Exodus to the Soviet East: In Search of New Foundations
For several decades, the “East” as it exists in the Western imagination has been a matter of heated debate. The biggest contribution to this discourse to date (and it is likely to remain so) is Edward Said’s Orientalism, in which the author, drawing on a huge pool of literary and documentary sources, distilled the Western vision of the East as an exotic, mystical, and radically “different” place. Meaning it differs from that reality considered the central one, without any alternative: the space of Western culture and tradition.
This relationship was created not simply by direct political subjugation but also by sometimes elaborate forms of cultural colonization and even self-colonization. The East attracted seekers of new spiritual and cultural directions from the European part of the Russian Empire, and particularly after the Russian conquest of Central Asia. One of the pioneers was the painter Vasily Vereshchagin, who travelled to Samarkand in 1868, the year the city was captured by Konstantin von Kaufmann, who would be the first Governor-General of Russian Turkestan. Several artistic expeditions followed Vereshchagin’s, including the 1921 journey that inspired Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin to produce his celebrated series of drawings Samarkandia.
One important reason behind this wave of searching for a new self, a different spirituality, and alternative foundations in the “mysterious East” (where “East” could mean anything) was the crisis of the Christian worldview, which was already looming in the second half of the nineteenth century. By the turn of the twentieth century, this crisis had spread beyond philosophical books and intellectual debates and blossomed in a variety of mystical, including eastern, teachings and practices, ranging from yoga to the Egyptian Tarot and the search for Shambala.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the majority of the artists featured in this exhibition associated themselves with the East, be it in a more general orientalist sense or as represented by Central Asia, the local East of Russian and Soviet culture. In his book Meetings with Remarkable Men, George Gurdjieff recounts the story of his eleven-year journey across Central Asia, although whether it actually took place is still a matter of debate. In the Andrei Bely Museum in Moscow, visitors can find objects that the poet brought back from Turkestan: an embroidered cap and bedcovers with a traditional ornament. The poet and anthroposophist Elisaveta Dmitrieva (married name Vasilieva), best known by the pseudonym Cherubina de Gabriak, lived and worked in Tashkent. Dmitrieva was close to poet Maximilian Voloshin, one of the key figures in the mystical circles of the Silver Age, whose house in Koktebel was frequented by all seekers of “higher knowledge.” Another resident of Tashkent, Cherubina’s friend, the artist, sculptor, and illustrator of Persian myths and poetry Rimma Nikolaeva was also an anthroposophist and a member of a mystical society that was active in Leningrad and Tashkent in the 1920s and 1930s. Nikolaeva was in a relationship with the oriental studies specialist and translator Julian Shutsky, who she met in Tashkent thanks to a shared interest in anthroposophy.
The search for artistic inspiration (along with “exotic” imagery and textures) in “the East” received a new impetus in the early years of the Soviet Union. A number of artists from various parts of Russia headed to Samarkand encouraged by the Soviet government’s unexpected decision to restore the city’s medieval monuments. This circle, which included Daniil Stepanov, Aleksandr Nikolayev (Usto Mumin), and Alexei Isupov, is often referred to as “the Pre-Raphaelites of Samarkand,” a phrase coined by art historian Boris Chukhovich to reflect members’ reverence for Italian culture, language, and fine art. The group worked using a form of painting that combined the achievements of the Italian Renaissance with Persian miniature painting techniques, the Russian icon-painting tradition, and local cultural motifs such as bacha bazi (boys made to dance in female costumes to show off their androgynous beauty). However, Samarkand did not remain free from ideological pressure in art for long, and their unique project was short-lived. Isupov and Stepanov both left the Soviet Union under different pretexts and moved to Italy, where Stepanov showed his “Pre-Raphaelite” works at the Venice Biennale in 1926. For Nikolayev, life took a tragic turn. He was arrested on a number of charges and spent several years in prison. The legacy left by the circle was scattered across the world and a large part of it is now lost.