Artist Interviews 2023

Svetlana Talabolina  
By Johnny Otto

Svetlana Talabolina

I take it for granted that I live here, I work here, I pay my taxes, I’m a good person, therefore I am a citizen of the United States. But for approximately 200,000 men, women and children, this is not the case. What does it mean then, to be a citizen of a country, how long have you been Stateless and what exactly does it mean to be Stateless?

What does it mean to be a citizen of a country? Well, your question still remains a big question to at least 12 million people all over the world who are stateless. As you mentioned, I myself also live, work and do my taxes in the United States, yet it doesn’t make me a citizen.

Officially I became a stateless individual in 2011, only the reality is that it happened way before. I was born during the Soviet Union era in Estonia to a Russian family. In 1991 (when I was 11 years old) Estonia became an independent country. At age 16, I was given an Alien’s Passport, which allows a person legally to live and work in Estonia for 5 years. This document is issued to those of undefined citizenship residing in Estonia. As of today Estonia with the population of 1.3 million has over 80,000 stateless people, mostly those who were born on Estonian land.

Statelessness has a lot of shapes. Some people were luckier than others, and were able to obtain a working authorization, which helps to maintain life a bit easier. And there are those who have no identity, as if they don’t exist at all. To better answer your question, I am going to share with you the text from one of my recent projects - I wrote it as part of a mural, which I was creating on two pieces of the Berlin Wall.


No citizenship. No vote. No healthcare. No travel.
No home. No education. No employment.
No rights. No security. No state.

I FEEL YOU, the people from all over the world who have lost their basic human rights
due to the neglect of our governments. I am one of you.

Today, there are over 12 million people worldwide called STATELESS
and nearly a half of them are children.
STATELESS individuals are not considered citizens of any country.
These people DO NOT live in but are BEING HELD
in countries where they do not have fundamental human rights.
For many decades, the legislation has not been adapted for those
who fled their country because of war or political upheaval,
and for those who were born into immigrant families
or born in countries that no longer exist.
There are countless human beings who never made it to their destination,
those who were found dead and those who disappeared
without a trace on the road to FREEDOM.
There are STATELESS people who have never crossed an international border
and those who have been restricted from returning to their homeland for decades.
There are so many grandchildren who have never been held in the arms of their grandparents.
Daughters and sons who did not get a chance to kiss their parents a last goodbye.
People are dying. Families are being destroyed.
Large parts of OUR LIVES are completely missed.
We feel trapped. We feel injustice. We feel unfree.

Svetlana Talabolina
Advocate for the

Svetlana Talabolina
Svetlana painting a section of the Berlin Wall

You spent time in I.C.E custody. What was that experience like?

First of all I must say that I have committed a crime - I overstayed my visa. Also, I must say that when I did that (in 2003), I was 23 years old, hungry for life and experiences, bold and wild. Yet, not knowing who I was and where I was going, I found myself in a big land of excitement and opportunities, searching for the famous American Dream.

Shortly after, my Alien Passport from Estonia expired, and when I tried to renew it here in the US at the Estonian embassy, my application was denied due to the fact that I am Russian, and was never a citizen of Estonia (the land where I was born). Also, I was told that in order for me to return to Estonia I will have to obtain a visa. So, at that point I realized that I am a person without a country.

In 2010 I was traveling by car from Los Angeles to Dallas, the GPS took me through the CheckPoint, where I was stopped and moved to El Paso Immigration Prison, for the crime that I have mentioned above. During that time the US Immigration Authority contacted Estonia and Russia, both countries denied my rights to return. I spent four months in Immigration Prison, and was released under the bond in Feb 2011. This is when I officially became a stateless individual. The experience during those four months was different from anything I have ever lived through, and it was also very transformative. The diversity of people and new-build relations between strangers - locked in a big space with four walls, bunk beds, tables, wall-less bathrooms and showers - shocked me greatly at the very beginning. Yet, human nature is extremely adaptive, we can always find the ways to cope with our new reality. So did I.

During this time, I was fortunate to meet some incredible people. I had an opportunity to observe and contemplate how a single identical predicament (forcibly, but nonetheless) united people with drastically different backgrounds, beliefs, and interests. I then knew that life tends to teach us lessons by placing us in absolutely unexpected situations. While mirroring each other, we shall go through this, and we shall grow through this, inevitably.

Svetlana Talabolina
Elements of Anticipation, Regina Hall Collection, 60" x 120", 2022

What was your first reaction or thought or feeling when you found out that you were Stateless?

It wasn’t a single moment. It was the gradually growing number of lawyers who would not take my case, simply because there was no law that could adjust the status of someone in my situation.

Most of the 20 years that I lived in the U.S., I believed that I was the only one who got so “lucky”. Only recently I found out about a national organization called UNITED STATELESS.
This organization was founded in 2017 by a stateless individual and an amazing person, Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough.

Led by stateless people and those who believe in standing for human rights, UNITED STATELESS have been raising the awareness for statelessness in the U.S., trying to achieve acknowledgment from the U.S. government for this national issue, and create a path to U.S. Citizenship for all stateless people.

Svetlana Talabolina
Untitled I, 2022

What should be done immediately to help Stateless People that will not jeopardize U.S. Security and will relieve a lot of the agony that Stateless People feel?

As simple as giving a faster and less complex path to citizenship! If a person lived in the U.S. for decades, made a home out of this place, established lifelong friends, became a big part of this community and (in some cases) gave birth, raised their children here and hasn't jeopardized the U.S. Security in the past, I don’t see how giving these people a citizenship can make them want to act differently. If anything we are going to be grateful.

Stateless people want to be free. We want to be able to legally work, drive, and study. We want to have a normal life without being scared to get detained for not having documents. We want to be able to get passports to travel and see our family overseas. These people are not a threat to U.S. security.

Svetlana Talabolina
Reflecting (Her), 2023

How does being Stateless affect your art and the messages you hope to bring to the world?

Undoubtedly, everything that I am living through, affects my art one way or the other. I am a strong believer in a law of attraction. I try to thoughtfully select my present moment, and the feeling around it. Therefore, I choose not to paint about statelessness - wrapping myself in this rather negative emotion, throughout months of painting a single artwork, doesn’t sound appealing to me.

When I wake up in the morning, I know that it is only up to me if I feel free or chained. It is up to me to choose a better-feeling thought. Focusing on that which gives me joy, and then making the most out of each day happens to be the most incredible way of living.

Through my art, I desire to bring to this world beauty, happiness and all possible positive emotions. So, for now, my work will remain untouched by the subject of statelessness. Nevertheless, I have created an entire exhibit in regards to this issue. It is stored in my memory, until (or if) there will come the time for it to be implemented in reality.

Reflecting (Him), 2023

When you were given the offer to appear on the cover, you chose to be naked, covered in paint. Why? What message are you trying to convey?

Covering myself in paint seemed the only way to remain naked and to make sure that the readers won’t confuse Art Squat Magazine with PlayBoy ;)

We all are born naked, free and equal in dignity and rights.

When I was given the topic of a conversation for this interview, I realized that speaking openly about my experience made me feel as if I would be completely undressed in front of the public. Stateless people go through a lot of feelings attached to the situation, and one of them is shame. It is hard to explain why, but it is so for most of us. It takes time to realize that it’s not our fault. It takes time to revalue yourself and begin to believe again that you are worthy of all the basic human rights.

My nakedness represents my act of stepping out of that feeling and embracing myself wholly as I am, with my flaws and mistakes. I am not perfect, yet I am worthy, I do enough, I am enough.

Untitled IV, 2022

More ARTWORK by Svetlana Talabolina


WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-Md.-8), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, have introduced the “Stateless Protection Act,” bicameral legislation establishing a new protected status, permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship for stateless individuals residing in the United States. These vulnerable individuals do not have nationality or citizenship in any country of the world, a situation which often results in significant financial hardship, separation from relatives, and lengthy or sometimes even indefinite immigration detention.


What is Statelessness?

​The international legal definition of a stateless person is set out in Article 1 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which defines a stateless person as "a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law". It means that a stateless person does not have nationality or citizenship in any country of the world.

Here, nationality refers to the legal bond between a person and a state. This bond can best be seen as a form of official membership which confers upon the national certain rights (like the right to live in the country or participate in elections) as well as duties (like the duty of military service, where this is still in place).

A person who is stateless lacks this membership and will be seen and treated as a foreigner by every country in the world.


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