From Bronnitskaya Street to Pushkinskaya-10: Nonconformist culture and Apartment exhibitions in Leningrad and St.Petersburg (Shuhui Zhou)

Nonconformist Art Sites in Leningrad-St. Petersburg, 1981-2005

“It’s possible to know the world around you and its essence without going beyond the parameters of one’s room, or one’s apartment (Maitre and Schlatter, 9). The advent of apartment exhibition was complexly related to social conditions of artists and their relations to the government during the Soviet period. Refracted through the prism of political struggles of artists from the 1960s-1990s, apartment exhibition as a phenomenon, along with the nonconformist culture, went through substantial changes that reflected the social realities in the USSR. The post-apartment exhibitions in St. Petersburg and the Pushkinskaya-10 art center in St. Petersburg show that, just as the nonconformist culture during the Soviet era manifested as an oppositional movement, apartment exhibition was also a counter-measure against the plight of artistic lives under state control. Moreover, apartment exhibition was fundamental to the broader nonconformist movement in USSR and it shaped and gave unofficial art works an explicit domestic character. Accordingly, the establishment of Pushkinskaya-10 was emblematic of the continuance of such interlaced attitude towards art, society, and the sense of belonging that apartment exhibition used to represent.

Nonconformist culture in Russia
The concept of nonconformist culture in Leningrad first became relevant in 1932, when the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) disbanded all artistic organizations (Maitre and Schlatter, 42). Furthermore, the Soviet Union declared Socialist Realism to be the only artistic genre endorsed by state law. The definition of Socialist Realism was based on three criteria of evaluating art works: partiinost’ (party character), ideinost’ (socialist content), and narodnost’ (national roots) (Sjeklocha and Mead, 30). These criteria served as the guidelines for artistic work. In order to consolidate its control on the artistic sphere, the USSR created three institutions to monitor artists’ activities: the Union of Soviet Artists, the Ministry of Culture of the USSR, and the Academy of Arts of the USSR. The Union of Soviet Artists granted the legal right for artists to work in their professions and was one of two institutions, including the Ministry of Culture, that had the power to commission art works. The Ministry of Culture administered the acquisitions of art works and all exhibition venues, mainly art museums, and the Academy controlled all important art institutions and schools in the country (Golomshtok and Glezer, 91-2).

These institutions worked cohesively to force artists to adhere to the principles of Socialist Realism. There were no private galleries, and the commercial art world was nonexistent (Sjeklocha and Mead, 32). The effort made by the Soviet Union to unify artistic culture and thus solidify its ideological ground provoked artists who were offended by such manipulation of personal freedom. In the mid-1950s, unofficial art began to appear as a social phenomenon (Golomshtok and Glezer, 85). As a consequence, artists who refused to conform to the standard advanced by the state were under great psychological pressure and financial difficult. The KGB was constantly after nonconformist artists who sought to find alternative ways to express their ideas that were in contradiction to the “official culture.” Nevertheless, the Soviet Union’s own political regime was not static, and neither were the official attitudes of the USSR towards art. Exhibitions of Picasso’s work in the Hermitage Museum during 1956 to 1964 indicated that the original definition of Socialist Realism was under considerable modification. By the mid-1950s, Impressionism became generally acceptable (Rosenfeld and Dodge, 54). Finally, in 1974, after tireless struggles with the authorities, nonconformist artists gained permission to open the first official exhibition of nonconformist art in Leningrad in the Gaz Palace of Culture. The exhibitions received about15,000 visitors and showed over 200 works by 52 artists. Despite the success of the exhibition, however, the Soviet government became reluctant to approve openings after the second such exhibition in Nevsky Palace of Culture in 1975. The political condition of the artists remained very difficult. The KGB was suspected of murdering one of the nonconformist leaders, Evgeny Rukhin, in 1975. During the 1980s, nonconformist artists enjoyed more artistic freedom due to the reforms of “perestroika” and a change of leadership within the department of the KGB that dealt with ideological threats (Maitre and Schlatter, 11, 43). But the degree of freedom was not sufficient to allow artists to freely exhibit their works. In short, although artists gradually experienced fewer restrictions from the Soviet government, the capricious regulations of the state left artists feeling insecure about their rights.

The Emergence of Apartment Exhibitions

The pursuit of self-expression by the nonconformist artists gave rise to the emergence of apartment exhibitions in the 1960s, the first in Leningrad in 1964. Artists held exhibitions in their own studios or apartments, because the state had forbidden showings of their artwork in public sectors. But apartment exhibitions were also considered subversive and illegal. However, as mentioned above, the rule against exhibitions of nonconformist art works changed periodically as the state occasionally eased tension on artists due to both social pressure within the USSR and criticisms from the West. This reduced, at least temporarily, the need for these illegal exhibition spaces. As a type of exhibitional space, the private apartment had the special meaning of being the place where the art works were created. Showing the art in these spaces also created an intimate atmosphere between the artist and the audience. They were also especially suitable for small exhibitions. Artists could easily set up apartment exhibitions in rooms with simple settings and could also quickly remove them to avoid accusations from the authorities. As a result, apartment exhibitions soon became popular among nonconformist artists and facilitated a sense of unity among artists. Despite these advantages, apartments were not the most ideal space for all types of exhibitions, but it was often the only choice for most nonconformist artists who did not have access to any exhibition venue. Because apartment exhibitions had to steer clear of the KGB’s inspections, security played a great role in ensuring the successful staging of the exhibitions. Sergey Kovalsky, the president of Pushkinskaya-10 Art Center, listed the requirements for qualified apartments:
“The rooms had to be large with high walls and the least possible amount of windows and furniture; it should be a private apartment or an apartment with neighbors who had moved out; a back door was desirable; the owners should be people who wanted to emigrate but had not been allowed to, so they would willing to face consequent penalties due to their desire to be evicted from the country; the owners also needed to be experienced in legal matters and not afraid of any negative consequences” (Maitre and Schlatter, 20).

Because of the limitation of the space and also the illegal status of apartment exhibitions, the audience and visitors usually belonged to specific social groups. Artists were undoubtedly the most common visitors, and included artists who were members of official organizations. In fact, a lot of the nonconformist artists had backgrounds as official artists and, in rare occurrences, even became members of the official Union of Artists (Rosenfeld and Dodge, 11). Others from the educated class, such as engineers, teachers, psychologists, also frequently visited these exhibitions. When asked about these apartment exhibitions, people who had attended such exhibitions in the past recalled this phenomenon as something integral to the alternative culture that reflected the specific character of the unusual times.

Advertisements for these exhibitions were very sporadic and inadequate. Some existed in a form reminiscent of a business card, and they were all hand-made by the artists (Maitre and Schlatter, 20). Earlier, promotions of apartment exhibitions could not reveal any information about artists because disclosure of information would put them in danger. Therefore, information regarding apartment exhibitions was not widely publicized through the means of mass distribution of advertisements but rather passed by word of mouth. Nonconformist culture in Leningrad was in some ways distinct from that in Moscow. Leningrad received less attention from Western journalists and thus the unofficial artists in Leningrad had less leverage against the government than artists in Moscow. Art culture in Leningrad was under stricter control. While the government permitted several official exhibitions of the nonconformist artists in Leningrad, artists in Moscow had been more successful at using criticisms of the regime from the West to coerce the government into compromising. Therefore, apartment exhibitions usually played a more important role in advancing nonconformist culture in Leningrad than in Moscow (Golomshtok and Glezer, 116).

“Moscow-Odessa” Exhibition in the APTART gallery (from photo archive of Larissa Rezun-Zvezdochetova)

The biggest apartment exhibition, “On Bronnitskaya Street,” occurred in Leningrad from November 14-17, 1981. It took place in an apartment vacated for major renovations. Today, artists frequently refer to this exhibition as the culmination of the apartment exhibition backgrounds (Maitre and Schlatter, 39). Indeed, compared to the 200 works exhibited in the Gaz Palace of Culture in 1974, “On Bronnitskaya Street” was not a big exhibition. This also spoke to the nature of apartment exhibitions: they thrived because of their limitations. Some artists, however, were more willing to fight for opportunities to exhibit in open spaces than organizing sporadic apartment exhibitions. One of the main reasons was that open-air exhibitions attracted international attention and aroused mass social awareness, forcing the government to concede and make policy changes. On the other hand, apartment exhibitions were meant for survival of the artistic spirit, and they represented outcries for freedom in the most modest way, although artists still had to risk their lives for such protests. Nonetheless, it was undeniable that apartment exhibitions had provided bases for exhibitions on larger scales and artists had formed closer relations with each other through the collective actions of creating and sharing a private space of freedom.

Conditions and Artistic Values of Nonconformist Artists

Despite their struggles in their artistic lives, artists also had to find a means to survive in society. Although some artists were fully dedicated to their professions as artists, most of the unofficial artists worked as electricians, or in other such jobs, in order to be able to live. In the 1970s, artists particularly preferred jobs called 24/3’s (24 working hours and three days off), which gave them more time for making art. Accordingly, most nonconformist artists did not wish to be entangled in politics. They stated that the main principle of nonconformism was essentially to establish the absolute value of a human being (Maitre and Schlatter, 15, 11). 21 It was not a political movement but was rather triggered by the persecutions from the government. As a result, the content of nonconformist art focused extensively on the struggle against the official culture.
Religious elements were also prevalent in the works of nonconformist artists. They did not represent the religious piety of artists per se, but rather more commonly an opposition to the state’s interference in individual freedom. But the political character was only part of the intention. Religious themes were also expressions of the nostalgia of the past. Artists were reminiscent of the traditional Russia to which that they felt innately connected.
Generally speaking, the artistic trends of nonconformist art works were rather diverse, ranging from traditional Realism to Pop art and Conceptual art. They never really integrated into one single artistic style (Golomshtok and Glezer, 81). But the stylistic trends of nonconformist art did carry in themselves unique traits that distinguished them from art works produced before. For a long time, Western critics considered nonconformist art as a mere reflection of Western trends. But gradually more and more people regarded it as a deeply individual artistic phenomenon that was unique to Russia (Golomshtok and Glezer, 82).According to Kovalsky, “It was the nonconformist painters remaining in the Motherland who imagined and created the world anew…a world with its own gods like the ancient Greeks: Kandinsky, Malevich, Cezanne, Dali, Dushan, Joyce, Filonov, and Falk” (Maitre and Schlatter, 13). While recognizing the Western influence, Kovalsky was also trying to embrace the Russianness of the Nonconformist underground art movement by emphasizing the influence of Russian artists like him who did not migrate to other countries under pressure. And apartment exhibitions were certainly crucial for maintaining these artists and the Russian character of unofficial art.

Pushkinskaya-10 and the relevance of nonconformist art culture in St. Petersburg today

Antaoly Shishkov, Apartment Exhibition “On Bronnitskaya Street,” 1981

Many of the recollections by the artists from the Soviet era had heightened the ubiquitous danger and life-threatening coercion they faced. And it was under such pressure that art communes intended for uniting unofficial artists appeared. “Sergei, holding a glass in his hand…learned that the poet had just pointed us to the building in the corner…(and he) said: ‘there it is – your building. Go and take it!” (Petrova, 21). Thus goes the founding story of Pushkinskaya- 10, an unconventional art commune that emerged in the hostile political context of the Soviet Union, survived very difficult political conditions, and continues to be a safe harbor for particular art groups. The commune is a complex consisting of a variety of exhibition spaces and studios in which some of the artists actually reside. The structure of the art commune, consisting of small apartments, reflects some of the conditions of unofficial art exhibition venues, such as apartment exhibitions during the Soviet era. The primary mission of the nonconformist art museum inside the commune is to preserve the unofficial art culture in the form of archives and various events. Founded by artists who considered themselves bearers of the Nonconformist idea from the previous generations, Pushkinskaya-10 exists as a manifestation of artists’ continued effort at maintaining such culture. To this day, it is still a private center independent of the state and often recognized as a non-mainstream point of interest for tourists. While the past of the nonconformist culture in Russia was permeated with the clearly defined principle of fighting against the prevalence of the official culture, the meaning of the present nonconformist culture to the Russian people, especially the younger generation, is rather more ambiguous and flexible.

Pushkinskaya-10 (photo credit to Elena Karpobaya)

Although the current state government of Russia has not followed the footsteps of the Soviet Union in fixing or enforcing a particular type of artistic expression, a variety of forms of censorship and regulations on the content of art still exist in Russia. These regulations, such as the anti-gay law, impinge on the freedom of artists. In its origin, the concept of nonconformist culture was a creation of the official culture: nonconformist culture exists as the antithesis of the official. In the absence of a specifically delineated official culture, the perception of it becomes more abstract. But many artists view the substantial restraints upon individual expressions from the state as unjustifiable. Dissatisfaction of artists expands beyond their artistic lives and concerns their civil lives. After all, artists live within the broader context of Russian society today. The nonconformist culture is going through a transformation and the definition of “nonconformist” expands. It transcends its original response to suppressions of the Soviet government and even projects it beyond Russia. Nonconformist culture in Russia, just like almost every other alternative culture, exists in a global context. Western
influence played a great role in shaping nonconformist culture in Russia and adding fuel to its battle against the Soviet Union. However, while Western culture is still of great importance, it is also under the scrutiny of the nonconformist culture. The artists now pay more attention to the concerns of cultural hegemony. The selection of exhibitions can testify to such intentionS. Currently, Pushkinskaya-10 has been invited to participate in the European cultural capital events for several years and has established a partnership with the State Russian museum. Nonconformist culture attracts young Russian people because of the artistic spirit, modernism, and “Russianness” it represents. Nonconformist culture is especially profound within the context of globalization and the continued discontent of young Russians and artists toward the official culture.

While temporary and small in scale, apartment exhibitions were essential to the survival of nonconformist culture in Leningrad and their prevalence provided a base for artists to articulate their rights against the political pressure of the government. Artists also looked both outwards for inspiration and inwards for self-reflection. Under the guise of apartments, nonconformist culture survived totalitarian rule and became a memorable relic of the Soviet era. However, from Bronnitskaya Street to Pushkinskaya-10, nonconformist and unofficial artists in Leningrad/St. Petersburg are continually seeking and trying to preserve their place in society against various forms of pressure, whether cultural hegemony or a new round of social and political marginalization. Ultimately, social reality in Russia is not tolerant enough for nonconformist culture to disappear.

Works Cited