The Ransom of Russian Art

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

One of America’s best nonfiction writers, John McPhee has explored a variety of subjects in his previous twenty-two books: a basketball star in A Sense of Where You Are (1965), a prep school headmaster in The Headmaster (1966), oranges in Oranges (1967), the natural and social history of a region of New Jersey in The Pine Barrens (1968), a conservationist in Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), Alaska in Coming into the Country (1977), geologists in Basin and Range (1981) and three other books, Switzerland in La Place de la Concorde Suisse (1984), and the United States merchant marine in Looking for a Ship (1990).

McPhee came across the subject of The Ransom of Russian Art by chance. He met Professor Norton T. Dodge on a train leaving Washington, D.C., in January, 1993, and by the time he reached his destination, Trenton, New Jersey, McPhee had heard the outline of a remarkable story. Between 1955 and 1986, Dodge, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, now retired, spent more than $3 million purchasing approximately nine thousand works of art by more than six hundred dissident artists, and smuggled this art out of the Soviet Union. McPhee describes this art and its creators, the political climate that both restrained and inspired them, Dodge’s highly eccentric character, and his convoluted ways of building his collection.

The painters, known variously as “unofficial,” “nonconformist,” or “dissident” artists, lived in small, close circles throughout the Soviet Union, but were known to one another, often as heroic figures, “through the drumlike telegraphy of Soviet culture.” Their crimes consisted of creating art frowned upon by the Soviet government: works critical of the government’s policies, works with sexual or religious themes, and, most important, abstract art. The Soviet State Security Committee (KGB) kept constant surveillance on them. Premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced them strongly: “You’ve gone out of your minds, and now you want to deflect us from the proper course. No, you won’t get away with it. . . . Gentlemen, we are declaring war on you.” Numerous artists were confined to prisons or mental hospitals. Rodion Gudzenko was sentenced to ten years for selling some of his paintings to members of the visiting Comédie Française, since contact with foreigners was as great an offense as creating nonconformist art. Ironically, some artists sought friendships with diplomats to gain allies as protection against prosecution.

Not only could these artists not officially exhibit their work—one semisecret exhibition occurred in a pasture—but they did not even have easy access to necessary materials. They painted on tablecloths and burlap sacks, sometimes using automobile paint. Rulers were employed as frames. Since the artists, who were predominantly male, could make little money from their work, they were supported, in many cases, by their wives or girlfriends.

McPhee offers brief portraits of several artists, but gives a detailed view of the one he considers most significant as an artist and a creative force. Evgeny Rukhin, whom Dodge met in the 1970’s, organized other artists. Carrying on his artistic, political, and sexual affairs with an almost messianic fervor, the tall, bearded, charismatic Rukhin attained a legendary status even before his mysterious death.

Rukhin was supported by his wife, Galina Popova, an official artist who created stained glass and mosaics and belonged to the Artists’ Union. She also condoned his affairs, although she attacked Sarah Burke, an American academic, with a knife. One of the most adventurous of Russian abstract artists, Rukhin attached found objects, such as a mousetrap, to his canvases. When Popova could not provide supplies, he stole hand towels from public toilets. The flamboyant Rukhin promoted himself more overtly than his colleagues, making brochures of his work which he handed out on the street and sent abroad through diplomats and journalists.

The government rewarded the Rukhins by forcing Popova to take injections for an alleged venereal disease during a pregnancy. While several interested parties give conflicting versions of Rukhin’s death, supposedly by...

(The entire section is 1765 words.)