These paintings represent a group of Moscow dissident artists of the 1960's who, collectively and individually, spoke out through their art against Soviet repression of individual liberty and freedom of expression. In this collection of "unofficial" or protest art are religious themes, political criticism, and complaints about the economy, the dismal state of Soviet agriculture and even the poor quality of food available in the marketplace. Other paintings are simply individual artistic expressions of beauty, form, color and theme, the very fact of which defines dissident art as that which does not conform to the requirements of Soviet socialist realism.
These paintings were executed during the regime of Leonid Breshnev, the latter years of which have been described as a period of stagnation and economic decline of the Soviet totalitarian system. The very fact these paintings were produced at all is testimony to the artists' determination not to be silenced by a repressive and tyrannical government. When seeking an understanding of the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, as well as an insight on present-day Russian society, it is helpful to examine the history of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union as expressed in art and literature.
In stark contrast to the "unofficial" or "underground" art, are several state propaganda posters from the 1960's. Visual comparison of the style of the two groups is revealing.
The principal of socialist realism began with Lenin who said, "Art belongs to the people. It must penetrate with its deepest roots into the very midst of the toiling masses." Stalin formalized the concept into three parts: first, artistic activity must be identified with the proletarian cause; second, art must be based on Marxist-Lenist ideology; third, Soviet art must be an expression of the interests, ideals, and spirit of the working masses. In its early revolutionary education of the toiling masses in the spirit of Socialism, the Communist party defined Socialist realism as "a truthful, historically concrete representation of reality." Obviously, this concept of art leaves little room for the artist to pursue creative freedom of expression.
As a result of the refusal to conform to the rules handed down by the Soviet Communist Party through the Artists Union, the individual dissidents paid a high price; a few with their lives. Generally, though, life was a series of run-ins with the authorities, militia and KGB. There was the occasional arrest and threat of prosecution as a social parasite. It was an uncertain existence, never knowing when one might be arrested or forced to leave Moscow. The artists were prohibited from buying art supplies and materials from the state stores and, consequently, had to procure materials in any way they could. Unofficial artists were not allowed to exhibit in any formal showing in the Soviet Union - museums, institutes, public halls, universities - all of which were controlled by the state.
Nevertheless, the dissident artists and writers were very influential among the intellectual class in Russia and played an important role in the eventual unraveling of the Soviet Union.
These paintings were acquired from the artists in Moscow over a two year period, 1967-1969, during my tenure as a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy there. To choose to be an unofficial artist in the Soviet Union and to engage in active protest against the regime, during a time of stringent totalitarian control of every aspect of public and private life, required considerable personal sacrifice. This exhibit is a tribute to the courage of these artists who refused to allow their individual expressions of life, freedom and thought to be suppressed.
The entire collection was recently appraised with a replacement cost in excess of one-million dollars by the International Society of Appraisers.