In 1995, Slava Mogutin was granted political asylum in the U.S. with the support of Amnesty International and PEN American Center. Now the Russian's brash, sexy, and gritty art and photography are at the core of the downtown scene in New York.
Born Yaroslav Yurievich Mogutin in the industrial city of Kemerovo, Siberia, he left his family at age 14 and moved to Moscow, where he worked as a journalist and editor. Mogutin traded in controversy and defied authority so vehemently that by age 21, he was charged with “open and deliberate contempt for generally accepted moral norms,” “malicious hooliganism with exceptional cynicism and extreme insolence,” “inflaming social, national, and religious division,” and “propaganda of brutal violence, psychic pathology, and sexual perversions.” So, yes. A bad boy.
The Advocate spoke to Mogutin about the crackdown on LGBT people in his homeland and about the cries for help he's already getting from other gay artists and friends who are still there. Mogutin backs a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, calling the games President Vladimir Putin's "pet project and propaganda vehicle."
The Advocate: Tell us what your new show is about.
Slava Mogutin: "In The Name of Love" is a retrospective of portraits shot in natural settings and various locations from the Catskills and Hamptons to Colorado and Costa Rica. Taken with medium format/120mm Holga and Diana F+ cameras, they were produced as traditional analog prints, and I spent weeks in the darkroom printing them, achieving the kind of quality that I could never achieve digitally. This is my first major U.S. museum show, and I couldn't be happier with the reception I got in Indiana, the conservative heart of America. By the museum's estimate, over 2,000 people came to the opening — their record number. And it wasn't my regular crowd, seen in traditional art capitals where I usually show my work. I think my message of love, compassion, and tolerance was appealing enough even for those who never saw my shows or books or heard of my name before.
Can you help contexualize what's going on in Russia? Why now?
Putin wants to cement his reputation as a strong man and "the father of the nation" among conservative, Orthodox Russians, and gay people happen to be the perfect scapegoat — "corruptors of public morals" and "wreckers of Christian civilization." In some ways, it's a direction similar to the hateful, homophobic teachings of the Vatican. Also, it's a perfect way for Putin to distract attention from other big issues, such as the enormous corruption, the crackdown on political opposition and independent media, and the granting of asylum to Edward Snowden. I must clarify that I'm all for Russia granting asylum to Snowden, but the real question is, Did they grant it out of concern for human rights? And would this happen if Snowden, like Bradley Manning, was openly gay?
How similar is it to what you went through?
Back in the mid-'90s I was charged with “open and deliberate contempt for generally accepted moral norms,” “malicious hooliganism with exceptional cynicism and extreme insolence,” “inflaming social, national, and religious division,” “propaganda of brutal violence, psychic pathology, and sexual perversions.” All for my outspoken writings and because of my reputation as one of few openly gay personalities in the country of 140-some million. Similar charges were routinely used against dissidents and nonconformist artists back in the '70s and '80s and, most recently, against the brave girls from the radical feminist punk band Pussy Riot. Unfortunately, what's happening now in Russia is a huge setback to the times of the Soviet oppression, except that the old rotten Communist propaganda has been replaced with the newfound Russian Orthodox chauvinism.
Do you have friends dealing with this over there?
In recent months, even before the antigay legislation was introduced, I've been getting a flood of emails and messages with the cries of help from many gay Russians who feel trapped in the increasingly hostile and homophobic situation. Most of my Russian artist friends who are gay have either left the country or died recently under mysterious circumstances. Luckily, my political asylum in the U.S. set the precedent and opened the doors to many similar cases for gay refugees from Russia, Ukraine, and other former USSR republics that recently adopted similar antigay laws.
What do you think is the most effective thing people can do to put political pressure on the Putin regime?
I think the most effective thing people around the world can do is to make our voices heard. We must all say or do something about this gruesome injustice that is happening in my tortured homeland — even if these are little things like sharing and posting on social media, signing petitions, simply talking about this uncomfortable issue with people who don't care of don't know. ... And the really big thing we can do is to organize the boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin's favorite pet project and propaganda vehicle for his corrupt regime. We must keep on putting pressure on Putin and the Russian government until the antigay laws are repealed once and for all!
Mogutin allowed us to share some of his work on the following pages.