With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russians were suddenly free to think, say and do things previously forbidden. Criticize their government. Embrace religion. Start businesses. Travel abroad. Emigrate.
Among those who left are two St. Petersburg artists who started new lives in Minnesota. Trained at top art schools in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was called in Soviet times), Katia Andreeva and Konstantin Berkovski transplanted their talent to Minneapolis, where their work is featured in a quasi-retrospective at the Museum of Russian Art. It runs through May 31.
After their more than two decades in the United States, their paintings are still marked by the dreamy style and romantic sentiment often associated with Russian art. Both work in watercolor, a difficult medium that artists love for its speed and delicacy, but seldom use for major projects because it fades if exposed to sunlight for a long time. Even so, Andreeva prefers it for her lush bouquets of roses, groves of summery trees, golden light-caressing ripe grapes and the playful animals she painted for a children’s Bible.
Compared with the delicate transparency of her work, Berkovski’s pictures are big and brooding, his bronze-toned landscapes aglow with nostalgia, his floral still-lifes sulky with ambition. Up to 5 feet wide and nearly as tall, his watercolors are monumental for the medium, ripe with wine reds and dusky shadows that seem to sigh in autumnal winds. They are grand pictures, meant for the glittering candlelit salons and ballrooms of a gilded age, their opaque pigments swirling across the page and sinking into the paper like dancers departing the ball.
Andreeva arrived in 1994 and Berkovski two years later. She came and went, moving to the Caribbean for business and then to New York to study art restoration and “observe the culture.” Three years ago she met the man to whom she is now married, John Bitterman, artistic director of the vocal group Silver Swan. They live in northeast Minneapolis, where she has a studio at home.
“New York and New Jersey, where I stayed, had much better weather with early spring and roses and magnolias blooming,” said Andreeva, who is model-thin, about 6 feet tall and strikingly pretty. “New York is a cultural mecca and everything was interesting, intriguing. There’s a special rhythm there. But as an artist I like to work here in Minnesota. I feel I’m more in harmony within myself here.”
Born in Arsenev, a city of about 30,000 near the Pacific Ocean port of Vladivostok, she was encouraged to pursue art by her mother and grandfather. Though remote, Arsenev was a cultured place, settled in the 1930s by intellectuals from Moscow and St. Petersburg. After earning a degree in fashion design in Khabarovsk, Andreeva won a scholarship to study at the prestigious Mukhina College of Art and Design in Leningrad. The USSR was in turmoil by then, but it was a fine moment to be young.
“We were experimenting and expressing ourselves in art — anything was allowed,” she said. “European art started to appear; people were traveling, and we were full of ideas. It was a great time, and I remember it vividly.”
She came to the United States with her first husband and quickly found work as an illustrator of Christian inspirational books. She also has done icon painting, designed folk art and restored porcelain, all while continuing her imaginative studio paintings.
“Art is not something I started because I wanted to be rich or famous, because artists don’t get rich,” she said. “I’m just happy when I am holding a brush in my hand; it’s the only thing I can do with such pleasure.”
Shaped by St. Petersburg
Born in Leningrad in 1968, Berkovski is from a Jewish family that moved there from Ukraine and Belarus in the 19th century. They survived “all the stuff” of 20th-century Russian history, he said — “the civil war, Stalin’s oppressions, the blockade of St. Petersburg by the Nazis.” Most of the family members were scientists and physicists, but “my granddad was a revolutionary in revolutionary times.”
From childhood Berkovski loved art and at 16 he was admitted to Leningrad’s Academy of Arts, the country’s oldest and most brutally competitive art school. There he studied art, architecture and sculpture for six years but left unimpressed.
“The most important things I learned were at the Hermitage museum, looking at Titian and Venetian paintings, Greek sculpture, Dutch art and Cezanne,” he said. “In my opinion art takes root in other people’s art; it is a personal interpretation of a cultural tradition. You take art you really love and set up a goal to do the same.”
Over the years he has made sculpture and jewelry, taught art and done “lots of different things.” For the past six years, that includes growing organic vegetables on a small plot he rents near Marine on St. Croix and selling them to 75 restaurants between Hudson, Wis., and Wayzata.
Residents of Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood, he and his architect wife, Olga, have two sons: Gabriel, 17, and Theodore, 9.
“Seward and the St. Croix Valley are beautiful places, and the people there are very welcoming,” he said. “My plan at one point was to just sink into the studio and work, but now my joy is to be outdoors.”
After almost 20 years he still misses St. Petersburg: the aristocratic manners of its people, the beautiful neoclassical buildings, the luminous midsummer nights.
“It is such a golden treasure, my memory of St. Petersburg,” he said. “I left in the White Nights, and I have never gone back because I’m afraid to see the change.”
Although she has been back, Andreeva understands his reluctance. “St. Petersburg shaped both of us as young people who lived there at a particular time,” she said. “Living in such a beautiful city shaped us, and that’s what we are trying to do here — make beauty.”