Soviet Nonconformist Art: Historical Overview

Soviet Nonconformist Art: Historical Overview

The year 1962, December, Moscow.  The Soviet era that can hardly be imagined by someone born after 1991 but still carefully kept in collective memory. The cultural space is dominated by socialist realism – the most prominent cultural product of Marxist-Leninist philosophy setting the standards of thought, outlook and artistic action. Inspired by The Party and The Capital (unconditionally replaced the holy Bible on the bookshelves) the socialist realist analyses the past, depicts the present and forecasts the future observing the signs of close communism in every single social event including even the French Revolution. [1] The best definition of this phenomenon is probably given by the Soviet Writers Union charter: “Socialist realism, being the main method of Soviet fiction literature and literary criticism, demands the veracious, historicaly specific depiction of reality in its revolutional development. Meanwhile the veracity and historical accuracy of artistic depiction of reality must function in combination with the task of ideological reconstruction and the socialist spirit breeding”. [2] To cut a long story short, socialist realism served as a means of The Party will transference while artists were supposed to assist the building of cherished communism. Construction works, common everyday life, the speeches of majestic Party leaders and the heroism of Soviet soldiers during WW II are exclusive socialist realism topics with only one motive underneath: the new state, the new man and the new conscience moulding. The examples of socialist realism are diverse in style, content and genre but united by this underlying thought. Ruined hopes, broken dreams, lost delusions  are incompatible with socialist realism as this method inevitably implies a sort of happy ending.  Even if a character is bound to die, the idea of communism is immortal and unbetrayable.

But let’s return to Moscow December where our story starts – the story about weird, strange and confusing artistic movement that dared to pronounce the word of contradiction in Soviet cultural discourse.

Kchruschev vs Avant-Garde Artists

December 1, 1962, Moscow Manège and Novaya Realnost Avant-Garde Studio exhibition curated by Ely Bielutin. Nine years have passed since Stalin’s death and the cultural field is favourable enough to allow abstract art forms to be demonstrated in a prestigious place but it will not last for long.

Manege Exhibition is considered to be one of the turning points of the Nonconformist movement formation due to the visit of Nikita Kchruschev – a guest very special but totally unprepared to the perception of avant-garde. Being unaware of modern art tendencies and inclined to give appraisal from the position of pure academism, he criticized the artists using strong obscene expressions and ordered to “root out” the abstract forms of creativity from the public life space.

“Too general and unclear. Listen, Bielutin, I’ll tell you as the Council of Ministers chairman: soviet people do not need it. Got it? It’s me who tells you this! … Ban it! Ban it all! Stop this disgrace! I order it! I tell you! See to it! And all the media followers of this must be rooted out!”(Nikita Kchruschev) [3]

Especial attention was given to Ülo Ilmar Sooster, Vladimir Yankilevsky and Boris Zhutovski whose works do not allow deliberate interpretation even if the viewer is acquainted with the theory of dehumanized art.

“What kind of faces are these? Can you paint at all? My grandson paints better than you! … What the hell is this?  Why, are you men or damned paederasts? How dare you paint this! Shame on you!” (Nikita Kchruschev) [3]

The next day The Pravda published a crushing critical article that marked the beginning of the anti-abstractionism campaign. The exhibition was closed and all the artists who inclined to go beyond socialist realism limits found themselves in an unenviable position of underground, forbidden figures while the Nonconformist Art (also known as Soviet Underground Art and Soviet Unofficial Art) took the clear shape of the dissent communication means in the Soviet cultural discourse.

Art as a Means of Communication

A time leap, ladies and gentlemen! August 25, 1974, Moscow Gogolevski boulevard and young artist named Alexander Popov exhibiting his paintings right in the street. Works of art hanging between trees, sounds of a gramophone attracting the attention of curious passersby and the birth of a new genre. Later on the event was called Action-exhibition and yes, it was the first artistic street action in the Soviet Union. The idea stroke roots and Popov’s exhibition was followed by many others, focusing on different artists and styles. Street action genre became an essential part of Soviet culture very soon but the initial project is especially peculiar, as the message of the exhibition had nothing in common with the typical message of socialist realism. In a form of a joyful artistic gesture Action-exhibition stated the desire of an artist to work outside professional hierarchy, politics, certain discourses. The artist wasn’t aimed at scandal or building a beautiful image of a persecuted dissident. The action itself was more of a reckless PR campaign while historical and social context imparted additional meaning to it.

Three weeks later Popov’s practice was adopted by nonconformists during their Bulldozer exhibition. It took place on September 15, 1974 and gathered about 20 artists whose works were used to break the limits of the socialist realism aesthetic course. The participants of the exhibition belonged to underground culture as they were not acknowledged by the authorities and often suffered attacks and persecutions from KGB. During many years nonconformist artists managed to organize small home-based expositions (kvartirniki, as it is called in Russian) and to sell their works on the sly, mainly to foreign diplomats. The open protest such as an unauthorized exhibition of forbidden art would never be possible if KGB hadn’t gone to extremes with artists persecutions and, consequently, hadn’t made them lose their patience as well as usual caution.

The open-air exhibition, curated by Oscar Rabine and Alexander Glezer, was organized in Moscow Bitsevski Park and existed for no more than half an hour.

“The exhibition was more of a political challenge to the repressive regime than of an artistic event. I knew that we would have problems, that there would be detentions, beating. We were all in fear during the two days before the opening. I was scared by the thought that absolutely anything could happen with me”. (Oscar Rabine) [4]

Oscar Rabine had all the reasons to be scared as soon after the beginning of the event a hundred of police officers in civilian clothes, accompanied by bulldozers, water carts and dump trucks, made their way towards the exhibition place and began pressing the artists and destroying the works of art. A number of artists, viewers and foreign journalists were detained and brought to the police station.

However the event became a second turning point in the history of Soviet Nonconformist Art as the representatives of Western European media provoked large international response. Soviet officials had to make concessions to avoid scandal: abstract forms of art returned their right to be exhibited.

One of the most peculiar features of art (regardless the place and time period we speak about) is its ability to reflect social, political and historical properties of an era. Probably it is this particular feature that makes art worth studying, researching, observation and creation. In Soviet Union abstract forms of art served as a means of communication in the situation of rigorous censorship and total Marxist-Leninist philosophy domination. Among countless socialist realism happy ends (not always for the characters but always for the idea of communism), Soviet Nonconformist Art kept speaking about the sides of life that were supposed to be passed over in silence. Soviet Nonconformist Art followed the track of world art natural development implying at the same time the reaction and the counteraction, being a dissident response to the message of soviet realism.

Alina Strelkovskaia


[1] Синявский, А. Что такое социалистический реализм. Retrieved from

[2] Первый    Всесоюзный    съезд   советских    писателей,    1934. Стеногр. отчет. М., 1934. С 716.

[3] Белютин, Э. Хрущев в Манеже // Дружба народов. 1990. № 1. С. 139-142

[4] В Москве празднуют юбилей Оскара Рабина (July 19, 2013). Retrieved from


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