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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sculpting Giants, Watching Them Fall

Among the many distinctions he has racked up in his 85 years -- hero of Socialist labor, Goethe Prize laureate, winner of the Lenin Prize -- there is one that Lev Kerbel would just as well forget: excepting perhaps Saddam Hussein's sculptor, it is doubtful that any other living artist has seen as many of his or her works wrecked by mobs.

There was his monument to Soviet-Chinese friendship: a magnificent Russian man and equally massive Chinese man striding, arms linked, toward the future. Kerbel dined with Mao Zedong when the piece was unveiled in Shanghai in 1958. A few years later, Soviet-Chinese ties foundered. So did the statue, toppled by a government-incited crowd.

There was his Lenin in Sofia, Bulgaria: an imposing work that earned him an award in 1971, only to shatter along with the Warsaw Pact. "They pulled it down," he sighed. "I hear it was buried somewhere in the woods."

Shards of stone and bronze brought down by jeering protesters may not be the way Kerbel wants to be remembered. Still, it is a testament to his impact on entire generations of Soviet citizens, and now on Russians.

Kerbel is one of the premier sculptors of Soviet realist works. There is no good way to tell how many more of Kerbel's testaments to Soviet greatness collapsed with the union. A prolific sculptor, he was so revered at communism's peak that his Lenins and Marxes were bought in bulk for town squares across the Soviet Union and its satellites.

"Brezhnev ordered 10 Lenins like this, and whenever he went somewhere, he would give one away," Kerbel, a thin, wispy-haired man with a lively wit and animation, said during a long chat in his Moscow studio this month. He waved toward one of his favorite Lenins, a hand-in-overcoat model first raised in his adopted hometown of Smolensk.

"He paid well, too -- 200 rubles each!" he said, then laughed. At the time, 200 rubles was worth as little as $20 on the black market.

Kerbel sculpted many Marxes and Lenins, including the most celebrated ones: the Lenin on Moscow's Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad and a huge head of Marx in Germany.

He turned out dozens of Yury Gagarins, the first man in space, and countless paeans to World War II sacrifice and Soviet labor. He sculpted a Castro bust and, just once, Stalin -- a death mask, as he lay in his Kremlin bier.

Some of his work would be dismissed today as hopelessly kitschy. Soviet realism was usually political dogma gussied up in artists' garb, and overwrought figures of muscled laborers, heroic soldiers and godlike Lenins seem almost comical in an era when Marxism rests in history's dustbin.

In fact, many of Kerbel's best realist works are distinguished by the opposite of overdrawn heroism: a versatility and humanity that set him apart from the assembly-line quality of much communist sculpture.

He says he is fixated by Lenin, and his best works -- Lenin in a peasant's cap, Lenin with a woman -- bear scant resemblance to the wooden icon, right arm lifted toward tomorrow, found in most Russian town squares.

"He was in my head and in my heart. He required more and more artistic content," Kerbel said. "I was always interested in the image."

But even though he exalted the communist ideal for decades, he says he was always more interested in art than politics.

Kerbel's remarkable life began on Nov. 7, 1917 -- Oct. 25 in the old-style Russian calendar, the day Lenin seized St. Petersburg's Winter Palace and began the Great October Socialist Revolution.

At the time, Kerbel's mother was in a barrel, hiding from a pogrom against local Jews. "This gang, they hanged my uncle by his rib from a hook, and then they beheaded him," he said. "The fellow who rented this place, he was a honey trader, a very good Ukrainian guy. So he hid her in a big honey barrel and put some trash on top of it so they wouldn't find her.

"I was born in that barrel. Thank God I started crying after the gangsters left."

The family drifted to the Smolensk region, and Kerbel says he still remembers the day when his weeping parents told him Lenin was dead and he saw a depiction of the great man lying in state. In a creek near his house, he said, there was a deposit of clay that he had used to shape toy soldiers. There, at age 6, he sculpted his first Lenin.

He kept at it. In 1934, his bas-relief Lenin plaque won him a Young Communist League award -- a trip to Moscow, where he found himself seated opposite Lenin's widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, at a dinner.

She was a deputy education minister then, and she befriended the young man, winning him a spot in a top St. Petersburg art school. There, he was tested for talent, and he failed.

Despondent and ill, he fell off a bridge into the Neva River, sustaining a back injury that still pains him. He was fished out by rivermen and sent to Moscow, where he won admission to a second art school and began his career.

The war intervened. Kerbel was assigned to Moscow's defenses, digging trenches and building tank traps until an attack left him shell-shocked.

A 16-year-old girl named Masha carried him to safety. The two fell in love, and she followed him to his next assignment in the Arctic, with the Soviet navy. They married, and she gave birth to a son, then a daughter.

Kerbel, meanwhile, honed his artistic skills designing and painting camouflage for Soviet battleships, including one in which he sailed to Britain and back.

He became a military artist, using a kitchen knife to carve gigantic statues of military heroes from snow which sailors packed into wooden forms nearly 10 meters tall. "I'd take a half glass of vodka, and cover my hands with pig's fat against the cold," he said. "When I finished a detail, they'd spray it with water and it would turn into ice."

The fleet's political commander loved him. "He said, 'This month, you have to make 40 portraits of our best fighters,'" Kerbel recalled. "I said, 'Are you out of your mind?' But it was an order. So I started working."

It was the beginning of Kerbel's celebrity. He was sent to Berlin to craft a monument to Soviet liberators, then to the Smolensk region for a series on Soviet heroes of labor, including prize-winning busts of a grizzled kolkhoz woman and a despondent farmer.

"Smolensk was in ruins," he said. "The first guy I met was this peasant -- mustachioed, bearded -- and his task was to build a hog farm. It was just an empty field. And in rough peasants' language, he said to me, 'How come we defeated the Germans, and yet we've got nothing? We live like paupers.'"

He had a series of Soviet medals and prize-winning entries in competitions for monuments across the Soviet Union, most notably for a classic bust of Karl Marx opposite the Bolshoi Theater.

In the middle of his rise, Kerbel's son, who had become an accomplished painter and was a crucial aide on his Moscow sculpture of Marx, died of a brain tumor. Kerbel's wife hanged herself shortly thereafter.

His second wife bore two daughters, then died. "My mother-in-law raised the girls," he said, "and finally, we decided to get married."

Kerbel's fame grew through the 1970s and 1980s. In 1987, on the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution, a parade of dignitaries in Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad unveiled his huge Lenin monument -- a soaring marble column, Lenin at the top, an assembly of workers, soldiers and revolutionary figures at the bottom.

The Soviet leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, did not attend. "He had already sided with the United States," Kerbel said, only half-jokingly.

Communism fell, but not Kerbel with it. Today he is almost as busy as ever, working in a sun-washed Moscow studio on a sculpture of Peter the Great for a pedestal in Kaliningrad. Kerbel first sculpted Peter in 1957, when paying homage to tsars was a risky business. But times have changed.