The purge of the Gulag and Stalin in the paintings of Piotr Belov (PICS)


In the late 1980s, artist Pyotr Belov shocked Muscovites with his paintings, which for the first time openly addressed the subject of the Gulag and Stalin’s purge. We have revisited them with modernity.

When these paintings were first shown to the public in Moscow in 1988, onlookers were so impressed that people lined up to get to the exhibition.

The Rooks have arrived [refers to the famous 19th century painting with the same name by Alexei Savrasov]

Piotr Belov, then an unknown artist, immediately became the symbol of perestroika and glasnost in art and the symbol of the changes when discussions and kitchen whispers became part of the public space. Before, talking (not to mention painting) on ​​the subject of Stalin’s repressions was almost impossible. And books about the Gulag have rarely been published.

Heart Attack, 1986

After that, Belov’s paintings toured all over the Soviet Union and became very recognizable. In 2020, the artist’s family donated his paintings to the Gulag History Museum in Moscow. The institution gave them a second life, putting them on display – and letting the people understand the emotions that their compatriots were going through in the late 1980s.

Dandelions, 1987

“The cycle of paintings that deeply impressed the public with its bravery and depth was immediately called the ‘anti-Stalinist cycle’,” says Roman Romanov, director of the Gulag History Museum.

All Life, 1987

“His works expressed the deepest grief and fear understood by many contemporaries. He managed to show the strong dissonance linked to the experiences of millions of compatriots, ”adds Romanov.

Untitled.  (Ascension), 1987

The painting below shows a crate of cigarettes called “Belomorkanal” (or simply “Belomor” in slang) after the White Sea-Baltic Canal. The canal is infamous for having been built by Gulag prisoners in record time and the construction work in harsh conditions took the lives of several thousand people. The metaphor is therefore clear: many people have passed through the Belomorkanal.

Belomor Channel, 1985

A metaphor of Pasternak being immured in the wall is very realistic. When his novel “Doctor Zhivago” was banned in the USSR, he secretly transferred it to the West. The play was published in the West and the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. But the Soviet authorities launched a whole campaign of intimidation against Pasternak, which led to his untimely demise. At the bottom is a Pravda newspaper with a portrait of Nikita Khrushchev, who initiated the bullying.

Pasternak, 1987

This painting refers to the repressed theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold. Belov photographed the emaciated and beaten body in prison, while the head is covered with the photo portrait of an official pass.

Meyerhold, 1986

“Stalin in Belov’s paintings is an allegory of death,” explains Kirill Svetlyakov, curator of the exhibition. “In one of the paintings, he looks at the hourglass where human skulls ‘measure’ time instead of grains of sand. In another painting, human figures look like ashes falling from his pipe. In the next, people are wildflowers under the dictator’s boots.

The year 1941, 1985
The hourglass, 1987

“The precise examination [of the painting below] reveals a photograph in the thawed pellet… on which we recognize dad’s forehead and the first page of the manuscript of ‘The Master and Margarita’”, recalls Yekaterina Belova, the artist’s daughter. “You can also see a photograph turned upside down. It must have mom on it – her hairstyle and her hair. And then comes a big field of snow. Dad used to say that if one started digging and melting the snow, it might show many manuscripts hidden in every thawed patch… Here it’s barely cleared and there’s a lot of unexplored things before us…”

Thawed patch.  Mr. Bulgakov, 1986

Pyotr Belov’s exhibition “Queue for the Truth” during the perestroika era is on display at the Moscow Gulag History Museum until May 18, 2022.

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