Exhibition on Kalektarnaya, 4 – Fragments from the book of rememberance (2004)
It was 1987. The Soviet Union was falling apart, thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev. The generation, who built socialism, began to fall into deep depression. Communist reforms failed the test of time.
My grandmother, a hard-core communist, wagged her finger at me: “I built socialism and I will see how you are going to build Communism!”
We will build no Communism, Alena Fyodorovna. As it turned out, we – just like you, dear grandmother – lived in a cardboard box, which has broken up.
People were terrified of changes. But my friend, Alexei Zhdanau, or Lyosha, and I were very happy. God gave us a historic opportunity: to see the final hours of our Politburo’s fellows!
The first one was the titan and stoic, a man who was decorated with the state medals and bushy eyebrows – Leonid Brezhnev. He was nicknamed “the brows-holder” [the play of words “brov” (‘brow’) and “bron” (‘arms’) – O.K.] Our people are never short of jokes.
Strangely enough, Lyosha Zhdanau and I thought that we would never live to the end of the socialism, we would die much earlier. But all the sudden, we are hearing on TV a classic music. We learn that Leonid Brezhnev died. And then THEY started to die like flies.
Only yesterday Andropov’s bureaucrats were taking people out of movie theaters’ queues for questions and firing them for arriving five minutes later to work. But before “andropovtsi” completed their absurd disciplinary reform, we heard again on radio and TV a cautiously sounding classic music – that was the death of Yuri Andropov! His kidneys failed. He wrote verses.
In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. Good-looking, with the birthmark on his foreground and educated wife Raisa, who was immediately accepted by Westerners as theirs. It was no longer a shame to show a General Secretary of the Communist Party’s wife to people. New times were looming in Moscow.
But in Mensk [–the author uses the old East Slavic name of the town “Mensk” instead of contemporary Minsk, which is preserved in the name of organization “Minskgramadzianproject” – O.K.], word “perestroika” did not mean much. Mensk was just a province. Members of the old Communist Party were still in power. And where would they go? Who should be the first? They seemed to be standing firmly on their clay legs.
Those days, I lived on Karl Marx street. Not far from the main train station. One day, in the beginning of fall of 1987, Ludmila Karatkevich, a good-looking woman architect, stopped by for tea. She had worked at the organization called “Minskgramadzianproject” [Minsk Civic Project – O.K.] on Kalektarnaya street for twenty years.
It was a military style organization, where the workers punched a clock. When the bell rung, workers got at their desks, rung again – they went for lunch. You couldn’t even go to bathroom without your boss’ permission. And this was all twenty years she had worked there. Because of the continuity of existence in a regime of concentration camp, architect Ludmila began to feel an enormous psychological tension to the degree of nervous breakdown.
– God knows how much I want to take a revenge on my ‘beloved’ “Minskramadzianproject”, – Ludmila dreams. – But I don’t know how.
– I know how, – I said.
– Do you? How?
– We have to organize an exhibition of avant-garde artists in “Minskgramadzianproject”!
– That’s a genius thought, – Ludmila concludes. – Tomorrow I will go to the events organizer – (there were still such people: komsomol [acronym for the Youth Communists Party – O.K.] organizers) – and tell him that it would be very good for our organization, where creative people work, to hold an exhibition of young avant-garde artists. Moreover, our boss, Uladzimir Ilyich, is on vacation. Will you be able to find a decent amount of such artists?
– Yes! Agreed!
Autumn of 1986 in Mensk was beautiful. It filled the old streets, which, despite the destructive forces of developed socialism, still kept their historic beauty. One of them was Kalektarnaya street, where the “Minskgramadzianproject” was located.
Some time ago in Poland, I found myself in a place named Minsk-Mazavetski. Suddenly I felt deja vu. I thought I was in our Mensk, right on Kalektarnaya Street. It turned out that such an architectural coincidence was not accidental, since even after the time under Poland, Belarus cities and towns were built on the same architectural models. Similar affinity, for example, can be seen between Paris and St. Petersburg.
The windows of the grey, standard-looking building of the “Minskgramadzianproject” faced the old square, all gold from the fallen leaves. The history of this place was dramatic. During the Nazi occupation of Mensk, the Jewish ghetto was set up around here, near the old Jewish cemetery. An evidence from the past – a regular stone on the ground – tells the story to today’s Mensk residents.
As always, our dear comrades-communists were incredibly thick-skinned: in places, where innocent victims were buried – whether they were victims of Nazi, buried on Kalektarnaya, or those of Stalinism, buried in Kurapati – they planted trees and built apartment buildings, or administrative facilities, like on Kalektarnaya, 4. Before you know it, you see people bustling senselessly above the dead, preoccupied with their everyday business.
But let’s come back to “Minskgramadzianproject”… Architect Ludmila Karatkevich – an extravagant and energetic Jewish woman, sporting a black man’s coat, adorned with bloody red lips and beautiful brown eyes, always bearing the expression of deep anxiety – next morning pays a visit to the “Minskgramadzianproject”’s events organizer to make a very simple proposal to him, namely: to host an exhibit of young avant-garde artists.
– But what does that mean – “avant-garde”? – the organizer naively asked.
– It’s those who are best in painting, – Ludmila answered without blinking her eye.
Ludmila Karatkevich had never seen a single avant-garde artist in her life, since regular Belarus citizens were not exposed to such “exotic creatures”. However, she was a friend of Alexei Zhdanau, a poet and dissident, who are, in old times, used to make childish pencil drawings and hand them out to his friends. But, in Brezhnev time, no one would ever think that this might be considered as avant-garde art.
The “Minskgramadzianproject”’s events organizer praised Ludmila’s proposal. “When our director, Uladzimir Ilyich, will come back from vacation, we will be already done with this”, – the young man was beaming with joy. (In that time, it was in fashion to do ‘cultural events’ at work place. Nowadays, there is probably not even such a word.)
Later that evening, Alexei Zhdanau and I discussed the possible participants of the exhibition.
Vital Razhkou, a young artist, who studied in an art school, seemed to be a bit wild. Always in his long white coat, he stood out from others because of the apparent extremism in his views and behavior.
Andrei Pliasanau had a complex personality that revealed itself in various fields: he played musical instruments, sang, drew, wrote texts and collected old maps and antiques. He was rumored to be involved in forgery, but neither to me, nor to Alexei he did no harm. After all, there are always people who envy someone’s success! Freedom in Pliasanau’s personality suited us.
There was Todar Kopsha, a professional artist, aestheticist, with moderate nationalist views.
Artur Klinau, a young painter, bright fellow, resembled a “rasnochintsi” [19th c. Russian middle-class liberal – O.K.], always adjusting his glasses that tended to slide from his eagle-shaped nose, and repeatedly telling us that “he just returned from Piter [St. Petersburg]”. A Gogol-like hairdo contributed to his revolutionary look.
Alexei Zhdanau, a well-known poet within a small community, looked like a former wrestlers’ coach – robust, wide in shoulders, who has, however, never put his foot in gym and couldn’t stand any physical work.
All his entire life, Alexei painted idiotic pictures featuring some hostile aliens (he called them Marcians) and made collages. He also cut out from magazines’ pages photographs of victims of Stalin’s repressions and stuck them with the stationary glue on card boards. In the center of these accusatory works were always Stalin and Lenin. Victims and perpetrators were mixed together. Perpetrators sat on benches, stood with their arms stretched, caps on their heads, and so on. In Mensk, I have once heard from a three-years-old, who saw a poster with the image of Lenin wearing a cap, a story: “Once upon a time Lenin lived. Then he died. Today, as people are going to work, they tell him: “So long, Lenin!” The similar impression could be made by Alexei’s collages. In addition, Lenin was painted with his mouth brightly colored.
On the auditorium’s walls, we planned to hang sheets of paper with poetry by Alexei Zhdanau and mine. Those the most political. The auditorium itself was designed in a style of a poster socialism: the rows of chairs, stage with the table covered with the red cloth and omnipresent white plaster bust of the ever-alive dead. So long, Lenin!
Vital Razhkou asked for permission to live in this space over the weekend to install the entire show according to his plan.
All participants were thrilled by upcoming events. My children even stopped going to the school.
Finally, it was the day of the opening of our exhibition on Kalektarnaya! I was shocked to see what the artists led by Vital Razhkou had done! The auditorium, from top to the bottom, was stuck with newspapers. All chairs were placed in the center of the room, piling on in some kind of mountain, from which the bare human arms and legs were sticking out. That was the work named “Perestroika” by Vital Razhkou himself. The arms and legs were found at prosthetics factory. On the left side from the entrance, Razhkou hung another his work – a gigantic portrait of naked Brezhnev. An image of an old moron with gigantic genitals. The picture had a title: “The Portrait of a Patriarch”.
After a short discussion the genitals were covered with a coquettish headdress, directly nailed to the canvas. It became even more interesting. On the right side from the doors, there was a painting by Andrei Pliasanau: spiced up with light eroticism, a cosmic motif featuring astronauts, in their suits and helmets, hovering across the canvas. Furthermore, one could find the delicate aestheticized abstract paintings by Todar Kopsha.
Closer to the stage, Alexei Zhdanau’s collages were placed on the walls. To see paintings by Artur Klinau, one needed to come up on the stage. They struck with their weirdness, especially the one titled “The death on Kastrichnitskaya Street”. In the middle of a crooked street lied a dead cat, but somehow, everyone understood that this was an allusion to the death of Solomon Mikhoels, who was actually run over by a truck in Mensk on the orders of Stalin.
Next to his “Portrait of a Patriarch”, Vital Razhkou put the shelves with the various objects united by only one thing: they all were found on garbage. Most inappropriately, there was a used woman pad. I started a long and difficult negotiations, trying to convince Vital to take it away, otherwise the exhibition would be shut down as a pornography show. And this was not what we wanted to happen. Finally, I got him to remove it.
When the auditorium’s door had finally opened, a few visitors – “Misnkgramadzianproject”‘s staffers – were ready to put their feet in the room, but… froze with one leg up in the air, like cranes. They couldn’t bring themselves to step on the newspapers! Newspaper, an important agent of political power, caused fear. For the moment, people felt paralyzed. It seemed quite shocking, because they were not regular working class, or kolkhozniki [state farms’ workers in the USSR – O.K.], but the cream of society, intelligentsia, architects! It was hard to forget. […] With their faces white from fear, they had to step on the newspapers lying on the floor to enter the exhibition.
Very quietly, almost on their tip-tops, they began to stroll around the exhibition. In the beginning – silently. But later on, some – still looking fearfully around and over their shoulder – took a peek under the piece of cloth covering painting «Patriarch» and laughed loudly. Especially, the women. Others, on the contrary, got embarrassed and angry. Sporadic discussions were divided in black and white. The angry were shouting: «This is a mess! We won’t allow it! We didn’t go to the war to have such thing happened!» Those, of course, were the veterans.
Before the lunch time, there were about ten people who visited the show. But the strict work schedule had been already violated. After lunch, when first visitors shared their impressions with their colleagues, it was impossible to prevent all the curious to see the avant-garde art. In “Minskgramadzianproject”’s corridors, the quarrels broke, even on the verge of a brawl. The veterans shouted: “Close it! Ban it! Destroy it!” “It’s a marvelous show, – the rebellious sneered, – Good artists. And you, veterans, always want to see the pictures of the war. We are fed up with that!”
That was Monday. On Tuesday people came in numbers. “Minskgramadzianproject” stopped working. Architects hung out in hallways and enthusiastically argued about the exhibition. Visitors came from outside. Early morning on Wednesday, the representatives from City Party’s committee, led by the head of the Department of Culture, Ms. Ivanova, accompanied by the ideological secretary, but I can’t recall the names now since their all looked alike. Surrounded from both sides by her «comrades», Ms. Ivanova came up right to the Zhdanov’s collages. She stared at Lenin with colored lips, getting noticeably outraged. She almost passed out, but her fellows managed to catch her before she fell. When she got back to her senses, she turned to Zhdanau and pronounced with tears in her voice:
– You insulted me… You insulted me as a woman.
– I didn’t insult you, – Zhdanau uttered proudly, but with a suspicious spark in his eyes.
The ideological secretary started to preach Zhdanau about politics.
– Speak up! I can’t hear you, – Zhdanau asked.
– I think I am speaking loud enough, – the secretary was puzzled. – Why can’t you hear me?
– Because I am hearing 1937 victims’ blood gurgling in your shoes, – Zhdanau pronounced emphatically.
The secretary could say no more. Frail Ivanova was taken by both her arms and led out of the exhibition space. The secretary followed her, staggering. We smelled trouble. We all felt that the exhibition could be closed soon. Zhdanau got a problem with his heart and that put him in cold sweat. He left home. Alexei’s health was poor and he couldn’t take too much stress. Vital Razhkou stayed in the exhibition overnight again. And it was a good thing. In the middle of night, someone changed the lock in the auditorium, but Razhkou was able to open the space from inside. The next day, there was a crowd of visitors. And KGB agents were among people who came to see the show. Representatives from city Party’s committee came along, but without Ms. Ivanova.
Architects celebrated the victory – no more work, no more punching a clock. Former slaves couldn’t help it when they laughed watching through the windows how the red-haired head of the “Minskgramadzianproject”’s director, Uladzimir Ilyich, emerged from the yellow bushes outside the building. Having heard a ruckus, when on vacation, he could no longer stay home. He did not want to come in though, because he was afraid of taking responsibility for what was happening. Indeed, it was so amusing to watch him hiding in bushes, observing the events happening in his organization, but thinking that nobody was seeing him. Meanwhile, the building was already surrounded by the black cars. Police showed up.
Between Wednesday and Thursday we were notified that the exhibition would be closed. As a journalist, I knew how to defend my project:
– They will not close it! You stay here, and I will go and telegraph to Raisa Gorbacheva.
The reader might ask why Raisa, not Gorbachev himself? I took some things in consideration. Gorbachev had been already receiving a lot of letters, complains and telegrams. With Raisa, it was different. She was more available because no one had written to her yet. She would probably get my telegram. The text was the following: “Dear Raisa Gorbacheva! In Mensk, first exhibition of the avant-garde artists just opened. But the authorities want to close it. Please help protect our work!” I believe Raisa Gorbacheva received the telegram. For sure.
Apparently, my telegram was, indeed, the first letter that the educated and cultural wife of the new General Secretary had received. The exhibition was not closed.
On Thursday, pale and crazed “Minskgramadzianproject”’s events organizer asked me to come up to his office.
– What is going to happen to us? – he asked. His lips were red.
– Nothing, – I answered. – Nothing will happen to you.
– How can it possible? They will kick us out from here! Look what’s happening here, it’s a total anarchy, it’s an organization of a military type! – That was a big secret he gave out. Under the cover of civic institution, there was a secret military organization. This is why workers’ regime was like in a camp. – We stopped eating and sleeping. We can be arrested!
– Nothing will happen to you, – I assured him. – However,- I paused, – I think you will be promoted.
I left him mute, like in Gogol’s play “The Inspector”. The exhibition was not closed, thanks to Raisa Gorbacheva. But the Party’s forces were very clever. They started a big renovation in the auditorium.
That was the project’s culmination! The hatches in the floor were open widely. One could see the sparks from wielding work. The workers attached the ladders to the ceiling and began to spill white paint on visitors. Next to the exhibited objects and original decoration in the room, there were scenes from the hell. The celebration of absurd! Perestroika had been launched. Lyosha Zhdanau told me: “You know what ‘perestroika’ actually is? It’s like a pot filled with shit standing around the house. It’s covered with the lid and doesn’t bother anyone. But someone puts it on fire and begins to heat and stir. Can you imagine the smell?!! That is it!»
Architect Ludmila Karatkevich’s revenge to the organization she worked at and hated so passionately turned out swell! Even 18 years later, I am not ashamed to recall that brilliant action. For many years the censorship had been removed from cultural life in Mensk. Since then, we could have shown whatever we wanted. We fought for it! We fought for the freedom to put our feet on newspapers.
But one curious and unexpected event happened during the exhibition that I heard about only in 2004, from Artur Klinau who visited me in Warsaw. After the opening of the exhibition on Kalektarnaya, Vital Razhkou asked him to approach the red-clothed table and pulled the drawer to show a rusty air missile from the time of the war. Although belatedly, I am relieved to know that the exhibition’s organizers and participants, together with the architects and Party’s officials, my children and regular visitors, were not blown out in the air. That would be the price for the freedom to exhibit the avant-garde! But in fall of 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t cut yet grapes orchards along with people in Nagorno-Karabakh and Georgia. Pure gold was falling from the trees on Kalektarnaya street in Mensk, and the sky was deep and blue…
Warsaw, September 31, 2004.
Translated and footnoted by Olga Kopenkina (O.K.)
Source: pARTisan #03’2004.
Kalektarnaya was a new name of Jewish street, which was renamed in 1934. Historically, it was a Jewish burial site. It’s also known as a site where Nazi shot Jews and dumped their bodies in the mass grave.
Kuropati is a small village near Minsk, which famously became a location of the mass grave of the victims of Stalin repressions from Belarus and Poland. Apparently, the victims were brought there to be executed and buried right there in the mass grave yard.
Solomon Mikhoels (1890-1948) was a Soviet Jewish actor and the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater. He was the most visible Jewish intellectual in the Soviet Union. In 1948, Mikhoels was murdered during his visit to Mensk, on the personal orders of Stalin, who after the Second World War pursued the anti-Semitic line. Mikhoels’ body was run over by a truck and dumped on a road-side to create the impression of a traffic accident.
Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is an autonomous Armenian territory in the South Caucasus, within the borders of Azerbaijan, where the first armed ethnic conflict took place during the last years of the Soviet Union (1988). In 1989, during an anti-Soviet demonstration in Tbilisi, a capital of Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, dozens of people, mostly women, were killed by the Soviet Army acting on Gorbachev’s orders.