New generation of Russian artists finds freedom is a mixed blessing

Generous patronage of the Soviet era is gone

February 16, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - For two centuries, Russian artists enjoyed the patronage of the powerful. As servants to the nobility, they were rewarded with riches and comfort. As Soviet-era "architects of the soul," those who followed the party line enjoyed status and privilege.

In return, they created a wealth of music, art, dance and theater.

Now the centuries-old paternalistic tradition that produced Tchaikovsky the composer, Pavlova the dancer and Kandinsky the painter is gone. The czars who once nourished the arts and the Soviet Communists who lavishly financed them - within strict creative boundaries - have been relegated to history.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited a badly damaged economy, few resources to finance the arts and little will to control them. Culture was cast upon the marketplace.

Now, a new generation of artists is trying to adjust to the uncompromising demands of that market - Pavel Dolsky among them.

"Without having any structure, chaotically, without any system, we are trying to discover freedom," says Dolsky, 24, sitting on a rickety stool in front of a canvas at St. Petersburg's prestigious Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.

Large questions loom over Dolsky and his fellow artists: Will they learn how to survive this brave new world without limits or shelter, and can they revive St. Petersburg's rich cultural and artistic heritage?

"Freedom comes as a storm," Dolsky says. "And as a result of this storm, many have found themselves lying at the bottom of the sea."

He has a glorious past to buoy him. St. Petersburg, Russia's cultural capital, is preparing to celebrate its 300th anniversary in May. Its artistic legacy is being saluted around the world, including in Baltimore, which has organized the Vivat! St. Petersburg festival through March 2.

That cultural wealth of the past, however, only makes the financial constraints of today more painful.

During the Soviet era, depending on his talent - and his political savvy - Dolsky would have earned a substantial salary, been given an apartment and a studio for next to nothing, and taken vacations subsidized by the Union of Artists. His art, of course, would have had to conform to the will of the state.

Now, he earns the equivalent of $34 a month, counts his kopecks and lives with his parents. When he needs paints and brushes, his father has to buy them. He can, however, paint whatever he likes.

Fame pays little

Here, even the famous are poorly paid. Diana Vishneva, prima ballerina at the fabled Kirov Ballet - which performs at the Mariinsky Theater - dances a grueling schedule and doesn't earn enough to pay for gasoline for her car. She earns her living through guest appearances on foreign stages.

Both Dolsky and Vishneva could probably leave Russia; both have decided to remain.

"The problem of the younger generation is that they are unsettled," says Vladimir Lenyashin, an art historian and curator with the Russian State Museum, which owns the world's largest collection of Russian art. "They are happy to be free. But they are sad about the passing of the times when they were in great demand. They would like the authorities to support them. But they would like to do what they want, which is impossible."

Western artists, he says, have a long tradition of serving as observers of the world around them. Russian artists, meanwhile, have traditionally taken an active role in politics and have been regarded as social visionaries.

"People who treat art as a religion?" he says. "They are suffering now. For them, it looks like art and culture are replaced by advertising and other rubbish. They still think of art as an instrument to influence the spiritual life of people."

Despite abuse and repression, generations of artists embraced the egalitarian ideals of Soviet society. Capitalism, of course, has erased all that. Now, perhaps, there are sharper divisions between successful artists and those just managing to scrape by.

Dolsky apologetically counts himself among Russia's privileged elite. His father, Aleksandr Dolsky, a Russian bard, or romantic singer-songwriter, was one of the Soviet Union's most popular entertainers in the 1980s. When Pavel Dolsky entered the Repin in 1996, at the age of 18, he watched others struggle to juggle the demands of school and their jobs. Some were forced to drop out. His relative security, he says, made him feel guilty and unworthy.

"To face my colleagues and sort of have a clear conscience to look them in the eyes, I had to prove to them that I work very hard, like them," he says. "So I came to the studio every day at 9 a.m. and left at midnight."

After graduating last year, he did something rare for educated young Russians: He enlisted in the army. Most educated Russians, especially from the nation's big cities, go to great lengths to evade the draft.

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