On art, being an ally and growing up in post-Soviet Russia: in conversation with Vlada Nebo

It was a Saturday afternoon this February, the weather looking favorable at the edges of our zoom backgrounds, when I sat down with Vlada Nebo to ask her (comfortably queer) how I (straight-ish most days) can show my support for the LGBTQ+ community. What makes for a good ally? We took some detours before reaching the main topic, as it often happens when old friends catch up after months. This interview is a shortened version of where we ended up.

We first met in September of 2013 at the University of Edinburgh, during a student theatre production, where, inexplicably, I was the mentor and Vlada the mentee. To my great luck, we’ve been friends since.

Today, Vlada is a theatre director, writer, and photographer. In her art, you will find her exploring sensuality, sexuality, and the female often her own gaze. Born in 1993 in Moscow, Russia, she spent her teenage years in Europe, and later moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, to study English Literature. She holds a Masters from the University of Edinburgh in Theatre and Performance Studies and currently works in advertising. At the moment she is living in Glasgow with her girlfriend.

What are your earliest memories of engaging with art? I'm very lucky because I was raised by my grandmother who put a lot of value into cultural education and developing imagination. I was encouraged to explore that, there were no boundaries, nothing was not age-appropriate. My childhood was filled with games and reading and making things with my hands. And it was the post-Soviet bloc, so a lot of the time those things might have looked scruffy or not very glossy because you used what you had. But I have vivid and very colourful memories of my childhood.

Something that stands out - and in terms of developing my imagination, it was paramount - whenever we were walking somewhere with my grandmother, she would start making up a story and then ask me to continue, then she would take over again, and so on.

Growing up, did you experience art and culture being used for propaganda?

Not in the sense of modern politics. It would be different if I was growing up right now. But because we grew up in a time of transition in the 90s, I think nobody knew what the new propaganda should look like. There was just so much stuff to deal with politically, they didn't have time to rewrite the literature curriculums, for example. So the curriculums that we had were the old Soviet ones. It's not something that I've noticed then, but looking back at it it was very much Soviet values of what it means to be a good, worthy person in the Soviet Union. There were the things you would expect: work hard and don’t be lazy. It didn't really bother me at the time, because I was consuming everything very readily. But I remember it really bothered my mom. I think, weirdly enough, those ideas rubbed off on me quite a lot. I find myself sometimes having this rigid sense of justice.

One thing that was actually great is that part of that political agenda in the Soviet Union was introducing the idea that the Union was made up of many states and many nationalities, and all of them have their own stories, but they are also part of a bigger story. So there was, surprisingly, so much diversity in them. It’s a huge issue in Russia at the moment; people wouldn't, for example, rent flats to people who were not Slavic-looking. But within art, because it was one of the party lines, there were so many stories from so many different regions of Russia. And I'm grateful for that.

Do you think that they were trying to appeal to everyone with their diverse stories?

I don't think it was trying to appeal to a lot of people. There was not really that much choice. If a film got released, that was *the* film. Everyone would watch that one. But as I was growing up more and more international things started coming in. Like Disney movies. I don’t remember whether it was illegal to do voice-overs or it just wasn’t done, but all the first Disney cartoons I watched were voiced by the same man. Everybody who's Russian and my age knows that guy. Legend is that he was trying to mask his voice, so he put a clothing clip on his nose. But that was already an upgrade. The way my parents used to watch foreign movies is by having somebody translate in the room, like one of their friends who would speak English. And they would all gather and listen to this live translation.

I grew up on German dubbing of the major series and movies, and I felt it was well done. But then the first time I saw those classics in the original, usually in English, it sounded all wrong to me.

It’s just not what you're used to. When I was way older I started watching House M.D. in Russian, and then I switched into English and, you know, it's the wonderful Hugh Laurie, but I was like: No.

You speak English, Russian, French and you’re learning Spanish. Do the different languages affect your art differently?

Yes, for sure. I noticed that when you don't practice a language all the time, it becomes outdated. My friends joke that my Russian is stuck in 2007. Through a series of events, I've been speaking a lot more Russian this year and I feel like I went through a software update.

In terms of art and writing in different languages, because I have an academic background in English I find expressing myself, including emotionally, a lot easier in English. And I can't figure out if it's because it doesn't feel as vulnerable and personal as it’s a second language, or if it's just because I have to do it in English all the time. In Russian, it feels very sort of naked and bare. But at least now that I've been speaking Russian a bit more, I feel that my internal dictionary has gotten a bit richer again.

Did you ever notice how translating a work of art changes the art itself? For example, something original from Russian translated into English?

It’s bizarre for me that English speakers like Chekhov and want to perform his plays. Because to me, when I watch it in English, it just doesn't make any sense. And I wonder if people when they watch and read him in English, find different things from what we find when we read it in Russian. If it's almost like a different point that appeals.

I had to also learn a lot in terms of language once coming to the UK, because there are things they don't teach you in English language classes. For example, third-person singular pronouns and why they are important and why people choose to use those pronouns. There isn't really a way to smoothly translate them to Russian. That said, there are people now in Russian using third-person singular pronouns as a gender expression.

You hear about the kind of injustice and violence towards LGBTQ+ people in Russia. I imagine you have a much more complex view of the situation. Being Russian, but also having grown up partially in Switzerland, studying and living in the UK as a young adult, how have you experienced the differences in cultures?

The UK was a revelation. People were gay or queer openly, and nothing happened to them. And they would just state it in conversations, and it wouldn't be a big deal. By the time I came to the UK, I had experienced coming out to a few people. And every time it was a leap into cold water, you never knew.

Who is on the other side?

Yes. And here, people were acting as if you’re just stating what kind of pie you like. I think we were very lucky because Edinburgh was amazing as a city to be in. It's obviously not the same everywhere in the UK. And, interestingly, a lot of people have the same shock coming there who are from the UK, but from small towns or towns that are not LGBTQ+ friendly at all.

The first year and a half, I was really high on that openness, I loved seeing it in conversations and nothing happening as a result. I would meet a person and say ‘do you know I'm bisexual?’ And they'd be like, okay, cool, moving on.

For the younger communities it is changing for the better. But not in any way on the government level. There are many LGBTQ+ activists now, and people are talking about it. I saw the other day a photographer being asked whether she is a lesbian. Instead of getting offended she just said that she’s not, and then she talked about her sexual orientation. And I think this is a massive shift in language and perception. And It’s very much a marker of allyship.

It’s great that you're introducing this, and I am really interested. What are other markers of allyship for you? Is it enough to just be respectful or is an ally someone who is more active in their support?

I think a big question in allyship is, how safe are you? How safe are you in your country, in your family, in your relationship, because that will determine very much what you are able to do. If you have a great relationship with your family, and it's very trusting, where you talk about things openly, but they are homophobic, you know, for whatever reason, and if you feel that it's safe for you to challenge those beliefs - that's amazing.

But I wouldn’t expect people to put themselves on the line if it's not safe for them. I think it's a very personal and case by case question of when should you speak up.

I agree, it’s a privilege to be able to be a vocal ally, and still safe. How else can people show allyship?

I find it very heartwarming when straight people take an interest in queer culture and make it part of the mainstream culture. For example, when a straight couple would watch a queer romantic film. Because I think it goes beyond gay people exist, and maybe some of them are even my friends. Making space in your own life for the visibility of diversity, not just looking at people who are like you, but also being curious and interested in looking at people who are not like you and not treating them differently. I think that aspect of making it part of the mainstream culture is very important. I get this feeling that a lot of the time people want to ask me things about being bisexual. Like, does sex with men and women feel different. And I don't think it's an offensive question, per se. I think I would be curious. And I'm curious about a lot of ways in which people, different from me, experience their sexuality. I think what would make this an offensive question is expecting an answer. Usually what people say is: “You know, I'm really curious about it. And you don't have to tell me if you don't want to, but I'm really interested.” And I think that's actually really cool. Because it's just showing curiosity.

Corporations putting out commercials supporting the LGBTQ+ movement - helpful or not?

I am very much in support of it purely because again, I know I keep saying popular culture, but I think it makes it part of the mainstream. We were talking about growing up in an environment where homophobia was just the government policy. And I think things like that challenge it. For older people in Russia, I think at first it would be a scandal. But I wonder what would happen after the scandal. If all the big brands and banks and universities said that from this year on they are in support of the LGBTQ+ Pride Month. And yes, the flip side of that is the purely commercial aspect - companies will create ads to be able to say ‘Look, we're LGBT friendly’. But advertising and branding are going to happen anyway. And I would rather it had some kind of meaning behind it. We're used to seeing straight couples, we're used to seeing - coming back to the post-Soviet bloc - very strict definitions of what's feminine, what's masculine. And breaking those down in advertising, in branding, in things that we see every day, and not just in university papers and high-level discussions, is important.

Does your sexuality and your exploration of sexuality affect your art?

There was a point at which I stopped being a very active part of the queer community. And then I started dating a woman again. Back at home in Russia, there was quite a lot of backlash to it. And I felt at that moment that I need to explore my sexuality more, think about bisexuality - what does it mean for me? And what expressions of bisexuality are there? And do you become less bisexual when you're in a relationship because you're dating one person of a specific sex? I really felt compelled to write and talk about it.

For me, a really important thought is that at any given point you have two sex lives, and one of them is with your partner or partners, and the other one is with yourself and your body. And nobody can take that away from you, no matter what your relationship status is. So I think my art maybe depends less on my external, romantic partners, and more on the relationship with my body, and how I relate to it at any given moment.

Are you excited about what getting older is bringing to your art, what it does with it?

I'm definitely very scared because I'm 27 and I feel I haven’t achieved things. And I think I'm being a bit unfair with myself because it's not like I've set up goals and I've not hit those goals. But it just feels like not enough, and there is less and less time and I'm trying to fight that a bit. But I think I am excited about all the experiences in all the different areas and how they will come together. I made so much terrible art in my early 20s, hopefully, that pays off. I believe that we need to make really, really terrible art to grow.

Since we met almost eight years ago you have done so many projects, you’ve become a professional photographer, you’ve directed shows at festivals. What have you been proudest of so far in terms of your work?

I don't even have to think about it. That would be directing The Nether by Jennifer Haley, which you introduced me to. I was obsessed with that play since I saw it in the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2014, and I cried when I came to watch your production of it. It was really good.

I cherish that project so much, it was such a long road to it. It was a couple of years trying to get the rights to the play. And then so many things happened on the way which was postponing the project. And then at some point, it just worked out. Here's a secret for your interview - when I feel really terrible, I find the event page on Facebook that we had for The Nether, and I read people’s positive comments. And I start to remember that there was once a time when I did this. And just to think of all the elements that went into it and the people who were part of it. To this day one of the anxieties I have is that I will never make anything better.

What is the best thing about doing your work?

What I adore most is this feeling of building something out of nothing. Maybe at the beginning, when you are starting a project, a play, there are just some words, a thread of an idea. And then you work on it and work on it, and at some point, other people join in, and at some point, it becomes not even yours, it's theirs. And out of nothing you've made a thing that exists in the world, that is crazy to me.

You can follow Vlada’s work on Instagram and on her webpage, where you can also get in touch to order prints or book her photography skills for ‘Quarantine photo shoots’.

Instagram: @slycatempire

Webpage: Vladanebo.com


Lucija Vihar

Lucija Vihar (1993) prihaja iz Maribora. Študirala je psihologijo na Univerzi v Edinburgu in na University College London v Veliki Britaniji. Je članica Rodeemos el Diálogo (Embrace dialogue), mednarodne organizacije, ki podpira mirovni proces v Kolumbiji in se zavzema za kulturo dialoga. Če bi bolj pogosto pogledala na uro, bi s skoraj iskreno grozo opazila, da preveč svojega dne strmi v razne zaslone. Namesto tega ljudem rada razlaga, da dneve preživlja ob branju, na sprehodih po mestu in vsem drugem, kar pač ljudje počnejo, da se izognejo misli na pandemijo. Trenutno živi v Ljubljani in dela za mlado podjetje, ki ustvarja izobraževalne mobilne aplikacije za otroke.