Turning 80 can be tough on the psyche, but for an artist at the prime of his powers it can be a happy moment, especially if friends from around the world fly in to celebrate. Last weekend's birthday fête for Russian-born artist Oleg Vassiliev at the Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) in Minneapolis drew admirers -- artists, publishers, collectors -- from Paris, Moscow, New York and even Columbus, Ohio.

Suddenly the oppressive Soviet politics that decades ago drove Vassiliev and his dissident colleagues out of their homeland was in the air again, but the dark memories of that era were mellowed by changing times and the artists' international success.

Adding to the mood, the reunion was hosted by a Minneapolis businessman whose collection mostly features "official" Soviet artists -- people who accepted the artistic dictates of the Soviet state and promoted its ideology rather than resisted it, as Vassiliev and his friends did.

TMORA is showcasing paintings and etchings by Vassiliev, a Moscow-born painter of modernist abstractions, elegiac portraits and poetic etchings infused with longing and loss. Although his work was hardly radical, its failure to promote Soviet ideology doomed Vassiliev to obscurity in his homeland. He never had a solo show there, aside from a one-night exhibition at a Moscow cafe in 1968. For more than 30 years, he and childhood friend Eric Bulatov worked as book designers, specializing in children's tales, samples of which are included in the show.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Vassiliev and his wife emigrated, first to Paris and then to New York. Now a widower who speaks little English, he moved to St. Paul last year to be near a son who lives there. He has had some health issues, but still paints as much as eight hours a day. His homeland has belatedly recognized his work with exhibitions and purchases by major museums in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Beyond politics

At TMORA last week, Bulatov and his wife, Natasha, who also left the Soviet Union and now live in Paris, nodded approval of the museum's elegant display. But the children's books he helped design stopped Bulatov in his tracks.

"Such a nightmare," he murmured in Russian, shaking his head.

It wasn't the books themselves, pretty things that they are, but the memory of all those wasted years that dismayed him, said Masha Zavialova, the museum's Russian-born curator, who translated.

To Americans, the art politics of the Soviet era may seem bizarre. From roughly 1930 to 1990, artists were expected to produce propaganda pictures -- cheerfully realistic images valorizing hard work and ennobling the common people. In return, they received special exhibitions, honors and travel opportunities.

These are the "official" artists whose work Minneapolis businessman Ray Johnson has collected, leading to the founding of TMORA a decade ago. The Vassiliev exhibition is part of an effort to expand the museum's programming to include "unofficial" artists as well.

To the artists, however, ideological distinctions can seem irrelevant. Touring Johnson's storage facility in south Minneapolis, Vassiliev and Bulatov spied work by famous contemporaries, former classmates and even people with whom they'd shared studios.

Socialist Realist in style, the paintings depicted laborers pulling boats, a hammer-and-sickle, a heroic nude symbolizing "Mother Russia" -- all very different from their own work. But to the old friends, what mattered was the integrity of the artists and the quality of their work.

Pausing to admire a small oil sketch by Geli Korzhev of a half-blinded World War II soldier, staring resolutely ahead with his uninjured eye, Bulatov said the larger painting it inspired is "the best example of official Russian art ever."

"He was a sincere and honest Realist artist who believed in the hardships and the sacrifices of the Soviet people and tried to be consistent in honoring them," Bulatov said.

Art and history

Touring Johnson's archive the next day, Vitaly Komar, a Russian pop artist who has lived in the United States since the 1970s, was surprised to see a huge painting of women carpenters and plasterers cheerfully restoring a building. It was a famous image, he said, recalling it from a "Working Women" magazine his mother read.

When Johnson began collecting Soviet Socialist Realist art 20 years ago, it was the cultural detritus of a failed state, no longer wanted at home and misunderstood abroad. Johnson bought it because he admired the artists' skill and believed the work was undervalued and needed to be preserved. He now owns -- and is gradually restoring -- some 10,000 paintings.

"Anything with historic value will sooner or later have aesthetic value," said Komar, comparing Soviet-era paintings to ancient Egyptian art. Both were produced in what he called "slave cultures," but some of the art was great anyway, he said.

"Some enjoy being slaves of the government, and some believe in its policies, but sometimes repression inspires resistance and masterpieces."