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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 Wendy SloaneSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 1994


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.

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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.''

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.''