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Viktor Popkov, Builders of the Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station
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In 1939, Joseph Stalin entered into a nonaggression pact with Adolph Hitler, which was violated when German troops invaded the Soviet-occupied part of Poland on June 22, 1941. The Soviet Union subsequently joined the Allies in World War II, which is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. By September, and until January 1944, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) was under attack by the Germans; an estimated 650,000 to 800,000 of the city's citizens died during the siege. A major turning point of the war was the Battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd)—perhaps the largest and bloodiest battle in history—which began in August 1942 and ended in February 1943 with a major German defeat. During the war, the Soviet Union would suffer as many as 30 million civilian and military fatalities.

In February 1945, Stalin joined Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference to discuss plans for the postwar period, and the war in Europe ended on May 8. In October, the United Nations Charter was formally ratified, which inaugurated a new global era marked by the ascendancy of the Soviet Union and the United States as the two world superpowers. The Cold War began shortly thereafter and lasted through the 1980s.

During the Great Patriotic War, museums throughout the Soviet Union evacuated their collections to the eastern part of the country. The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg hid many works beneath the building, and its staff stayed on to protect the art that remained on site. Several Soviet museums suffered physical damageóthis was especially true of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburgóbut all succeeded in preserving the nationís greatest artistic treasures of Russian and international art. Art schools, as well as artists, also moved eastward during the conflict. Russian artists played a key role in the war effort by making propaganda and producing reportage. They painted epic compositions attesting to the bravery and historic feats of the Soviet military, and similar works continued to be created in the immediate postwar years. Despite its official themes, Soviet art of the 1940s became less idealistic and bombastic than that of the 1930s.

Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, was a major turning point in Soviet history. Nikita Khrushchev came to power, and in 1956 he delivered his so-called Secret Speech in which he denounced Stalin’s brutality and cult of personality. The period known as the Thaw, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was marked by increased freedoms in most areas of life, including culture. For the first time in decades the works of the Impressionists and Pablo Picasso and examples of international contemporary art, including Abstract Expressionism, were shown in the Soviet Union. In official art, the Severe Style, which was influenced by Soviet art of the 1920s, linked Socialist themes and more modernist styles such as Expressionism. This art—best exemplified by the monumental paintings of Gelii Korzhev and Viktor Popkov—often presented subjects from daily life through simplified form and color and in a dramatic, cinematic manner. Experimentation within the basic parameters of Socialist Realism continued to the end of the 1980s.

The more permissive atmosphere of the post-Stalin era also led to the emergence of unofficial art, which was diverse in style. While implicitly political in its repudiation of Socialist Realism, the majority of this art was not overtly political in content. The reversal of liberalization regarding the arts began on December 1, 1962, when Khrushchev became enraged at the work he encountered by young artists—such as Ernst Neizvestny and Vladimir Yankilevsky—in an exhibition at the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall off Red Square. Subsequently, the relative freedoms of the Thaw were largely curtailed, and unofficial art moved further underground during the conservative period from 1964 to 1982, when Leonid Brezhnev was the dominant leader of the Communist state.

The unofficial art of the Brezhnev years included a plethora of styles. A renewed awareness of the Russian avant-garde of the early twentieth century led to a return to abstraction among some painters. The official careers of many other artists as book illustrators led to Conceptual art characterized by the use of image and text; their unofficial work often commented on the repetition and frustration of daily life for the average Soviet citizen. In 1972, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid combined “Socialist Realism” and “Pop art” to create “Sots Art,” which was their term for a critical art that satirized the bankruptcy of Soviet mass culture and official art. Sots Art continued to be developed throughout the 1980s, both in the Soviet Union and abroad.

On September 15, 1974, a group of artists led by Oscar Rabin held the First Fall Open-Air Show of Paintings, which took place in a field on the outskirts of Moscow. Some unofficial artists had exhibited abroad, but Rabin and his colleagues wanted to redress the lack of opportunities to publicly show their art at home. This event has come to be known as the Bulldozer Show, because the artists were met with force, and artworks were destroyed. As a result of extensive foreign-press coverage given to that aggressive censorship, officials granted permission for the Second Fall Open-Air Show of Paintings in Izmailovsky Park in Moscow on September 29; more than 10,000 visitors came during the four hours of the exhibition. In the decade following these shows, many artists emigrated to Western Europe and the United States, but many also stayed in the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, and his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) initiated a transformation that ultimately brought about the dismantling of the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and both the Soviet Union and the Cold War had come to an end by 1991. The era of “Soviet” art, official and unofficial, was over.

ABOVE: Viktor Popkov, Builders of the Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station, 1960–61. Oil on canvas, 183 x 300 cm. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. © Estate of Viktor Popkov/RAO, Moscow/VAGA, New York. Photo: © The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.