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Photo: Filip Noubel
Tiles representing Uzbekistan’s huge cotton industry at the Paxtakor metro station. The  ornamentation of various subway stops portrays the accepted history of the moment.

As we struggle today with our nation’s history and painful, long-suppressed facts come to the fore, let’s turn off the television and think about Uzbekistan.

Back in the day, the Uzbeks thought it would be a beautiful thing to build something Stalin really wanted. They eventually completed a mighty subway system full of the kind of history their now discredited leader would have liked.

Filip Noubel reports at Global Voices, “For many years, it was strictly prohibited to photograph the ornate stations of the Tashkent metro in the Uzbek capital. The Soviet-era system had also been constructed with nuclear attack in mind, and could serve as a fallout shelter in wartime. But ever since that ban was lifted in early 2018, visitors from abroad have started to show heightened interest in Central Asia’s oldest subway system. And with good reason.

“Tashkent’s metro system is so much more than just a means of transportation. Over the decades of its existence, the design and names of the metro’s 29 ornate stations have changed to reflect the turbulent trends of Uzbekistan’s history. …

“Back in November 1920, electricity was a taste of the bold promises of progress to come; it embodied the new innovations now made accessible to the masses. Just 12 years later, the Soviet leadership pronounced yet another strategic and futuristic priority: the construction of the metropolitan, as Europe’s subway systems had come to be known in the second half of the 19th century. On May 25, 1932, the Sovnarkom, the then executive body of the Soviet government issued a decree …

‘The construction of the metropolitan must be considered a project of the utmost importance to the state, with its provision of timber, metal, cement, transportation, etc, and as a key priority in matters of superproductivity at the national level.’ …

“The development of the metro also marked a key turning point in the development of the Soviet economy: while the first five-year plan (1928–1932) emphasised heavy industrialisation, the second five-year plan focused on urbanisation. As a result, the metro became a major cultural symbol, present in films, children’s books, poetry and songs. It was hailed as testament to the success of Stalinism in official songs, such as this one from 1936:

” ‘We believed, we knew, That by digging a pit,
” ‘We would, Comrade Stalin, Make your plan come true.

” ‘They will describe it for centuries on, And not with just one pen
” ‘And they will tell the children, How they fought for the metro!’ …

“The people of Tashkent had to wait several decades for their metro, which was the first in remote and comparatively underdeveloped Soviet Central Asia. Planners faced several challenges: the Uzbek capital had experienced a crushing earthquake in 1966, which destroyed half the city. The city lacked trained engineers and metro workers. Uzbekistan’s long and scorching summers posed problems for ventilation. Which was precisely why the Soviet authorities had to demonstrate that they were up to the task.

“Mobilising human resources and special construction material from all across the Soviet Union, the first metro pits in Tashkent were dug in 1973. Just four years later, in a Stakhanovite spirit which set a record, the metro’s first line was opened in November 1977. The date was chosen to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Russian revolution. Accordingly, as news footage from that day shows, all local politicians were present at the opening, where a message of congratulations from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was read out before the crowd. …

“As in other Soviet metro systems, each station of the Tashkent metro was assigned a particular political and cultural message to illustrate key messages of Soviet ideology.  …

“Of the 29 stations operating today (a third line was opened in 2001), five metro stations are particularly revealing in what they tell us about Uzbekistan’s changing narratives around national identity.

“[One] station is an emblematic example. Known as Friendship of the Peoples during the Soviet period, its previous name reflected Soviet ideology’s extensive attempts to emphasise its supposedly peaceful international role during the Cold War, in opposition to western imperialism. …

“[The Cotton Grower] station’s name symbolises the Uzbek economy’s everlasting dependency on cotton production. During the Soviet period, Moscow assigned each of the 15 Soviet republics a particular crop to produce en masse. This focus on cotton monoculture has been continued by all subsequent Uzbek governments at a high price for the country’s population. The cotton sector has used forced labor, including that of children.”

Forced child labor, huh? Bet they’re not proud of that now. Read more about the stations and (how the accepted history keeps changing) here.

Hat tip: Arts Journal.

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Photo: Vasnetsov Brothers Art Museum
In Soviet times, avant-garde art such as Ilya Mashkov‘s Landscape (1911) were hidden in the provinces for fear of censorship and persecution. Recently the authenticity of a cache uncovered in a small history museum was verified.

I can never resist a story about antiquities that have just been unearthed or long-lost art that has been found. Rediscoveries give me hope that other losses may be retrieved. Even intangibles such as, say, nationwide respect for science, concern for the marginalized, friendly collaboration, kindness.

Today I want to tell you about exceptional art once labeled “degenerate” that was recently authenticated. Surprisingly, in the first five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, the works were considered OK and were part of a traveling show. It was only later that they fell out of favor.

Sophia Kishkovsky reports at the Art Newspaper, “A leading Russian avant-garde expert says he has identified dozens of works by artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova languishing in an obscure history museum in the Kirov region, [500 miles] from Moscow.

“Andrey Sarabyanov says he was ‘astounded’ at what he found in the basement store of the Yaransk Museum of Local Lore, in a town of fewer than 16,000 people. Discoveries included three watercolours by Kandinsky, a gouache by Stepanova and a ‘completely unknown’ work by Rodchenko from 1915 — a painting on cardboard that is now being restored.

“Sarabyanov, the editor of a Russian avant-garde encyclopaedia that will be published in English in 2022, believes the works were abruptly abandoned after featuring in an early Soviet travelling exhibition in 1921. …

“Sarabyanov learned of Yaransk’s hidden treasures from a local cultural official, Anna Shakina, during a 2017 visit to the regional capital, Kirov, where the Vasnetsov Brothers Art Museum holds a rich avant-garde collection. Shakina’s 2008 dissertation research had unearthed the catalogue of the 1921 exhibition, for which the early Bolshevik government transported more than 350 works by 20th-century artists around the region by horse-drawn cart.

“According to records, 85 of the works remained in Yaransk. Around half were transferred to Kirov in the 1960s for restoration and hidden in storage due to censorship from the Soviet authorities, which had long since banned avant-garde art. They are now openly displayed as part of the Vasnetsov Brothers Art Museum’s collection. Sarabyanov knew those pieces from visits in the late Soviet era and in 2015, when he was preparing a Moscow exhibition of forgotten avant-garde art from provincial museums.

“Together with Shakina — now the Kirov museum’s director — and Natalia Murray, a lecturer at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, Sarabyanov plans to reconstruct the 1921 exhibition at the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg, reuniting the works divided between Kirov and Yaransk. The show is currently scheduled to open in September. The whereabouts of the 250-plus other works are still unknown but alternative pieces will be lent by the Slobodskoy Museum and Exhibition Center.” More here.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Married Soviet avant-garde artists Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova are pictured here in the 1920s.

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Photos: James Hill for the New York Times
A student at the Higher School of Folk Art in the village of Kholui, Russia.

Years ago, a Massachusetts industrialist who was fascinated by Russian religious icons turned his large collection into the Museum of Russian Icons, a site worth visiting if you are ever near Clinton, Massachusetts.

But after the Russian Revolution outlawed religion, icons stopped being made for a long time. Resourceful icon painters developed a new art form — lacquer boxes that drew on the same skills as the icons and were collectible in their own right. Then the Wheel of Fortune turned again. Icons are now on top, and the new art form is endangered.

Neil MacFarquhar writes at the New York Times, “Once upon a time, the small, picturesque Russian village of Palekh gained fame far and wide for producing religious icons.

“Then one day, a revolution came and its adherents, growling, ‘There is no god,’ banned such art.

“Hundreds of artists eventually learned to adorn lacquer boxes instead, painting scenes from Russian fairy tales or romanticized versions of country life. These delicate miniatures made the village famous anew, especially after foreign collectors plunked down tens of thousands of dollars buying an art form considered uniquely Russian.

“Then the fickle wheel of history rotated once more. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the renaissance of the Russian Orthodox Church revived icon painting. It is miniature art now facing extinction.

‘It is going to be lost,’ said Yevgeny A. Sivyakov, 71, an accomplished miniaturist. ‘It is a frightening period right now.’

“The youngest generation of artists shows little interest, he said. ‘Everyone speaks of commerce — what is the point of developing lacquer miniatures when good money is being paid for icons, for frescoes?’

“Stunning antique icons and miniatures fill the collection of the State Museum of Palekh Art. The boxes are adorned with characters from Russian fairy tales — princes and princesses, the legendary firebird and Baba Yaga, a sorceress — replacing the Virgin Mary and the saints. The four seasons were a favorite theme, with countless troikas dashing across snowy fields.

“Each papier-mâché box, blackened with mud from the Teza River, is a blaze of meticulous detail. To paint faces, for example, the artists commonly used a brush made of just one hair from a squirrel’s tail.

“The egg tempera paint gave the boxes a polished glow, enhanced by rubbing them with bone. In addition, the Palekh tradition of edging in gold every person, animal and sometimes every leaf made the details pop out of the black background. …

“When icons were banned, [icon painters] floundered about for alternatives, including book illustrations and set designs.

“Then Ivan I. Golikov, a painter, stumbled upon a small exhibition in Moscow featuring 18th-century Asian painted lacquer boxes. In December 1924, Mr. Golikov founded the Ancient Russian Painting Workshop in Palekh. Throughout the Soviet years, a single collective produced the boxes.

“Palekh attracted both Russian and foreign visitors. Virtually everyone in Palekh will tell you that the Soviet Union earned some $1 million annually in hard currency off the boxes, which Western collectors considered a rarity.

“Lacquer boxes, as did all things following the Soviet Union’s demise, experienced a period of anarchy. Cheap fakes flooded the market and prices collapsed. If a shoebox-sized lacquer box that required a year to paint once sold for more than $40,000 abroad, that same box would earn about $5,000 today.

“Something smaller — a glasses case, for example — goes for $121 in the Palekh museum store. An imitation in Moscow costs less than $5. Demand for originals has fallen sharply. Few Russians can afford such prices, and foreign collectors died out.

“Sergei Bobovnikov, an antiques dealer in St. Petersburg, said there might be 150 regular buyers in the country, with an antique piece commanding $350 to hundreds of thousands for an original by Mr. Golikov or other founders of the Palekh school. ‘They invented a whole new style,’ Mr. Bobovnikov said.”

Learn what has happened since here.

Top: a Soviet-era Palekh board painted in 1975 and entitled “Holiday of Russian Winter in Palekh.” Bottom: detail from a Soviet-era Palekh plate, painted in 1955, entitled “Flourish, land of the Kolhoz!”

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Photo: Susie Armitage for Atlas Obscura
The line for Stolovaya 57, a Soviet-style cafeteria in a Moscow mall, shows the power of nostalgia and tight household budgets.

It’s funny how one can sometimes feel nostalgic for times that really were not great. There was privation and cruel lack of freedom in the old USSR, for example, but especially if a person was young then, there are aspects of that time that are missed. In this story, Russians miss the food they once enjoyed — or imagine they enjoyed — in Soviet cafeterias.

Susie Armitage writes at Atlas Obscura, “On a recent afternoon in Moscow, a line of hungry people stretched across the third floor of GUM, a stately 19th-century shopping arcade turned modern luxury mall overlooking Red Square.

“As the crowd waited to get into Stolovaya 57, a self-service cafe modeled on a Soviet workers’ canteen, a young woman snapped photos of the faux propaganda posters in the entryway. Inside, customers loaded their trays with fruity kissel, fuschia ‘fur coat’ salad, and jellied pork. On the hot food line, a woman in a white uniform dished out mashed potatoes, Chicken Kiev, and stuffed cabbage and curtly called out, ‘Next order, please!’ Murky jars of canned vegetables sat on shelves overhead. An abacus, like the kind used by Soviet shopkeepers, stood next to one of the cash registers. …

“As I stood in line with Pavel Syutkin, a culinary historian who co-authored CCCP COOK BOOK: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine with his wife, Olga Syutkin, he told me the long wait was just another period touch.

‘When you go step by step, 20 minutes, half an hour, you really get an effect of being inside the Soviet past,’ he said, recalling the anticipation that made the food taste better when he lived in Cold War-era Russia.

“I asked Syutkin why, in 2019, a mostly Russian crowd would wait this long for a bowl of borscht served with a heavy dollop of Soviet kitsch. He explained that Stolovaya 57 is one of the cheapest places to eat near Red Square …

“Aside from the prime location, Stolovaya 57’s popularity may have something to do with its name. Whether they’re from Moscow or a remote part of Siberia, Russians have a shared understanding of the word stolovaya, which means ‘dining hall’ or ‘cafeteria.’ Due to the Soviet legacy of public canteens, it’s shorthand for an affordable, filling, and predictable meal. …

“According to Anya Von Bremzen, author of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, while a handful of these early canteens had genteel touches such as fresh flowers and live music, many were plagued by rats and served awful food. The cafeteria in the Kremlin was so bad that Lenin ordered multiple investigations. As it turned out, in addition to struggling with food shortages, the nascent Soviet state had replaced many professional chefs with ideologically pure but untrained ones. …

“While the dishes in any Soviet cafeteria were supposed to be identical, in practice the quality varied widely. A large stolovaya in Moscow or Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) typically served far better food than the canteens in smaller towns. …

“Lackluster food wasn’t necessarily the fault of individual chefs, who had to make do with whatever ingredients the state provided. The Soviet food supply system routed the best stuff to high-level officials and larger state enterprises. ‘Access to good products was a symbol of your place in the social hierarchy,’ Syutkin said. …

“In 1959, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev signed a resolution to make the system of public food service ‘more massive, comfortable, and favorable.’ … A publication called The Female Worker documented cafeterias with great interest, lauding a particular dining hall in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (now Belarus) for its ingenuity in using kitchen scraps to raise its own pigs. …

“However, nostalgia isn’t the only thing motivating people to wait half an hour for plates of pickled herring. My 31-year-old friend Victor [points out] that many of his peers are on tight budgets. Russia’s economy has been sluggish in recent years, and paychecks still don’t go as far as they used to.” More here.

Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Women factory workers eating in a Soviet Union lunchroom in 1928.

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Photo: Daryl Mersom
A piece of a sgraffito by the Kazakhstan graphic artist Eugeny Sidorkin (1930-1982) was discovered behind a wall at a cinema in the former Kazakhstan capital. 

Modern art was considered degenerate in the former Soviet Union. It was dangerous to make it, dangerous to own it. Much was destroyed.

But as I wrote in this 2011 post about the wily collector of the “Desert of Forbidden Art” documentary, it could be hidden away in Central Asia without Moscow noticing.

More recently, approved Soviet art, no longer popular, was revealed behind a cinema wall in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. Nothing is ever completely lost.

Daryl Mersom wrote at the Guardian, “When Jama Nurkalieva and a small group of colleagues conducted a site survey of a disused Soviet-era panoramic cinema in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, they had no idea what lay behind the internal plasterboard wall that faces out towards the street – until someone spotted a narrow gap.

“As the caretaker shined a light into the darkness behind, the group caught a glimpse of a man’s head. Out came the toolbox and the rest of the artwork was slowly revealed: a Soviet-era sgraffito by the graphic artist Eugeny Sidorkin that had been lost and forgotten for decades.

“From the Italian graffiare, to scratch, sgraffito is a technique that involves placing one layer of plaster or cement over another, and then scratching through the superficial layer to reveal contours or patterns beneath.

“Built to a standardised design in 1964, the cinema was one of the largest in the USSR. It was fronted entirely by large panels of glass that offered an unobstructed view of the sgraffito to passersby. …

“While there is little incentive now to cover or remove Soviet-era artworks depicting folklore and natural landscapes, they were sometimes controversial in their day due to supposed hidden meanings.

“Ekaterina Golovatyuk, curator of an exhibition on Soviet modernist architecture at the Tselinny, recounts an anecdote in which an architect and an artist worked together to create a mosaic for a cafe. It was a straightforward depiction of a lake with a tiger on one side and goats on the other. ‘The [local communist] party was asking them, “What’s the meaning of this?” They were saying, “Nothing, it’s just a natural landscape” – but they couldn’t convince them that there was no hidden political message.’

“Golovatyuk believes Almaty has as many surviving mosaics as it does because Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, changed the country’s capital from Almaty to Astana in 1997.

“With much of the country’s subsequent investment and development directed at this new ‘city of the steppes,’ Almaty escaped relatively unchanged.”

More at the Guardian, here. It’s interesting that although “degenerate” art is now accepted, actual Soviet art is forbidden in former Soviet republics relieved to be free of the yoke of communism. If you want to see the Lenin mosaic in Almaty, hidden behind a curtain, you have to make an appointment.

As the 16th century poet says, “Times Go By Turns.”

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The world’s oldest working actor has died at age 101. And good for him to have worked at something he loved for so long!

Shaun Walker wrote recently at the Guardian, “Vladimir Zeldin, believed to have been the world’s oldest working actor, has died aged 101, after appearing for 71 years at the same Moscow theatre.

“The Russian actor appeared on stage as recently as [September], using a walking stick due to a broken hip, to appear in the play The Dance Teacher by the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega.

“He had appeared in the play more than 1,000 times, Tass reported. The theatre had planned for him to appear again next February, to mark his 102nd birthday. …

“Zeldin was born in 1915, when Tsar Nicholas II was on the Russian throne. He shot to fame when he appeared in the film They Met in Moscow, on which shooting began shortly before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. …

“When the war finished, Zeldin joined Moscow’s Red Army Theatre, where he was part of the troupe from 1945 until his death. The theatre is now known as the Russian Army Theatre. Fellow actors at the theatre described him as full of energy until the very last.” More.

I think the actress who played 104-year-old Great-Great-Grandmaw in All the Way Home (the stage version of James Agee’s A Death in the Family) must have been nearly as old as Zeldin. I remember her voice came out as kind of a croak. But that may have been because she was acting.

Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/AP  
Vladimir Zeldin on stage in Moscow.

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Sam Borden at the NY Times had a cool story yesterday about a jack-of-all-trades performer who never got much attention — until his ability to mimic the sounds of nature turned him into an overnight sensation.

According to Borden, Gennady Tkachenko-Papizh, 52, finally got attention in March.

“That was when, while sitting at a cafe [in Berlin] checking his smartphone, he saw that Miss Arab U.S.A. — who is a 22-year-old Brooklyn-born Syrian named Fabiola al-Ibrahim — had, for some reason, posted to her Facebook page a video of Mr. Tkachenko-Papizh competing on a talent show in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. ‘This will take you to another world!’ she promised of the link, which leads to about three minutes of Mr. Tkachenko-Papizh vocalizing the sounds of crickets, bird wings rustling, water dripping and hyper-dramatized operatic chanting.

“The show, ‘Georgia’s Got Talent,’ is about what you might expect from spectacles like this anywhere … Yet Mr. Tkachenko-Papizh’s performance, which he began by solemnly intoning, ‘Let us try to feel what the Mother Earth wants to tell us,’ resonated more deeply. …

“The video on Miss Arab U.S.A.’s page has logged more than 70 million views and inspired more than 102,000 comments — mostly unbridled encomiums.”

Despite the change in Tkachenko-Papizh’s life, says Borden, he is not becoming a prima donna. “He lives here with his wife, Larissa Porkhimovich, who is a financial auditor, and their two young children (he also has an older son from a previous relationship), and he said that he is most interested in simply harnessing ‘this gift I have, which has a magical effect.’

“It has taken some adjustment for his wife. ‘I think he really likes testing, trying things,’ she said. ‘It can be a little strange — sometimes I am in the house and I will just hear sounds, like a bird flying, but it is inside. But that is who he is.’ ”

More here.

Photo: Gordon Welters for The New York Times
Gennady Tkachenko-Papizh said he hopes to travel to London soon to work on recording an album. 

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You may recall that six grandmothers from the former Soviet Union competed in Eurovision. We blogged about them here. Loreen from Sweden won first prize, but the babushki came in second.

In a follow-up story in the NY Times, Andrew Kramer writes that the grandmas’ fame is bringing a modicum of prosperity to their forgotten village. In particular, it is rebuilding the church that Stalin destroyed and that they loved in secret. They chose to spend their winnings on the church.

“For years, Buranovo was a dying village, one of many in the Russian countryside left behind by an oil-driven boom that revitalized drab Soviet cities and drew the young away from the farms that had sustained their parents. …

“Now, the women’s good fortune is transforming not only their lives, but also Buranovo. In appreciation of the group’s near victory, the local government is building a water pipeline, installing streetlights and high-speed Internet for the village’s sole school and laying new gravel on the main roads. …

“It all began with a miracle, said Olga N. Tuktareva, the leader of the singing group …. Ms. Tuktareva recalled strolling about the village with a friend in 2008 and lamenting a sad episode in local history: the destruction of the Church of the Trinity, taken down like countless other churches in Stalin’s Russia. …

“During that walk, Ms. Tuktareva recalled, her cellphone rang. It was a music producer in Moscow who had heard of the singing babushki …”

Read more.

Photograph: Oleg Nikishin

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