Soviet Artists Say Freedom Comes at a Price

They can choose what to depict, but find it hard to compete in the new commercial environment

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IN the heady days following former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of dictator Josef Stalin at the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956, sculptor Pyotr Shapiro received a phone call from Gen. Viktor Burov, his boss at the Dynamo Stadium.

Burov told Mr. Shapiro, then a 22-year-old conscript fulfilling his military service as an artist for the Red Army sports teams, that Stalin's cult of personality had officially ended. All sculptures of Stalin were to be destroyed, Burov said, including a life-size cement carving in a stadium garden depicting the former Soviet leader conversing on a bench next to Vladimir Lenin.

``Burov called me up and asked me what should be done with the sculpture. Should we get rid of it? Should we tear it down?'' Shapiro says. ``I answered, why get rid of Lenin? Everything with him is in order. I'll just turn Stalin into [Russian writer Maxim] Gorky. They had the same moustache, almost.''

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Over the next few weeks, Shapiro worked fiendishly, struggling to widen Stalin's eyes and lower his cheekbones so that they would resemble those of Gorky. Luckily, both men had small foreheads, Shapiro says. ``I changed the head in one week,'' he recalls. ``The body stayed the same, except Stalin was in a dress coat and Gorky always wore a tie.''

Since the Soviet Union's breakup, Shapiro is free of the constraints placed on many artists. He now sculpts the people he admires most, from Beethoven and Shostakovich to the late human-rights activist Andrei Sakharov. Although he values his freedom, like many older artists who once received generous commissions from the Soviet government, he is finding it difficult - and humiliating - to compete in a world where art must seek its own buyers.

``We used to get help from the Ministry of Culture, but now we get nothing,'' says Shapiro, now 61, who showed his sculptures in Iceland earlier this year and just won a scholarship to spend two months in Washington on an art-exchange program. ``An artist these days has to become both a manager and a businessman. Now we have to find our clients ourselves.''

Sculptor-painter Nikolai Nikogosyan is in similar straits. For decades, he carved commemorative Soviet monuments as well as Socialist-Realist figures of muscled peasant men and women for the grandiose buildings constructed for the Soviet elite during the Stalinist era. In return, he was given the title ``People's Artist of the USSR,'' an apartment, and a prime piece of real estate in central Moscow, where he built a three-story studio.

``I did the sculptures willingly because I believed in our `bright future,' '' says Nikogosyan, now an enigmatic 74-year-old who has taken to wearing the skullcap of his native Armenia. ``I don't believe in the way things are today. We're in a much worse position than we used to be. But I don't want those ties with the Communist Party to return.''

Today, Nikogosyan sculpts and paints figures of famous people and beautiful women from his studio amid constant hammering and drilling. Although his work has found occasional buyers, he hopes to supplement his income by renting his studio to a foreign company and retiring to a smaller structure he is constructing on his property. He has already rented out the apartment he received from the Soviet government to a foreigner for dollars.

``I do art for myself. I never want to go commercial,'' says Nikogosyan as he uses a long-bristled brush to touch up a small figure before it is sent to be bronze casted. ``If I did it just for money, it wouldn't work out.''

Shapiro, on the other hand, looks back on his diverse career from the comfort of his dimly lighted rectangular studio in central Moscow with anger mixed with mirth. He remembers the time Stalin's head got stuck hanging from a crane for hours after he was ordered by the KGB to pull the 6-meter-high statue down. Or the myriad Red Army generals whose busts he was forced to create.

But not all of his memories are so light-hearted. Shapiro, like many other intellectuals of that era, is scarred by the Stalinist repressions that began in the 1930s.

His mother, an American from Brooklyn named Nina Hollander, left the Great Depression in 1932 for Stalin's Russia, hoping to find an easier life there. Armed only with a degree from Columbia University and no Russian language skills, Nina quickly fell in love with a young pharmacist and perfumemaker named Yefim Shapiro, Jewish like herself, but who spoke no English. In 1933, she gave birth to their first child, Pyotr, in Moscow.

``My mother spoke such bad Russian at first that when she had me in the hospital she asked for a frying pan instead of a bedpan,'' Shapiro says. She learned quickly, however, and by 1935 had enrolled in a teaching program. The two had another son, Yuri, and then in 1938 Yefim was arrested and Nina disappeared.

Shapiro and his brother were sent to an orphanage for ``Children of Enemies of the People,'' where they were given the last name of Ivanov (the Russian equivalent of Smith) and told to forget their past. They were rescued by an uncle, and Nina eventually reappeared, having spent two years in Moscow prisons for being an ``American spy.''

The family was evacuated to the Ural Mountains during the war, and Yefim returned from the labor camps in 1948 only to be almost immediately rearrested.

Nina supplemented her salary by teaching English to the children in their Moscow courtyard, many of whom were the sons and daughters of Stalin henchman Lavrenti Beria's bodyguards. Shapiro, a pariah barred from joining the Young Pioneers because of his parents' past, learned to be quiet about what was said at home.

Following Stalin's death in 1954 Yefim finally came home for good after 15 years in the camps, a changed man who rarely spoke.

Russian movie director Saava Koulish has just completed a feature film about the inhabitants of the communal apartment where Shapiro grew up following Nina's release. The film, titled ``The Iron Curtain,'' covers the years from 1947 to 1957.

The film doesn't mention what happened to Nina, who was eventually able to travel back several times to Brooklyn to visit her aging father. She died in 1984 a full Russian citizen, as Soviet authorities made her relinquish her American passport before granting her permission to travel. But she left her son many legacies, one of which was her invalid passport.

Despite his attachment to his homeland, in July, thanks to Nina's background, Shapiro was able to become a US citizen. He did so, he says, because he fears the rise of anti-Semitism in Russia. For him, the fear of Stalinism has been replaced by the threat of fascism.

``I didn't want to be left sitting between two chairs because of [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky,'' Shapiro says, referring to the ultranationalist leader who gained a surprise victory in the Russian parliamentary elections in December. ``When I knew that fascism had arrived in Russia, I wanted to have a way out, if it ever came to that.''

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