Pearls before Swine

An Interview with Denis Shibanov, the Architect of DAU

Michał Murawski
This edited and abridged transcript of a long interview with Denis Shibanov, the architect of DAU, conducted by anthropologist of architecture Michał Murawski, expands on numerous themes pertinent to the DAU project and the context in which it was envisioned and created: the differing attitude to the Soviet past (and its material, affective and ideological legacies), as well as the post-Soviet present held by Shibanov and Khrzhanovskiy; the presence of allusions to the female anatomy in the set design of DAU, and their connection to the fraught approach to gender (and to gender politics) pervading the project; and the relationship between determinism and chance in the creative process and in historical development.
Ilya Khrzhanovskiy; Kharkiv; Moscow; DAU set; architecture; space; ideology; New Man; New Person; Constructivism; Stalinist architecture; Soviet everyday; postmodernism; determinism; gender.


The Ideal Institute

Listening to the Prompts

Ideology, or the Concatenation of Circumstances

Glory, Tears, Pain, Glory Again

The New Person

The Stone Woman and Fertile Concrete

Recreating the Post-Constructivism of my Childhood

Taking (New) People Down a Notch

Soviet Pearls before Swine


Suggested Citation


Having written a short article on Shibanov’s set designs for DAU, I was prompted to reach out to him for an interview. Very little commentary was available on Shibanov’s work on DAU and almost nothing had been published in English on the subject. The most recent interviews with Shibanov in Russian were over a decade old. We spoke via WhatsApp audio on a weekday evening in May 2021. The conversation went on for almost two hours. Shibanov’s manner was engaged, passionate, and personable. We touched on many topics, including architectural style, ideologies of architectural and spatial determinism, the idea of the Soviet “New Person” and its continued significance today, the complexity of attitudes towards the Soviet past, and the relationship between gender, politics and architecture. I found Shibanov’s use of certain words and ideas particularly interesting, including: “podskazka” (a physical or conceptual prompt); “stechenie obstoiatel’stv” (the concatenation of circumstances); “sverkhchelovecheskii” (superhuman); “pozitsiia” (“position” – used in this instance to signal Shibanov’s opposition to the necessity of holding a politically correct standpoint in ideological debates).

I found many of Shibanov’s comments about women, feminism, political correctness, and gender disturbing in themselves. But their troubling consequences are compounded because they resonate with what we know about the sexual politics of the DAU project; and with the way in which its extractive understanding of female sexuality is written into the set’s design. Further, Shibanov’s comments make clear that his ideas about womens’ sexuality and sexual organs are not merely naive or ill-informed. Even if they are not motivated by active ill-will towards women – and there is nothing that I am aware of in Shibanov’s record to suggest that he practises misogyny in his everyday life – they are clearly underwritten by a consciously held ideological opposition to what Shibanov perceives as ‘bourgeois’ political correctness. The value of publishing Shibanov’s comments lies in their capacity to open up a whole series of possible insights into affinities between diverse (and seemingly incompatible) ideological standpoints, such as, on the one hand, his constantly re-stated belief in what might be called the importance of “emergence”, the contingent “concatenation of circumstances”; and, on the other, Shibanov’s commitment to technologies of social engineering and “psychomanipulation”. More directly, Shibanov’s comments provide insight into the role of gargantuan, privately-funded film projects such as DAU – and the central role of architecture therein – in consolidating and reinforcing dominant ideological constructs of normalised misogyny, heteropatriarchal nationalism, and apologia for fascism and neo-Nazism (viz. the starring role given to convicted neo-Nazis in DAU) – all of the above notwithstanding the “liberal”, “anti-totalitarian” ideological framing conjured for DAU by Ilya Khrzhanovskiy.

Notes: generic male pronouns have been feminised or rendered in the third person; Kharkov is rendered as Kharkiv; factual mistakes are not corrected.

The Ideal Institute

Michał Murawski (MM): How did you end up in Kharkiv?

Denis Shibanov (DS): He [Landau] was offered a job by the Moscow Institute for Physical Problems, which was a remarkably innovative project for Soviet Russia in its idea and also in its structure. It was built in 1935 or 1936, it had streets for promenading, two-storey cottages. For our country, it was simply unheard of, it was founded on the English idea of the ideal institute. If you create ideal conditions for the scientists to only think about science, so that they are not bothered by anything and expend their entire energy on thinking, so that they only strive towards their aspirations, towards the transcendence of their limitations. And so, this triggers in the soul the question of how to transmit this ‘oooooh’!, so that the viewer, just like the hero [of the movie] feels this ‘wow!’, this entirely other world by comparison to the previous one in which they existed, that is the creation of entirely new conditions. I created dozens of designs for how this new Institute might look – and then fate took me to Kharkiv, where I found myself in the ruins of the Dynamo swimming pool, completed in 1954 – a remarkable structure encased in a concrete basin. Before that there were these plans of designing this structure within a quarry, using its serpentines as descents for automobiles, creating this enormous promenading space. But a quarry is an incoherent space, in a technological sense, it’s difficult to master.

Listening to the Prompts

DS: It’s often the case that a structure provides prompts [podskazki], and there were some remarkable prompts here, first your head starts working, we’ll do one kind of space or another. Here the [seating] stands are still in place, but they’re dilapidated. The whole swimming pool was filled with garbage, construction garbage, but the remains of the structure and of the building itself were still in place, the pool administration and so on, and they begin to give prompts, prompts after prompts, and strange things start happening – hop, hop, hop – everything slowly coalesces, it’s stimulating.

MM: So the material structure itself provides the prompts?
DS: Yes, these prompts, you have to reinforce them, extrapolate from them, listen to them, it’s a remarkable, remarkable alchemy. In Moscow, I went to look at the hospital in which Landau lay. And it was just boring, this would have been the type of work consisting of changing contemporary wall plugs into old ones, laying cables, redecorating something or other somewhat, really boring. And then we were driving around Kharkiv on Moskovskii Prospekt, and I see this remarkable building of the hospital, from 1928, a fantastic building with semi-circular corridors decked in the original tiling. And I say to Ilya [Khrzhanovskiy], OK, we can film the Moscow hospital here in Kharkiv. And he says wonderful, let’s go and have a look. And so we did. And, somehow, by accident, we ended up in the swimming pool.

Ideology, or the Concatenation of Circumstances

MM: Are all the spaces [of DAU] united by some kind of coherent ideology or idea?

DS: Actually, Michał, I do not really like the word “idea”. Maybe “ideology” is better, or rather the concatenation of circumstances [stechenie obstoiatel’stv]… I really like this notion of the concatenation of circumstances, of all of these prompts. With Ilya, we have a creative partnership, a marriage [laughs]. We are both born in ‘75. When the Soviet Union fell, we were sixteen, there is two month’s difference between us. We are both kids from the centre [tsentrovye parni]. Ilya lived in the centre of Moscow in his childhood, I also lived in the centre, in a kommunalka, and this whole culture of socialism and the architecture of socialism, we sucked it with our mother’s milk, so to say. We have different backgrounds, we associated with different people in our childhood, Ilya has one circle of friends and I have another, but later we came together.

Glory, Tears, Pain, Glory Again

DS: We were both fascinated by the Stalin-era skyscrapers [vysotki] of Moscow. Also, the building in Warsaw, it looks bloody amazing [okhrenitel’no]! What aspiration, what soulfulness [stremlenie dukha]! And the sun comes out and it’s just… ! But I’ve only seen it in photographs and from the windows of a plane when I was changing flights in Warsaw – but it’s a familiar tale, like with the Moscow vysotki’. This sense of awe, when you go with your mum to the grocery store in the direction of the MID (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) ‘vysotka’ on Smolenka [Smolenskii Bul’var] and you’re looking right at it and then it appears in the sun, and you think, a New Year’s Tree! And the University building on Sparrow Hills, how glorious it is to study in it, it’s a real church of learning! It’s magical! But, on the other hand, you find out about the stories of the people who made this magical thing. I am always interested in these types of contradictions, not in an accusatory way, it’s not that I want to pontificate about the horrors. Because here you feel it from one side and the other, and then something important is born, when you can really search, aided by your feelings, for – well, the truth can never be found – but for the spirit of the age. This elation, tears, pain, glory again, yes, hope for a radiant future. And now [today], it’s all crap. All of these contrasts, these strivings and accidents and coincidences, I am interested in this conflict – in architecture, in art and in life.

MM: Did you feel like this in childhood only or do you still?

DS: Up to this day, I retain a reverent approach to the strivings of the human spirit! Oy, how intolerant this sounds in our current moment [laughs]! Of course, you can just close your eyes, and say what horror, what a shitshow [п****ц] – I apologise for my Russian [laughs]. But if you want to be real, you can’t help but be amazed by all of this. How could prisoners build these buildings, working in such unbelievable conditions? And the architects were thinking that future generations will live better, there won’t be all this dirt, there won’t be all of this mockery of people! We will build for the future generations, so that not we but our children can live better!

The New Person

DS: I spent several months at the Lenin Library [Moscow’s national research library], extremely carefully studying the journal Sovetskaia arkhitektura. This was already after [DAU], I was just studying this history for myself. And I came across this thing, in the 1930s, at the beginning of the 1930s, there was a state institute for the construction of ideas, for happiness, for research, so that little boys and little girls would think only about how to make this world better, with the widest possible windows, with the most comfortable handrails. And here is this striving for the future. And now it’s all bullshit. Now I can end up in Kolyma [a Siberian town associated with the Soviet Union’s gulag network – M.M.] at any moment, but we are now longer aspiring towards anything. What was most important at first was not the aesthetics, not the architecture of the Moscow vysotki, just the very idea of transcending something, something superhuman, not to transcend but to be able in a very short time to change the human being herself.

MM: The “New Person” [novyi chelovek]?

DS: Yes, yes, yes. This is a very important story. The whole story with the “New Person”. I’m not sure exactly, the whole story started when in 1920 or 1921 Bogdanov’s Institute of Blood Transfusions was founded [the Institute was founded in 1925 – M. M.]. Now it [blood transfusion] is normal, mainstream, millions of people have been saved. But then it was an idea – everyone thought that if you pour the blood of old Bolsheviks, wise, experienced, idealistic, that you should pour it into a young population; and if you take blood from the young and transfer it to the old, so that they will live longer, so that they will have a longer time to proceed towards these ideas, so that they do everything for the good of the state and this radiant future – all these strivings will swiftly reconstruct this new type of person. But then, once again, everything ground to a halt in this canary cage, everything had to be cosy, there had to be furniture. […] Such is human nature, they forget that they should serve some idea or other, because they want to go to the sanatorium. [In the Institute interiors] everything was initially so severe, the walls were this dark green colour, there was only institutional furniture. But then the wives appeared, lovers, they wanted comfort, people began to have free time.

The Stone Woman and Fertile Concrete

MM: But the hammer-and-sickle door handles remained in place?

DS: Yes, they didn’t change – I’m not sure if you noticed, but if you turn the left and the right one together, they produce the image of a really nice ass [laughs]. When the doors are closed from both sides, you get these two really good semi-circles [laughs].

MM: There seems to be a lot about these buildings that is bodily. How about the story of the two walls of the Institute, the nipples and the vagina? Was this an official name or an unofficial one?

DS: Yes, that’s how we called it among ourselves. There was a wall with vaginas and a wall with nipples. And the residential complex, B1 and B2, they were joined by this hole in the wall. There was also the image of a lady’s hand, with little hairs. It all adds up to this kind of bodily, dense, juicy, fertile concrete … a concrete fertile terrain [betonnoe plodorodie] [laughs]?

MM: There is a widespread idea that Soviet architecture was not very sensual or sexual – so you made it more sexual, more sensual?

DS: You could say that. It’s an important part of our lives. If you look at the vysotki, there is more of the phallic there. But here we have a mixture of one and the other. In any case, I rather tend to look towards women more [laughs]!

MM: As a feminist?

DS: As a chauvinist?

MM: No, I said as a feminist.

DS: No, I am absolutely not a feminist. This is not a topic for me. Although I have wonderful assistants, helpers, I love working with women, I always make sure that there’s a 50/50 percent distribution of one and the other. So, in any case, there’s a lot of all this female fertility stuff there, one can get carried away with this. It’s another matter that, well, it’s really a concrete fertile terrain, it doesn’t really give birth to anything, it’s a dead end.

MM: Do you mean that this fertility is a chimera, a fantasy, it’s impossible?

DS: Well, you know, this is how it is. It’s sort of possible, but possible exactly in the same sense as having sexual desire for a stone palaeolithic woman [kamennaia baba paleoliticheskaia a reference to anthropomorphic stelae found throughout the Eurasian plains – M.M.].1 All the distinguishing features of fertility are there; but these features do not constitute a living, quivering body which is in front of you and in which you can delight, love. It’s a stone woman, it’s a bundle of features.

MM: Maybe I am digging too deep here – but is this a metaphor for the failure of the Soviet experiment, or of the scientific experiment of Landau? Or is it not a metaphor of this kind at all?

DS: No. Initially, there wasn’t supposed to be anything here about failure. I like this system, its audacity, its attempt to dare, to make mistakes. This striving to create a space [sozdat’ prostranstvo] where every person is touching something, trying something, yes!

Recreating the Post-Constructivism of my Childhood

MM: The exteriors in the project didn’t really look like Stalinist architecture. They looked much more like postmodernism, like Ricardo Boffill, like something from the 1970s or 1980s. Is it correct to read this postmodern dimension into the architecture, is this something you researched?

DS: The idea was that if you look at the development of Soviet architecture during the 1930s and 1940s, everything started from Constructivism. The idea was that this, the whole space, should not be in a unified style. In the moment when we begin “constructing” the Institute, constructivism is extremely important. Then Zholtovskii’s House appears, which was a point of reference for all of Soviet architecture. And the Party, and Stalin, gets wind that this is bloody amazing. And as for these former Constructivists – a decree is published to the effect that Zholtovskii has found the new language for the radiant future, and they have to respond to it in some way. There is family, they have to be fed, we can’t stay on the periphery. And these Constructivists start looking to Zholtovskii. And then Mukhina’s sculpture appears, The Worker and the Collective Farm Worker, it finds resonance. And so it made us [on DAU] think, let’s shove some hands in there, too [on the set of DAU]! And so this is the point of departure, the fast-changing politics of Soviet architecture, with its apotheosis in 1947 and the Stalinist vysotki project. [We thought that] it would be interesting to trace this in the space.

MM: So, [the DAU set] is your own creative interpretation of the development of styles?

DS: If we look at the MID vysotka on Smolenka, if you walk around the side, there is one of the entrances to the MID there which is a pre-war building from the 1930s, which was later integrated into the complex, and if you look at the bas reliefs and its structure, and then you look and see that this Stalinist vysotka incorporates a building from 1937 or 1938, which still has elements of art deco and Constructivism, everything is mixed up there. This is the street which meets the Arbat from the corner, these are the alleyways of my childhood. It’s not that I tried later to reconstruct all of this, but this is simply an appropriation, an absorption of all of these elements.

MM: Post-constructivism, in other words?

DS: Yes, yes, yes!

MM: There is a new book by Aleksandra Selivanova on post-constructivism. It’s interesting, because it’s evident there is not really an obsession with authenticity or purity in DAU, but Khrzhanovskyi is often criticised for his alleged fetishism of authenticity.

DS: This is because people probably don’t pay very careful attention. [For example], take the collars, the dress from the [late Stalinist] period of petrification [epokha okameneniia], we exaggerated these. I mean, we did detailed research into historical costumes, and then the costume designers, they underlined [certain aspects]. We did a very detailed study of the entire historical material, and followed this up with artistic re-interpretation and exaggeration. Ilya really succeeded in this task, not just in collecting [and representing] facts from the epoch. This has an artistic and a psychosomatic impact on the actors.

MM: There is a psychological or psychosomatic impact?

DS: Without a doubt, because when you have a collar buttoned up high, you move your head in a particular way, and generally your entire bodily movement is of a different kind. Because with this kind of re-working of elements, it’s always very finely-grained, it’s very fine, fine, fine work so that, yes, so that the person feels like they are in that period.

MM: Really in that period, or in your and Ilya’s interpretation of that period?

DS: Yes, an interpretation, a perspective on that period.

Taking (New) People Down a Notch

MM: If we are talking about the New Person and the Social Engineering of that New Person, the question arises – what kind of New Person did you create out of the actors? Did you create new people from your childhood memories from the centre of Moscow?

DS: I will be honest with you, I did not work with the actors directly – but I placed them in particular conditions. So, for example, it was extremely uncomfortable to sit on the steps in the Institute. This was on purpose. One side of your butt starts aching or another part of your legs, so people do not sit around there, not in a relaxed way. Or take the “Road to God”, which leads to the office of the Director – it was also built on the principle of taking people down a notch [sbit’ spes’] without them noticing it. So, for example, you wake up in the morning, you are thinking about a very serious conversation with the management, you want to tell them what you think: Ivan Ivanovich, you are wrong, we have to do everything differently. You want to tell him straight in his face. You choose your shirt, it will be easier for you to speak in this more serious shirt. You are heading towards the office, there are steps leading up to the office, everything seems OK, I step on the first step, on the second step, you are still formulating your speech in your head, “And this is me” [a eto ia], and then already on the second or third or fourth step, the process of down-knocking [sboi] begins, there is an altogether different rhythm in your legs, apart from the height there is also the length of the steps, and then you take another final little step, your entire rhythm, all of your plans, all the pictures you dreamt up, begin to get knocked down, all your steps are either too big or too small and you lose yourself. And in this state of having lost yourself, you arrive. You do not understand anything about yourself! All of this knocking down of your conception of your own person, this is a kind of psychic or psychosomatic part of our bodily movement. And in the institute, in the interiors and exteriors, these kinds of moments were built-in, pre-ordained.

MM: Why? Who is this for? For the director? The artist? The actor? Is it a metaphor? Who needs this ‘taking down a notch’?

DS: This is needed by the person herself, in order to understand herself. This is a psychological story. It’s always terrifying to look inside yourself, to get to know yourself. This is just like men and women in a sexual situation – and this is not good. You cannot think about the stars if you are constantly always just thinking about your position. But that’s just the impression I have – I’m sorry [in English].

MM: So what is this film about? Because this metaphor of making the person smaller seems like some sort of metaphor about the psychomanipulation of people, like a tale about some kind of authoritarianism, whether it is Soviet or Fascist or whatever. So is this a project about the Soviet person or about the contemporary person?

DS: I don’t know, perhaps Ilya would say that it is about the Soviet person. My hunch is that it is really actually about the contemporary person, in this historically loaded context. This kind of genetic memory is within every one of us. For example, and excuse me, every feminist wants to have a little baby. By her nature.

MM: Are you quite sure, what about…

DS: … and all that is happening right now is a new totalitarianism! All that is happening in the world right now, everyone has started taking this position. But, in actual fact, no. We should all listen to ourselves. Anyway, I’m very weak with conceptual things, with the question ‘what did the authors want to say?’ All of this exists in the zone of prompts and impulses [zona podskazki]. All that happens in the Institute, this was the result of a concatenation of circumstances. It’s all about coincidences, the whole project, that’s how it came about.

MM: It also helps to have a generous sponsor?

DS: Yes, it’s a blessing when this sort of person appears.

I have five children – you know, this feeling of chance, of boundary conditions. ‘Positioning’ is always phony, this is really a sore topic for me.

MM: It’s interesting, because [DAU] is so often presented as the project of a singular inspirer [vdokhnovitel’], a Stalin or a Putin.

DS: It’s not like that, it all cobbles into place from all over.

Soviet Pearls before Swine

DS: Studying the issues of Sovetskaia arkhitektura, [I came across an issue in which] evacuation, the reconstruction of villages, the village of the future, was discussed. They had so many facilities, houses of culture, so that people would be exalted by all this. Still during the war, while our army was driving back the enemy! We will be building not huts nor barracks, we will invest money and ideas and energy into the construction of ideal houses, gardens, places where musicians can perform. This is a remarkable attempt to construct ideal worlds. Before DAU, I had another project concerned with mining towns, near Tula. How many houses of culture I toured around there, what programmes they had, what a glorious Soviet spillover! Like a second Tintoretto, a Soviet Tintoretto, it’s magical. If it’s true that the country treats people like raw materials, like pigs, then why cast these pearls before swine [zachem metat’ biser pered svin’iami]? Here, there was a sense that the human, in actual fact … that sounds proud! Well, this is just a thing that … [laughs]

MM: … that Gor’kii said. My grandfather used to repeat this quote constantly.

DS: Yes (laughs), Gor’kii said it! I was looking… and all that came in the 1990s with all the riots, unemployment, these years of depression when there was no work for anyone except perhaps in some shop. And then this architecture, it’s just, it’s just aaaaah! A barren village and this is what they did for people.

MM: Right – so I have a sense that there is a contrast between how you and Ilya see the project. Ilya has said in interviews that this stench of the Soviet past, this sovok still exists in people, and it has to be…

DS: eradicated [izzhit’].

MM: Yes, eradicated, by this project [DAU]. And this is a reason why DAU exists, as a kind of psychoanalysis in order to eradicate this Soviet person from the contemporary person. So, as far as I can see, if this is a correct interpretation of Ilya’s position, then you interpret it entirely differently.

DS: Yes, it’s remarkable – we have a creative union, a tandem, or a marriage. His opinion, as far as I can see it, is horror horror horror. Yes? And for me it’s a very contradictory thing. Horror! Shitshow! And an attempt to break free through superhuman strength, superhuman goals placed before yourself. But let’s say that I am forced now [to express a clear opinion], I could say, yes, I am a Soviet person, but I don’t want to eradicate this from myself! Yes, I work twelve-fourteen hours every day. Yes, just in the same kind of harsh regime in which my grandfather, who built bread factories in Moscow, worked. Who was also always afraid that he would be arrested because he was a Jew. But he had an idea – he believed that if I now design the electric installation for this factory, then the bread will be tastier, right? So let’s say I feel my grandfather inside myself, he knew the truth, he was in the war, even before the war he was in the Finnish war, he saw the ‘dedovshchina’, as they call it [the humiliation of low-rank soldiers by higher ranks – M. M.], but, notwithstanding all of this, there was an attempt to make the world a better place. This balance here, you can’t clear it from the accounts. So here I don’t agree with Ilya. At the end of the day, it’s just not interesting when everything bends towards horror horror horror horror horror.

MM: Right. And so I wonder – why was it necessary to have Maksim Martsinkevich [a Russian convicted neo-Nazi] in the film? This can be interpreted as an attempt to compare, to equate fascism to communism by the director – or was this also a coincidence?

DS: This was all accidental. Although perhaps Ilya would say that it was also programmed. There really were these neo-Nazis there – I looked at them with horror, at all that. They were the captives of a particular idea, and in the given context, they did really well, they demolished this project [the DAU set], although a year earlier there wasn’t such an idea at all. But it worked. The whole embourgeoisified intelligentsia, all the scholars and scientists, they started to be afraid, there is nothing like these milk-sucker scholars, the little babies. And [in consequence] they became different, but this wasn’t pre-programmed in advance. I was also waiting with impatience for the whole thing to be destroyed. They had this discotheque in the ruins. And I came home and lay in bed for three days with a 40-plus temperature and watched The Simpsons. One of my sons was born during the shoots. My wife helped me with jam and medicine, and I renewed myself. And in the end I fulfilled my dream to watch The Simpsons, all the episodes, from beginning to end. And you have to understand, the whole time of the quarantine, I have watched one movie. I don’t have time.

MM: And you work like this, twelve-fourteen hours a day, because you are building a new world, like your grandfather?

DS: Yes, I am building a new world, but it has nothing to do with cinema or with art. I am working on a new project now, “hyper-baroque” [giperbarokko]. It’s really interesting for me, to work for the sake of ideas. Finding ways to try to push myself further further further. I am repeating this history of the new Soviet person, which Ilya perhaps put a cross behind [laughs]. I am trying it out on myself!

MM: Right, but in the USSR there was a rather different conjuncture. There was no private property.

DS: Without a doubt. Let’s say it like this. Tarkovsky, if he had not lived in the Soviet Union, he would never have made all these films that he made. He was harassed. Horror horror horror, say we, from the point of view of Ilya. But I am interested in the contradictions. Absolutely, all these party bureaucracies were oppressing oppressing oppressing Tarkovsky. But they gave him money, and he filmed for years, filmed and re-filmed. Yes, everything was an ordeal and a torment. But if he had been in a bourgeois society, in western cinema, then I am sorry but in the western world there would not be any such thing as a Solaris or Stalker or Andrei Rublev. Yes, this is all remarkable – but you have to take into account the contradictoriness of all this, that was created in the Soviet Union. I have tried to be as open as possible, without reticence, because that is what life is. You have to be true.

Michał Murawski
School of Slavonic and East European Studies
University College London


1 Shibanov’s reference may here may be to the stone figures at Iziumskii shliakh, in the vicinity of Kharkiv. It has been confirmed by others working on the project that the crew visited the archaeological site during their work on the project and filmed there, although Shibanov does not refer to these visits explicitly. Many such figures – in fact erected by the Turkic Cumans and Kipchaks in the late Middle Ages – are found throughout East Ukraine (my thanks to Rachel Morley for these insights, derived from her interview with an interpreter on the DAU project). On 13 May 2022, following the retreat of Russian troops from Kharkiv, it was confirmed on the Truha Ukraina Telegram channel that the stone figures at Izium were severely defaced by the occupiers.


Denis Shibanov (b. 1975, Moscow), an artist, painter, sculptor, illustrator. He began his career as a scenic artist at the Moscow Art Theatre, and went on to study Fine Arts at the Moscow State Academic Art school, graduating in 1997, followed by the study of Set Design at the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow, graduating in 2003. Shibanov has been a member of the Artists Union of the Russian Federation since 2002. He has worked as Production Designer on a wide range of films, including 977 by Nikolai Khomeriki (Russia, 2006); Hard Hearted by Aleksei Mizgirev (Russia, 2007); Vse umrut, a ia otanus’ / Everybody Dies but Me by Valeriia Gai Germanika (Russia, 2008); Tambourine, Drum by Aleksei Mizgirev (Russia, 2009); the animated Bulgarian Lullaby in the World Lullabies project by Elizaveta Skvortsova (Russia, 2006); and Story of House Muzuridi in A Room and a Half by Andrei Khrzhanovskii (Russia, 2008), amongst others. In 2013-2014, Shibanov created the visual concept for the Stone Nest Theatre, London. He has illustrated numerous literary publications. Shibanov has been the artistic director of DAU since its conception. Collaborating closely with director Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, he designed and realised every detail of the Institute during the several years of shooting, from overall conception and monumental set design to minute interior detail and graphic design. Together they created the DAU rooms at Théâtre du Châtelet.

Michał Murawski is an anthropologist of architecture and Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Critical Area Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. His first book, The Palace Complex: A Stalinist Skyscraper, Capitalist Warsaw and a City Transfixed, was published by Indiana University Press in 2019. More information about Michał’s research and writing can be found on his website:

Suggested Citation

Murawski, Michał. 2022. “Pearls Before Swine. An Interview with Denis Shibanov, the Architect of DAU”. Soviet Playtime: Architectures of Power and Profligacy in DAU (ed. by Philipp Cavendish, Natascha Drubek, and Irina Schulzki). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 14. DOI:


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