For those of us who grew up American in the last decades of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was portrayed to us as a paradox between an implacable enemy colossus and a lumbering, crumbling anachronism. There wasn’t much space between what was taught in history class and the pages of Time magazine to convey more complicated truths—such as how a spirit of energy and optimism had underpinned the Soviet experience (at least in its most idealistic self-depictions) that wouldn’t have been entirely alien to the American psyche.
Of course the Soviet undertaking was also anathema to the American experiment. The grandest goals of the Bolsheviks were almost spiritual: re-making human life into a cooperative collective existence that had never been seen or attempted on such a grand scale. On a practical level the project went hand in hand with vast crimes against its own people. Lenin himself, in the early days of Soviet power, ordered terror against his own citizens to shock them into accepting change. Mass killings typified his regime and the decades that followed. The collectivizing of the Russian agricultural economy, unimaginable in America, was one of the most wasteful, destructive, and malicious acts in human history.
Mai V. Dantsig, 1930, The New Apartment, 1965, Oil on canvas
Yet it’s part of our talent as humans to always find beauty. “Romance in Soviet Art” exhibits pieces that depict moments both gentle and exuberant in private lives under the Soviet Union. It affectionately demonstrates the sparks of connection and passion that lift any heart. The majority of works in the show derive from the 1950s and 1960s—an era of postwar relief on either side of the Cold War chasm. But while the American dream of vigorous individualism brought us Elvis and the rise of the teenager, in Soviet art we see romance and family life largely as a respite from relentless work, mostly industrial. Love and its intimacies, then, in a society that relentlessly exalted the collective over the individual.
So many contradictions: a society of disappearances and executions that also had a beautiful dream of total equality, freedom from race and class, and an always-unreachable future. It’s not impossible for us to imagine the romance of that collective effort, of falling in love in the shadow of the factory or the towering spires of Moscow State University. And without forgetting the millions who died in those decades of terrible turmoil, we can honor their memories, as well as those who survived, by putting ourselves in their place, with their heartfelt hopes and deepest loves.
“Romance in Soviet Art”
at the Museum of Russian Art
through September 20, tmora.org