Odesa region of southwest Ukraine.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.