Khrushchev on Modern Art

Nikita Khrushchev, Conversation at the Manege Exhibit. December 1, 1962


The first extended pause is in front of one of Val’k’s paintings.

N. S. Khrushchev: “I would say that this is just a mess. It’s hard to understand what this still-life is supposed to represent. I will probably be told that I have not reached the point where I can understand such works – the usual argument of our opponents in culture. Dmitrii Stepanovich Polianskii told me a couple of days ago that when his daughter got married, she was given a picture of what was supposed to be a lemon. It consisted of some messy yellow lines which looked, if you will excuse me, as though some child had done his business on the canvas when his mother was away and then spread it around with his hands.”

Then, further along: “I don’t like jazz. When I hear jazz, it’s as if I had gas on the stomach. I used to think it was static when I heard it on the radio. I like music a lot and often listen to it on the radio. I even went so far as to carry a little Japanese radio around in my pocket. They make them very well there …

“Even Shostakovich surprised us once in this connection. At the final concert of the plenary meeting of the Composers’ Union we were regaled with a trio which wasn’t entirely pleasurable listening …

“Or take these new dances which are so fashionable now. Some of them are completely improper. You wiggle a certain section of the anatomy, if you’ll pardon the expression. It’s indecent. As Kogan once said to me when she was looking at a fox-trot, ‘I’ve been married 20 years and never knew that this kind of activity is called the fox-trot!” …

“Jazz comes from the Negroes. They’ve had it for a long time, and here it’s treated as a novelty. I understand our own Russian dances a lot better, Georgian and Armenian ones too. They are wonderful dances …

“People tell me that I am behind the times and don’t realize it, that our contemporary artists will be appreciated in 100 years. Well, I don’t know what will happen in 100 years, but now we have to adopt a definite policy in art, emphasizing it in the press and encouraging it materially. We won’t spare a kopeck of government money for any artistic daubing …

“As long as I am president of the Council of Ministers, we are going to support a genuine art. We aren’t going to give a kopeck for pictures painted by jackasses. History can be our judge. For the time being history has put us at the head of this state, and we have to answer for everything that goes on in it. Therefore we are going to maintain a strict policy in art. I could mention that when I was in England I reached an understanding with Eden. He showed me a picture by a contemporary abstractionist and asked me how I liked it. I said I didn’t understand it. He said he didn’t understand it either, and asked me what I thought of Picasso. I said I didn’t understand Picasso, and Eden said he couldn’t understand Picasso either.”

When passing by the satirical drawings of Reshetnikov and Kukryniksy, N. S. Khrushchev indicated his approval, laughing in particular at Reshetnikov’s satire on abstractionist painters.

In front of paintings by Andronov, Mikhail and Pavel Nikonov, Vasnetsov, and Egorshina:

V. A. Serov (pointing to these paintings, and especially to “The Raftsmen” by Andronov and “The Geologists” by Nikonov): “Some connoisseurs claim that these pictures are programmatic. We dispute that.”

N. S. Khrushchev: “You are entirely correct.” Then, in front of “The Geologists”: “He can paint and sell these if he wants, but we don’t need them. We are going to take these blotches with us into communism, are we? If government funds have been paid for this picture, the person who authorized it will have the sum deducted from his salary. Write out a certificate that this picture has not been acquired by the government …

“But who ordered it? And why? This painting shouldn’t have been hung in the exhibition. Pictures should arouse us to perform great deeds. They should inspire a person. But what kind of picture is this? One jackass is riding on another …

“No, we don’t need pictures like these. As long as the people support us and have confidence in us we will carry out our own policy in art. And if pictures like these appear, it means that we are not doing our work properly. This includes the Ministry of Culture and the Central Committee’s Commission on Ideology.

S. V. Gerasimov (or V. A. Serov): “People say, by the way, that pictures like these are supported in the press. For instance, Konenkov’s article in Izvestiia praises the sculptor Neizvestnyi and some of the other formalists.”

In passing by paintings of Korzhevskii and Zhevadronova, N. S. Khrushchev says: “These are good pictures, especially that one over there. You can feel the essence of youth in it. But why these bad pictures – a spoonful of pitch in a barrel of honey.”

A propos a painting by Kugach: “It looks like a real winter scene!”

After a quick look at the upper halls, where the formalist paintings are hung, N. S. Khrushchev says: “What is this anyway? You think we old fellows don’t understand you. And we think we are just wasting money on you. Are you pederasts or normal people? I’ll be perfectly straightforward with you; we won’t spend a kopeck on your art. Just give me a list of those of you who want to go abroad, to the so-called ‘free world.’ We’ll give you foreign passports tomorrow, and you can get out. Your prospects here are nil. What is hung here is simply anti-Soviet. It’s amoral. Art should ennoble the individual and arouse him to action. And what have you set out here? Who painted this picture? I want to talk to him. What’s the good of a picture like this? To cover urinals with?”

The painter, Zheltovskii, comes forward.

N. S. Khrushchev: “You’re a nice-looking lad, but how could you paint something like this? We should take down your pants and set you down in a clump of nettles until you understand your mistakes. You should be ashamed. Are you a pederast or a normal man? Do you want to go abroad? Go on, then; we’ll take you free as far as the border. Live out there in the ‘free world.’ Study in the school of capitalism, and then you’ll know what’s what. But we aren’t going to spend a kopeck on this dog shit. We have the right to send you out to cut trees until you’ve paid back the money the state has spent on you. The people and government have taken a lot of trouble with you, and you pay them back with this shit. They say you like to associate with foreigners. A lot of them are our enemies, don’t forget.

Then, in front of a painting by Gribkov: “What’s this?”

Gribkov: “It’s the year 1917.”

N. S. Khrushchev: “Phooey. How much the state has spent on you, and this is how you repay it. My opinion is that you can all go to hen abroad. This is an art for donkeys …

“Comrade Il’ichev, I am even more upset by the way your section is doing its work. And how about the Ministry of Culture? Do you accept this? Are you afraid to criticize? …

“They say that some of our writers praise these pictures and buy them. That’s because our honoraria are high. Our writers are too prosperous and have money to throw away.”

Beliutin, one of the ideologists of the formalists, comes up.

N. S. Khrushchev: “Who are you? Who are your parents?”

Beliutin answers.

N. S. Khrushchev: “Do you want to go abroad? Who supports you?”

Beliutin: “I am a teacher.”

N. S. Khrushchev: “How can such a person teach? People like him should be cleared out of the teaching profession. They shouldn’t be allowed to teach in the universities. Go abroad if you want; and if you don’t want to, we’ll send you anyway. I can’t even talk about this without getting angry. I’m a patriot.”

In front of a painting by Shorts: “Why aren’t you ashamed of this mess? Who are your parents?”

Shorts gives information about his parents, mentioning that his mother is dead.

N. S. Khrushchev: “It’s a pity, of course, that your mother is dead, but maybe it’s lucky for her that she can’t see how her son is spending his time. What master are you serving anyway? Our paths are different. You’ve either got to get out or paint differently. As you are, there’s no future for you on our soil.”

One of the bystanders says, “These are graphic artists. They do these pictures in their spare time to improve their skill” (general laughter).

N. S. Khrushchev: “I remember the Ukrainian satirist, Ostap Vishnya. In one article he gives the following conversation: ‘Do you believe in God? and the answer, ‘At work I don’t, and at home I do.’ That’s what these scratchings of yours are like …

“I used to be on friendly terms with the sculptor, Merkurov. He was a great man, a real man. Once, in the Dresden Gallery, he pointed to some paintings of the Dutch masters and told me that our artists maintain that to appreciate a painting you have to stand back from it. The Dutch masters painted differently. You can look at their pictures through a magnifying glass and still admire them. But your paintings just give a person constipation, if you’ll excuse the expression. They don’t arouse any other feelings at all.”

Turning to Zhutovskii, “Do you want to help us build communism? No, what you want is for people to consider you a misunderstood genius – a painter whom the future will appreciate. You are a hypocrite!”

In front of Zhutovskii’s self-portrait: “Externally there is no resemblance. The picture is unnatural. But there is certainly a spiritual resemblance between the portrait and the original. You are stealing from society. You are a parasite. We have to organize our society so that it will be clear who is useful and who is useless. What right do you have to live in an apartment built by genuine people, one made of real materials?”

Zhutovskii: “But these are just experiments. They help us develop.”

N. S. Khrushchev: “Judging by these experiments, I am entitled to think that you are pederasts, and for that you can get 10 years. You’re gone out of your minds, and now you want to deflect us from the proper course. No, you won’t get away with it …

“Gentlemen, we are declaring war on you.”

Source: Encounter (London), April 1963.

Comments are closed