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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bulldozer Anniversary Unearths Old Rhetoric

What do you get when you mix stagnation, tractors and an art exhibition? Hint: The answer is not Socialist Realism.

The world found out 20 years ago last Thursday, when militia and plainclothes thugs broke up an impromptu outdoor modern art show with bulldozers, an event that went down in history as the bulldozernaya vystavka, the Bulldozer exhibition.

This quintessential bit of heavy-handed police brutality ironically provided the kick start to the careers of several well-known artists (Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Alexander Glezer, Oscar Rabin, etc.)

Listening to these people speak at a commemoration of the event, we heard words that seem as out of place today as the act of feeding canvasses to a combine in the name of the working class:

Nekonformisty ("Non-conformists"): The Bulldozer bunch saw themselves this way rather than as dissidents, mainly because their art was more about expression than Solzhenitsyn-style blows against the empire. In order to have non-conformists, you need a stable society with generally accepted rules of behavior. The Soviet Union under Brezhnev fit those criteria rather well; admit it, you haven't heard a Russian use nekonformisty since 1989.

Kvartirniye vystavki (Apartment exhibitions): When you are a non-conformist in a police state, you have to put up with various annoyances, including not having your work accepted at official exhibitions. And so the kvartirniye vystavki, private showings among friends, were born.

Stukachy ("Informers"): Where there were private gatherings where people let it all hang out, there were stukachy, poor souls who had been co-opted or compromised into secretly passing on information to the KGB, or whomever.

Levy ("Left"): The most complex item of nekonformisty jargon. Originally in Russia, like in most Judeo-Christian cultures, right was good and left was bad. Then the Bolsheviks came along and set up a system in which left was progressive, and therefore good. But then, the Bolsheviks became the establishment, and denounced the leviye kommunisty, the "left Communists" like Trotsky and Bukharin. Lenin compared levy sotsialism to a child's illness. So that leaves us with "left is bad," right?

Soviet usage is full of pejorative leftisms, from prodavat na levo (to sell something illegally) to leviye dela, things that are strange or not important, to leviye lyudy, outsiders. This is where the nekonformisty come in.

After the Bulldozer exhibition, the art establishment slowly began allowing modern art into official shows, and the Soviet art scene began, in the words of Bulldozer veteran Tatyana Levitskaya, to levet, which we took to mean they became more susceptible to counterculture, and less vulnerable to bulldozers.