Sculpture for Soviet ‘Domestic Enemy Number One’

For two weeks in November 1988, Soviet nuclear physicist and activist Andrei Sakharov visited the United States. It was a triumphant moment near the end of the life of a man who both pioneered nuclear technology and campaigned to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war.

Drawing by John Alcorn, 1973.

From 1948, Andrei Sakharov had participated in the Soviet atomic bomb project, going on to mastermind the development of thermonuclear weapons in the mid-1950s. As he and his team tested and perfected the hydrogen bomb, Sakharov began to question the morality of his work. Realising the potential devastating repercussions of the technology he had created, Sakharov spoke out against politicians who threatened to use these weapons to escalate the Cold War. His principled stand brought him into conflict with the Soviet authorities and attracted the hostile attention of the KGB. By the late 1960s, Sakharov’s activism resulted in him losing his security access, after which time he became more openly dissident, backing calls for nuclear disarmament as well as democratic government and the release of political prisoners. Denounced at home and fêted abroad, Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, while the KGB described him as “Domestic Enemy Number One”.

Finally, Sakharov was arrested in 1980 after attending public protests against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For the next six years he was exiled to Nizhny Novgorod, then known as Gorky. During this time, he was twice hospitalised and force fed after hunger strikes he undertook to secure medical treatment in the United States for his wife. In 1984, the US Congress sought to apply pressure on the Soviet government by voting to rename an area outside the Soviet Embassy as Andrei Sakharov Plaza. (Earlier this year, the move inspired activists to likewise install street signs outside the Russian Embassy renaming the area Boris Nemtsov Plaza, after the assassinated opposition leader.) Finally, as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of Soviet society, Sakharov was allowed to return to Moscow in 1986. Three years later, he died of natural causes.

Sculpture in Sakharov Square, Yerevan by Tigran Arzumanyan, 2001.

Andrei Sakharov is now commemorated on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. In 2001, the first bust of Sakharov was installed in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, in a square renamed in his honour. The location was an expression of gratitude for Sakharov’s efforts to raise awareness about pogroms against Armenian communities in Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1980s. Sakharov’s appearance in this neo-classical sculpture by Tigran Arzumanyan resembles a Greek philosopher or Roman senator.

Sculpture on Connecticut Avenue, Washington, DC by Peter Shapiro, 2002.

In contrast, a contemporaneous bronze bust of Sakharov in the US capital of Washington, DC shows Sakharov with closed eyes and head in hands. The sculpture is ambiguous in its portrayal, perhaps showing Sakharov the scientist, deep in thought on the edge of a breakthrough, or Sakharov the activist, ruminating on the threat of nuclear weapons or the many injustices about which he spoke out. With the hands entirely supporting his head, which appears disembodied, Sakharov becomes a ghostly figure, whose concerns remain just as valid in the present day. The statue was gifted to Russia House by Russian-American sculptor Peter Shapiro in April 2002, to celebrate Congress’s decision to posthumously honour Sakharov with citizenship of the United States. At the time on its dedication, Russia House was still the headquarters of a society for US-Russian cooperation, but Sakharov’s bust has remained in place since the building has been reimagined as a popular restaurant.

Sculpture in Academician Sakharov Square, St Petersburg by Levon Lazarev, 2003.

In 2003, the first monument to Sakharov was erected in his home country. Although born and living most of his life in Moscow, a square near St Petersburg State University, already renamed in his honour in 1996, was the site for this honour. The ten-and-a-half foot high sculpture is by Levon Lazarev, well-known for creating monuments around St Petersburg. However, the decision to erect the statue was criticised by the late Yelena Bonner, Sakharov’s widow and a high-profile human rights activist in her own right. Bonner’s belief that Putin’s Russia had failed her husband proved to be prescient. In recent years the Sakharov Center in Moscow, founded by Bonner in 1996 to preserve his legacy, has been targeted by vigilantes for hosting events in support of LGBT rights and Pussy Riot, and fined for failing to declare itself a “foreign agent” after it provided the venue for the lying-in-state of Boris Nemtsov.

Sculpture in Muzeon Park of Arts, Moscow by Grigory Pototsky, 2008.

Despite the Moscow city authorities claiming since 2002 that the Russian capital would soon receive its own sculpture of the Nobel laureate, so far Sakharov is only honoured in his home town by a motorway renamed after him in 1990, which has become the site of opposition marches. However, in 2008, a statue of Sakharov by Russian sculptor Grigory Pototsky was placed in the Muzeon Park of Arts – formerly known as the Park of the Fallen Heroes to hold the toppled figures of the Soviet regime, and now a popular recreation area that has been augmented with a wider array of artworks. Sakharov’s effigy is placed opposite that of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader who approved his exile. Yet the scientist does not look at him but rather sits back with his face towards the sky, with an expression both serene and defiant.

Recommended: Zimmerli Art Museum

New Jersey is the unlikely home of the world’s largest collection of Nonconformist Soviet art. Since 1991 the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, has hosted Norton T. Dodge’s incomparable collection of underground art, smuggled out of the USSR between the Khrushchev Thaw and Glasnost. The incredible story of the economics professor who became the saviour of unofficial Soviet art is the subject of John McPhee’s short but sweet book The Ransom of Russian Art.

The Dodge Collection includes over 20,000 works in all media by some 1,000 artists. Works are not confined to Russia, with examples of nonconformist art from across the Soviet republics – from Armenia and Azerbaijan to Ukraine and Uzbekistan. The Zimmerli Art Museum contains many of the underground movement’s now famous names, including Sots Art duo Komar and Melamid, the bad boy of underground abstract art Evgenii Rukhin, Khrushchev’s sculptor nemesis Ernst Neizvestny, Lianozovo Group artists Oskar Rabin and Lydia Masterkova, and Moscow Conceptualism installation artist Ilya Kabakov. The museum also holds a full-scale replica of an AptArt (apartment art) exhibition.

And if all that Soviet art wasn’t enough, there’s plenty more to see in the Zimmerli Art Museum, including a fine collection of pre-Soviet Russian art and Orthodox icons, and collections of 19th-century French art and American art from the 18th to the 21st century.

So if you find yourself in New York it’s well worth catching a bus an hour out of the metropolis to discover this hidden treasure.

Images: Top – Leonid Sokov, Lenin and Giacometti, 1990. Metal and bronze, 47.5 x 41.5 x 14.4 cm; Bottom – Erik Bulatov, Krasikov Street, 1977. Oil on canvas, 150 x 198.5 cm. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Both: Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union. Photo Jack Abraham.

Recommended: Moscow’s Graveyard for Soviet Monuments

The so-called New Tretyakov, the Krymsky Val branch of Moscow’s premier art museum, is a treat in itself for the Cold War enthusiast. Housing the gallery’s collection of 20th century art, it contains many iconic Russian paintings and sculptures, from revolutionary abstraction to Socialist Realism.

But for something altogether more quirky, visitors should venture outside. The fact you are there invited to connect to the ‘Muzeon-Stalin’ WiFi network is preparation for what’s to come.

The Muzeon Arts Park that surrounds the museum, also known as Fallen Monument Park, is largely a graveyard for obsolete Soviet sculpture. The park was established in 1992, soon after the dissolution of the USSR, and much like Memento Park in Budapest it became a home for toppled statuary which, quite frankly, no one knew quite what to do with. In the garden Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev rub shoulders with triumphant workers and peasants and victims of the Gulag.

The over 700 artworks have since been officially recognised as ‘objects of cultural heritage’ and despite the subject matter have proved a popular draw for tourists and Muscovites alike. Nowadays the park boasts a craft market and food stalls, and on special days there are treasure hunts for children and even a Christmas fair.

Combine your visit with a trip to VDNKh (the All-Russian Exhibition Centre), a Stalinist recreation park in north Moscow, for a curious but fascinating insight into life in the USSR.

Top – Vandalised statue of Joseph Stalin in front of memorial to the victims of the Gulag, Muzeon Arts Park. Courtesy Garrett Ziegler on Flickr; Bottom – Julia Tatiana Bailey photo opp next to Soviet-era monument, Muzeon Arts Park. Author’s photo.

Igor Palmin: Photographing the Unofficial Soviet Art World

Flickr recently became a gateway into the art world of Soviet Russia thanks to photographer Igor Palmin, who uploaded his vast back catalogue onto the site.

During the 1950s Palmin worked as a film cameraman and his training in cinematography is conspicuous in these absorbing photographs. Mostly taken in black-and-white, the strong sense of narrative and romance is heightened further with nostalgia for a lost world.

Palmin decided to become a photographer full-time after befriending some of the leading unofficial artists of his generation, including Ernst Neizvestny, Vladimir Nemukhin and Oskar Rabin. He went on to document the development of the Nonconformist art scene in Moscow during the 1960s and ’70s, as painters and sculptors confronted the authorities and attempted to escape the dogma of Socialist Realism. Palmin’s photographs reveal intimate portraits of these artists and provide value records of lost works and forgotten exhibitions.

Images: Top – Painter Vladimir Nemukhin in his studio, 1980; Bottom – Sculptor Ernst Neizvestny in his studio, 1974. Photographs by Igor Palmin

Exhibition of the Month: Viktor Popkov: Genius of the Russian Soul

At London’s Somerset House Viktor Popkov: Genius of the Russian Soul is currently highlighting the work of one of the USSR’s most acclaimed artists. As one may expect of an exhibition that forms part of the UK-Russia Year of Culture, the curators are keen to present these classics of Socialist Realism as much more than propaganda.

Viktor Popkov was born in 1932 and the start of his artistic career coincided with the heady days of Khrushchev’s Thaw, when Soviet artists began to tentatively test the limits of Socialist Realism. Popkov was one of the pioneers of the ‘Severe Style’, which attempted to adhere to the requirements of official art while experimenting with greater freedom of expression and more personal themes.

Many of the forty paintings at Somerset House have never before been on public display in the UK, and the exhibition emphasises their humanity and romantic tones in an attempt to “provide a refreshing perspective of Russian art to a western audience more familiar with the propagandist works of the Soviet era”.

The exhibition continues daily until 18 June 2014, with late night opening every Thursday.

Images (top to bottom): Viktor Popkov, Summer, July, 1969; Viktor Popkov, Spring at the Depot, 1958. Courtesy Filatov Family Art Fund.

The Reclining Lenins of Ukraine

In times of revolution, political statuary often pays the price. Since Ukraine’s latest troubles began, sculptures symbolising the country’s turbulent relationship with Russia have felt the full force of the nation’s anger.

A “statue war” between pro- and anti-Russian citizens foreshadowed the current crisis, with at least 12 statues of Lenin defaced in Ukraine since 2009. One of the casualties was a historic statue in the centre of Kiev, which lost its nose and part of the left hand. Installed in 1946, the statue had long symbolised Russia’s attempts to control of its neighbour. On 8 December 2013 the iconoclasm escalated when the same statue was toppled by protesters. The felled sculpture was attacked with hammers and an EU flag was placed in the remaining pedestal, a nod to the removal of a hated statue of Stalin in Budapest in 1956 (read more about that incident in the ESPIONART post Uprising Against Hungary’s Sculpture).

lenin statue beforeOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Since the attack in Kiev, violence against Ukraine’s Cold War era sculptures has become epidemic, and in a matter of months over 100 figures of Lenin have been destroyed. The statues have now become a battle ground between Ukrainians on either side of the dispute, with pro-Russians camped out below the statues to prevent their destruction.

Images: Statue of Lenin near Bessarabsky Market in Kiev – before and after its destruction on 8 December 2013