Policing the Academy

Located in a fistful of dilapidated rooms in 10 Pushkinskaya Ulitsa, the nerve center of St. Petersburg's visual arts scene is an establishment that goes by the grandiose name of The New Academy of Fine Art. Run on the basis of a pseudo-academic seat of learning, this rogue institution has grown from what many initially thought was a poor joke into one of the more powerful artistic forces in the city. It was founded six years ago by artist Timur Novikov -- a dynamic, conspicuous and often controversial figure -- for one specific purpose: to save from dereliction the great traditions of 20th Century Russian art.

By embracing a decadent, ultra-conservative aesthetic tinged with nationalism, the work of which is located somewhere between Socialist Realism and the art of fascist Germany, The New Academy hopes to protect Russia's artistic heritage against the "contamination" of Western modernism.

Inside the grimy, bunker-like gallery hang monumental canvases by Georgy Guryanov depicting grim-featured Soviet pilots astride fighter planes and soldiers brimming with physical perfection, and gazing off into a rosy militaristic future. Oleg Maslov and Victor Kuznetsov produce uproariously kitschy seaside snaps of naked muscular youths on fantastically large canvasses. Elsewhere, walls are decorated with enormous reproductions of lounging Greek gods, lyres and the neo-classical works of the students. Reproduction busts, displaying their seams like battle wounds, hang out in corners or gather together as if engaged in bouts of marmoreal, petrified debate.

"Museums of modern art are an indication of the decline of modern culture," explains Timur Novikov, crammed into his microscopic office. "There you can see exactly the decay, the ugliness, the distortion and the chaos. Until the destruction of the Soviet Union, Russia was protected from this contamination. Now, it is left to others to preserve this tradition. Before, the democrats would have cut our heads off for this sort of thing. But pretty soon, the government will be giving us all medals."

Since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, nationalism has become the most influential force in the new world disorder. It has risen in almost all of the ex-Soviet and Eastern bloc states, whipping up the rivalries and ethnic tensions that were artificiallysuppressed by the "Pax Sovieticus." But while nationalism has become a given in political life -- from communist and nationalist election gains all the way to the atrocities of the Balkan conflict -- the affect that the violent transition has been having on culture, on literature, theater, visual art and music has been relatively ignored.

Creative artists have been among the most affected by the viciousness and the insecurity of post-communist contemporary life. The impact of the upheavals of the past five years on the state system have been nothing less than devastating. The Soviet film industry has been completely destroyed by the collapse of state funding and the ensuing deluge of recycled Hollywood blockbusters. In the area of publishing, too, what Vaclav Havel described as communism's "pollution of the mind" has been replaced largely by low-grade pulp fodder, although this is starting to change. Theater is trapped in a time warp of classic texts, with few establishments willing to take on the financial risk of producing a new, unseasoned writer.

Paradoxically, the luxury of freedom created as many problems as it solved, sweeping away the hero status of the non-conformist and often

revealing work whose only prior achievement was its very existence. Also, the kinds of certainties that are sometimes necessary to complete a work of art -- that the buildings will not disappear, the street names will not change, the characters will not mutate out of all recognition before a project is finished -- have not been present in the mutating landscapes of the former Soviet Empire. "You start writing a novel in one country," says Moscow novelist Viktor Pelevin, "and you finish it in another."

The result among the artistic community has been an upsurge of nostalgic feeling for the old system and, consequently, the fostering of a dangerous wistfulness. It is just one step away from regressive ideology and the espousal of nationalist political views.

Artists have been allying themselves with dangerous and potent political ideologies for a good part of the 20th century, with varying results. Nothing quite compares to the gleeful exuberance with which the Italian Futurists clambered to make an alliance with Mussolini's Fascist Party, with the Futurist leader Filippo Marinetti being elected to the central committee in 1919, ranking second after Il Duce himself, on the party lists.

In fact, the very sources of Italian fascism can be found in Futurism, in its adoration of youth, its desire to put an end to all tradition and in its belief that "the Future is our only religion." Most of the ideas contained in Marinetti's manifestos proved to be archetypal and were eagerly taken up by subsequent regimes: "We shall exalt and praise the gigantic crowds of people fired up by labor, joy and mutiny. We shall worship the scintillating, febrile night of arsenals, glistening under the aggressive light of electric moons."

However, the future for Marinetti held nothing more than decline and disfavor, as Mussolini sought to consolidate his regime with a less dangerously iconoclastic style of art. By the late 1920s, he had been marginalized and his pleas for state support increasingly went unheard.

Having tried (and failed) to establish himself as a painter during his early days loitering around Vienna, Adolf Hitler fully understood the value of culture as a political weapon. But Hitler's tastes were conservative right from the start, and he advocated a classical, hagiographic style while roundly denouncing the innovators and modernists: "In this sphere of painting," he ranted, "you can see nothing but stains of paint. If anyone dares to call this art, then those people are cheating the German nation."

In Russia, too, the Cubo-Futurists merrily embraced politics, swept away as they were by the anarchy and destructive creativity of 1917: "Lenin turned Russia upside down," pronounced Marc Chagall, "which is exactly what I do in my pictures." Chagall -- along with Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Rodcheko, Gustav Klutsis, Lyubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova, Vladimir Tatlin, the theater director Vsevold Meyerhold, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and the artist Anatoly Lunacharsky, who was Commissar for Art in the early revolutionary days -- had intimate contact with communist political structures. Mayakovsky even went so far as to propose the establishment of "a dictatorship of taste."

But, as in Italy, the Communist regime soon had no need for innovation and sought a conservative form that would reach out to the hearts and minds of the people. Stalin's famous instruction, that artists should be "engineers of the human soul," was set in stone in 1932. From then on the classically derived, stultifying Socialist Realism became the only officially acceptable form of art.

The current beneficiaries of this politically tainted artistic heritage may not be quite on the same level as Marinetti or Mayakovsky, but the ideas they espouse and their implied menace are practically indistinguishable.

In the past few years, the schizophrenic ultra-right and far-left National Bolshevik Party has teamed up with a number of creative artists to promote the party's bigoted cause. These figures have included the late musician Sergei Kuryokhin, the heavy metal band Metal Corrosion and the Siberian punk band, Civil Defense.

On a rather more elevated cultural level, the recent work of Ilya Glazunov, once described as "probably the most popular painter alive" by the Western art journal Art Review, has taken a lurch towards the ideas and sentiments of extreme Russian nationalism. His mural, "Wake up Russia," features a bare-chested muscular youth carrying in one hand the New Testament and in the other an automatic rifle. Behind him a young woman carries a machine gun and a billowing Russian flag. In order to cement the message in the minds of gallery-goers, Glazunov daubs in a drummer boy whose instrument is emblazoned with the slogan: "Glory to Russia. Russia for the Russians."

Other works depict thick-lipped black men carrying off naked white women, and bearded Hasidic Jews sipping Russian blood. Glazunov receives funding from state institutions and his exhibition premiers have been patronized by such figures as Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and Boris Yeltsin.

The phenomenon of reactionary art has also thoroughly penetrated St. Petersburg's visual art scene via the New Academy where the artists, who call themselves "professors," chant a curious mantra entirely derived from Timur Novikov's ideas and theories: "The New is always something old which has been forgotten," they say. "European art has been poisoned with modernism... Here in St. Petersburg we will safeguard the great traditions of beauty." Inquiries on subjects any more demanding are referred to Novikov.

A character of astonishing organizational energy, Novikov has been prominent in the St. Petersburg art world for the past 10 years. His work, now executed almost entirely on textiles, has been seen in major galleries in Paris, New York, Vienna -- although not in Berlin, where the Bethanian Gallery cancelled one of his exhibitions on grounds that it displayed fascist tendencies.

Emphatically opposed to the conventional Western opinion, Novikov's theories are a nationalist reappraisal of Russian art history and an attempt to counter the Imperial cultural invasion of Western modernism: "I am an ecologist," he says. "For me it is very important to preserve the culture which is about to perish."

Modernism, Novikov believes, is a deformed aberration, a form that he has deemed to be infected with "primitive, African, shamanistic" values. "The way the West looks at the future is absolutely of no interest to us," he says. "And in the sphere of art the modern view is one of emptiness, confusion and ugliness."

Novikov and his group also hold that the Russian futurist movement of the 1910s and 1920s -- the only period which the West considers to have any value whatsoever -- was just a tangent, a modernist deviation from the true path of Russian realism. He is attempting to rewrite the history books and claim that the decline of the Futurists was not caused by a brutal political campaign, but was a natural progression.

"People just lost interest in their work," he says. "Neither Malevich nor Filonov nor Stepanova were imprisoned. The leaders of avant-garde art were not imprisoned. If Klutcis was shot, it was because of his being connected with Latvian soldiers. If the Futurists were arrested it was not for being artists, it was for being close to party leaders who were discredited."

The work of the Neo-Academicists has enjoyed considerable support both within and outside the artistic community. Some of this approbation has come from Eduard Limonov, an ex-minister of Zhirinovsky's shadow cabinet and current leader of the National Bolshevik Party. Once a dissident who was forced to emigrate to New York by the Soviet authorities in 1974, Limonov now believes that Russia has been in decline since March 5, 1953, the date of Stalin's death. He also believes that "punishment" is needed to keep minorities in line. His newspaper, "Limonka," spews out racial hatred and puts forward bizarre theories about how China is going to invade in order get their hands on Russian women.

"We are a modern party," he says, "a young party interested in young people. The involvement of artists can help us reach these people. This Neo-Classicism captures the mood of the country. We feel here as if it is after the fall of the Roman Empire."

Certainly an element of opportunism is a factor in this the drift to the right. What creative artists are beginning to discover, as politicians have done before them, is the lure of nationalism for a public whose values are under attack from all sides. At a time when interest in the "high" arts is at an unprecedented low ebb across the former Soviet empire, nationalism provides artists with an audience. But on a deeper psychological level, the appeal of the nationalist model reaches right into the Russia's studios and studies, satisfying a much more substantial artistic need.

Many of these creative artists are a product of laxity of the Brezhnev era and the early Gorbachev years, of its stagnant prosperity and relative freedom. They hardly fit within the prevalent picture of victims of a totalitarian system. "Russians lived a very good life upon this territory," as Novikov says, "before the term 'totalitarianism' ever appeared." Or in the more evocative words of performance-artist Vladik Mamishev-Monro: "It was so wonderful then. Life was like a great big socialist-realist movie."

For these artists, even those who benefitted from the ensuing liberalization, the destruction of the Soviet Union came as a profound shock. "Everybody here still feels nostalgia for totalitarianism," says St. Petersburg critic and artist Andre Chlobystin. "Oppression is a kind of mental comfort. At least when the authorities were oppressing you, you knew that you were important."

What seems to be happening is that creative artists are searching for new enemies to replace communist totalitarian regimes. These targets include Chechens, Georgians, gypsies, Jews, the Mafia, the West, communists, capitalists.

"It's a need for a scheme in life, for a clear path to tread," says Miroslav Holub. "Most of the writers and artists in Eastern Europe have existed with a strong structure, a 'we' and a 'they' that they cannot function without. Without this kind of simplistic thinking everything gets very difficult. Without an enemy all you have is just a complicated interplay of forces in a society, a great big mess, which is how it is in reality."