The End of the Americans — My Russian Stories
The Americans TV series was an emotional experience for me—especially the finale. I teared up. Had a flood of memories. I too had contact with Russians during 80’s, the same period as the show.
They were artists mostly. I was an art dealer in San Francisco when I first met them. Later in the decade we were in New York City where I worked for their Russian dealer for a while.
We’ve been so wrapped involved with the Russians over the last 70 years that we might as well call each other “cousin.” We’re like family– we can’t seem to live with or without each other.
As a child in the late 50’s/early 60’s it was impossible to avoid having the Ruskies on your mind. You thought of them when you took your Pavlovian dive under a desk when the air raid siren sounded.
The nuns had you pray for Russia’s “conversion” in their quest to satisfy some Dan Brown-like thread they subscribed too—connecting Russia, Our Lady of Fatima’s prophecies and some report about the Pope turning ashen when he read them. Hey what did we know? We were kids.
You lay this on the Cuban Missile Crisis and you got some first class angst—guaranteed to keep your dreams and nightmares on fire. While Dr. Strangelove– Boris and Natasha blazed new cultural paths.
And my favorite: the Russian Spies. They could be anywhere. I was fascinated with their infilltratration of our country’s P.T.A’s and civic organizations.
When we got our first home—transitioning from our artist lifestyle—to one which now had two children and a house in a “nice” neighborhood– I drew upon my Russian spy lore to craft an avatar for myself during our shift in lifestyles. I dubbed myself “the subversive suburbanite,” in order to convince myself this was just an “assignment” not really me. I was doing it for a large cause.
In schools of the late 60’s—Russian influence was everywhere. Teachers talked the language of Marx and Marcuse. Those crazy Trotskyites (ANTIFA ancestors?) were doing their thing.
But it wasn’t until the 80’s that something akin to infatuation with Russian culture happened. I found the Russians warm, cold, gracious, suspicious, intellectual, primitive, idiosyncratic and great. Pretty much like everyone else in the world—the same but different—Russian.
One of the Russian souls I met towered above the others—above most people I’ve met. Ernst Neizvestny—sculptor and visionary. He died last year. Here’s the link to The Economist Obit on him:
This was the man who argued with Khrushchev about ARTISTIC expression after he called Neizvestny’s work “dog shit,” at an exhibit on the early 60’s.
From my conversations with him there’s no doubt he treated the Russian Premier —with his Stalin-era baggage about the purpose of art –like a Philistine.
Ernst lost the battle. Blackballed for years. Then won the war when Khrushchev –on his deathbed–asked him to do the piece for his tomb.
He was never sent to a camp just forced to be innovative securing materials and creating his works. Secret striving.
John Berger, the revolutionary-minded art critic, wrote a book on him. Pictured below. He traces the artist’s place within the Avant Garde linage established by the early Bolshevik artist-heroes.
I first met Ernst in the early 80’s when we had an opening for him at the gallery in San Francisco. Like many charismatic individuals he had something of a uniform—all black, leather vest, thick platinum ID bracelet. Stocky. A brutalist edge– just like his sculptures. He could have easily been an elder in Sons of Anarchy.
After the opening a bunch of us drank Russian style with him –shouts of “Nostrovia” and shots of Vodka. He embodied the heroic ideal of the artiste. I didn’t see him again until we moved to New York City a few years later.
Another person did a book him. I believe he’s connected with a museum dedicated to the artist’s work somewhere in Sweden.
Here in the States Ernst worked in relative obscurity out of his old studio on Grand Street at the edge of Soho. His twisted sculptor—often with forms of a cross—in the windows—made it look something like one of those old places of worship you could still find downtown then.
He had a huge vision for a monumental sculpture celebrating the unity of the world’s people. And said that Americans and Russians were alike when it came to appreciation for grand– larger than life projects. He thought that appreciation was baked into the large expanses of space both countries possess and the mentality that grew from them.
He inspired me enough to write a Docudrama about his life in Russia. Some how I found a draft—from ’87 I believe. Don’t know which version it might be—hasn’t had much of polish or much revising. I offer it as a product of the times. Can’t believe I did this all on a typewriter.
More Russian stories in another post.
Here’s the link to docudrama: