September 26th, 2017
In Putin’s Russia, an Island of Tolerance
Dasha Yastrebova captures a fleeting moment in Moscow’s queer underground.
By Miss Rosen
In 2007, when the Solyanka Club opened in Moscow, it was a time of great hope. The first generation of post-Soviet teenagers came of age in a moment when anything seemed possible, mostly because the government was willing to overlook many social and cultural activities. Solyanka, a restaurant during the day and a nightclub after dark, burst forth. It quickly became the home for an underground, bohemian community of artists, photographers, designers, musicians, performers, and filmmakers who embraced those whom the Russian government persecuted, specifically queer culture, drag queens, and people who identified as transgender. Even then, Solyanka was an island of tolerance in a country plagued by prejudice and persecution.
At the age of eighteen, while shooting for magazines like Russian Vogue, Dasha Yastrebova started going to Solyanka. She photographed there for a year, and most of this work has never been seen before. Here, Yastrebova speaks about this intriguing moment in Russian history, a period of personal and creative freedom that has since disappeared.
Miss Rosen: Thinking back to Moscow in 2007, you must have felt as if you were living the high before the fall. How would you describe the political and social changes the city was going through?
Dasha Yastrebova: There was a feeling of rising, a flourish in the air. Young people were not forbidden to do anything, as the government did not perceive the new generation of teenagers as a threat. The country was not liberal; there were no new liberal laws; there was the same authority, but the government overlooked some parts of social and cultural life. So, temporarily, young people had a chance to freely express themselves, and we were too young, inspired, and energetic to believe it would come to an end.
Before the 2008 financial crisis, entrepreneurs funded cultural events, in which we could participate. The government allowed advertisements for cigarettes and alcohol, for example, and I worked several on Philip Morris campaigns.
We had a lot of free time, were interested in everything, and wanted to do something useful. Many new vehicles for expression began to appear: the first youth magazine was Look At Me; the first art-place was Moscow Contemporary Art Center Winzavod; and the first nightclub, Solyanka. Young people felt that there was an untilled field of opportunities. There were people from the older generation who also wanted change. It was also the beginning of a dialogue with the authorities—it was actually possible to pitch your ideas. The new generation was realizing its strength and potential.
Rosen: Could you talk about the new Moscow you wanted to build? What did you want to see your country achieve?
Yastrebova: We were the first post-Soviet generation of teenagers and we wanted this Soviet spirit to be washed off quickly. Everything was destroyed and was in desolation; there were no places built for the youth. We lagged behind, but there was a desire to develop and to move forward.
With the advent of the first youth websites, we began to learn about the cinema, modern directors, new music, style, and fashion—how through appearance one could change cultural. For us, appearance was a manifesto, and we dreamed that all this would grow to become a mass movement.
Then, a chain reaction began. At Solyanka, designers, fashion designers, and musicians, were all discussing how it would be great to open a showroom, launch a production, record an album, shoot a video, open cultural spaces, et cetera. We wanted to do something for the city and the people, but no one knew how to execute such projects. It was a time of great experiments.
Rosen: How did the Solyanka embody the spirit of the times?
Yastrebova: At Solyanka, we learned that we were not the only “strange” ones. Solyanka was not just a club. You felt that you were inside a new flow—that it was historical, and something important was happening. On weekends, the streets near the club were filled with people. Sometimes we did not even go inside. Instead, we drank and talked on the street. People of all ages, social statuses, and subcultures gathered there: oligarchs, artists, gays, skinheads, artists, transgender people, and students. Back then, within certain spaces, all of these groups mixed and communicated without any barriers or prejudices.
During the day, Solyanka was a restaurant: three large halls with a stunning vintage, Bohemian atmosphere. It felt like you were in a different country. There were meetings and events there. We watched movies and discussed them, made friends, and dreamed of new projects and a better future.
Rosen: How did taking photographs in this environment inspire or influence your development as an artist?
Yastrebova: Prior to this experience I had only a moments, fragments way of thinking. This was the first time I made a more long-term project. Solyanka gave me an opportunity to do something cohesive.
We did not believe in stereotypes, and the boundaries of our personalities blurred. We were interested in everything. Solyanka was an opportunity to interact with people openly. I could say, “Show me your boobs”—and the person did it. I felt the world was plastic. People were open to doing crazy things; they wanted to do something strange. We all wanted to go beyond our comfort zones.
Rosen: What made you decide to stop shooting at the Solyanka after just one year?
Yastrebova: At one of the parties, the security guard beckoned me, saying, “Dasha, come here, look what happened here! Maybe it will be interesting for you to take a picture.” I went into the dressing room and saw that there was a girl without pants on. I asked the guard, “Why is she naked?” She was unconscious. She looked really bad, most likely from mixing drugs and alcohol. I took a couple of photographs and left, and couple of hours later, I saw the same girl in the main room lying on a big sofa. No one cared.
I understand now how terrible it was but, at the moment, I was too drunk and took a few more pictures. When I developed a film, I was in shock. How it could happen in such a place? Why didn’t anyone cover her up or take her to a safe place? Why didn’t anyone call an ambulance? I had many questions, including, Why did I just walk up and take a photograph of a girl who is in a situation that I would not want to be in? I decided that this was the final picture, and that I needed to move on.
Rosen: This project was just ten years ago, but in some ways it must feel like another lifetime. As an artist, what is the greatest lesson you learned in this environment?
Yastrebova: I began to understand more about humanity in general. I realized that, despite their differences, people could have common ground. Understanding the fluidity of human consciousness helped me to avoid stereotyping people. Everything is possible.
I also learned that there could be equality, sense of freedom, both internal and external, between people regardless of social status. Tolerance and inner freedom—this, perhaps, was the main lesson.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, and books for Vogue Online, Dazed Digital, The Undefeated, Feature Shoot, and Crave Online.