Blue Train on a Red Track

February 5, 2014

This is part one of a two part article on Soviet art that was originally published in 1991 and 1992.

I was looking forward to my second trip to the USSR in less than two years. So in mid-May of 1991, I took a flight from Valencia, Spain to Frankfurt and onward to Moscow. I had just completed several lectures on Canadian art and architecture at the University of Valencia and was looking forward to repeating them in the USSR; as well, I planned to visit artists and critics, see exhibitions, and look into art education in Soviet art schools. I had no idea what had been planned for me prior to my arrival in Moscow. I had been sending letters and telegrams to the Artists’ Union, my hosts, for months trying to work out details, but communication to and from the Soviet Union is difficult at best and usually impossible. All I knew was that I had a visa and that they were expecting me.

As anyone who has been there knows, arriving at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport is always a treat that is only surpassed when leaving the country from the same airport. Passport control features a Frontier Guard–part of the Army–who looks alternately at you and your passport photo for approximately five minutes–I am sure that he has a timer in his booth that tells him when time’s up–hoping to break the clever disguises of the multitude of spies who fly in every day on commercial flights from the West. I am clever enough to pass this tough inspection by giving the guard my Canadian Flag lapel pin which gains me immediate entry into the, now ex, Evil Empire. I hope that the CIA knew this ploy. The next barrier are the entry Duty Free shops where you could top up your goodies such as cigarettes which are a handy substitute for the local currency. This is particularly useful if you ever expect to take a cab in Moscow. Russian cab drivers draw a blank when presented with Lenin-festooned rubles by foreigners; however, they immediately recognize a pack of Winstons and they seem to have a fond place in their hearts for George Washington and Abe Lincoln whose visages they collect with fervour. Next stop is the luggage carousel. It appears that each piece of luggage is lovingly carried from the aircraft to the carousel by a single Russian luggage handler and in a mere hour or so you have your bag. You can get a cart for your luggage, but here is the rub, there’s a guy there wanting one ruble for its use; seeing as it is illegal to bring rubles into the country, there is a problem–shades of Toronto’s new Terminal Three, with its carts for Loonies, but, what the hell, I am happy to see the Russians practising Capitalism and all is not lost: the obliging cart guard will let you have the cart for an American dollar which is only thirty times what one ruble is worth. Last stop is customs. I am lucky enough to be in line behind two returning natives who had several large boxes filled with bolts of cloth and assorted computer hardware. The customs official gleefully unpacks each heavily tied and taped box throwing cloth and other goodies from the West in all directions. When it becomes apparent that this could take a long time, I attempt a successful end run around the custom’s desk. Those involved seem to be having so much fun that they don’t notice my illegal entry.


At last, I am in the country! The person sent to meet me at the airport, my translator and guide, Anna Kononow, has no trouble spotting me. We art critics stand out in a crowd at Russian airports–I was the only male westerner on the Frankfurt flight who was not dressed in the official German business uniform of blue blazer, grey slacks, white shirt and tie. Anna and I lug my bags to a waiting cab–it is pouring rain and cold, weather which will continue throughout most of my visit–and we are off to the hotel, the Budapest, a very depressing place. Like many Soviet hotels more than half the light bulbs were out, the hallways were dark, the rooms were dirty and most of the ‘features’ in them don’t work. There is usually a radio with from one to three stations that will either not turn on, or if it is on, you can’t turn it off. Russian television sets have the distressing habit of self-immolation–bursting into flames–whether they are on or off. In February of 1991, a turned off T.V. exploded in a Leningrad hotel and the resulting fire did in a number of tourists. So I always unplug the set in my room when I am not actually using it, but as some large Soviet hotels have hundreds of rooms all with these time bombs installed, I am not sure that my safety precautions really count for much. Each of the two built-in beds in my room at the Budapest tilted downward at an approximately thirty degree angle from level, which meant that I had to figure a way to hold on while I slept if I didn’t want to roll out every time I fell asleep. Fortunately, for me, my room had an extra feature, a very large refrigerator that came on with a loud bang every thirty minutes throughout the night. This saved me from falling out of the bed, but I didn’t get much sleep. The next morning I found a way to unplug the fridge; however, I was only at the Budapest one night.

On our way in from the airport, Anna had told me the plans for my visit. I had thought that I might repeat my last visit and go to the same places: Moscow, Leningrad and Tbilisi as this was the plan that I had discussed with my Soviet friends when they were in Canada in the summer of 1990. However, by the time I arrived in the USSR for the second time, I had misgivings about going to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Things were already heating up there by the spring of 1991 and I didn’t want to find myself in the middle of a civil war hundreds of miles from Moscow. My hosts seemed to have had the same thought. They now had plans for me to go directly to Leningrad, spend some time there, and then go to Novgorod–which, in Russian means ‘new city’ which is strange, as it turned out to be one of the oldest cities in Russia dating back to the ninth century–and then to Kiev, Ukraine and from there back to Moscow. It seemed like a good way to spend three weeks.

The first day was to be in Moscow and that evening Anna and I were to take the train to Leningrad, The Blue Train. The first thing we had to do, was to change my visa. I had a business visa because I was travelling on my own and not in the usual tourist group. Getting the visa in Canada, in the first place, was difficult enough. One must have an official invitation and one must list each city one plans to visit. It took months to complete the details and I had listed only Moscow, Leningrad and Tbilisi. One must have one’s visa stamped at every place one visits in the USSR; even Soviets must carry internal passports. I should make it clear that bureaucracy such as this, as well as the airport entry and exit antics, were designed as much to limit the Soviet citizens free travel as they were to frustrate tourists. It is still a police state or at least it was in May and June of 1991. So we were off to some government office where Anna did her thing, the first of many, to make my trip a success. Anna knew how to do things and we soon had Kiev and Novgorod added to my visa. If one doesn’t speak Russian one’s chance of getting anything officially done in the USSR is nil; even if one speaks perfect Russian one must know how to do things and have some pull.

One evening in Leningrad, Anna and I had dinner at the Architects’ Union restaurant. A Press Card was needed to get in. We had vodka, some very good Soviet champagne, caviar, two kinds of smoked fish, salad, pork cutlets, dessert and coffee. The total cost in rubles, at the official tourist rate, was well under four Canadian dollars. This, by the way, was one of the more expensive meals I had during my visit. Later, in the same city, we stopped in at a ‘hard’ currency bar, I had a couple of beers, Anna had tea, and we both had a very light snack and it cost me over forty Canadian dollars. This is the difference between being a regular tourist and having some way to deal yourself into the local economy.

Anna was unusual in other ways. She refused to let me spend my dollars to get things ‘done’. She wanted nothing to do with what she, and others, called crime people. This does make things difficult because there is a flourishing black market in the USSR and if you don’t, or can’t, use it, it is not very easy to do anything, in particular, to get a cab if you are a European or North American. All the cabs in front of tourist hotel will only take dollars or cigarettes; it’s all very illegal, but the country is coming apart and everyone, including the police, are on the make for dollars. Graft and corruption is rampant. I had a feeling that I was in the company of a very rapidly decreasing minority–a completely honest person. So, we walked a lot, and took the bus, the trams and the metro. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it gave me a chance to see how real Soviets get around. Public transport is cheap in large Soviet cities, but not as cheap as it was a couple years ago. The fare for all public transport in Moscow, for instance, is 15 kopecks ( 100 kopecks equal one ruble, during the time I was there, approximately twenty-five rubles–at the official tourist rate–equaled one Canadian dollar. The rate is even higher now.); however, for fifty, yes fifty, years before Perestroika, the metro fare was a constant 5 kopecks. To put it in context the average Soviet wage when I was there was between 200 to 350 rubles a month. All prices were fixed in the USSR before Perestroika. Now some prices are fixed and others aren’t, but it doesn’t matter much as you can not buy very much of anything in rubles unless it is with a whole lot of them. A pair of decent shoes can cost 600 rubles, or two months’ wages, on the black market if you can find them at all. It doesn’t do you much good if cigarettes officially cost 80 kopecks if they are nowhere to be found. If anything, the Soviet Union reminded me of South Korea in the mid 50’s, right after the war. I was stationed there as a photographer in the American Army. The local currency, the Won, was worthless and the whole economy moved on US dollars and cigarettes. This made us G.I.’s rich, but the Koreans were wretchedly poor. They, like today’s Soviets, lived in a country where their own currency played second fiddle to the almighty dollar. If you can find a way to live on rubles as a visitor, as I did, in the Soviet Union, a hundred dollars worth, at the official tourist rate, goes a long way. You might not get the standards that you are used to in Western Europe or North America; however, it does give you a clearer picture of how things really are in the Soviet Union than the usual package tours that most tourists endure.

Паровоз_ИС_на_маркеSoviet express trains are one area where no apologies are necessary. The long train rides I took were from Moscow to Leningrad, Leningrad to Kiev, and Kiev to Moscow. They are much better than the poor excuse we have for long distance trains in this country. They are on time, clean, offer good services, have good equipment and are cheap. This might all go down the tubes very quickly with the collapse of the central control by the USSR. I just hope that they don’t get a helping hand from VIA to find a new system for their trains.

The train is the best way to travel from Moscow to Leningrad. It is overnight and is painless. Soviet train stations are another matter. They are dirty, crowded and confusing even if you know what you are doing as my guide did. Don’t even try to buy a ticket on your own. It is hard enough to discover on what track,or at what time, your train leaves. After an uneventful ride, we arrived in time for rush hour in Leningrad. Anna looked in vain for a taxi that would take rubles and finding none, we took the very crowded metro and a trolley bus to our hotel. It appeared to me that nearly every time I got on a bus in the in the Soviet Union the good citizens were trying to break the Guinness Book of Records for the number of people who could fit into a bus. This was particularly fun if you were carrying a month’s worth of baggage as I was.

The hotel, the Helen, where we stayed in Leningrad was the best of my entire trip. This was because it was not a Russian hotel at all, but part of a Finnish chain. Only the Finns would call a hotel Helen. Everything in this hotel worked and it was clean. The bar, however, was filled, as were all hotel ‘hard currency’ bars–there are no ‘soft currency’ bars–, with the before-mentioned `crime people’ and various Western business wheelers and dealers. It was a toss up which group was the most obnoxious, but these bars were the only place to get a cold beer or a stiff drink. I usually needed the cold beer to cool off after a hard day and the stiff drink after a day of minor and major frustrations.
In Leningrad, in addition to meeting artists and seeing art schools, I wanted another chance to see the Hermitage. On my last visit I had very little time to visit this vast museum. I did manage this time to have several hours of intense looking; however, you can spend several lifetimes at this great museum and not absorb everything. The Rembrandts, Titians and their great collection of Impressionism and Post Impressionism alone are worth any inconvenience that a trip to the USSR entails. Unfortunately, most foreign tourists are hustled through the Hermitage in thirty minutes flat. I am worried that with the enormous problems facing Russia, and the rest of what was the USSR, that this great museum will fall on hard times and will not be able to care for its magnificent collection properly. The care of museum collections is not the only problem facing Soviet art. I am disturbed with what has been happening to public sculpture since the failed coup and the total collapse of Communist authority. The iconoclastic fury of the mobs intent on destroying the images of their deservedly hated past is understandable, but they risk destroying legitimate relics of their history in the process. To paraphrase Santayana, people need to be reminded of the lessons of their history if they are going to avoid repeating its mistakes. Stalin wasn’t able to tear down anywhere near all of his country’s churches. Now these buildings are coming alive once again with renewed voices and songs of the Orthodox Church. In Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev there were major exhibitions in state museums on the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920’s and 30’s. The works in these exhibitions had been kept unnoticed in the vaults of the galleries. The people who saved these works are the real ‘heros’ of Soviet Art. Because these works were not ‘deaccessioned’ or worse, today’s Soviets have the opportunity to see these works from their very exciting past. I hope that future generations of Soviets will have the same opportunities to see the art of their Communist past. It will help them to understand what went wrong with the dreams of the Revolution. Much of the past official Socialist Realism, like Nazi Fascist Art, was, despite some technical competence, truly awful, but that is the point and people, all people, not just Soviets, need to be reminded of this fact. It is already too late for much of the public sculpture, but I hope that it is not for the Socialist Realist works that are in public collections.

In Leningrad I saw the annual exhibition of the local Artists’ Union. It was installed in the Blue Gallery of their headquarters that is in a wonderful old Victorian building near the Hermitage. The exhibition, however, was pretty bad by Western art standards, but what do you say in such a situation? I wanted to be constructive because Soviet art needs encouragement rather than smart-assed comparisons to what it is not, but in a show like this one it was difficult to be positive without stretching reality. The quality of much of the work reminded me of the kind of thing that you might see in exhibitions of local amateur art associations in Canada. Most of these Leningrad artists appeared to have either been cut off from recent art history outside of their country or to have been so thoroughly indoctrinated by Marxist-Leninist art dogma that they can’t find their way out. This is not to say that they are not trying and that many of them know that something is dreadfully wrong with their art. Of course, the art in this particular exhibition was not necessarily on the cutting edge of Leningrad art; there is ‘good’ art in Leningrad, but it wasn’t much in evidence at this show.

Most of the work was for sale, but it wasn’t moving. In the new free market Soviet Union, people are not buying art. It is not because they are not interested–there were many people looking at the show–but the average educated `middle’ class Soviet has little disposable income for art or other luxuries. The ‘crime people’ and their ilk aren’t into collecting art either. They prefer to put their hard earned cash into symbols of western culture like high cut basketball shoes, and big league team sports jackets with matching baseball caps; however, these born-again capitalists of the black market and prostitution certainly cut fine figures at all the best eating and watering holes in the major Soviet cities. These are hard times for the vast majority of all Soviet artists and it is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

In the remaining time I had in Leningrad, I visited the Repin Art Institute, which is the Leningrad Academy of Fine Arts, and the studios of a few senior artists. Art education in the Soviet Union is too complex an issue to cover in this article. Suffice it to say that all education in the Soviet Union is undergoing a painful transition and art education is no exception. Most artists I spoke to thought that the likelihood of real changes in the art education system are about as possible as the veritable leopard changing its spots as long as the existing faculty and administrations stay in place, which presently is the case.

Leningrad senior sculptor, Anatoly Kisselev, was typical of many of the older artists I met who were truly confused by the events that had overtaken them. He had been working for well over thirty years as a successful artist when everything he took for granted changed. He was a fine craftsman who had worked his way up through the system. His chief, and for all intents, only, customer was the state. The State took care of his needs and he supplied its needs. His work is placed in villages and cities throughout the Soviet Union. Anatoly was no party hack; his work, for what it is, is very good. Like many Soviet artists, he had become slightly schizoid with his work, doing, as he said: “One for myself and one for something to eat.” I saw photos, and a large maquette, of a very interesting, and unusual for the time, 18 metre high abstract sculpture commission that he completed in 1972 for a war memorial at a site near the Black Sea. Now, however, there is no work for monumental sculptors, like Anatoly, whatever their talent. Perhaps, if Russia, and the rest of what was the USSR, ever gets back on its feet, public sculptors will be put back to work replacing with Capitalist sculpture all of the Communist sculpture that has been torn down by the people, but I doubt it. Capitalism and sculpture have never been such good friends as Communism and sculpture. Until the unlikely event of a rebirth of public art, sculptors, like Anatoly, will have to sit it out or find some other line of work.

The evening train from Leningrad to Novgorod was not in the same class as the other trains I took. It was a local; the trip took three hours, and the rolling stock had seen better days, but it got you from point a to b. We were met at the station, in the rain, by Alexey Komarov, the young curator of art at the Novgorod Museum. He took us to our hotel and met us the next morning, with his wife Yulia, who was also a curator at the museum. We spent three days in this Halifax-sized ancient Russian city which is filled with many churches and a historic kremlin. Kremlin, by the way, is the Russian word for walled city or fortress and there are many in Russia besides the one in Moscow. The Novgorod Museum, which is both a historical and art museum, is located within the city’s kremlin. It was a very interesting museum due in no small measure to the work of Alexey and Yulia. It was clean, well lit and the displays were well planned. This was certainly not the case in many of the art galleries and museums I visited. Novgorod’s collection of historic art was nothing to write home about, but the care in which it was shown made it much more interesting than other displays of much `better’ art at other more famous museums I visited in Russia and Ukraine.

The more contemporary art of Novgorod was interesting as well because it gave me a chance to see art of a more regional nature than that of Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. As might be expected, Novgorod’s contemporary art is generally even more out of step from current trends in the West than the larger centres in the USSR, but it was here that I found paintings by one of the most interesting artists that I have seen in my Soviet travels. Vladimir Ryabov, who was born in the region in 1932 and is largely self-taught as a painter, is a very good artist by any measure you would care to use. His thickly painted still-lifes and portraits had a life and originality that was lacking in most art that I have seen in the USSR. The sad part of this discovery is that Ryabov is very ill with diabetes. He, like most other Soviets, can not get proper medication. He has lost the use of his legs, he can not afford to get a wheel chair, and he can no longer paint. His friends, the museum, all try to help, but to little avail. Ryabov’s tragedy, like so many similar stories, makes me question if the total collapse of the USSR is as wonderful as many in the West think it is. Harsh economic medicine might sound good to the Michael Wilsons of this world, but one wonders if the suffering it brings to real people, like Ryabov, is worth the cost.

It is difficult not to try and make comparisons between the ‘deconstruction’ of the Soviet Union and the attempts to do the same that are currently going on in Canada. The glue that held the USSR together was the power of the Communist Party. Not too long ago, you would have been labelled a fool, or worse, if you had predicted the events that have come to pass in the Soviet Union. Those of us who have had a window into the East over the years, thought that Communism was an idea, however bad, that was going to be around for a long time. How wrong we were. Communism is gone, but it has left a vacuum–a void–into which something far worse could end up in its place. There is no history of democracy in Russia. The line between extreme left wing demagoguery and that of the extreme right wing is very narrow. I am not optimistic about the possibilities of the USSR becoming a mirror image of a western, market driven, democracy. What is happening in the Soviet Union should provide lessons for us in Canada, but I fear that we are too concerned with our own problems to look abroad. There is a kind of Humpty Dumpty effect with the breakdown of nations like the Soviet Union, and, God forbid, Canada; once the egg breaks, it is hard to put it together again. What remains, at best, is a kind of bad omelette.

I will continue my Soviet journey in the next issue with my visits to Kiev and Moscow.

10 November 1991 © VIRGIL HAMMOCK
Sackville, N.B., Canada

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