Long before American women started yammering about glass ceilings, equal pay for equal work and “leaning in” to advance their careers, there was Vladimir Lenin speaking out about domestic drudgery.
Housework, Lenin said, was “barbaric, unproductive, petty, nerve-wrecking, stupefying and depressing.”
Who but Martha Stewart would argue?
When Lenin and company set out to create a new Soviet state, they were social — as well as political and economic — revolutionaries. From 1917 on Soviet women had, by constitutional decree, equal access to education and work opportunities. By the 1950s the Soviet Union had the world’s highest percentage of women in its workforce.
What that meant in reality is deftly sketched in “Women in Soviet Art,” a fascinating new exhibit at the Museum of Russian Art of 60 post-World War II paintings by more than 50 artists. Drawn primarily from the collection of museum founder Ray Johnson and his wife, Susan, the show loosely tracks the lives and aspirations of Soviet women under the governance of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev. As the engaging wall texts explain, women’s circumstances — and even artists’ styles — were subtly affected by changes in the political winds between Stalin’s death in 1953 and the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
What the paintings make clear is that, official promises aside, women’s lives in the Soviet era were challenging at best. Take “Adam and Eve,” a sternly poignant allegory by Geli M. Korzhev, who depicts the first couple as weary workers flanking a snake with an apple in its mouth. Eyes downcast, Adam is a crippled alcoholic leaning on his crutches while hardworking Eve gazes at him skeptically. As the accompanying text explains, alcoholism is an endemic problem in Russia, where alcohol is known as “the green serpent.” Setting the stage for the rest of the exhibit, the panel quotes Dostoevsky’s praise of women as “our only great hope, one of the pledges of our survival.”
And so various Soviet artists depict women energetically shoveling a golden mountain of grain, working in a dark factory, flanked by racks of fish carcasses, driving a trolley, plastering walls. The integration of women into the workforce is especially notable in three monumental logging pictures painted by different artists between 1958 and ’68. In the boldest of them, “Young Woodcutters” by Aleksei P. Belykh, a handsome woman towers over the rest of the work crew, including a man crouched with a chain saw before her. Clearly the equal if not the boss of the men, she still signals her femininity with a pink jacket and cream skirt over boots and trousers.
Elsewhere a companionable female carpentry crew takes a break to share a newspaper article, their faces, work clothes and tools beautifully illuminated by raking light. In “Dreams About Space,” a 1965-67 painting by Viktor I. Lapin, a pretty young aviator with blond curls tumbling from her helmet clutches an article about Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman astronaut whose 1963 exploits inspired a generation. That same camaraderie and pride echo in Aleksei G. Varlamov’s “Sisters in Arms,” a kitchen-table reunion of World War II combat pilots. (Soviet women were the first in the world to fly fighters and bombers in combat, their three regiments logging more than 30,000 sorties against the Germans.)
Life was not all work, though, and some of the most arresting pictures nicely contradict Western stereotypes of Soviet life. The show’s most uplifting image is “The Road Into Life,” an immense 1956 portrait by Ekaterina S. Zermova of her daughter reading in a sunlit room, surrounded by books, with the skyline of Moscow University (the Harvard of the U.S.S.R.) beckoning through the open window. The future also opens in Boris A. Talberg’s 1958 “In the Lenin Mountains,” in which three stylish teenage skiers look like they’ve just stepped from the pages of Mademoiselle magazine. (Apparently Yves Saint-Laurent showed his collection in Moscow in 1959, though most Soviet women then sewed their own clothes — including underwear!)
There are tough times too, and increasing ambivalence as Soviet life became more threadbare. The flat, posterish “Severe Style” that gained favor in the 1970s accentuates the resignation of Igor A. Razdrogin’s somber young fish butcher and the bleak cityscape through which Buda I. Sadikov’s featureless trolley driver navigates. And by 1984, the dairy workers in Olimpiada A. Busygina’s “The Operator” are so repressed they look like automatons.
As always at the Museum of Russian Art, curator Masha Zavialova and her consulting team have enormously enriched the show with analyses of the art and intriguing bits of Russian history, including examples of Soviet-era textiles, china and even a popular cookbook (more than 8 million copies sold!) that throughout Stalin’s era included the dictator’s dietary advice.