Forty years ago today the Soviet authorities sent hired thugs, water cannons and a bulldozer to break up an illicit underground art show in Moscow. The result was an international outcry that resulted in a historic change in how art was perceived in the Soviet Union. Joseph Backstein, the doyen of Moscow’s contemporary art scene, shares his memories of the Bulldozer Exhibition and contemplates its lasting significance.
It was raining on 15 September 1974, the day of the so-called Bulldozer Exhibition. I remember the long walk to the open-air venue, a field, from the nearest metro station, Belyayevo, with my wife and our newborn daughter Lena. The organisers, artists Oscar Rabin and Evgeny Rukhin along with others had deliberately chosen an outdoor space for the show — some wasteland on the edge of the city that would be too far away to be of interest to the security services but that would still be easily accessible by those invited to attend. It goes without saying that if the exhibition had been held in one of the city parks, it would, without fail, come under very close scrutiny by the KGB.
We were running late and when we finally arrived, there was mayhem: artists were running around the field in a desperate attempt to hide their paintings from the thugs who had been hired by the local authorities. It was a horrific scene: these young “civil servants” were throwing artworks into lorries and using bulldozers to crush them.
What these hired hooligans didn’t realise though is that they were surrounded by dozens of international journalists who filmed the carnage from beginning to end. Some of the journalists were beaten up, but most managed to escape. In the end, the crowd, which had already been soaked by torrential rain, was dispersed by high-pressure hoses mounted on street-cleaning trucks, which resulted in an interesting official version of events. The Soviet authorities presented the crackdown as a state-sanctioned clean-up of the park.
Apparently, the KGB knew about the show anyway, which hardly came as a surprise to us. At that time artists who didn’t belong to the official union of artists were treated with suspicion. Their phones were tapped and they were under constant surveillance. The independent artistic community was tiny and tight-knit and they were all in attendance at the Belyayevo show. There were more than 30 artists present, including the most prominent figures in the community, like Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Russian émigré conceptual artists.
If it weren’t for the strong international reaction, the bulldozer show would have been forgotten. As it turned out, the organisers invited every foreign correspondent they knew and all of them turned up, making it one of the most documented events in the history of Russian contemporary art. The New York Times put the bulldozer story on their front page along with some Komar and Melamid paintings. These artists woke up the next day to find themselves known around the world.
And then something happened. Something that nobody had anticipated. The regime suddenly changed its mind about contemporary art
And then something happened. Something that nobody had anticipated. The regime suddenly changed its mind about contemporary art. The first secretary of the local branch of the Communist Party — the man behind the crackdown — was fired; it seemed the government was keen to appease those involved in the arts.
That’s not all. Out of the blue, there came a proposal from high-up Communist Party officials for the Moscow art community to stage the first-ever contemporary art show in the Soviet Union. The event took place on 29 September in Izmaylovo Park in northeast Moscow. Most of the artists who had participated in the Bulldozer Exhibition two weeks earlier were now officially permitted to show their works to the general public.
I kept asking myself what happened? Why was there this sudden change of course? Of course the foreign press played a crucial role in legitimising contemporary art in the Soviet Union. But there was already something brewing within the regime, a subtle new dissident movement that was slowly but steadily growing until it erupted in perestroika, which eventually lifted all the Kafkaesque barriers and constraints.
Although most of the “bulldozer artists” subsequently emigrated from the USSR, their legacy is as tangible as ever. This brave, brief exhibition changed things permanently. I want to believe that there will be no return to those times of censorship and surveillance, regardless of all the recent conservative rhetoric.
The anniversary of the Bulldozer Exhibition will be commemorated by a new group show featuring young Russian artists and those who participated in the historic Belyayevo show 40 years ago. Symbolically the new show, Freedom is Freedom, will take place in the state-owned Belyayevo Gallery, just a stone’s throw away from that grey and gloomy field which became an international symbol of artistic resistance and hope.