Venturing through a dark alleyway next to a corner shop, probably the last thing you’d expect to discover is an expansive and fascinating museum of non-conformist culture whose roots stretch into the Soviet period and beyond.
Yet, behind an unassuming door, you’ll find Art Centre Pushkinskaya 10. It first appeared in 1989 as a squat and artists’ commune in a dilapidated ex-communalka, and has since transformed into an internationally renowned base for the underground cultural community of St Petersburg.
After a tumultuous few years struggling first with the Soviet authorities, and then with capitalist property developers, Pushkinskaya 10 was established as an official museum of non-conformist art. It was aided by the “Товарищество экспериментального изобразительного искусства” (Association of Experimental Fine Arts) , an organisation supporting cultural spaces for various underground movements, which has roots as far back as the 1870s.
Now, 30 years later, Pushkinskaya 10 still provides a base for the vibrant cultural community of St Petersburg. The centre consists of over a dozen galleries, a warren of artists workshops, and various other spaces offering lectures, poetry readings, and exhibitions showcasing internationally renowned work by Russian artists.
The layout of the building remains that of a typical St Petersburg house, but you feel like you’re in a parallel version of everyday life – and the artworks and installations covering the staircases and walls are just the beginning of what Pushkinskaya 10 has to offer.
The museum does not just showcase art for posterity’s sake, but also supports the contemporary artistic community of St Petersburg. Honouring its roots as artists’ commune, a large part of Pushkinskaya 10 is the micro-neighbourhood of 40 workshops where artists live and work. Artists often open up their workshops to the public, and as each flat is an entirely different exhibition, you never know what you’ll stumble across.
Two current exhibitions epitomise the community spirit, and non-conformist tradition of Pushkinskaia 10. The first is called «Соседы», which means ‘neighbours’, and it contains art by various Pushkinskaya residents in a “metaphorical projection of the House’s studios [which] gives a possibility to ‘meet’ the artists’. Each artwork is accompanied by a description from the artist about what Pushkinskaya 10 means to them, or a story about their time living there.
Graphic artist Evgeny Tysotskii described it as a haven for amateur artists and creatives, not just a space for artistic professionals. Aleksandr Goncharuk, a veteran arriving to Pushkinskaya 10 in 1989, characterised it as a community which welcomed newcomers as friends. Others spoke of Pushkinskaya 10 as a ‘captured’ building which they all repaired together in dribs and drabs, obtaining all sorts of weird building supplies during the 90s trade crisis. Viktor Andreev, an internationally renowed artist, praised Pushkinskaya 10 for the freedom it gave to artists – freedom of choice, movement, opinion, without ideological boundaries.
My favourite part was by Marina Koldobskaia. An ex-resident of Pushkinskaya 10 (and now a member of the European Cultural Parliament), Koldobskaia told a story of the rat who she shared her workshop with, and the humorous game of cat and mouse they played as he ate his way through her belongings. Needless to say, it didn’t end well for the rat.
The second exhibition in the series is called «Товарищи» , which means ‘Comrades’. It contains work by artists from all over Russia who belong to the ‘Товарищество «Свободная культура»’ – ‘The Free Culture Association’, which took over from the Association of Experimental Fine Arts. The exhibition has a rich heritage stretching all the way back to the 18th century, as it is reminiscent of the travelling exhibitions put on by the ‘Peredvizhniki’ (The Wanderers) in the 1870s. Not only were the ‘Peredvizhniki’ the first alternative to the official Russian Academy of Arts, but they were the original founders of the organisation supporting Pushkinskaya 10 this very day.
One of the workshops in Pushkinskaya 10 has been transformed into Russia’s First National Rock Museum. Rock music was a hugely important part of unofficial culture in the Soviet Union, and the museum is run by Vladimir Rekshan, a writer, rock musician, and a veteran of the Russian rock scene. He founded one of the first Russian rock bands, ‘Sankt Peterburg’, performed throughout the late Soviet period and perestroika, and worked at the Leningrad Rock Club for five years. (Rekshan joked that when the city was called Leningrad, his band was called ‘Sankt Petersburg’. And now, with the city renamed as Saint Petersburg, we all know of the famous band ‘Leningrad’.)
The museum is like stepping into a time capsule. Rekshan called it his ‘personal incentive, his personal brand’ to preserve and exhibit items from this important period in Soviet culture. He has a huge amount of memorabilia from this period – signed records from famous bands such as DDT and Akvarium, event posters for Kino concerts, handmade books and record covers, unofficial samizdat articles reviewing bands and concerts, and magnitofon tapes of his favourite songs. Rekshan described the Soviet rock scene as not just focussed on music or fame, but a lifestyle, a whole community, a generation which, in his own words, ‘changed the world.’
Incidentally, famous group ‘Leningrad’ also have a connection to Pushkinskaya 10. Pretty much any Russian, or anyone studying Russian, will have heard of their band. In fact, Leningrad’s first gig was performed in Art Klinika in Pushkinskaya 10 on January 13th 1997, only four days after the band was originally formed by frontman Sergei Shnurov. (I feel a slight personal connection to this – earlier this year, I was part of a play written and directed by my friends about Leningrad’s first gig. There was live music, plenty of props collected during our year abroad in Russia, and we took inspiration from what we learnt in our university classes about Russian rock music.)
Pushkinskaya 10 does not only exhibit art and music, but also non-conformist literature in its gallery, Samizdat A4. ‘Samizdat’ means self-publishing – sam (myself) izdat (to give out) – and was an unofficial way to share alternative forms of literature and music during the Soviet period. The gallery exhibits various works published through samizdat, such as music, fiction, and journals, complete with photos of their authors.
I was particularly interested in the section about the first feminist journal in Russia, «Женщина и Россия» (Woman and Russia), published in 1979. The journal encouraged conversation about such issues as gender inequality, domestic roles, and sexual health – problems which either ‘didn’t exist’ in the Soviet Union, or were considered taboo. Their articles caused such a stir in that the authors, including influential writer Tatiana Mamonova, were forced into exile. Nevertheless, the women continued to write and publish from abroad.
Pushkinskaya 10 shows how alternative forms of culture persist despite the the world around them, and exhibits Russian culture in an incredibly human way. There is an accessible, dynamic atmosphere that absorbs you the minute you first step into the courtyard – you aren’t just looking at art, you’re surrounded by it, maybe even standing in a room with the person who created it!
I also found it fascinating to observe the preservation of their artists’ community within Pushkinskaya 10 as not just a mark of cultural history, but something which is very necessary in today’s world. Although the centre has gained internationally renowned status, it still continues its historical tradition of supporting and exhibiting grassroots Russian culture, a self-defined space for those who want to do something different.
I hope that you have enjoyed this post, and I highly recommend that you visit Pushkinskaya 10! До встречи!
Art-Center «Pushkinskaya-10»/Арт-центр «Пушкинская-10»
Ligovsky Prospekt 53