Subject essay: James von Geldern
Aleksandr Gerasimov (1881-1963) ended the decade with his pocket full and his nerves jangling. Once a founding member of AKhRR (1927-1932), and chairman of MOSSKh (Moscow Section of the Union of Soviet Artists) from 1937-1939, Gerasimov found himself presiding over an organization seething with the anxieties of the purges. Artist denounced artist to save their own skin. His own radical past was dredged up when AKhRR was proclaimed a Trotskyite-Bukharinite organization; and he showed enough spine to speak up for Juvenal Slavinskii when that arts organizer was tried and executed in 1936. Yet he presided over the union during years when its ranks lost many to the purges, and must have signed onto many of those sordid arrests. Perhaps his well-known hobnobbing with the Kremlin elite saved him from the same fate.
By the end of the decade Gerasimov was recipient of huge prizes and commissions for his monumental canvases. He understood that the most important member of his audience was Joseph Stalin, whom he memorialized in October 1938 in his famous Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin. In 1939 he received a commission of 55,000 rubles for a single painting at exhibition “The Industry of Socialism”, and became fabulously wealthy when he received the first Stalin Prize for the Stalin canvas. Announced the day before Stalin’s sixtieth birthday, the prizes carried a cash award of $100,000 rubles for the first class; 2nd class received 50,000 rubles. The average yearly wage at the time was 10,000 rubles. So great were the rewards given loyal artists that when the Supreme Soviet issued a 1943 ukaz ‘On the Income Tax,’ it included special table for workers of the arts and literature, in which the top bracket was for 300,001 and above rubles!
An indifferent administrator and enthusiastic networker, Gerasimov went on to chair the all-important Orgkomitet of the Union of Soviet Artists from 1939-1954, and to be first president of USSR Academy of Arts when it was created in 1947. He held that job until 1957, and was known in his later years for his hostility to innovation. Other artists fared less well during this period. Scores perished during the purge year, including the great graphic artist Gustav Klucis; others languished without work, as did Robert Val’k and Pavel Filonov. Similar situations reigned in all the arts, perhaps most of all literature, where the tradition of Russian accomplishment (and thus the losses) was greatest. Aleksandr Fadeev, a once talented writer frightened into conformity, presided as First Secretary over the Writers’ Union from 1939-1954. The poets Anna Akhmatova (whose son was swallowed by the prison camps) and Boris Pasternak were hounded into silence, sustaining themselves by translation work. In May 1938 Osip Mandelshtam was arrested for the final time for his biting Ode to Stalin; he died on December 27 near Vladivostok. In 1939 Marina Tsvetaeva returned from the Paris emigration, hopelessly out of tune with Soviet reality, and fated to commit suicide in 1941. In 1939 Isaac Babel, short story writer and friend of Nikolai Ezhov, was arrested and would eventually die; and the great theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold arrested in 1938. Few cultures had such treasures to sacrifice to social progress.