Happy Days Are Here Again

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In a very peculiar coincidence, for two days in a row I found, on the front page of American papers, articles dealing with Russian history and culture. It is no surprise that today's newspapers paid tribute to former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who died yesterday in Moscow at the age of 76. A larger-than-life colorful personality, he broke with the Communist Party when it was still in power and a move like that had a heavy price attached. Later, he became the first freely elected president of Russia and subsequently, the first leader in Russian history who relinquished his power at the end of his term. Yeltsin presided over an extremely volatile moment in Russian history during the disintegration of the Soviet empire, with its subsequent rampant corruption.

Only one day prior, on its front page the Los Angeles Times published an article by David Holley, reporting a resurgence of interest among newly rich Russian collectors eager to pay top price for paintings from the bygone era of Josef Stalin. This period in Soviet art is known as "Social Realism," when artists were obliged to toe the Party line, emphasizing the happiness and patriotism of the Soviet populace. The most popular themes were: Sunlit landscapes of the countryside dotted with birch trees; Happy, smiling peasants working the fields during harvest season; Heroic looking factory workers and soldiers sweating and fighting for the glory of the motherland. Needless to say, the art of this period was heavily infused with Soviet propaganda, but it would be wrong not to acknowledge the high technical skill of the best painters of this era. And that -- plus a certain dose of nostalgia, in my opinion -- is the main reason behind the revival of interest in these paintings, not only among Russians, but among European and American collectors as well. Some people -- justifiably so -- have moral issues with the fact that these paintings hide the dark, even tragic aspects of everyday life in Soviet Russia. And I see their point, but let's remember that here on the home front, during the Depression, Americans flocked to Hollywood musicals and screwball comedies with their refusal to acknowledge the darker side of life.

A few years ago, I started to notice in art magazines advertisements for exhibitions of Russian Social Realist paintings in a few American galleries. Initially, I thought of this as a rather peculiar development. "Who here would be interested in buying these paintings?" But I was wrong. One day I was introduced to a young American woman who, upon learning that I am from Russia, told me how she fell in love with the Russian art of this particular period. After a chance encounter with a few Stalin-era landscapes in a Laguna Beach gallery, she dragged her mother to see them, and thus the story of their obsession began. Now, almost ten years later, their stately family house in Altadena is hung floor-to-ceiling with close to one hundred paintings, not counting the dozens of canvases in a separate studio loft in Pasadena. And I'm talking here about people who are as American as apple pie and love these paintings for their vibrant colors and rich variety of subjects.

I hope that listening to this story, you are not planning to embark on collecting Russian art of the Stalin era, because you've already missed the boat. Ten years ago, these works could be bought for a few thousand dollars. Now the prices have climbed already to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the best ones, and even Chinese dealers were spotted in Moscow buying these paintings glorifying the Soviet past. So, as they say, happy days are here again.

Banner image is 'THE WEDDING': Yuri Kugach, a central figure in Socialist Realism during the Soviet era, painted this version of his work in 2000. The original, completed in 1970, was lost in Kyrgyzstan in recent years. The newer work is owned by Alexei Ananyev, a wealthy collector who is chairman of Russia’s Promsvyazbank.