Khrushchev on the Arts

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Spontaneous, direct, forceful, enthused: all these words could characterize Nikita Khrushchev in his role of critic of the arts. Anything but sophisticated. Heir to a tradition in which heads of state could comment authoritatively on art, and threatened by unfamiliar inartistic expressions from many directions, Nikita Khrushchev took it upon himself to redirect the creative folk of his country towards the virtues of socialist realism. Whether it was young poets exercising their freedom on Maiakovskii Square, or artists abandoning realist form for incomprehensible abstractions, Khrushchev was like many of his compatriots confused and more than a little bit worried by the trend.

Khrushchev was accustomed to issuing trite reiterations of Soviet platitudes on art, such as his 1957 demand for close ties between art and the life of the people. Developments in 1961 and 1962 inspired a more aggressive stance, which culminated in a 1962 visit to an art exhibit in the Moscow Manege, sponsored by MOSSKH (Moscow Section of the Artist’s Union) to mark its 30th anniversary of existence. Flanked by political cronies such as ideologist Mikhail Suslov, recently-appointed KGB chief Aleksandr Shelepin, and Culture Minister Ekaterina Furtseva, and conservative artists such as Sergei Gerasimov and Boris Ioganson, Khrushchev gave vent to his crudest reactions, egged on by his comrades. When he reached the works of the abstract artist Ernst Neizvestnyi, he uttered the phrase “dog shit.” Incensed by such barbs from a man who knew nothing about art, Neizvestnyi, a highly decorated war veteran, pulled off his shirt and showed Khrushchev the scars covering his back. The embarrassed Khrushchev embarked on an hour-long debate with the artist which brought them to no agreement, but did spark a grudging mutual respect.

Neizvestnyi suffered no brutal consequences, certainly not the job in a uranium mine promised him by Shelepin. He did lose his official status as an artist, and thus his studio; beginning a process that would drive him into emigration. Though Khrushchev should be commended for his honesty, he also revitalized a dismaying tradition of the crudest possible criticism of art that would only disappear with the Soviet Union itself. When he died in 1971, his family turned to Neizvestnyi to create the memorial for his grave in Moscow’s Novodevichii Cemetery. Capturing the paradoxes of the man and critic, he placed the gilded head of a smiling Khrushchev against a background of black and white stone.

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