The Russian artists of the early twentieth century were exposed to a wide variety of Russian and European movements. Among the most innovative and influential of that generation were the painters Marc Chagall, Natal'ya Goncharova, Vasiliy Kandinskiy, Mikhail Larionov, and Kazimir Malevich. The constructivists of the 1920s found parallels between their architectural and sculptural work and the precepts of the Bolshevik Revolution. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The World of Art Movement—launched around the beginning of the 20th century, in St. Petersburg by Alexander Benois and Sergey Diaghilev—opened up Russia to the influences of modern Western painting styles such as Impressionism, Cubism, and Symbolism.

The World of Art Movement gave birth to many Russian stabs at modernist styles, including the Cézanne-influenced Knave of Diamonds groups with Mikhail Larionav, Natalia Goncharova. and Vasily Kandinsky, and Neo-Primitivism, based on folk art and icons.

Respected women artist include from the Pre-Soviet and Soviet period were Liubov Popova and Natalia Goncharova. Works by Ivan Kudryahove and Lubov Popova have been shown in New York at the Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art and have been sold for $300,000 in the West. Vladimir Tatlin was a noteworthy Soviet painter. Alexander Archipenko was a Russian cubist painter and sculptor

See Separate Article on KANDINSKY

Art in the Soviet Era

During and after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the cultural scene, led by the Futurist and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, was quite lively and experimental. As the Soviet bureaucracy took a stronger hold, artists were expected to help the state and do what they were told. When Stalin came to power in the late 1920s, the Party imposed strict controls on culture and education. Contact with the West was all but cut off, and writers and artists were required to join government-supported unions or be ignored. According to the “Revolution from Above,” writers had to stick close to proletariat values and eliminate all “bourgeois” and “deviaionist” writing. Anything that hinted of mysticism, religion, the supernatural or was anyway linked to the West was forbidden.

In 1924, after Lenin’s death, modernist art deemed as cubist or fauvist was condemned. In 1934, Stalin issued a decree that only socialist realist art was acceptable. Stalin helped too destroy Russian culture like he did everything else. Anything that hinted of mysticism, religion, the supernatural or was anyway linked to the West was forbidden. Culture rebounded after his death.

Culture in Communist era was characterized by censorship, ideological controls and the production of works that met the needs of the state. "National" culture was "nominally encouraged within very tight limits" with the goal being to display the bonding of many cultures under Socialism. The state controlled all elements of culture and the media: literature, music, art, film, television, radio, newspapers, magazines. Still culture was often very much alive and in some cases very rich. Government subsidized theaters and concerts. Factories and hospital organized tours. Ordinary people regularly attended dramas and classical music concerts rather than watch movies at the local cineplex and talked about books and theater rather than jobs and money. Unfortunately, the visual arts lagged behind other cultural forms such as literature and music.


Russian Futurists included Kazimir Malevich, Vladamir Mayakovsky, Pavel Filinov and Lyubov Popova. In 1915, Malevich launched the Supremacist movement with the claim that abstract geometrical shapes allowed artists to paint the higher realities of the material world. His most famous "Black Square" featured a black square representing the ultimate "zero form."

Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was a talented and innovative poet. Regarded as one of the fathers of Futurism and Constructonism, he wrote poetry that was bound together by intonation and the strength of single words rather than meter and rhyme. He wrote both slogans and epic poems. His most famous poem,”The Cloud in Trousers “, written in 1914, contained lines such word as “like a naked prostitute from a burning brothel” and the clock strikes twelve “like a head on a block.”

Other Futurist poets emerged around the same the Bolshevik Revolution was taking shape. Led by Mayakovsky and the Ukrainian painter and poet David Burliuk, they used slang, shocking language and sexual imagery that was aimed at arousing people out of their complacency. Members of the group traveled around Russia disrupting cultural events by wearing strange costumes, mocking Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and shouting nonsense verse. Russian avant-garde had a representation of going about its affairs with "grave vanity."

The aims of Futurism dovetailed those of the Bolsheviks. In the early days of the revolution Futurist artists were enlisted to make posters. In the 1920s abstract art fell out of favor and was replaced by Socialist Realism. Malevich ended his career doing portraits of Communist leaders. Mayakovsky committed suicide.

See Futurists and Vladimir Mayakovsky Under Literature.


Constructivism was an artistic movement that coincided with the Bolshevik Revolution. Artists worked in a number of different kinds of media, including posters, prints, photographs, films, theatrical works, furniture, interior design and architecture. Some of the most memorable works were posters and architecture, which in turn drew on some of ideas as Bauhaus, the influential German art school that combined crafts and the fine arts, and was famous its approach to design.

Constructivists looked upon art as tool in creating a new Utopian society and believed art could be infused with life and life could be infused with art. Led by the revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who also closely associated with the Futurists, they used devises like montage, geometric shapes, implied dimensions, and distorted perspective. They looked upon technology as a device for change and tried to express revolutionary political messages.

Constructivists reached its peak in the 1920s, By the late 1920s the artists were coming under increased pressure to tow the party line. By the 1930s the Constructivists had fallen out of favor and were denounced by the Soviet government. In the meantime their art provide the foundations for the propaganda art of Stalin.

Constructivist artists looked upon themselves as engineers rather than artists. They included Kazimir Malevich, Varvara Stepanova, photographer Alexandr Rodchenko, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, graphic designer Gustav Klutsis, the poster-makers the Stenberg brothers and the painter Ed Lissitzsky. The artists of many works are unknown. The artists Aleksei Gan, Boris Kushner, Gustav Klucis and Nikolai Chuzhak all died in Stalin labor camps. One of the Steinberg died in a mysterious car crash that some think was an assassination.

Artists in the Communist Era

Artists in the Communist era were paid by the government to paint images of Lenin, Marx, factories workers, submarines, railway workers, collective farms for barracks, kindergartens, subway stations, factories and offices.

In the Communist era, artists, writers, scientists and intellectuals were endorsed and supported by the government. To gain membership to special unions and organizations they had to study at certain approved schools and create works which fit into parameters set by the government. Without government endorsement they were nobodies.

According to Communist theory, the duty of the Communist party was to maintain that there was the correct number of artists and writers for society's needs and follow the party line. Artists and writers recognized by the government received a salary, supplies, comfortable private homes or apartments, spacious offices or working space, other perks and markets for their works. Unofficial artist had to support themselves by other means. Boiler room supervisory jobs were sought after because they worked 24 hours straight and then had three days off.

Artists, musicians and writers were required to submit their work to censors before it was allowed to be presented to the public. The dominant state-approved style was socialist realism. But in the early years experimental art was tolerated and even encouraged. Purveyors of revolutionary art in the 1920s and 30s included: Alexander Rodchenko, Pavel Filonov, Liubov Popova and Sergei Esenstein.

Stalin-Era Art

By the 1930s, the government was limiting all forms of artistic expression to the themes of socialist realism, forbidding abstract forms and the exhibition of foreign art for more than thirty years. Soviet artist painted Stalin leading troops at Stalingrad (even though he was not anywhere near the battle), Stalin towering over his generals in the Politburo (even though he was really much shorter than they were) and Stalin encouraging collective workers.

Motivated in part by rebuffs from the Russian intellectual elite, Stalin used art as means of creating an Socialist paradise in which he was the messiah. Typical Stalin-era paintings included Ekaterina Zernova's “Collective Farmers Greeting a Tank”; Fyodor Shurpin's “Morning of the Motherland”, showing a contemplative Stalin standing by an electric grid and harvesters; and Anatoly Jar-Kravchenko's painting of A.M. Gorky reading "The Girl and the Death" to Stalin and Molotov.

Stalin wanted artists to be "engineers of the soul." He banned independent artist groups. Constructivist like Aleksei Gan, Boris Kushner, Gustav Klucis and Nikolai Chuzhak all died in Stalin labor camps.V. M. Kinyazeva wrote: "How naive and simplified and stupid! It's like a requiem, like a feast at the time of the plague. People look like sheep and don't see behind the pomposity of beauty to see that millions were tortured or sent to camps by this sweetheart Stalin."

Socialist Realism

During his rule Stalin sanctioned a form of state art officially known as Socialist Realism. "Geared to a naive, not to say brutish mass public barely literate in artistic matters," wrote TIME art critic Robert Hughes, “Soviet Socialist realism was the most coarsely idealistic kind of art ever foisted on a modern audience."

Social Realism has been defined as "concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary accordance with...ideological training of workers on the spirit of Socialism." It appeared on paintings hoisted in public and on posters splashed all over cities Subjects in the works including spirited workers, heroic soldiers, uplifting leaders. Posters of "shock workers" (people who worked tirelessly for Socialism) show handsome, muscular men with smile son their faces performing some kind of menial chore in front of glistening factories.

Approved Soviet-era culture was dominated by Socialist Realism. One man who lived through the Stalin era told the New York Times, "Art back then was only a reflection of beautiful dream—not of the slave labor of collective farmers or those who dug the canals, mines and built factories than in the long destroyed or Russian land."

Stalin ordered the Soviet Union’s top art academies to emphasize technical skill and powerful portrayal of figures and landscapes. One art critic told Newsweek the subjects of socialist realist painting were “supposed to depict happy, young, smiling faces and full bellies. The mood of the work was always supposed to be celebratory; it didn’t matter if you were painting birthday parties or electrical wires.” The Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky called Socialist Realism, “poor art for poor people.”

Soviet-Era Sculpture: Statues of Lenin and Stalin

Two million sculptures of Lenin and Stalin were scattered around the country. During the Soviet era, the state produced 1 million Lenin statues a year. Lev Kerbel was regarded as one of most skilled sculptures of Soviet and Communist heros. His monument are found in squares all over the former Soviet Union. He made so many Marxes and Lenins he lost count. Famous ones include the Lenin in Moscow’s Oktyabrsky Square and a huge head of Marx in Germany. He won a number of awards, including the Lenin Prize and the Goethe prize and lived to see many his works tippled.

Kerbel produced dozens of Yuri Gagarins, the first man in space, and tributes to heroes of World War II. He made a huge bust of Castro and earned a dinner with Mao Zedong for his monumental sculpture he made to Russian-Chinese friendship and a death mask of Stalin.

Kerbel was obsessed with Lenin. He made his first Lenin when he was six and over the years made the Soviet leader in a variety of poses and garments. “He was in my head and in my heart,” he told the New York Times. “He required more and more artistic content. I was always interested in his image.” In the early 2000s, Kerbel was still working but instead of making sculptures of Soviet heroes he was making images of tsars, including a statue of Peter the Great that now sits on a pedestal in Kaliningard..

Post Stalin-Era Art

An "unofficial" art movement appeared in the 1960s under the leadership of sculptor Ernst Neizvestny and painters Mikhail Chemyakhin, Oskar Rabin, and Yevgeniy Rukhin. Neizvestny is regarded as “the most artistically-accomplished sculptor and memorial builder of the Soviet era.” Among his works are the “Mask of Mourning,” a grim block face erected in Magadan in the Far East, dedicated to victims of the gulags there, and the Salaspils memorial, a collection of human figures organized in a sporadic way over a mass grave built at the Salaspils Nazi concentration camp near Riga Latvia..

Neizvestny was born in 1925 in Yekaterinburg in the Urals, studied in Riga. Latvia, suffered a spinal injury in World War II that was so serious he was given up for dead and has lived in New York since 1977. He said his goal was build monuments based on the strong abstract idea of “reflecting the trajectory of the artists’s thoughts.” Other Neizvestnyy works included the graveside memorial fo Nikita Khrushchev at Moscow’s Novodevichy Monastery and the 15-story-high sculpture at the Aswan High Dam, regarded as the largest sculpture in the world.

After Stalin an avant-garde "Conceptionalsit" movement was allowed to form. Among the artist emerged were Ilya Kabakov, a Russian-born American conceptualist, who painted and arranged trash to depict the unfilled promises of Communist; and Erik Bulatov, who founded "Sotart" and painted disappearing slogans. In 1962 the movement came above ground with the "unofficial" Moscow Moanezh but went back underground after Khrushchev called it "dog shit."

In the 1960s and 70s, a greater variety of creative works became accessible to the public than had previously been available. As in earlier decades, the state continued to determine what could be legally published or performed, punishing persistent offenders with exile or prison. Nonetheless, greater experimentation in art forms became permissible in the 1970s, with the result that more sophisticated and subtly critical work began to be produced. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996*]

In 1974, several "unofficial" artists—painters and sculptors who were not members of the Union of Artists—attempt to stage a show on the outskirts of Moscow. The show only lasted a couple before government thugs beat on the artist, the crowds were driven away with water cannons and bulldozers destroyed the art.

Art in Gorbachev and Glasnost Era

In the 1970s and the early 1980s, informal art exhibits were held in parks and social clubs. Under Gorbachev things began to loosen up. Like the other arts, painting and sculpture benefitted from the policy of glasnost of the late 1980s, which encouraged artistic innovation and the exhibition of works abroad.

In 1987, unofficial artists and craftsmen were allowed to display their work at weekend open air fairs in Moscow's Izmailovo Park and a exhibit of works by the maligned Belarusian artist Marc Chagall was held at Moscow's Pushkin Museum to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the artist's birth. By 1988, unofficial artist were encouraged to exhibit their art in the Soviet Union and abroad.

Artist who made a name for themselves in the glasnost period include avant-garde painter Vadim Zakharov, collage maker Konstantin Zvezdochetov, surrealist painter Yurri Petruk, realist painter Anreil Roiter, abstract artist Segei Shutov, modernist painter Yuri Albert, graphic artist Alexy Sundukov, and sculptor religious fantasies Leonid Purygin.

In 1988, “A Fundamental Lexicon”, an iconostasis-like work that poked of the Orthodox church and Soviet propaganda, by Grish Bruskin was sold at a Sotheby's auction in Moscow for over $600,000.

Soviet Dissident Art

Nukus—a 100 kilometers northwest of Urgench in Uzbekistan— is a remote Soviet-era town in the middle of a bleak, dusty desert. The capital of Karakalpakstan, it is home to 180,000 people and for the most part is a depressing place with an impoverished population that suffers from unemployment and health and environmental problems related to the disappearance of the Aral Sea.

Nukus is home of the Igor Savitsky Museum, an art museum with as a treasure trove of lost avant-guard Soviet art created, in some cases, when the Bolshevik Revolution was recent history and people had high hopes, grand ambitions and life seemed liked it had unlimited possibilities before the authorities clamped down. Charlotte Douglas, a professor of Russian art at New York University, told the New York Times, "There are wonderful artists people have never heard of, including women, and great works from artists we thought we understood but know we realize we don't." Many of the artists had been locked away on gulags.

The museum possesses more than 30,000 paintings, only a fraction of which are shown, and is regarded as the best collection of Soviet-era dissident art. Some of the works are by famous artists such as Ivan Kudryahove and Lubov Popova, whose works have been shown at the Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art and have been sold for $300,000 in the West. There are more than 1,400 works by the Jewish artist Ruvim Mazael, who worked side by side with Marc Chagall.

Interesting works include “Apocalypse” by Alexeu Rybnokov, featuring a rider in horseback with a trumpet wonderfully executed with bold colors; “Capital” by Mikhail Kurzin, with grotesque couple that brings to mind the works of Otto Dix; “Dumplings”, a realistic representation of one of Russia’s favorite foods which the starving artist Mikhail Kurzin, made after being released from prison; and “The Bull”, a crazed animal rendered almost completely in blue painted by Yevgeni Lysenko, an inmate at a metal hospital, There are also geometric pieces by Liubov Popova, works by Robert Rafailovich Falk and impressionistic scenes of local life by Viktor Ufimstev.

The reason these works are in Uzbekistan is that the artists who create them painted them here while they were either exiled or imprisoned and Nukus happened to be the home of the collector Igor Savitsky, who dedicated his life to collecting works by dissident artist that otherwise would ahve been destroyed. He opened the museum in 1966. He collected more than 90,000 objects of art, with hundreds of works by a single artist.

The museum is housed in a white two-story building and its annex, both of which were part of chemical weapons plant. The paint is pealing, the employees wear frayed uniforms. The lighting is poor and paintings with beaten up frames have been placed all over the walls in a haphazard manor. Often dozens are placed together on a single wall. The bathroom is an outhouse. Trays of water serve as humidifiers. In the early 2000s, many of the employees earned less than $25 a month. Often days passes without a single visitor showing up.

Art After the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Since the break up of the Soviet Union, cultural expression in Russian has become freer than it has ever been. Mikhail Shvydkoi, Russia's culture minister in 2001, told the New York Times, "Now, whatever you want to do, you do it. This is reflected in a whole host of small theaters and galleries that have cropped up everywhere. We still have to get used to the mass phenomenon of small manifestations of culture. Yet as it turns out, even after soaking up all the new outside influences, we are learning that our culture can stand up."

Russian specialist and Librarian of Congress James Billington told the New York Times, There is a "a quite remarkable recovery particularly among the younger generation. There is a tremendous ensemble spirit...These people are starting all over again, instead of operating on the leftovers of the state system."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the artistic groups in Russia abruptly went from being state supported entities to enterprises that paid their own way. Artists, writers and scientists that once had comfortable lives and occupied the upper echelons of society found themselves raising food in gardens to fed their families and driving taxis to earn some cash.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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