A Soviet Art Face-Off

60 years ago this month Nikita Khrushchev took over as leader of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 had unleashed a fierce power struggle amongst his deputies in the Politburo. The coup d’état that brought Khrushchev to power was at the expense of his main rival, Lavrentiy Beria, who was executed for treason in December.

Khrushchev’s fighting spirit would lead him into many more clashes during his 11 years in office, including on the subject of art. After Stalin’s death a generation of younger artists tentatively experimented with pushing beyond the parameters of Socialist Realism. This resulted in an art exhibition at the Moscow Manege in 1962, to mark the 30th anniversary of MoSSKh, the Moscow Section of the Union of Soviet Artists. manegeDuring his visit, Khrushchev became ever more angry with the modernist art he saw, until he paused to direct his diatribe at sculptor Ernst Neizvestny. Not one to take things lying down, Neizvestny retaliated, whipping off his shirt to show Khrushchev his war scars. This was followed by an hour-long debate about art, which ended in a grudging respect on both sides. So much so that, a decade later, Neizvestny was commissioned to carve Khrushchev’s tombstone.

An amusing dramatisation of Khrushchev’s visit to the Manege appeared in an episode of the Russian TV crime series MosGaz:

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