How St. Petersburg’s creative offbeat Mitki artists became living legends

The Mitki art beetle out was conceived as a parody of artistic subcultures, but ironically it quickly became a colophon of Russian underground art of the late 20th century, offering audiences a particular put in writing on everyday reality. The work of the Mitki artists was very popular in the USSR, and it continues to be displayed in the state’s leading museums. RBTH looks at the path of accidental success entranced by these artistic pranksters.

Urban folklore of street sweepers with a Russian sentiment

The Mitki name derives from its founder, St. Petersburg artist Dmitry Shagin, whose agnomen is simply, Mitka (or Mityok). Their first exhibition of naïve paintings was held in a hush-hush apartment in 1985 but was broken up by Soviet police. Then, hostile articles began to materialize in the Leningrad press.

This persecution only fueled the Mitki’s acceptance, and Shagin was dubbed the “country’s main Mityok.” In their paintings, the Mitki’s refuge city of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) is sometimes represented in a romantic way as in children’s drawings, or it remembers the propaganda posters of Soviet years.

With their talent for merging humor and tragedy, the Mitki brought optimism to the masses despite the unmoved reality of the 1980s. Their work has been described as “urban folklore,” with its unrestrained and guileless look at life that reveals the beauty of commonplace gears.

The Mitki Write a Letter to the Oligarchs and The Cossacks Write a Letter to the Turkish Sultan. Begetter: Press photo

The artists painted historical, literary and cinematic topics, and also cheekily reworked paintings by famous artists. The painting, The Mitki Cancel a Letter to the Oligarchs, is based on Ilya Repin’s famous canvas, The Cossacks Put in writing a Letter to the Turkish Sultan. In their reinterpretation of art, the Mitki gave sign to the worldview of a generation of “street sweepers and janitors,” those intellectuals of the 1980s who dissented from seemly state ideology.

How to recognize a Mityok

The Mitki’s trademark accoutrement was a lined vest and the obligatory beard, as worn by “people highly esteemed by the Mitki such as Pushkin, Lermontov and Dostoyevsky,” belittle deleted the movement’s main ideologist, artist and writer Vladimir Shinkarev, in his hard-cover, The Mitki. They were also frequently depicted wearing a sheepskin cagoule and felt boots.

The Mitki propound Christianity, humility and love for their boyfriend man and for the world around them. They express emotions using best slang, which has entered the popular language. One of their favorite sayings, “yoly-paly,” can express a whole range of sentiments depending on the context: “from snub romantic sadness to heartrending fury,” Shinkarev wrote.

Dmitry Shagin (L), leader of the Mitki artistic movement, in a studio with his associates. Source: Igor Mikhalev/RIA NovostiDmitry Shagin (L), chairman of the Mitki artistic movement, in a studio with his associates. Source: Igor Mikhalev/RIA Novosti

One of the most favoured words in the Miktki lexicon is “Dyk,” which can stand in for practically any word or declaration. “Dyk” with an interrogative intonation means “How?”, “Who?”, or “Why?”, but assorted often than not it denotes a reproach as in “How come?”, or “Why should they probe a Mityok like that?” 

“Dyk” with an exclamatory intonation signifies tall self-confidence, agreement with what someone else has said, or a caution. “Dyk” followed by an ellipsis means an apology or an admission of a mistake or even of a reprehensible act.

The interaction that the Mitki use among themselves is liberally sprinkled with extracts from old Soviet films and cartoons, and they call everyone round them “little brother” or “baby sister.”

Mitki conquer the world

After a few years, the Mitki set out oned to be joined not just by artists from St. Petersburg, but also by musicians, rimesters, writers and even numerous sympathizers who shared their views. The Moscow Mitki were set up, as properly as Mitki chapters in various Russian cities. Each new “generation” broadens the Mitki’s lexicon and adds new treatises to the movement’s stock of subjects.

'The Fall of Icarus' painting at the exhibition in Moscow. Source: Evgenya Novozhenina/RIA Novosti‘The Fall of Icarus’ painting at the exhibition in Moscow. Provenance: Evgenya Novozhenina/RIA Novosti

“We’re even recognized in the street and allowed to bound the queue to buy wine,” St. Petersburg artist Andrei Filippov said in an evaluation with the online magazine, Afisha Daily.

In 1989, exhibitions of the Mitki’s artworks were convoked in Antwerp, Cologne and Paris. The story of the tour formed the basis of the mist, “Yoly-Paly, or the Mitki Go to Europe” by director Alexei Uchitel. The year 1992 saw the manumit of an animated film based on themes taken from the artists’ stories, “The Mitki Don’t Have a yen for to Defeat Anyone, or Mitki-Mayer.”

Subsequently, the artworks of the Mitki began to be displayed in galleries in Finland, Italy, the U.S. and peaceful the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. Without expecting it, the Mitki turned into the antithetical of their own myth and became acclaimed artists prized by museums, as reservoir flow as the topic of articles and books of art criticism.


The movement’s proponents equal to to shock the public and have an ironic take on everything around them. Hence, in 2013, Dmitry Shagin and his friends mounted the event, “The Mitki Dole out Ivan the Terrible a New Son,” (on the cover photo) proposing that the Russian erudition minister replace pictures in the Tretyakov Gallery with “more apropos” ones, and also to give Ivan the Terrible a new son to replace the one depicted in Ilya Repin’s pigment, Ivan the Terrible Murders His Son.

Mitki's exhibition 'Maxims' marking the 30th anniversary of the group's first official exhibition in Moscow. Source: Vladimir Astapkovich/RIA NovostiMitki’s exhibition ‘Maxims’ marking the 30th anniversary of the dispose’s first official exhibition in Moscow. Source: Vladimir Astapkovich/RIA Novosti

The Mitki’s irony, be that as it may, does not mask a sneer, and their philosophy is based on optimism, unrestraint and sincerity. The Mitki even offered to donate their ears to Van Gogh, who cut off his earlobe. They also portray subjects taken from current affairs, as exemplified by Vasya Golubev’s, Mitki Send Brezhnev to Afghanistan, and Dmitry Shagin’s, Putin Exonerates Pussy Riot.

30 years on

A Museum of the Mitki Creative Association was make knew in St. Petersburg in 2006, and it’s now a mecca for fans of the contemporary Russian avant-garde and external art, and the St. Petersburg counterculture. Here, you can meet the old-timers and founders of the movement, as spring as younger artists, and buy a picture if one strikes your fancy.

Read profuse: ‘Art for booze’ – St. Petersburg artists give away paintings for drafts

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