New generation of Russian artists finds freedom is a mixed blessing


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.

Perhaps, he says, his decision to join was another act of atonement for the perceived sin of privilege. "Maybe I wanted to demonstrate that I was an ordinary person, like those around me," he says. "Maybe because I would like to avoid the accusation, that people say I was hired by a famous studio because I come from a famous family."

But the brutal reality of military service here - where recruits undergo violent hazing by senior soldiers - left psychological scars. He spent three months in the hospital with ulcers and was discharged after serving only six months.

"All my childhood and youth, I was among creative people," he says. "Suddenly, I was in a world where there were such people, I couldn't imagine, who were capable of such bad things."

Bigger burdens

In a world driven by profits, artists find that they must work faster as well as longer. A decade ago, dancers at the Mariinsky Theater - home to Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov before they defected - might rehearse for a month before taking a production to the stage.

Now, says a harried Vishneva, they have just two weeks. "It's like the time started to flow more quickly. Before, there was a completely different tempo of life," says the casually athletic 26-year-old, who has performed in an exhausting range of roles over the past seven years and spends six months a year touring.

"One gets very tired of this," she says, slouching wearily at a table in the backstage staff canteen. "It's like some unbelievable race. The burden is becoming bigger and bigger."

Many writers are still trying to make sense of the seismic changes in Russian society - and reinterpret them for the stage and screen. At the Bolshoi Drama Theater here, art director Kirill Y. Lavrov says few young Russian playwrights are producing important new works. So he mainly stages Russian or foreign classics, or modern plays imported from the stages of London and New York.

"Russia has experienced a crucial change in its history," says the blue-eyed, bass-voiced veteran actor, a former deputy in the Supreme Soviet. "Drama can't catch up with the quick changes in the social and political process."

The institutions that have trained and sustained St. Petersburg's artists are also under pressure, of course. Students at the Repin Institute pad down dingy and dusty hallways. Most have outside jobs to support themselves; in Soviet times they would have been given generous stipends.

The St. Petersburg school, founded in 1757 by Catherine the Great, is a bastion of the city's conservative arts tradition. (Although two leaders of Russia's avant-garde movement of the early 20th century, Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich, studied there.)

Students still follow the course laid out by the school's French instructors in the late 18th century. They start with simple compositions, then work their way up - over the course of six years - to copying classical European paintings or sculptures in the Hermitage. Recently, the school resumed the long-abandoned practice of sending students to spend time in the museums of Florence and Rome as part of their training.

Surviving on a meager government budget, administrators have struggled to find other sources of income. The institute has sought to attract foreign students and each year is host to about 60 students from China - out of a total student body of 1,000.

But most young artists aren't interested in the school's classical approach.

"It has been hard for us to be in the market, to find ourselves in this new world," says Simeon Mikhailovsky, an architectural historian at the Repin.

Working for churches

One major customer for the Repin's traditional art is the Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodox churches here are slowly being rebuilt and refurbished after being looted, neglected and demolished by the Communists. There is strong demand for Orthodox icons, traditionally regarded as holy objects.

As part of his training, Dolsky worked on a Repin contract to paint frescoes for Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. The landmark church was destroyed with dynamite in 1933 on orders of Josef Stalin, rebuilt after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and finally consecrated in 2000.

Today, Dolsky works at the institute helping restore or create paintings, mosaics and stained glass for the Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city of Kursk, about 300 miles south of Moscow.

This is exactly the kind of work he would choose to do, he says. Since he was a young painter, he says, he has felt drawn to religious and allegorical themes, staples of the academy's curriculum for 2 1/2 centuries.

Growing up in St. Petersburg, Dolsky says, gave him a head start on his chosen profession. The city is home, of course, to scores of museums, palaces and cathedrals loaded with art. As a young art student, the established painters he most admired were also his neighbors.

"When I felt I faced a problem," he says, "I could go and talk directly to them."

In the chill of Soviet repression, friendship was a warm refuge. St. Petersburg's artists would spend long hours talking art and politics in their cramped apartments. "The doors were always open," he says. "Why? There was nothing to steal."

Like many other painters here, Dolsky makes extra money copying old masters for so-called New Russians, the nation's business elite, who hang these trophies in their homes and dachas. Working on a commission, Dolsky recently copied Still Life with Lobster, Drinking Horn and Glasses, by the 17th-century Dutch painter Willem Kalf.

The work pays from $100 to $700 a copy, he says, but most painters find even these modest commissions difficult to come by.

Some, of course, dislike what seems like mechanical work. Dolsky delights in every brush stroke.

"I get quiet pleasure," he says.

He spends most of his time in a cubicle-sized studio at the Repin. His work space, divided from those of other painters by low partitions of plywood, occupies part of a vast neo-classical hall with a 25-foot ceiling. It's as though Dolsky has set up a camp in an ancient Roman ruin.

A future abroad

Besides his paid work, Dolsky paints for himself. He prefers the classical style: He recently completed a portrait of his father, dressed as a medieval Italian nobleman. In another picture, he illustrated the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant.

Like many talented and classically trained Russian artists, Dolsky sees his future as a teacher, abroad.

"It's a very funny paradox," he says. "In this academy, there are very talented painters who survive at the poverty level while in the West there are academies of art in need of really good teachers of painting - and they employ people who are not such good painters."

Many worry where Russia's next generation of artists will come from if so much of its talent drains away. But the future may be more secure than some fear.

Culture plays too important a role in Russian society, perhaps, for it to fade away. The drive to create seems too strong here.

"It's like a sickness, this painting," Dolsky says. "There is only a great need to finish a picture. As soon as you finish it, it is like lifting a huge burden off of your shoulders. And when you finish, you feel a new lightness. A freedom to start a new canvas."

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