Art is Dead. Long Live Stalin
With Stalin’s rise came the death of artistic freedom. Artist Unions were quickly brought under the control of the Communist Party. Stalin believed that art should be "socialist in content and realist in form" - easily understood by the masses. Art was now an official tool of the state, a tool to quite literally paint a vision of the promised Socialist utopia.
The new art movement was called Socialist Realism. As the sole artistic style of the USSR, Artists were given the choice between for the state or dealing with the consequences of working against them. They had to follow strict guidelines on subject and aesthetic. Non-conformist artists who dared to challenge the status-quo were punished. Artists like Ülo Sooster and Boris Sveshnikov were sent to Siberian prison camps, and many others emigrated before they were sent to join them.
The Bulldozer Exhibition
After Stalin’s death, the USSR went through a period of “de-Stalinization”. While there was no change in government policy, some artists began secretly holding small exhibitions in their apartments. These exhibitions mainly attracted other artists and relatives. Apartment exhibitions required cautious execution, in order to avoid attracting the attention of the KGB. The new leader, Premier Khrushchev, continued to aggressively criticise avant-garde artworks, labelling them “degenerate art”, and threatened to deport the artists.
But, that was all about to change. On September 15, 1974, a group of twenty Soviet nonconformist artists gathered in a vacant lot in an urban forest on the outskirts of Moscow. The artists, led by Oscar Rabin and Evgeny Rukhin, were planning to host the first non-government sanctioned art exhibition in more than four decades. They had deliberately chosen this space, a field at the edge of the city, far from the interest of the KGB, but still accessible by metro for spectators. The artists displayed their paintings on makeshift stands made out of wood scraps.
But the authorities were ready. Almost immediately, more than 100 policemen armed with batons, three bulldozers, and a truck with a water cannon began to break up the exhibition. It was mayhem. Artists desperately tried to save their artworks as they were chased by authorities. One policeman was heard shouting: “You should all be shot! Only you are not worth the ammunition!” Already soaked by torrential rain, and now the water cannon, most of the artworks were destroyed. The exhibition was a failure.
The Death of State Sponsored Art
The next day, the artists woke up the next day to find themselves known around the world. The “bulldozer exhibition” was on the cover of newspapers around the world. The New York Times published the story on their front page, along with the artworks of many of the artists. Some foreign journalists who had been invited to the exhibition had attended and then reported on the resulting mayhem.
The Soviet authorities presented the crackdown as a state-sanctioned clean-up of the park. But the damage was done in the eyes of the international media. The Communist Party quickly changed its mind about contemporary art. “The first secretary of the local branch of the Communist Party — the man behind the crackdown — was fired.” Alarmed by the publicity, the state promptly issued a permit for the first-ever contemporary art show. It was held just two weeks later in another field on the outskirts of Moscow, and attended by thousands.