In 1957, Boris Shragin, a young art historian, accompanied a group of foreigners on a visit to the Moscow studio of Aleksandr Gerasimov, the president of the Soviet Academy of Arts. Gerasimov had made his name with fawning neoclassical portraits of Stalin and Voroshilov, and used his position to crush 'cosmopolitan' and 'formalist' artists whose work strayed from the official aesthetic. Repelled by the crude naturalism and pomposity of the paintings on display, Shragin turned to one of the foreign visitors and quietly offered his own appraisal: 'Merde.' 'Someone should have told him about CÚzanne,' the visitor, an art critic from Tokyo, agreed. In broken French and English the two men quickly established their shared preference for Picasso and other modernists. And then the foreigner asked: 'When did your eyes open?' 'I was unable to answer,' Shragin remembered.
'Eyes open' - to what? Aleksandr Gerasimov had never been my ideal. 'When did your eyes open?' I heard this question many times after I emigrated. Or, in even simpler form: 'When did you become a dissident?' It's impossible to answer. Within the question itself lies a wilful distortion of reality. Just as the ancient Sophists used to ask: 'When did you stop beating your parents?' If you stopped, that means you used to beat them. If you didn't stop, that means you continue to beat them. But I didn't beat them. Ever.
LRB 13 May 2010 | PDF Download