In the Soviet Union, visual artists like Leonhard Lapin and Alexander Zhdanov had a choice. They could labor for the state, producing communist propaganda and pabulum while making no waves, in exchange for a studio, supplies and a livable wage. As an alternative, they could strike out as dissidents, be barred from galleries, scrounge for materials and eke out income by surreptitiously selling paintings to foreign diplomats, all while risking the ire of an ever-watchful government.
In the new Russia — the free, modern, democratic one where ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin just celebrated his third presidential inauguration amid squashed protests — artists increasingly face a similar choice: Steer clear of political statements or pay a price.
The parallels between Soviet-era repression and Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule are at the heart of “Lest We Forget: Masters of Soviet Dissent,” a new exhibition of paintings and drawings by Mr. Lapin and the late Mr. Zhdanov at Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art gallery in Washington.
“We somehow have the idea that since communism and the Soviet Union fell apart, that, ‘Oh, well, things are corrupt, but there’s nothing all that bad going on over there,’ ” said exhibition co-curator Charles Krause, a former international news correspondent. “In fact, there’s a very tight control of media and the arts in Russia, the sectors of society that might be critical or objective about the lack of basic human rights and rule of law. The appearance of an open society is there, but the reality is something different.”
As dissident artists in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Lapin and Zhdanov eschewed state-approved style and content, instead producing idiosyncratic, oft-political work that dealt with issues such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and Soviet domination of the Balkans. Both endured government censorship and oppression, which many observers of Russian society and culture believe are once again on the rise.
“Overtly political art is very taboo in Russia,” said Stefan Sullivan, an author who was friends with Zhdanov and has spent considerable time traveling within and writing about Russia. “Under Putin, they’ve been pretty good about economic freedom. But when it comes to any kind of criticism of the government or their key players, you feel the wrath of the law pretty quickly.
“In the 1990s, everything was fair game. Now we’re looking at a reversion to a Cold War mindset.”
Against the machine
In Mr. Lapin’s silk-screen images, the gap between the Soviet Union’s utopian rhetoric and totalitarian reality — between a blissful worker’s paradise and a soul-crushing Cold War purgatory — is instantly apparent, largely because the artist has a knack for turning communist iconography on its ear.
In “Stalinism and Satanism,” Mr. Lapin superimposes a communist red star atop an upside-down Satanic black star, an ironic jab at the political status quo that looks sleek enough to appear on the uniform of the Young Pioneers, the Soviet version of the Boy Scouts. “Molotov + Ribbentrop A” combines portions of a Nazi swastika with parts of the familiar Soviet hammer and sickle, invoking the 1939 nonaggression pact between the USSR and Germany that preceded the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states.
A former architect now considered one of Estonia’s most important modern artists, Mr. Lapin uses clean, precise lines in his 1970s “Machine” series of drawings, some of which portray nude female forms bisected by geometric shapes — think the illustrations from a “Joy of Sex” book assimilated by “Star Trek’s” Borg.
“Lapin said that this worker’s paradise, it was one big machine, where there’s no freedom and we as individuals don’t count,” Mr. Krause said. “We’re just cogs in the machine, creating missiles and dams and Sputnik, the same machine the communists were so proud of. But at what cost? What people wanted or hoped to achieve with their lives didn’t matter.”
Under Soviet rule, artists were required to join a union and produce works in a state-approved style dubbed Socialist Realism, a dull pastiche of party propaganda and paeans to the workaday struggles of simple, muscular peasants. The typical Socialist Realism film, quipped one author, could be described as “boy meets girl meets tractor.”
Zhdanov was expelled from art school four times and denied entry into the Union of Soviet Artists. Living and working in Moscow, he penned rambling political manifestos and developed his own dark style, participating in a 1974 “Bulldozer” exhibition of nonconformist art — so named after a group of underground artists who defiantly hung their work along an outdoor wooden fence, which Soviet authorities promptly destroyed with bulldozers and water cannons.
In much of Zhdanov’s work, a squat, shadowy figure inhabits foreboding, semi-abstract landscapes that manage to be both sparse and claustrophobic — even the trees look oppressive. The typical figure is either running toward or away from something.
“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.”
Five years ago, the Russian government prevented about 20 of 240 works destined for a major art exhibition at a Paris museum from leaving the country. The culture minister at the time, Alexander Sokolov, declared them a “disgrace” to his nation. More recently, two Moscow museum curators were found guilty by a Russian court of “inciting national and religious hatred” and fined about $11,000 for displaying some of the same works at the Sakharov Museum, named after Soviet dissident and 1975 Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov. The works in question included a painting of Jesus with a Mickey Mouse head, a photo of two uniformed policemen kissing and an image of a Russian general raping a soldier with the caption “Glory to Russia.”
In 2010, two members of a Russian anarchist art collective were jailed and reportedly beaten after a public performance in which they overturned police cars in protest of abusive authority. Three female punk rockers who mocked Mr. Putin during a surprise protest inside Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral remain jailed after their March arrest and face up to seven years of imprisonment on charges of hooliganism — leading Amnesty International to dub them “prisoners of conscience.”
Alexey Semyonov, president of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes democracy and human rights in the former Soviet Union, said the crackdown on artistic expression is part of a larger pattern of the Russian government placing restrictions on political speech.
Mr. Krause concurred. He cited the 2006 killing of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the 2003 arrest and ongoing imprisonment of former Russian oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, both of whom have been outspoken critics of Mr. Putin.
The past, he said, echoes the present.
“It’s not like Stalin’s times, where they sent everybody to Siberia,” Mr. Krause said. “They don’t have to kill or arrest everybody. They just pinpoint key figures, making the message clear to everyone else — toe the line, or you’re going to be done away with, one way or the other.”