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The Afghan

May 2023

The Russian online magazine “Bumaga '' recently published a series of anti-war protest paintings made by brave students who attend the Repin Academy of Art in St Petersburg. One showed a forlorn mother holding a folded uniform - her son had not returned from the front. The other showed a group of comrades drinking and singing songs to the strains of a balalaika - they had deathly skulls for heads. A third showed a grey and grim-faced crowd in an underground train station; the digital clock above their heads shows the date of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine - the twenty fourth of February, 2023. The student artists were not arrested, but they all got bad grades and their names were removed from all online postings for their own safety soon after the work was published.

At around the same time the Academy opened a new exhibition in its museum wing called “Donbass - An Industrial Portrait”. From the photos I have seen online, it seems to be a proud display of large-scale, vintage socialist realism that celebrates the productivity of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, the embattled area now controlled by Russia in the ongoing war. The message here is that the Donbass region is culturally ours (look, we have massive paintings to prove it!) and that the handsome and hardworking steelworkers and miners are worth fighting for.

The images in “Bumaga” immediately made me think about the time I spent studying in the same St Petersburg Art Academy in 1999, and an incident that occurred when a student presented a painting which was implicitly anti-war, although I didn’t realise that till later. That student also got bad grades for his work, in fact I’m not sure if he ever came back to the studio again. The incident made me realise, for the first time, that a figurative painting could be a conceptual work of art - that it could be a filled with recogniseable things, but that it could carry a heartfelt message that would shake a cherished understanding of the meaning of war, and the slippery moral authority that is often attached to it.

I was 20 years old and I had enrolled as a student for a year, during which I hoped to immerse myself in the Russian language and learn how to paint. I studied Russian at home in Dublin, and a requirement of my degree course was to spend time in Russia learning about the language and culture. I wanted to combine this trip with pursuing another ambition - learning how to paint.

I could have painted elsewhere, but at that time I was impressed by big power and bygone traditions, and I longed to study in a pre-industrial environment. I romanticised technique and craft and I was wary of novelty. I had visited the National College of Art and Design in Dublin when I was thinking about studying art, but I was intimidated by the whole setup. First of all, it was the 1990’s and nobody was painting; secondly, there seemed to be a huge emphasis on self expression and critical thinking and I wasn’t ready for any of it. I wanted to learn the revered practices, not subvert them.

I found The Imperial Academy of Art, Named after Repin (to give it its full title) in an encyclopaedia in the Russian section of the university library. The entry was short, but I remember that there was a small etching of its neoclassical facade beneath the text. The secretary of the Russian department in my University was amused by my requests to make contact with the art college in St Petersburg, but she helped me send them a fax and she spoke to an official from the academy on the phone. I also sent off a little package of drawings and my first ever oil painting (Still Life with a Bag of Plums) in the post by way of an application. I had yet to realise that foreign students were welcomed for the fees they might pay and not for their meagre artistic contributions.

Arriving in St Petersburg in September 1998 felt adventurous. I was laden down with luggage that included washing powder and salt. My family had provisioned me for the deficits that followed the financial crash of that year, but I turned out not to need any of my dried foodstuffs or home supplies.

The Academy itself was intimidating in a very different way from the art college in Dublin. Its building seemed so dominating. I remember sizing up the pair of enormous Sphynx that crouched at the entrance - they had been brought all the way from Egypt by Nicholas I - and thinking that they were farther from home than I was. The facade, that I had seen in the encyclopaedia, stretched along the Neva river for a whole block and the Hermitage Museum, where we were encouraged to spend our weekends, was just across the water. Inside the Academy building, classical sculptures stood in alcoves around the entrance hall and footsteps echoed through the vast interior. There was an anatomy theatre filled with cabinets of old bones, and a tiered, mahogany library that was softly lit with green-curtained lamps. The splendour of the building had certainly faded over the course of the impoverished decades of the 80s and 90s - its vaulted corridors contained air from the past, scented with leaded paint and damp plaster and cigarette smoke - but the scale of the building made me feel like I was gaining access to a revered tradition.

The students looked different from the ones at home. They weren’t demure, but they wore muted colours and rarely spoke loudly. They had neither the money or the inclination to dye their hair or wear radical clothing and they weren’t interested in eliciting shock. On the contrary, they seemed devoted to Russia’s artistic and literary traditions and they considered themselves part of an intellectual elite.

When my Russian got better, I understood that it was important for my fellow students to maintain pride in some of the big things their country had managed to conserve while the rest of the world had succumbed to the permissiveness of the late stages of capitalism. They enjoyed films and music from the “West”, but they weren’t interested, for example, in the YBAs who were in the spotlight of the art scene in Britain. They respected skill and beauty, and they emulated the work of Renaissance artists and Russian and European painters of the 19th century.

I had joined the atelier of an esteemed and elderly professor by the name of Pimenov. Around thirty students painted from live models in his large, light-filled, second floor studio. There was a plaque on the wall reminding us that Ilya Repin, after whom the academy was named, had taught there.

Pimenov was an elderly man who had lived through the second world war (or the Great Patriotic war, as is known in Russia). In his early career he had worked for the war effort, designing propaganda posters for the TASS agency. Like many of the graduates of the Academy, he was an artistic descendant of Repin himself and his work was also heavily influenced by the pervasive Soviet Realism of his youth.

Once a term, Pimenov came to look at our compositions - paintings that we would create on a given theme. The themes almost seemed to have a theme of their own: “Return from the Front” and “Pushkin in St Petersburg” were recurring favourites. Students would prepare monotone compositional sketches in watercolour or tempera, and the professor would make recommendations before the design for a full oil painting was decided on. Most students worked from their imagination, occasionally persuading friends to don headscarves or overcoats to pose as characters in their compositions.

The protest paintings in the Bumaga magazine reminded me of the time we were given the theme of “war” to work on. At that point I was still bewildered by the whole notion of composition. I didn’t understand the principles of the golden section and I hadn’t a clue about how to arrange figures pleasingly within the four walls of a canvas, much less what kind of content was expected. On the day that Pimenov came to inspect the “war” paintings I loitered and hid among the other students who prepared their sketches to show him.

That day there was an appearance from a student, I’ll call him Artemy, who hardly ever frequented our painting sessions and who often left early without getting involved in the social life of the studio. Artemy was friendly, but he was shy and withdrawn. He was older than the rest of us. He had white-blond hair that splayed up off his forehead in a cow's lick and he compulsively flicked his head in a nervous tic. I remember that in the winter he wore a sheepskin coat, and that he spoke very softly with a slight stammer. Everyone called him The Afghan. The nickname confused me at first, but then I learned that he had fought in the Soviet-Afghan war and that all the veterans were called “Afghans”.

It was about 10 years after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and in the meantime, the Soviet Union had collapsed. The “Afghans” did not enjoy the same status as other Soviet veterans - in fact they were regarded with some contempt and “their” war was associated with the demise of the Soviet Union. At the time, I didn't know any of this, but I did notice that Artemy was seen as an oddity in the studio. With hindsight, I wonder if his tics and halting speech may have been attributable to the so-called “afghan syndrome”, a condition that might be generalised as PTSD.

We listened out for the clinking row of medals that Pimenov wore pinned to his chest as he made a laboured ascent of the winding staircase to the studio. He entered with a small entourage of assistant teachers. The drawing teacher had a coiffed moustache like Nicholas II and smoked an elegantly thin cigar. There was a younger one too - he was good looking with permanently furrowed brows and he often looked faintly hungover . On this occasion, they both helped Pimenov into a chair in the middle of the studio and a podium was set up in front of the viewing party where the students would present their compositions.

The theme of “war” was frequently tackled by the students. Compositions on the theme often showed snowy battlefields or soldiers embracing their mothers, or comrades celebrating a victory. There was an archetypal quality to these images that seemed unfamiliar to me. A kind of nobility suffused the paintings - dignity in suffering was often expressed through Carravaggio-like shadows, or Grecian drapery or the individual represented as the synecdoche of a nation.

Artemy’s painting is the only one I remember from that particular day. I don’t think he was trying to make a point - he was expressing a personal response to “war”. Maybe this was a more radical act than he realised, or maybe he knew exactly how it would be received and he thought he might show us all the complexity of the theme.

I remember he fussed with his painting and untied it from a portable bundle he had fashioned from canvas and string. When his turn came to present his composition, he propped the painting up in front of the teachers and stepped back, clasping both hands in front of him. We all took it in.

I find it difficult to remember the details of the painting, and indeed my memory of this incident that made such an impression on me, might include embellishments that over time have been superimposed on the original image, but, as far as I remember, Artemy’s painting showed a blue-domed mosque against a sandy, yellow hill. People walked to and fro and in the foreground there was a woman wearing a blue burqa carrying a bundle on her head (or did she have a child in her arms?). The woman moved towards the mosque, away from the viewer with her garments flowing about her. There may have been a camel, but I’m not sure. The predominant colours were yellow and blue and violet - they were a little gaudy and the brushstrokes were thick and pedantic.

Before I had a chance to figure it out myself I heard Pimenov demanding “What is this?This is not a painting about war!”

Artemy stammered. “Yes it is”, he said.

“This is what I saw from my tank when we drove into this place”.

The students were hushed. Something had happened that I hadn’t quite understood.

Pimenov was enraged. “This is just a scene in a desert!”

He continued, “In war, there are good guys and bad guys. Winners and losers; Fascists and Communists. If you had fought in The Great War you would know this!”

The professor was agitated and his face was flushed red. It was clear that, for him, the” Afghan’s” war was not the real thing. No Nazis had been defeated in this messy, 10-year conflict. It was not noble. There was no imagery that anyone could relate to. The only memorable picture from that war was the famous photograph showing Soviet troops leaving Afghanistan in a convoy of tanks as they crossed the “Bridge of Friendship” to Uzbekistan, red flags fluttering behind them. This painting on the podium looked nothing like that. It looked like some kind of Central Asian idyll and the subtext was that it had been invaded and possibly destroyed.

Artemy snatched up his canvas, tucked it under his arm and left the studio looking very distressed. He did not get a mark for that exercise and his painting was not displayed at the end-of-year exhibition. I don’t really remember that he ever came back.

The painting was conceptual in a way that the recent anti-war student paintings are not. All of them are brave statements, but in Artemy’s painting the idea was far greater than the form. His eyewitness account of a peaceful scene rendered in bright colours suggested a darkness that was too difficult to describe even by someone who had endured it. What had happened near that mosque? Why was Artemy in this place of bright sunlight and dark shadows? Almost 2 million Afghans died during the war with the Soviet Union. It is very likely that Artemy had seen a good deal of this destruction.

The theme of “war” is such a slippery thing. The returning “Afghans” found that they had unwillingly fought for a state that was near collapse and for fellow citizens who didn’t recognise that they had been at war at all. Thirty years on, unwilling Russian soldiers were sent to fight in a “special operation” in Ukraine - this one was also “not a war”.

I went back to study at the Academy for two more years after I finished university at home. I loved living in St Petersburg during that time of flourishing in Russia, but when I returned to Dublin, and found a studio to work in, I felt creatively stunted and I found that I couldn’t make meaningful work. At the Academy I had learnt how to paint, but I didn’t know how to be an artist. That came many years later.

I remember Artemy’s work as a piece of art in a sea of compositions. The idea that all war is a plunder of peace is a fragile one that I will always remember as an image of a blue-domed mosque against a sandy, yellow hill.

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