The music of “poetic realist” Alexey Zelensky is a hypnotic mix of acoustics and electronica recorded live and looped to serve as the background for vocal interpretations of Russian poetry. This is what it would sound like if Beirut and Vampire Weekend had a Russian baby. I’m in love.
After a recent visit to the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, I was struck by the conversation between Western and Russian modern art that could be seen playing out on the canvases.
Starting from the early 1900s, Russian artists worked in conditions of increasing hostility to influence from the West, as the Soviet regime came to power and consolidated its hold on the artistic sphere. Despite the effort to constrain “bourgeois tendencies” in Russian art (as Western influence was called), the works of domestic painters show a clear dialogue with European modern art that gradually gave way to a unique blending of Western tendencies and Russian themes.
Below is a brief exploration of the Western influence in Russian modern art.
Cezanne in Moscow
One of the earliest 20th-century Russian artistic movements to draw directly upon European trends was a group that called itself the “Jack of Diamonds” (Бубновый валет or Bubnovyi valet). Founded in 1910 after an exhibit of French cubist paintings in Moscow, the group broke ranks with the realist tendencies of 19th-century painting in Russia to explore emerging modernist styles.
Works by the group’s leading artists — including Ilya Mashkov, Aristarkh Lentulov and early Kazimir Malevich — show the visible influences of Cezanne’s studies of fruits and landscapes (in fact, the Jack of Diamonds gave rise to the term “Russian Cezannism”), Matisse’s fauvism, and Picasso’s cubist style.
In January of 1930, Mikhail Bulgakov was a great writer with only one published novel to his name, a situation that was driving him to despair over his literary career.
“All my literary works have perished, as have my literary plans,” he wrote to his brother Nikolai in Paris. “I am condemned to silence and, quite possibly, to complete starvation.”
Bulgakov’s fortunes had turned the previous year when his new play Flight, depicting the exodus of the Russian intelligentsia after the Bolshevik Revolution, was dismissed by Josef Stalin as an “anti-Soviet phenomenon.” The remark was made in private but reverberated throughout the literary community. Overnight Bulgakov became an outcast from the world where he had only recently been a star. His five running plays, including the wildly successful Days of the Turbins (which Stalin himself had attended no fewer than 15 times), were dropped by the theaters, while his new works, most notably a biographical play about the French playwright Molière, were denied authorization for performance. He became unemployable and his work effectively untouchable. Though he continued to hold out hope that things would change, Bulgakov would not publish another work for the rest of his life.
Several months after writing to his brother, Bulgakov composed another letter – this time, to the Soviet government. In a lengthy treatise that decried his vilification in the Soviet press and affirmed his right to free speech, Bulgakov presented the government with an ultimatum: either allow him to emigrate from the Soviet Union, or secure his employment at home. The now-infamous response was a personal phone call from Stalin. Did the writer really want to leave the country? the Soviet leader asked. Bulgakov, caught in a moment of uncertainty, changed his mind: “I have thought a great deal recently about the question of whether a Russian writer can live outside his homeland,” he recounted his answer later. “And it seems to me he cannot.”
The decision to remain at home proved fateful for the writer, who was unaware at the time that he had signed his own sentence to “lifelong silence” in his country. But it would also be a fateful decision for Stalin and the monolithic system he oversaw. We can only guess how Bulgakov’s legacy would have unfolded if he had succeeded in moving abroad. But by remaining in the Soviet Union, surrounded by his audience yet unable to speak to them, Bulgakov was forced into creating works of such stunning clarity of vision that, with their sheer truthfulness, would eventually break through the silence and illuminate the cracks in the Soviet system. As Russia celebrates the 125th anniversary of the writer’s birth this year, the body of work he left behind continues to shine a light on the role of the artist in a controlled society. If there is one lesson it seems to impart, it is to transmit the reality of what you see, and to never look away.
Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891 to a middle-class family of intellectuals. His father was a professor of religion at the Kiev Theological Academy, his mother the daughter of an Orthodox priest. The young Bulgakov and his six siblings received an excellent education steeped in literature and the theater. In 1916 he graduated with honors from Kiev University Medical School, just before the outbreak of the Russian Civil War. After being declared unfit for combat, he was mobilized as a military doctor and sent to work in a provincial hospital in Ukraine.
Doctors were in short supply during the war and therefore in great demand by each warring side as it temporarily seized power. According to the literary scholar Ellendea Proffer, Bulgakov was alternately mobilized by the Ukrainian nationalist forces as well as the monarchist Whites, and witnessed atrocities committed by both sides (Bulgakov later wrote that there were fourteen power changes in Kiev between 1917 and 1920, and that he personally lived through ten of them). He was eventually sent to the North Caucasus, where he contracted a near-fatal bout of typhus that would lead to a brief but intense morphine addiction. As the Whites retreated and fled to emigration, Bulgakov, still unwell, stayed behind. In 1921 he abandoned the Caucasus along with his medical career and moved to Moscow, where he would spend the rest of his life as a writer.