The Ransom of Russian Art Essay - Critical Essays

John McPhee

The Ransom of Russian Art

McPhee is one of America’s best journalists, having written twenty-two previous books on subjects ranging from tennis to oranges to geology. With a talent for telling details and compelling anecdotes and a fluid, economical style, McPhee is always interesting, regardless of his subject, and a saga of Professor Norton T. Dodge is perhaps the most interesting story he has told.

Dodge, who taught at the University of Maryland until he retired, made numerous trips to the Soviet Union between 1955 and 1986, ostensibly to study such subjects as the economic status of women. Dodge, however, had long been an art enthusiast, and he found himself buying paintings and drawings by artists outside the official Soviet art establishment.

These artists had been branded as nonconformist or unofficial because their subjects and styles violated the standards set by the Communist Party. Some of their works dealt with political or religious themes. More were openly sexual. Most, however, were simply abstractions, a genre particularly anathema to political leaders, such as Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and the KGB.

McPhee offers brief portraits of several artists and an extended one of an artist couple, the messianic Evgeny Rukhin and Galina Popova, the patient wife who understands her eccentric husband’s excesses, sexual and otherwise.

The best parts of THE RANSOM OF RUSSIAN ART, however, are McPhee’s presentation of the bumbling, absent-minded, seemingly disorganized Dodge, a most unlikely candidate for the type of heroics he performs. McPhee, a participant in the narrative, tries to pin him down about how he managed to finance his exploits on a professor’s salary, but Dodge is as evasive about that as he is about those who helped him smuggle the art out of the Soviet Union.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, October 1, 1994, p. 186.

Kirkus Reviews. LXII, September 1, 1994, p. 1195.

Library Journal. CXIX, November 1, 1994, p. 74.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, December 18, 1994, p. 24.

The New Yorker. LXX, December 19, 1994, p. 117.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, October 3, 1994, p. 61.