The students of the 2017 Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies Global Seminar in Moscow were fortunate enough to visit the city’s Tretyakov gallery of Russian art during their first week of the class. The Tretyakov started as a private collection that was granted to the Russian nation at the end of the 19th century. The museum occupies a picturesque position on the edge of Gorky Park, a hub for picnickers and those seeking refuge from the bustle of the city. We arrived on the last day of the museum’s special exhibition, The Thaw, which focused on art from the period of the Soviet Union by the same name. Commonly referred to as the “Krushchev Thaw,” which took place over a 15-year period, this era of the Soviet Union was marked by a relaxation of the practices of censorship and imprisonment that had been enforced under Joseph Stalin. Our class received a private tour from one of the exhibition’s curators, who took us through the six sections of the show. Through paintings, sculptures, film, photographs, and artifacts from the period we learned about the increased connection between art and the individual personality in Russia at this time.
The first section of the exhibition, “Talking with Father,” showed artwork that spoke to human experiences of World War II, and communicated some of the difficulties in grappling with the legacy of the conflict that Russians experienced. The somber entrance to the exhibition led into a more optimistic section called “The Best City on Earth,” which featured paintings depicting the rapid modernization of Russian society. The curator explained that the “city” is a general term that could be applied to many different metropolises in the country. In keeping with the theme of progress and innovation, the subsequent section of the exhibition, called “The New Ways of Life,” represented the efforts that were made during the Thaw to make day-to-life more enjoyable and comfortable for the average citizen. A playful and popular portion of the exhibition, the “Atom – Space” section, presented paintings of Russian cosmonauts (or, in American parlance, astronauts), sculptures resembling Star Wars’ R2-D2, and a model of the famous sputnik satellite.
The exhibition culminated in a final section titled “Towards Communism!” that leads its visitors up a sloped walkway to an elevated portion of the gallery. This section featured mostly diminutive sculptures of emblems representing communism. The most prominently featured artwork was Ely Belyutin’s Requiem. This large painting features a timetable imagining future innovations leading up to the year 2100. While some of the predictions, such as populating other planets, have not been realized, we enjoyed noting which of Belytuin’s prophecies actually reflected the realities of our lives. Interestingly, this section of the exhibition was sparser than the others. I took pleasure in viewing all of the sections together from the balcony where I was able to see over the partial walls that had divided them.
After leaving the exhibition, I entered the main gallery of the museum, which is a rich trove of works by Russian masters such as Tatlin, Chagall, and Kandinsky. I found that the museum did not offer much guidance on how to navigate the different rooms; inscriptions on the walls for each room were minimal and the organization of the galleries lacked obvious order. However, this lack of explicit structure afforded me the freedom to wander through the museum on my own terms, and made the experience a more exciting exploration. Visiting the Tretyakov Gallery was a wonderful introduction to the bewildering yet compelling city of Moscow. I look forward to seeing much more art over the remaining five weeks of the seminar.