Socialist modernism: remembering the architecture of the eastern bloc

[From The Guardian]

The monumental but decaying grey, brutalist structures of central and eastern Europe are fading memories of the socialist era. So decrepit are some of these buildings that the Bureau for Art and Urban Research (Bacu) believes “socialist modernism” – the architecture from the former eastern bloc erected between 1955-91 – has been left out of the history books.

In an attempt to protect these buildings, Bacu started an initiative in 2014 to document and preserve the structures and their heritage.

From the faded grandeur of the State Circus in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, to the concrete curves of Kiev’s Memory Park, many of these buildings have been abandoned and left to ruin, while others sit waiting for demolition in rapidly developing eastern European cities.

“We aim to revitalise this heritage not only for symbolic reasons, but because we believe in these elements that managed to defy some of the ideological requirements, giving the urban space a certain flavour so characteristic of those times,” says Dumitru Rusu of Bacu. “Boulevards, public buildings, living units and monuments, they all are a clear reflection of the social and cultural context of the socialist period.”

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In praise of older books: Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman

[from The Irish Times]

I’m reading Life and Fate on a beach in Croatia. I peek from under my sunhat. Mothers and fathers, children, babies, grandparents. Lying in the sun. Swimming in the warm sea. In Moscow, Croatia and France play for the World Cup. Europe at peace.

My eyes return to the page. The Soviet Union. 1942 -1943. War. Jewish nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum waits for the phone to ring, the door to burst open, the arrest. Stalin is unpredictable. You never know the hour.

In Stalingrad, Lieut Gen Yemenko confronts Gen Paulus. Their soldiers, men and women, die in their thousands. On the Kalmyk Steppe, Lieut Col Darensky can think of nothing but the lice. “(H)e had spread out his pants and was squashing the lice that infested them. He was moving his lips silently, evidently keeping a tally.”

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Vladimir Voinovich, Dissident Russian Writer, Dies at 85

[From the New York Times]

Vladimir Voinovich, a Russian writer whose satirical novels vexed the Soviet authorities in the Leonid Brezhnev era, resulting in his banishment from the country for a decade, died on Friday in Moscow. He was 85.

Vladimir R. Medinsky, Russia’s culture minister, confirmed the death in a condolence statement on Sunday. The cause was a heart attack, Mr. Voinovich’s friend Yulia Pessina said on Facebook.

Mr. Voinovich first incurred the displeasure of the authorities by supporting high-profile dissidents in the mid-1960s. Then he really inflamed them with his novel “The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin.” The book did not clear the Soviet censorship bar in 1969 but circulated underground and was published in Europe four years later.

Mr. Voinovich found himself under scrutiny by the K.G.B., and later said that he believed that during one of its interviews with him in 1975 the agency poisoned him with a cigarette that had been laced with some sort of hallucinogen.

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Frankfurt gallery to highlight Soviet Georgian photographer Guram Tikanadze

[From website]

An exhibition space in Frankfurt will introduce photography enthusiasts in Germany to the life and work of celebrated Soviet-era creative Guram Tikanadze, who became the first Georgian photographer known to the world across the Iron Curtain.

The Ausstellungshalle venue in the central German city will open for a personal display of the artist and mountaineer who died descending the famed Shkhara peak in 1963.

Remembered as a major figure in the development of the photographic scene in Georgia, Tikanadze also received accolades abroad.

His bronze medal at the 1959 World Festival of Students and Youth in Vienna was particularly notable for the period when reaching the international audience was a difficult proposition for Soviet creatives.

Born in 1932, Tikanadze studied at the faculty of Geography and Geology of the Tbilisi State University.

Catching an interest of photography early on, he took classes for the art form at the capital city’s Young Pioneers Palace (now Georgian National Youth Palace).

Featuring in Soviet Georgian and USSR-wide displays, Tikanadze’s work was also seen by audiences in international exhibitions from Japan to the United States to Europe.

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The Photo Book That Captured How the Soviet Regime Made the Truth Disappear

[From The New Yorker]

How unreal can things get? As the sense of shared reality is eroded, more with each passing day, one wonders. Writing on the relationship between truth and politics in this magazine, fifty-one years ago, Hannah Arendt noted just how vulnerable factual truth is, using the example of “the role during the Russian Revolution of a man by the name of Trotsky, who appears in none of the Soviet Russian history books.” Thirty years after Arendt published her article, a British collector and historian of Russia, David King, published a study in the form of a photo album—a study of the disappearance of the physical record of Trotsky and a number of other Russians who fell out of favor, and out of history, during the Stalin era.

The book is called “The Commissar Vanishes.” The title is, incongruously, literal. Its specific reference is to a photograph, from 1919, of a second-anniversary celebration of the October Revolution. In the picture, Vladimir Lenin stands at the top of a set of stairs, surrounded by many unidentified men and children and a few recognizable men, including Leon Trotsky, stationed just in front of Lenin. By the time the photograph was published, in 1967, Trotsky had disappeared: he had been airbrushed out, along with several other commissars.

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Take a look inside the forgotten Soviet spas along the Russian Riviera

[From Lonely Planet]

In the early 1920s, in an effort to bring better treatment facilities to everyday workers, the former USSR began building state-run sanatoriums and spas across the region, particularly around the Crimean Peninsula. Some of the most innovative buildings of their time, the often decadent institutions were designed for mandatory vacations, and housed thermal baths and relaxation areas as well as facilities for medical treatment. Today, many of these once-bustling buildings lie forgotten, abandoned by time and politics. As an intriguing symbol of the ex-Soviet Union, one photographer decided to travel to sanatoriums along the Russian Riviera to document them in striking detail.

Belgian photographer Reginald Van de Velde first became interested in sanatoriums around Georgia in 2012. Having read about the history of the buildings, he decided to plan a trip there to document them, travelling to places such as the spa resort of Tskaltubo, as well as the notoriously hard to reach Abkhazia. Located along the Black Sea coast, the latter was once the jewel of the ‘Soviet Riviera’, but today the de facto independent republic is still recovering from the 1992 – 1993 war. Travelling to Abkhazia by way of Georgia, Reginald and his partner had to pass through several tense borders and checkpoints in order to gain access.

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My Mother’s Brilliant Career in Soviet Culture

[From The New Yorker]

Culture was big in the USSR. Many avenues existed for the model Soviet citizen to develop herself culturally. In the Palaces of Culture, for instance, one could sign up for amateur dance and singing “circles,” attend lectures on the harm of alcoholism, even participate in amateur productions of Hamlet. Younger members of the society could go to lavish Pioneer Palaces that offered instruction in everything from music to step-dancing, ballet, journalism, and theater (I did all five in the 1980s, though not concurrently). We also participated in kultpokhody, or organized expeditions to various cultural establishments. Our southern town, Krasnodar, the capital of an important agricultural region, had a philharmonic orchestra, three theaters (for operetta, drama, and puppet), and a permanent circus.

A weekly newspaper, Soviet Culture, published detailed explanations of the culture-related decisions of the Communist Party, and sang the successes of Russia’s ballet dancers and the era’ wunderkind pianist Zhenya Kissin. My mother subscribed to Soviet Culture for professional reasons: she had a job at the Institute of Culture, an unadorned five-story block on the edge of the First-of-May Park in Krasnodar.

The Institute was no palace. Its purpose was simple: to produce culture warriors—librarians, choir conductors, orchestra musicians, dance collective directors, museum curators, mass leisure organizers. An important aspect of the work was organizing the best November 7 displays to commemorate the October Revolution, performing inspiring tableaux and pirouettes in front of the regional Party Committee building. Most students of talent and ambition went straight to one of Moscow’s renowned conservatories, ballet companies, or theater schools, bypassing our local Institute of Culture. Still, the Institute had its fair share of applicants; they offered a higher education diploma, a deferment from military service, and a stipend.

My mother had passed up a chance to do a master’s degree at the Moscow Conservatory under the patronage of Dmitry Shostakovich, a family friend, and instead married my father in 1970 thinking that she was choosing family bliss and stability over the uncertainties of starting a professional life in the arts from scratch in the capital. And things began well. In Krasnodar, in addition to her job at the Institute, she enjoyed minor celebrity status as a local TV host on a classical music show—to the extent that shows like What If Grieg Kept a Diary could make one a celebrity in the land of wheat fields, tractors, fertilizer depots, and dairy farms. But it paid well and, according to witnesses, my father was a handsome man.

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Soviet film posters of the 50s and 60s – in pictures

[From The Guardian]

After the break-up of the USSR in 1991, many artefacts associated with Soviet life – from posters to gadgets – were discarded, destined to be forgotten. Founded in 2012, the Moscow Design Museum collects objects from the era, which form the basis of a new book, Designed in the USSR: 1950-1989 (Phaidon, £24.95). These film posters, made between 1957 and 1966, roughly coincide with the “Khrushchev thaw”, a period of increased liberalism that followed Stalin’s death. “They reflect their time well,” says the museum’s director, Alexandra Sankova. “At that time, design had an artistic expressiveness that reflected the thaw and dreams of a new, more open world.” Romance films and murder mysteries were popular, but “Soviet people loved comedies the most – they became classics of the genre. People still know them by heart.”

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Russian avant-garde forgery case ends in convictions and disappointments

[from The Guardian]

trial in Germany many hoped would help crack down on a flourishing trade in Russian avant-garde forgeries on the international art market has fallen short of its target after a dispute between two divorced art historians left judges unable to decide whether many disputed works were genuine or fake.

On Thursday afternoon, Wiesbaden regional court sentenced art dealer Itzhak Zarug, 72, and his business partner Moez Ben Hazaz, 45, to 32 months and three years in prison respectively for having knowingly sold forged pictures and invented the provenance of paintings by El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich as well as constructivists such Alexander Rodchenko.

For many art experts, however, the ruling was disappointing given the scale of the operation involved. When police arrested the Tel Aviv-born Zarug and German-Tunisian national Ben Hazaz in 2013 after a tip-off from Israeli intelligence, it was hailed as one of the biggest swoops against organised art crime in recent German history.


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What was Russia’s October Revolution for, and does it matter any more?

[From The Conversation]

Few episodes in history capture the imagination quite like the Russian Revolution of 1917, undeniably one of the most important episodes of modern history. But a century later, what does it really mean? After all, the Soviet state that emerged from 1917 no longer exists, and the Cold War is over. Does the revolution have any relevance today?

To judge by the flurry of interest in the centenary, a great deal. Historians and writers are in overdrive trying to convey what happened, how, and why, many focusing on the “ordinary” people involved and the extraordinarily talented artists who experienced, made, and captured the revolution. That’s certainly in the spirit of the thing; Lenin himself described revolutions as “festivals of the oppressed and the exploited”. But it’s unwise to romanticise revolution in general, and the Russian Revolution in particular.

The course the Revolution took was determined above all by Lenin and his ruling Bolshevik party, often alongside “the people”, but often also by force against them. One of the most important questions to ask, then, is: what was the October Revolution actually for? Why did the Bolsheviks take power?

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