Russia's Naked Public Space

Those who lived in Moscow in the late 1990's frequently encountered odd - and mostly incomprehensible - billboards. The first such billboard showed a young woman's face, but no bar of soap or bottle of perfume. No brand name, either. A short line said simply "I love you." Who loved this woman and why did he want everyone to know of his passion? Rumors had it that one of Russia's richest men wanted to impress his sweetheart.

Next came a billboard showing a man's face, with foreign coins flowing down upon it. The line read, "Roma takes care of the Family, the Family takes care of Roma. Congratulations! Roma found a classy place for himself."

There was never any public explanation for this message, either, just rumors - that "Roma" was Roman Abramovich (this was long before the tycoon bought the Chelsea football team, becoming a world celebrity), and that he had close ties with then President Boris Yeltsin's inner circle, known as "the Family." Even the few who claimed knowledge about Roma were unsure about who commissioned the billboard. It was simply taken for granted that what is supposed to be public space - the streets of Moscow - was appropriated for a vaguely menacing private message.

Such "private" billboards kept appearing for about a year with varying themes. The implications of this game, however, run deeper than the actual messages sent and received. The billboards with their private messages were able to occupy public space so easily because in Russia public space is virtually empty: there's very little, if any, communication between state and society, and barely any public debate.