14 April 1988. Springtime in Moscow. A lean, aristocratic Simon de Pury leads the first Sotheby’s sale outside the auction house’s offices. The Berlin Wall’s still there, as is the law against dealing in western currency inside the USSR, a criminal offense punishable by three to 15 years in prison. Everything about the sale is a wonder: it is conducted in pounds sterling, most of the works on sale have never before been seen publicly because most of their artists are prohibited from entering the state-sponsored exhibition halls. Long-distance shots of the crowd reveal a Who’s Who of the Eighties art scene. Victor Misiano, future curator extraordinaire and double laureate of the Russian Innovation Prize, looks over the heads at the podium where works by his friends, Vadim Zakharov, exhibitor at the 2013 Russian Pavilion in Venice among them, are sold for outrageous prices to foreign collectors. Joseph Backstein, future commisioner of the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, surveys the scene with a cold stare.
Fast forward some 20-plus years. “There's still the one and only Ilya Kabakov, all others have accomplished very little”, says a much older Vadim Zakharov. The first scene comes from USSART, a documentary on Soviet art and the impact of that Sotheby's sale put together by Sovietologist and translator Jamie Gambrell. The second one is part of a recent documentary by Andrei Silvestrov on The House on Furmanny, one of the first Soviet squats that was organized by artists during perestroika. Both films and Zero Object, a documentary on St Petersburg artist Timur Novikov, are being shown at London's ICA as part of a programme called Voices From the Underground, curated by Anya Harrison and Olya Borisova.
Five years ago the perception of these films would be based on the protagonists' current careers and the role of the international art market in their big breaks and unanswered prayers. In the current political climate, however, we see a different story. The older generations (the ones before me — I was born in 1980) still remember the fear. People dreaded the often unfathomable logic of late Soviet ideology that severely punished dissent in the name of socialism and togetherness. They feared crucial missteps in public life that could get you fired or shut down in prison or mental health hospital. They feared those who watched their errors of judgement and goodwill and pointed them out for personal gain or just plain mischief. Dread features heavily in memoirs of the period. Ilya Kabakov made it synonymous with the existence of a Soviet citizen.
Grigory Revzin, Russia's leading public intellectual, wrote in a recent article recounting Brezhnev's death: “Someone else made the decisions in my life, and I could not see who it was. What I somehow felt was that the decisions were made in complete accord with the desires of the masses. Soviet citizens did not feel the fear that was with me all the time. They were happy to know that Americans, Europeans and other state-designated enemies of the USSR were fearing us – that made their own fear dissipate”. In USSART, A House on Furmanny and Zero Object we see people who discard the fear and live as if it is not there. Art historian Ekaterina Andreeva relates in Zero Object what she thinks is critical to understanding the Leningrad underground: “They lived as if all that was around them did not exist”.
Of course, perestroika was of great use to those under the radar. Gorbachev's reforms gave the underground opportunities to fear less and expose themselves to a wider public without the risk of getting put in correctional facilities. But they were not the only surfers on the tide that turned. It is interesting to watch USSART and documentary reels from other movies in the context of groundbreaking late eighties Soviet cinema. Soviet cinema and Soviet life were based on the assumption that a proto-communist society was rapidly approaching a classless state. The shady dealings of Russia's lumpenproletariat, the shadow economy that operated beneath the rigid state planning supervised by higher authority, were rarely featured in official cinema. Of course, there were breathtaking criminal dramas and TV series, but individual deviations from the rule of law were interpreted as blips on the radar of a calm, fundamentally just system. A criminal broke his or her ties with the Soviet masses and had no part in the monolithic whole.
The interpretation of public enemies underwent a profound transformation during the perestroika years. Before 1985, General Secretary Yury Andropov, former head of the KGB and a jazz connoisseur, orchestrated grandiose trials to expose corruption in Soviet republics. Several party members were executed for crimes against the socialist economy, being simultaneously perpetrators of country-wide corruption schemes and victims of unrealistic planning. During perestroika, many filmmakers rediscovered the seedy underbelly of late socialism and either tried to show corruption as an intrinsic element of late socialism (as Sergei Soloviev did with his legendary Assa) or showed sympathy for the devil in the declassed element. Pyotr Todorovsky's Interdevotchka (“International Girl”, i.e. a sex worker who deals with foreigners) presented a morality tale where a call-girl falls victim to cynical machos both from the USSR and Europe. Vadim Abdrachitov's Plyumbum, or A Dangerous Game retold the story of Pavlik Morozov, the original Soviet martyr, in an eighties context, showing that no one is innocent in a circle of bribes, lies and other manoeuvres that let people get through their over-regulated lives.
Perestroika movies introduced audiences to prostitutes, drug dealers, sex before marriage, shadowy businessmen – and underground artists, both as protagonists (Assa's Malchik Bananan) and as background to a newly discovered way of life. An artist who had chosen to lead a free existence in a Moscow or St Petersburg squat frequently found him- or herself in a bohemian pit of drink, drugs and racketeering. Speakers in A House on Furmanny are not eager to discuss these aspects on film, which is understandable, but after Sotheby’s, when deals were closed nearly every day, some of them were paid a visit by mafia who tried to extort a piece of their earnings. There were even more exotic figures. What to make of Senya Zolotaya Ruchka (Senya the Golden Hand), a small-time crook and bodybuilder who recognised kindred spirits in the artists of Furmanny and became, albeit briefly, an artist himself? This incredible mix of people operating outside Soviet law looks romantic from afar, a variation on the birthplace of modernism's foundation myth – the cheap rooms of Montmartre's Le Bateau-Lavoir and the famous case of the Mona Lisa theft, where Picasso and a couple of other artists were called as witnesses.
The first post-Soviet art galleries sometimes still had ties to the mafia, as did nearly every business operation in the early nineties. But as criminals got legal or died trying, Russia's economy became increasingly state-oriented in a process that has only recently come to fruition, in the form of aggression against Ukraine and large businesses that close their eyes to moral and financial concerns to retain their political power. The fear of the overbearing state has returned, and with it a new interest in the margins of society. More artists are turning to political activism and social topics, dealing with the illegal and the unwanted — immigrants' rights, women's liberation, the LGBT community, (mostly Marxist) ideas of equality — a wildly unpopular notion in a society that operates on success and luck. If this had happened five years ago, it would have felt worthwhile, timely, but not centre-stage. But now that there is far-reaching oppression to fight, it is urgently needed.
Voices from the Underground takes place on 15 November at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.
Tickets: £7-£11 Booking: 020 7930 3647