Art and Oral History in Russia



Me – in St. Petersburg Summer 2009


My name is Barry O’Keefe. I am a senior English and Russian Studies major. This summer I will be in Russia’s Tver region painting and recording interviews with a group of Russian painters. I will be living and working at the ‘Academic Dacha’of  The Surikov Institute of Art in Moscow – in czarist times known as the Moscow School of Art. The Moscow School of Art began using the dacha, originally one of Catherine the Great’s country homes, as a rural campus in the late 19th century. The dacha came into use at a time when european high culture in Russia was striving to reconnect with the folk culture of Russia’s peasantry. It was a place for intensive plein-air painting and has remained so throughout the Soviet period and into the present. 

Some Background:

The academic dacha, and the tradition of realist painting has survived over a century of Russia’s tumultuous history. It has been alternately suppressed and co-opted by both Czars and General Secretaries. Realist painting, despite its appearance of stability when compared with western artistic trends, contains enormous ideological and stylistic variety. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, it has lost strength as a movement. Without strong state support, and in the face of a newly pluralized art world, Realist painters lack resources and organization. 

This year veteran painter Yuri Kugach formed a new group of realist painters with the goal of enlivening and supporting realist art in Russia. My brother, Conor O’Keefe, studied with a number of painters in Kugach’s circle  and is a part of this group. Through him, I have been given the opportunity to join the group when it meets at the Academic Dacha this summer.  

From the beginning of June through mid July I will be studying painting, and performing an oral history project with the members of the group on the past present and future of realist painting in Russia. Specifically, my interest is in the continuity of the tradition through Soviet times and into the present. I will be focusing my interviews on changes in art education. Between Yuri Kugach, 93, and the youngest members of the group – in their mid-twenties, I hope to piece together a picture of how the Realist tradition was passed down through most of the Soviet period. I also hope to gauge through my interviews an understanding of how Soviet Realists, and now Russian Realists conceive of themselves in relation to Realist artists of the 19th Century. 

The Academic Dacha is a uniquely appropriate setting for this project. Painters from every era of Russian Realism have travelled to the dacha. Countless images exist of the buildings there, and the surrounding countryside, and in a way this visual record speaks more eloquently about the long history of the tradition than any written analysis or recorded history could. Here is a link to a painting by the famous 19th century painter Ilya Repin done at the dacha (waiting for permission to use). As this blog develops alongside my research I will add more images of the dacha from different time periods. At the outset of my research, this painting illustrates how close I will be coming, and how far I will still be from the tradition of Realism.  I will be joining a group of painters working in the field, in the precise field depicted in the painting, but 112 years later – trying to trace the impressions left by those few artists in a very different Russia.


  1. jrwallace says:

    When you described your summer plans to me a while back, I didn’t realize how exciting they were. I hope you post some images soon. I miss you pal.