Last Days of the 20th Century, Part 1
The writer's late father, Evgeny Rukhin. Courtesy Lever Rukhin
After returning to Los Angeles I wrote “The Last Days of the Twentieth Century,” a 140,000-word manuscript, which is a compilation of stories and photos from my trip. The following is that cross-section of images and observations of a world, a world that is evidently without borders.
You’ll see this as a semi-regular feature, or, you can read more at www.leverandfulcrum.com.
Leaving Los Angeles
There were less than two years left in the 20th century when I pulled a painting out of the hallway closet. It was my late father's work.
The composition had a broken chair leg fixed onto the canvas and a series of red prints of a child's hand stamped along the bottom. I chewed on my fingernail and stared at it with intensity. The canvas had sagged over the years. Curious, I cleared the clothes off the top and found a stack of paintings I hadn't seen in years. I pulled out the rest of the paintings, all 40 of them, and lined them up against the wall in the living room.
My roommates, 500 cockroaches and two surfers named Moe and Larry, had thrown a hallucinogenic party the night before in our Venice Beach apartment. The DJ, perched under a stream blue colored light, served up an auditory feast from the corner drawing people into the living room like a hypnotist.
The party was good enough to remember none of it, until the next morning I was unable to find my necktie. It had disappeared, and I desperately needed it the following day. The entertainment firm where I worked as an assistant archivist had finally agreed to review me for a promotion that I'd been lobbying for over a year.
The door to the hallway closet hadn't been opened in over a year, ever since the building shifted during an earthquake. The yellowed paint had begun peeling shortly afterwards and as an aesthetic gesture, Moe pinned a huge flag bearing Che Guevara. Desperate, I grabbed a crow bar from the garage and with a few jerks, forced the door open in hopes of finding a different necktie.
"Mom pleaded with the officials to have mercy and permit us to take the paintings with us, for they were all we had left of him."
Behind the door was a dusty room crammed with a mountain of forgotten paraphernalia. A rush of familiar scents hung in the air of aged leather jackets, salty bodysuits, and old clothes. Sifting through the boxes and heap of laundry forgotten by procrastination, I uncovered the stack of paintings.
How strange it was seeing the paintings after so many years. I grabbed a chair and sat down in the center of the room. I wanted so much to understand them, to see what all the hoopla was about, to value their statements. I lit a cigarette and casually studied the canvases again to see if I could finally appreciate them.
The rough surfaces were filled with a turmoil of mixed medias-the colors of dissidence and seismic shifts, their fierce ironies, painted with a perpetual questioning of rational sequence. They reflected a savage disharmony and a fractured sense of logic. I leaned back into the chair and focused on the artistic element, but it was impossible to see past the memories they roiled within me.
I recalled how one evening I saw a rock land on my plate before I heard the windows breaking. My mouth was slightly open to receive an incoming fork-load of cutlets and the warm sauce splattered across my chest. It was my fifth birthday, March 17, 1976. Thick discs of snow were still spiraling their way down outside my family's apartment in Leningrad.
Shards from the large glass windows showered on my two-year-old sister, Liza, who had been sleeping in a bed beneath sill. She sat up in her swirl of blankets with a pained expression on her bleeding face, her big, beautiful eyes, luminescent even in the darkest of night, and in them I could see tears of pain and terror.
For a second, as more rocks soared in slow motion through the air, Liza and I continued looking into each other's eyes in silence. The calm of the moment, the warmth from the fireplace and the fading chime of the grandfather clock--And as soon as that second was over, the sound of crashing glass filled the room, accompanied by Liza's scream.
The warnings from the KGB never came lightly. My dad, Evgeny Rukhin, was not a high-ranking government agent or leading professor of nuclear science. He was not a journalist or controversial writer. He was a painter--an artist whose sole intent was to express himself freely through his paintings. He came of age in the early and mid-1970's, a time and place where eccentricity quickly attracted the attention of the authorities. To the communists, abstract expressionism and pop art were an insult to morality and a crime against the people, and severely punishable.
Artists, writers, and non-conducive radicals were often plucked off the streets and cast into the infamous Gulag prisons in Siberia. The personal risk Evgeny took to create his own artwork was extremely high. His artistic endeavors were so scandalous to the communists that he was forbidden to exhibit them in public spaces without first attaining an unobtainable permit. His apartment and studio were bugged. He was followed, and his wife and three children were terrorized. His family's windows were stoned. Strangers in the subways whispered threats to his wife, Galina, and reckless lorries infamous for causing 'accidental' deaths sped by within inches of us in the street. Surveillance equipment was openly left out in his living room to let him know that his family was being constantly monitored.
The KGB harassed, intimidated, and even jailed him, but they never
succeeded in aligning him with communist ideology. Despite their pressure
he continued to participate openly in exhibitions, sold his paintings
to collectors and dignitaries, or gave them away. He had shows in Leningrad
and Moscow and his work began to gain international recognition.
There was an unwavering grace and symphony in his movements, a presence and energy that would fill a room. The vibrancy of his ambition awed people--even strangers on the street spoke to him in reverential tones. I admired him even at the age of five, sitting on the floor amongst my toy trucks with a runny nose, rapt while listening to him speak to the visitors, discussing artistic issues and cultural movements.
Despite my young age, my dad spoke to me in the same poised tone that
he used with his colleagues and treated me as an equal, a man among
men. We went to the opera and theater together, and afterwards went
to visit his friends, where I would sit on a high-backed chair doodling
as they drank well past midnight. In being there, I felt part of it
"Do as I do," he whispered looking down at me.
As we approached mom at the entry to the building, I had to reach as high up as I could to hold my dad's hand. I clutched it with one hand and held my doodling up with the other as a coaxing offer to my mom for forgiveness. My dad bowed his head and stared deafly at the ground, to which I did the same, although I had to look up several times to make sure I was doing it the right way.
We didn't slow down to my surprise; dad passed her altogether and we continued walking down the street. Mom's voice faded behind us and I giggled in disbelief. We turned the corner and walked to dad's studio two blocks down the road. He unlatched the door and we climbed up the stairs to a space perfumed with drying paint, the bristles of brushes and the crisp scent of canvases.
My dad would stand in front of the easel for hours, madly waving his brushes and making impressions with molds of icons. He exploded with passion onto the canvases. I ran around with my favorite truck watching him from between stacks of materials and rows of dusty paintings, fascinated by the speed with which he worked. When he called my name to help him, I emerged from my secret pathways to hand him brushes or hold his palettes.
Once the painting was completed, he claimed that I was just as much an artist of the piece as he was. He would dip my hands in paint and stamp them in the corner of the painting. I learned how to do this on my own after a while, and after contributing my labor to a piece I would leave my mark in the corner. On a few occasions the height of the easel was out of reach and, standing on tiptoe, only the tips of my fingers were able to register on the canvas.
On May 24, 1976 thick flames burst through his St. Petersburg studio. They devoured his paintings and raged out of control with the help of highly flammable cans of paint and thinners sitting along the walls. The KGB had wanted to give a scare, but the fire got out of hand and could not be extinguished. He died from smoke inhalation. He was 32 years old.
"What was I supposed to do with 40 paintings? They were like a sentimental stub from some bad carnival ride."
Between the years of 1968 and 1976, he had completed over 300 paintings. When we were given exit visas to leave the country shortly after his death, we were told it was on the condition his paintings were left behind. They were never allowed to leave the USSR because of their political clout, and were usually smuggled out. Mom pleaded with the officials to have mercy and permit us to take the paintings with us, for they were all we had left of him, but her appeals were useless.
After two years, she gave up and risked everything by sending them abroad under a forged signature of a fictitious painter. Miraculously, it worked. Some of the paintings were donated to museums abroad or sold to private collections, but mom held on to the majority of them.
It was when I turned 18 and left for college that mom gave me forty paintings. "It's your inheritance," she said. I took them at the fear of coming across as uncaring, though I wanted nothing to do with them. What was I supposed to do with 40 paintings? They were like a sentimental stub from some bad carnival ride. I lugged them from one apartment to another, shoving them under my bed, behind dressers, under a plastic tarp in the back yard. Sometimes I wished that someone would steal them and take the burden off of me. When I moved in with Moe and Larry, I stashed them away in the closet, and buried them under a heap of clothes.
I stood up from the chair and turned around to see the canvases behind me, turning again and again. But it wasn't me who was turning. The paintings themselves circled about me like the multiple moons of some far planet, each one exerting its own deep tidal impulses upon me, pregnant with the afflicting confusion of a time I was too young to understand, of a missing man whose achievements and legacy was the curse of me. With every glance, I became increasingly dizzy.
I picked up the phone and called Norton Dodge, a prominent collector
opening a museum of Russian art. It was 2 a.m. on the East Coast when
he groaned a hello.