Early June

(I was without internet during my time in Russia, and so over the next few days I’ll finally be posting my blog entries – pictures pending until I get a hold of a scanner.)

The night before leaving we got a call from a painter friend who had worked with the Kugach’s before. He warned us to be extremely courteous in our contact with Mikhail Kugach. “He demands respect.” And so an ominous cloud hung over our departure as we wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into.

On the plane over, we ran into a friend of my brothers from his church in Richmond; a Russian woman and her American husband heading to Moscow to visit her family. On arriving in Moscow we asked her father’s advice on how much to pay for a taxi to the the train station and were soon packing our things into his car and heading to their apartment for an incredible Russian meal – we had no say in the matter.

He left us at the train station there that night, and in the morning we arrived in Vyshny Volochok – home of Repin’s Academic Dacha. The town gets it’s name from it’s role in a medeival viking trade route. It was the northernmost portage on the way from the Baltic sea to Constantinople. Vikings would roll their ships across land on tree trunks ; Vyshny Volochok roughly translates to ‘upper rolling.’

We were met there by Ivan Kugach (b. 1972) son of painter Mikhail Kugach (b. 1939), and grandson of painters Yuri Kugach (b. 1917) and Olga Svetlechnaya (b. 1915). Ivan is also a painter. He studied at the Surikov Institute in Moscow, just as his father, grandfather and grandmother did.

From the 19th Century until the 1990’s the Surikov Institute, in Czarist times called the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, was one of two premier art schools in Russia ( the other was the Repin Academy in St. Petersburg). There was a brief gap between the school’s closing in 1917 and it’s reformation under Stalin in 1939. Many of the Soviet Union’s most promising young artists attended the Surikov and many of them returned there to teach – including Yuri Kugach. After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, the school began to decline. Most of the school’s experienced faculty passed away before the end of the 1990’s. The Artists Union, which in Soviet times provided for Surikov graduates and all Russian artists, dealing out commissions and holding exhibitions, lost money, property and significance. By the end of the 90’s the once desirable life of a realist painter was no longer a stable career path.

Ivan Kugach entered the Surikov in 1990, studying under Vyacheslav Zabelin. He was part of the last generation of Surikov graduates – perhaps even the last graduating class, to study in the studios of the seasoned soviet masters. At the same time, a young American painter from Virginia was studying in Zabelin’s studio – Jonathan Wurdeman, who introduced my brother, Conor, to the Russian school. Also in the studio was a young Russian painter, Ilya Yatsenko, who I met and studied with at the end of my time in Russia. I’ll have more to say about him later.

Arriving at the Academic Dacha with Ivan we found a blend of stark soviet studios and offices and ornate 19th century buildings, surrounded by birch forests and small lakes. The grounds were strikingly empty. According to a number of artists I talked to while in Volochok, in soviet times and even before the Dacha was crowded with students and teachers from the Surikov in the summer months. 19th century painter Arkhip Kuindji was apparently famous for instigating mock naval battles in little boats on the lake, and for throwing parties around bonfires on islands. His studio, pictured below, was visible from my bedroom window in the top floor of Ivan’s studio.

While more students arrived at the dacha in late June and July, according to the Kugach’s it never came close to the level of activity it experienced in its heyday. Most of the students we met were not from the Surikov, but from small colleges (high schools), and the few mature painters we met were from a variety of backgrounds. The dacha rents studio space to anyone willing to pay, but most studios remained empty while we were there.

The emptiness of the dacha was a surprise to me. As I revealed in my first posting, I had hoped to be working every day with a group of different painters. Instead, on most days I worked only with my brother and Ivan Kugach. This wasn’t, however, a disappointment, or a hindrance to my research; because my goal wasn’t to find what I hoped to find, but to see what was there, at the dacha. The reality of life for realist artists was what I had set out to participate in, as a painter, and document as an oral historian.

While the dacha wasn’t the bustling hive of painters I’d seen in Repin’s painting, it had its own strengths. There are now a number of painters who live at the dacha year-round, rather than just in the summer months. These artists are members of the Moscow River School – a group founded by Yuri Kugach – and one of the most important existing organization for realist artists. We met a number of it’s members living in Volochok, but spent most of our time with one in particular – Mikhail Kugach, its current president.

We met Mikhail on our first day in the city. Ivan brought us to his studio – a beautiful log structure full of paintings, paint and ornate woodcarving. Keeping the warning we’d received before we left in mind we entered the studio composing formal greetings in our minds, but were interrupted by a sing-songy “privyet rebyata” ( Hey kids) and a firm handshake. Before us stood the eminent Mikhail Kugach in paint covered fatigues, smoking a cigarette. Behind him hung a painting of a downtrodden soldier walking a muddy village road alone. As Ivan introduced me, Mikhail Kugach removed his his hat, to which he had stapled a wide brim of cardboard to block out the sun while painting in the field,  and his gloves, revealing a missing thumb, lost in war. Any anxiety we had felt was wiped from our minds by his friendliness and humility.

About a week later, once we had begun filling our studio’s walls with small etudes, we met Mikhail again, this time for a critique. (In this post I won’t address the specifics of what lessons we were taught about painting.) As we were starting to thank him for coming by to talk to us he started to look a little amused, and told us that the best thing about the life of a painter is that there are no ranks, and furthermore that he was just a regular guy, and that we could come over any time.

I think it’s this kind of communal attitude that defines what life for artists at the Academic Dacha is and has been at its best.  Despite the hardships realist artists have endured in recent years, in the painters we met there that attitude is certainly still alive.


  1. Brittany Fallon says:

    Your trip sounds simply amazing!