The only sunshine that Masha Zavialova remembers from her childhood in the Soviet Union was the blazing summer light that warmed the landscape of her grandparents' village in southern Russia. She lived in St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, a shabby northern city on the Baltic that had not yet refurbished its pretty pastel palaces nor reclaimed its glamorous pre-revolutionary past as Russia's window to the West.

Under the oppressive Soviet system, even Leningrad's light seemed dull and gray, she said recently.

Now a curator at the Russian Museum of Art in Minneapolis, Zavialova was surrounded by a new show of 56 paintings by Vasili Nechitailo, a Soviet-era superstar whose work she had shunned in her homeland. Zavialova, who has a doctorate in cultural studies from the University of Minnesota, borrowed the landscapes and portraits from nine American collections, including that of the museum's founder, Twin Cities businessman Ray Johnson.

Beautifully installed in spacious galleries, the show at first seems merely to celebrate the work and life of a man largely unknown outside his homeland. A much more compelling story emerges, however, thanks to Zavialova's insightful labels about the hidden tragedies and suppressed conflicts in Russian life during the Soviet era.

Ambivalent history

Many of Nechitailo's paintings glow with the golden light of an idealized mid-20th-century Soviet summer. They feature backlit peasants hoisting bountiful loads of golden grain into the hoppers of sturdy bins next to olive-drab tractors rumbling at the edge of vast fields of ripe wheat.

Such images touting the virtues of Soviet agriculture were on banners and posters all over the St. Petersburg of Zavialova's childhood. Born in 1954, she grew up during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was a closed country locked in an ideological standoff with the West and deeply suspicious of its own citizens. During college, she recalled, the KGB threatened her with five to seven years' imprisonment for reading a banned book critical of the very Soviet system that Nechitailo's work celebrated.

"At that time I wouldn't even have looked at his art," she said. "I took courses and gave tours at the Hermitage and in the Russian Museum and, though we were told to show his work and everything you said to people was rigidly controlled, I would skip it because it was so propagandistic and I hated it."

True believer

Nechitailo (1915-80) was the son of an impoverished peasant who fought with the Red Army in the 1918-21 Russian Civil War that brought the Bolsheviks to power. The boy idolized his father and enthusiastically embraced Soviet dogma himself. After studying at a regional art school in southern Russia, he was sent to the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow, the country's most prestigious academy, where he won the first Stalin scholarship.

During World War II, he and other top students were sent to Uzbekistan for safety, a mark of the respect the government showed young talent. His career boomed after the war, when he idealized Soviet efforts to farm the "Virgin Land" steppes of Kazakhstan and Siberia. He married a fellow artist, was named director of an artists' house in a spa town in the Caucasus mountains, and was even allowed to travel abroad to Spain, Bulgaria and Italy.

A model Soviet artist, he would bunk on collective farms and rise early to set up his easel in the fields and document the tractor drivers and men and women harvesting wheat, potatoes and other crops. Judging from the TMORA show, his style is narrative and somewhat posterish, the figures quickly sketched and mostly generic with little expression beyond a kind of resolute reserve. Brawny farm workers predominate, but he also painted generals, commissars, somewhat glum family members and a steelworker whose orange skin reflects the heat of the ingot he's working. During the 1960s and '70s he also did seascapes and vistas in the Caucasus mountains, executing them in crusty layers of color that effectively imitate the rocky landscapes and crumbling stucco walls of the rustic villages.

Amnesia of time

The dramatic forces that transformed the Soviet Union from a collectivist economy into capitalist Russia in the past 30 years have changed Zavialova's understanding not only of her childhood but also of the era's art. Behind Nechitailo's upbeat images is a bitter history of class conflict and civil war in which Zavialova's great-grandparents died and her orphaned grandmother became a zealous Communist, an ideology she rejects. Her forebears were Cossacks who battled the Red Army in which Nechitailo's father fought. None of that struggle is evident in his art, however. By the 1950s and '60s when he was painting, Soviet ideology had tar-papered over old animosities with cheerful myths of bountiful harvests, and survivors repressed their memories.

"There was some sort of amnesia at that time," Zavialova said. "It was traumatic and they would not talk about it."

Her views have mellowed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and her own emigration to the United States in 2001, just two weeks before 9/11.

"Before I just looked at the [Nechitailo] subjects and they were oppressive to me," she said. "Now, I look at the canvases and brushwork and find them very interesting and they've stopped being threatening. They're just objects of history. Think of your own childhood. It's completely gone and nowhere to be found. That's something you understand only with years. It's the nature of time. Now I love his work." • 612-673-4431