Boris Mikhalilov
Boris Mikhalilov, Case History, 1997 – 1998, image Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

The Saatchi Gallery’s latest series of exhibitions on art and photography from the Soviet Union contain some of the most shocking, dark, disturbing and compelling imagery you could expect from a major gallery. Hannah Zeffert uncovers the ingenious creativity responding to the Soviet Union’s oppressive regime.


Two exhibitions run simultaneously, comprised from the work of 40 contemporary Russian contributors:

Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union

Breaking the ice: Moscow Art, 1960-80s


New (and old) Art From Russia: A mixture of bleak & satirical, sculptures, paintings & photographs.

Reportage portraits by Boris Mikhalilov, looking at the societal subjugation of Moscow’s young and old.

Tempera paintings on cardboard by Valery Koshlyakov , including the the ‘High-rise on Raushskaya Embankment’ whose grandeur contrasts with the throwaway cardboard canvas.

Valery Koshlyakov,  "High-res on Rauschskaya Embankment" 2006. Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London.
Valery Koshlyakov, “High-rise on Rauschskaya Embankment”, 2006. Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London.

Amongst others are exquisitely-lit oil and tempera canvases by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, haunting black and white works by Jānis Avotiņš and more lighthearted pieces by Darria Krtova, entitled Heart, Organ of Love (sometimes my heart looks like a chicken).

Dasha Shishkin
Dasha Shishkin, What Does It Matter To Her Ever Creating Womb If Today Matter Is Flesh And Tomorrow Worms, 2012, image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

Decisive Moment?

Boris Mikhailov’s ability to capture the perfect moment and how they connect with their subject.

Vikenti Nilin’s portraits of people sitting on their window ledges gives an incredible sense of calm, the subjects are dissociative but the photos themselves are engaging.

Vikenti Nilin
Vikenti Nilin, from the Neighbours Series, 1993-present, image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

I’m always amazed how open or comfortable people can be when having a stranger take their photo. Reportage images of children smoking, drinking and some unsightly shots of diseases and ill health captured in a series by Boris Mikhailov, who says on his artist’s page on the  Saatchi site, “It is a disgraceful world, populated by some creatures that were once humans, but now these living beings are degraded, ghastly, appalling. This “fauna” is specific especially to the period of quasi-general diffidence, specific for most of the post-communist world.”

Boris Mikhailov, Case History, 1997-1998A set of 413 photographs, Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London.
Boris Mikhailov, Case History, 1997-1998
A set of 413 photographs, Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London.

Sergei Vasiliev’s portraits of the heavily tattooed soviet prisoners are also worth a mention. They’re featured in the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia by Danzig Baldaev.

Russian Criminal with tattoos
Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Print No.12, 2010, Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery


There is a sublime balance of humour and raw emotion throughout both exhibitions. It is a celebration of expressive artwork that formed through the cracks of an oppressive regime.

Which Image? Which Room?

From the ‘Breaking the ice’ exhibition I’d hang Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid’s, Sots Art take on Rothko ‘Composition with missiles in Rothko’ in the kitchen –  simple, comical and bright.

One question for the Image Maker?

I was rather taken by the work of Komar & Melamid and the question I pose is related to a body of work outside of this exhibition. An insight into how fascinating their endeavours have been; from 1995 to 2000 they journeyed to Thailand and taught elephants to paint, the proceeds from which were donated to elephant conservation.

And so I would like to know, which elephant’s work they find most honourable and whose style would they compare it to in the modern day?


Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union shows at the Saatchi Gallery until May 5

Breaking the Ice, Moscow Art, 1960s-1980s shows at the at the Saatchi Gallery until March 3





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