“I can’t help but think that running defined Zhdanov’s own life,” said Mark Kelner, a Washington art curator who represents Zhdanov’s estate. “He was persecuted beyond belief. He had no access to canvas. He got paint wherever he could. He used Moscow trash as a means of expressing himself.
“If you were a union member, you got an apartment and commissions — but if you chose to work outside the Soviet system, as a capitalist, you were very much an outsider.”
Vassa Olson, Zhdanov’s stepdaughter, grew up in the Moscow apartment that her mother, an agricultural engineer, shared with the artist. The one-bedroom residence was everything the rigidly ordered Soviet art system was not: a dizzying maze of vertically stacked paintings, unquestionably a fire hazard, the walls covered floor to ceiling with Zhdanov’s sketches and handwritten notes, many of them profane.
“All I wanted was to be a normal child with normal walls,” said Ms. Olson, now a real estate agent in Alexandria. “He was angry at Russia. Angry at America. But when he was angry, he made his best art.”
Ms. Olson described her stepfather as an erratic, chain-smoking man “with demons” — but also caring. “I always complained that everything he painted was very dark, black and white,” Ms. Olson said. “He started adding colors to his work to please me. He was always at risk, perhaps imprisonment, because Russia did not take people who spoke out lightly.”
A synchronized swimmer on the 1980 Soviet Olympic team, Ms. Olson defected to the United States in 1982. Afterward, the KGB began to monitor Zhdanov, who became increasingly unhappy and repeatedly requested an exit visa on the grounds of artistic freedom of expression.
Mr. Sullivan met Zhdanov in 1987 while studying in Moscow as an exchange student. He recalls the artist as a rebellious provocateur, staging hunger strikes and an underground Chernobyl-themed exhibition. Years later, Zhdanov told Mr. Sullivan that he was harassed repeatedly by Russian security forces.
In October 1987, Zhdanov and his wife chained themselves to a tree outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, just as Secretary of State George P. Schultz was arriving for a diplomatic visit. The next day, Soviet authorities deported the couple.
They eventually settled in Washington, where Zhdanov remained until his 2006 death.
“If you didn’t want to paint in the Soviet style, if you simply had something else inside of you that you wanted to express — even that was a challenge to the authority of the state,” Mr. Krause said. “And you would be eliminated.”
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, everything changed. Russia and its former satellite states experienced an artistic flowering. Dissident artists who once sold their works to sympathetic foreign journalists and diplomats hunting for unique souvenirs — or just traded their art for blue jeans — suddenly had potential buyers in Western Europe, the United States and among Russia’s nouveau riche. Sotheby’s and Christie’s began holding major auctions. In terms of style and content, anything went. Mr. Sullivan describes the period as “pure anarchy.” Over the past decade, however, Mr. Sullivan has noticed a change.
“Now you see the Russian art market tending to steer very clear of politics,” he said. “Mixed media, erotica, kitsch — they’ve all been big. The big-money people in Russia are collecting the classic, pre-Russian Revolution stuff. Or the trendy Western stuff.”
Why the shift? Mr. Kelner said part of the answer lies with the Putin regime’s increasingly authoritarian stance.
“In essence, there’s some self-censorship going on [in the Russian art world], which is incredibly dangerous,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s part of a broader narrative.”View Entire Story
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Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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