The world's first comprehensive account of private art collections in the USSR comes from Austria and has now been published as a book. Based on rare primary sources, the book documents how private collectors - despite political repressions - "survived" the Soviet era. They collected art not in line with the official canon, thereby saving much of the country's cultural heritage. The monograph draws on intensive research facilitated by a Hertha Firnberg grant, financed by the Austrian Science Fund FWF. The study, spanning seven decades from Lenin to Gorbachev, gives a nuanced picture of private art collecting in the former Soviet Union and clears up a number of common misconceptions.
With the Russian Revolution in 1917 private property was declared illegal. As a result, private art collections were banned, many were confiscated and nationalized. However, some collectors found ways to escape the ban and cooperate with the authorities. Now, for the first time, a book based on sound academic evidence has been published that fully documents how they were able to do so.
The result is a unique description of the development and characteristics of the private collectors' market in the Soviet Union, a market that officially did not exist. Dr. Waltraud Bayer, from the Institute of History at the University of Graz, describes the situation from the Revolution to Perestroika in her book entitled "Gerettete Kultur: Private Kunstsammler in der Sowjetunion, 1917-1991" (Private Art Collectors in the Soviet Union, 1917-1991). She describes in detail the specific prerequisites that citizens of the Soviet Union had to meet to be able to collect art.
Most collectors belonged to the intelligentsia. Contrary to widespread belief, it was initially the former educated bourgeoisie and nobility who continued to collect art despite the ban. Representatives of the lower classes only gradually started to collect in the 1930s, as Dr. Bayer explains: "Throughout the Soviet regime art collecting was primarily the domain of the cultural and intellectual milieus. These well educated people had the necessary expertise, relevant contacts to middlemen and to the party bureaucracy, sufficient financial means and ample spare time."
Based on new findings, the book shows that many private collectors were willing to cooperate in some form with the cultural bureaucracy - even during the worst times. These results contradict the much publicized notion that private collectors were constantly harassed and repressed by the state. In fact, source material shows that both sides were frequently prepared to work together. The few remaining art collectors often cooperated with the Soviet regime and received "protection certificates" in return for adequate political conduct.
Rescuing Cultural Heritage
Collectors mostly acquired art that was tabooed or considered "trash" by official cultural policy standards. By collecting what was discredited or even banned, they rescued much of the country's cultural heritage. As Dr. Bayer writes: "In the totalitarian Soviet system with its emphasis on the official Socialist Realist doctrine, private collections were important in providing an alternative to the party line, as the latter suppressed a wide range of cultural movements. Thus, collectors not only literally saved valuable works of modern, avant-garde and nonconformist art as well as icons, they also preserved them for future generations."
Their achievements were recognized only during Perestroika. Public acknowledgement of previously hidden works of art resulted in a boom of exhibitions. However, collectors who had benefited from cultural expertise and networking during the Soviet regime were soon confronted with new obstacles: After the break-up of the Soviet Union, money became an increasingly important factor - and often the new economic elite would take over complete collections from their predecessors.
Much of these findings were the result of extensive research in public and private archives, libraries, collections and museums. The research itself was facilitated by a Hertha Firnberg grant - a program introduced by the Austrian Science Fund FWF to support women at the start of their academic careers. And for the first time, research was not only carried out in the cultural centres of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also in many other cultural centres of the former USSR. Numerous case studies, based on a survey of 100 biographical entries and interviews, as well as new approaches from cultural studies and memory research were included. The in-depth research and new findings presented in this book set a very high standard for any future publications in this area.
Waltraud Bayer, Gerettete Kultur: Private Kunstsammler in der Sowjetunion, 1917-1991. Turia + Kant, Wien 2006, ISBN 978-3-85132-463-1
Further information: www.waltraudbayer.at
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Vienna, December 12