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Art History

The Gulag Creativity of Boris Sveshnikov
The 19-year-old art student left home one day on a simple errand and didn’t come back for 10 years. Recollecting the absurd logic of the gulag system, he said of his time there, “I had total creative freedom. Nobody cared. I did what I wanted.”
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

On February 9, 1946, 19-year-old art student Boris Sveshnikov left his Moscow home to buy some kerosene. Ten years would pass before he would return. Sveshnikov was arrested for an alleged attempt to assassinate Joseph Stalin. Though Boris Sveshnikov never met the other members of the “terrorist group” to which he was accused of belonging, the KGB was never bothered by such trifles. (Another alleged member of the fabricated group was fellow art student Lev Kropivnitsky, who will be profiled in Passport’s August 2008 issue.) The prosecutor simply said: “Right. He did not know the other terrorists. That is why he was sentenced to only eight years in prison. If he had known them…” That was the logic of the Stalin era.


The gulag played a crucial role in the artistic fate of Boris Sveshnikov. The drawings he did while in the prison camp form a body of work that is unique in the history of art. Everything about them is unusual — the conditions under which they were created, the unprecedented reality reflected in them, the circumstances of their survival.

Painted by feather in India ink on simple sheets of album paper, they create a phantasmal world where the brutal reality of gulag life rubs shoulders with scenes of gallantry, where the meager northern tundra turns into a cosmic landscape of eternity, where evil becomes a trite nightmare of everyday life, where fantasy becomes reality and the depths of the past are visible through the dismal veil of the present.

Those who do not know that the gulag was the backdrop for his creative work might not guess it. Another gulag prisoner, Andrey Sinyavsky, wrote of Sveshnikov’s drawings: “Those who know will spot barracks, garbage, a prison; someone has hanged himself already, someone is just waiting for his turn. But these gulag associations are very few. These are not drawings from nature. These are dreams of eternity sliding along the glass of history.”

Sveshnikov spent one year being shuttled back and forth from Lefortovo prison to Lubyanka for endless nighttime interrogations. Poor nutrition, overcrowded cells, extreme sleep deprivation — all this drove him to the verge of physical and mental collapse. When he finally received his sentence, it took over a month of traveling from prison to prison to reach his assigned gulag, where 10-12 hour days felling trees awaited him. In winter the temperatures dipped to -40 degrees Centigrade; in summer the prisoners were surrounded by clouds of mosquitoes. After each day of backbreaking labor, it was Sveshnikov’s art that saved him: He would return to his barracks and cover the sheets of album paper with his phantasmagorical visions, escaping from prison life into his dreams.

Despite his youth, after two years he could hardly walk. Through personal contacts, his parents managed to arrange his transfer in the autumn of 1948 to the invalid gulag Vetlosyan, where he was assigned work as a night watchman at a wood-processing plant. This arrangement not only saved his life, but also led to the most artistically prolific period of Sveshnikov’s imprisonment. He worked in his small room at night in secret. His letters to family and friends were full of requests for brushes, paints, and paper as well as for reproductions of Bosch, Grunewald, Goya, Gainsborough, Monet, and others.

In addition, the prison had a painting workshop where inmates painted slogans, posters, portraits of Soviet leaders, etc., and the “gulag elite” assigned to the workshop sometimes allowed Sveshnikov to use the art materials. Sometimes prisoners came to him and asked him to do their portraits on small pieces of paper, which they sent to their relatives instead of photos. This period of meager supplies is reflected even in the work he did later on after his release from prison — a very thin layer of paint, limited range of colors, and paper the size of an album sheet.

“I had total creative freedom,” Sveshnikov would recollect of his gulag days. “Nobody cared. I did what I wanted.” While the notion of creative freedom in a Soviet labor camp may seem oxymoronic, such was the absurd logic of the era. Sveshnikov was certain that his creations would never leave the camp even if he himself were released, but fate had different plans in store for his art.


In one of the prisons in which he had been incarcerated, Sveshnikov met a former Latvian government minister, Ludvig Sei. When the Nazis occupied Latvia during World War II, Sei had managed to get his family out of the country to the United States. He himself, however, was captured and spent the entire war in a German prison, only to be sent to a Soviet one after the war ended: He was accused of espionage and sentenced to fi ve years in a labor camp.

When his term ended in 1949, he elected to remain at the camp, realizing that another arrest was inevitable. Since one of his privileges was the opportunity to go beyond the prison zone, Sei, an admirer of Sveshnikov’s work, would smuggle the artist’s drawings out of the camp and give them to people to bring to Moscow. In this way, the gulag dreams of the artist made it to freedom.

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