Born in the USSR: Paintings of Childhood and Youth

“Born in the USSR” at the Museum of Russian art is a touching mosaic of childhood in the Soviet Union
Spring by A. Timofeev, oil on canvas.
A. Timofeev. Spring, undated oil on canvas. Photo by the Raymond and Susan Johnson Collection of Russian Art.

I have a friend who grew up in Russia when it was the Soviet Union, and we’ve spent a long time talking about her childhood in the country’s Far East, including what it was like growing up in a society that valued Communist Party membership above nearly everything else and for which political indoctrination was an open priority in every school kid’s day.

Over time, a pattern started to develop: She would describe a daily ideological lesson in the classroom, or a season when residents of her town would leave their office jobs to help with the harvest (it didn’t sound like there was much of a choice), and I would sympathize. It must have been awful for you, I’d say. You must be so glad to be living here in America now.

After a while, I received a gentle correction. Yes, she was glad to be in the United States—in fact, getting here had required an enormous amount of effort and
resourcefulness. But those childhood memories weren’t all bad. As a kid, she was taught that ethnic differences didn’t matter, and that she was part of a society that valued education, culture, and working together to truly make a better world. If anything, my friend had a certain wistful nostalgia for that time.

Fedor V. Shapaev's "Young Pioneer at the Door," 1955 oil on canvas.
Fedor V. Shapaev. Young Pioneer at the Door, 1955 oil on canvas. Photo courtesy of collection of Jack and Pam Safar

The Soviet Union was indeed a complicated place to be a child, a reality that’s reflected in the Museum of Russian Art’s poignant “Born in the USSR” exhibit, which collects more than 50 artworks in a moving composite portrait of idealism and hardship. A painting such as the 1955 Young Pioneer at the Door is a sort of visual poem. That girl’s uniform, her stoic facial expression, her posture of a child determined to carry herself as an adult—they all combine to breathe life into a moment that feels universal yet particular to a society in which the weight of an elusive utopia was on each kid’s shoulders.

In another, Difficult Years, from 1968, we see the kind of Russian heartland peasant scene not so terribly different from some American rural scenes, except the content tells us something subtle. The mother stares at us defiantly, a meager harvest clutched in her apron, while her male children struggle with the soil. But leaning on her shovel is a daughter looking crosswise, her expression impenetrable, her thoughts unknowable.

You can lose yourself for hours in this artwork, in the optimism of a childhood in the Soviet Union weighed down by a sense of duty. You also see human moments that cut across cultures and could just as well be snippets from our own Boy Scouts or Pledges of Allegiance. It’s a mosaic, in other words, of history and specificity, elusive and complex—just like the context of my old friend’s memories.

“Born in the USSR: Paintings of Childhood and Youth”
Through Sept. 10
The Museum of Russian Art