F*** you, but in Russian [Explicit]

Katrin Scheib describes an unorthodox language class

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

(Warning: very strong language throughout)

We've got white wine in grandma's fancy glasses. We've got olives in tiny white bowls. We've got toothpicks to take the olives from their bowl. This is going to be a civilised, educational evening for a group of people gathered around a table in a Moscow living room. To start us off, our teacher writes down four words and holds them up: Dick. Cunt. Fuck. Slut.

What can I say: this is about linguistics and about Russian studies. It's about an everyday phenomenon of the Russian language that isn’t part of your typical class. Today, we're learning about mat, the language Russians use to swear. Oh, the jokes we've been making among us before this session: "So what shall I bring to that bloody evening at yours?” - “Hm, maybe some biscuits and shit.” Nice try. We had no idea.

“I love mat, it's incredibly versatile and variable”, says Dasha, who has kindly agreed to be our lecturer tonight. She is Russian, a journalist and a dedicated user of mat. “As a phenomenon, it's not limited to poorly educated people living in the provinces, the intelligentsia uses it as well”, she explains and mentions the name of a fellow boss of ours, from back when we were both working at the Moscow Times. “Remember, he used the polite „вы“ to address me, but at the same time, he would use mat in our conversations.” So while mat is all about swearing, it's not a good indicator of a person’s level of education or of their manners, she argues.

When we arranged to meet for tonight’s lesson, there’s one thing Dasha had made clear from the start: We're doing this right, or not at all. She has bought a small whiteboard, prepared a lecture - 30 minutes, with room for questions after. Her approach to our first round of vocabulary is just as structured, writing them down first in Russian, then transliterating into English, followed by the translation. From “хуй” to “khuy” to “dick”. Seven attentive pupils nod along and take notes.

Khuy, pizda, yebat' and blyad'. Dick, cunt, fuck and whore. For words which, in theory, no journalist in Russia should use in their writing and no musician in their songs. Which, of course, only makes them more interesting for some musical genres. “There are some big hits that have two versions, one with mat and one without”, says Dasha, and even Pushkin is said to have used mat in some of his poems. According to Russian tradition, Dasha shouldn't really know about all this, “because we women are all fragile little flowers, so it's considered inappropriate.” There have been moments when she's sitting in a café with a friend, deep in animated conversation, using lots of mat – only for a man from another table to come over and say something along the lines of “Come on, girls, the way you're talking – that's just not done.”

Dasha doesn't care, not in a café and not during our little crash course tonight. She wipes the whiteboard clean and continues, because each of the four basic parent terms has countless progeny. Take khuy, for example:

  • poshol na khuy: literally “go to dick”, it means something like “piss off”

  • mnye pokhuy: “I don't give a dick”

  • nakhuy: “to the dick”, meaning “to hell with it”

  • nakhuya: a sweary “why?”, as in “Why the dick is it raining again today?”

  • nikhuya: a sweary “nothing”, as in “I'm waiting for the phone call, and what happens? Not a dick.”

  • khuyovy: shitty

”And now for the best part”, says Dasha as she gives us a grin. “As well as using these four words to express something negative, they will equally work for the opposite.” Okhuyenno, for example, means “excellent”, and okhuytelno means “great”. Still, any Russian will notice the word at the core, so when she's visiting her in-laws, Dasha makes sure to use the standard Russian terms for “great” and “excellent”, rather than those where you can still hear the “dick”.

So we work our way through all of them, the four core terms and their varieties. Guided by Dasha, we learn how to avoid actual swearing – Russian has it's own versions of “darn” or “effing” - and how to replace curses with rhymes. Never mind the literal meaning, if you come up with a rhyme for it, people will still recognize the original dirty phrase. And so, yobanny v rot (fucked in the mouth) first becomes yobanny krot (fucked-up mole) and then zhovanny krot (chewed-up mole).

Time for the grand finale, for what Russians call “three-floor swearing” - as if a great curse was a house built from different mat terms. And since you can conveniently turn them from verbs into adjectives into nouns, they are also easily combined. “Piz-da-blyad-sko-ye mu-da-yo-bi-she”, Dasha dictates slowly as we all write it down. It's a bit of a diversion from the four core curses because here, the somewhat milder mat term “mudak” (asshole) also gets its chance to shine. The result, in all its four-part glory, translates as “whorecunting assholefuckery”. You'd use it, Dasha says, if you really disapprove quite strongly of something, when someone seriously gets on our nerves, or when you just banged your elbow against a piece of furniture. We nod. We have another olive. We take notes.

A German version of this text first appeared on the author's blog, kscheib.de


Katrin Scheib is a German journalist and blogger. Since moving to Moscow in 2014, she has worked for The Moscow Times, Coda Story and recently covered the Football World Cup for n-tv.de. She also writes a monthly newsletter on football in Russia.

The 1920 'Mass Spectacle' which blurred the lines of the October Revolution

Dr Peter Lowe investigates a staging of the storming of the Winter Palace, and the way it was used by the Soviet state to alter history.

big version of picture.jpg

The recent exhibition ‘History Was Made Here’ at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg (the documentary film of which will be screened at Pushkin House on 28th November) showcased the museum’s unique place in the story of the Russian Revolution. As the home of the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks saw the Winter Palace as a symbol not only of the Tsarist order discarded at the start of 1917, but also of the ineffective administration that held power in its place. When Red Guards forced their way into the Palace on the evening of 25th October (7th November in the revised calendar) and arrested the ministers they found inside, they delivered the final blow to a regime that was no longer in control of the events unfolding around it.

That the Palace was itself less than heavily guarded and occupied mostly by those inclined more towards surrender than resistance were things the Soviet state would choose to overlook in the years that followed.  For the purposes of commemoration the storming of the Winter Palace would be the crucial, defining episode in the glorious narrative of ‘Red October’.

The 1918 celebrations that marked the first anniversary of the Revolution were structured around a series of street parades and rallies. The city of Petrograd (as it was still named) was decorated for the festivities but the Winter Palace itself had no direct use at this symbolic time other than providing a venue and accommodation for delegates attending the Northern Oblast Congress of Committees of the Village Poor, which was taking place alongside the Revolutionary commemorations.

Things changed significantly in 1920, when it was decided that the third anniversary of the Revolution should be marked with a ‘mass spectacle’. This form of large-scale pageant, with hundreds (sometimes thousands) of ‘citizen-actors’ taking part, had been used before, particularly in Petrograd, as a symbolic event to collectively ‘re-live’ and remember the Revolution’s success.

On 1st May 1920 the steps of the city’s Stock Exchange had hosted the ‘Mystery of Liberated Labour’ (directed by Yuri Annenkov) in which workers were seen trying unsuccessfully to ascend and gain entrance to the ‘Kingdom of Freedom’ at the top. Symbolically claimed by the workers after centuries of struggle, the Kingdom of Freedom became the site of a tower decked with red ribbons, around which participants and spectators joined in the singing of the ‘Internationale’ at the end of the evening.

For the actual anniversary of the Revolution, however, Nikolai Evreinov, the theatre director who had been employed to manage the spectacle, chose to use the Winter Palace itself as the stage set. With the documents and photographs collated in Inke Arns, Igor Chubarov, and Sylvia Sasse’s book The Storming of the Winter Palace (2016) we can appreciate how Evreinov worked with a creative team to realise his vision for the crowds who gathered to watch.

Attendance figures are disputed, and the cold and damp weather may have played a part in this, with figures between 60,000 and 150,000 cited in different sources, but there were certainly more people in Palace Square that evening than had been there in 1917. In an interview by the newspaper Zhizn’ iskusstva ten days before the performance, Evreinov spoke of how “the Winter Palace itself has been included as a performing actor, as an immense character with a body language and inner emotions of its own.” Using lighting effects and “cinematographic language” to turn its upper-storey windows into ‘screens’ he hoped that the audience in the Square would be able to see events occurring inside the Palace in the crucial moments prior to its capture, allowing its “stones to speak” as he put it.

An edited photograph of the ‘dress rehearsal’ for Evreinov’s 1920 spectacle. Source: State Central Museum of Contemporary Russian History / Inke Arns, Igor Chubarov, and Sylvia Sasse (eds.),  The Storming of the Winter Palace,  (Zurich: Diaphanes Press, 2016)

An edited photograph of the ‘dress rehearsal’ for Evreinov’s 1920 spectacle. Source: State Central Museum of Contemporary Russian History / Inke Arns, Igor Chubarov, and Sylvia Sasse (eds.), The Storming of the Winter Palace, (Zurich: Diaphanes Press, 2016)

And so it was that in 1920, as in 1917, armed revolutionaries raced across Palace Square when a salvo fired from the cruiser Aurora provided the signal for action. Prior to its denouement the spectacle featured tableaux of scenes building up to the Palace’s capture, reminders of the Provisional Government’s failures and the crisis that precipitated Bolshevik action. Two stages – named ‘Red’ and ‘White’ in front of the General Staff Building on the southern side of Palace Square – represented the opposing sides in the revolutionary struggle. On the one stage, spectators saw scenes of bureaucratic confusion and incipient autocracy from Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky and his followers: on the other the masses resisted attempts to repress them and organised themselves into the crowd that would ultimately make its way across the Square and into the Winter Palace itself. 

Eye witness accounts, like that of Nikolai Shubski, a Muscovite who was in Petrograd and witnessed the spectacle, recalled the singing of the ‘Marseillaise’ and the ‘Internationale’ as the crowds gathered, the rumbling of motor engines, and the rattling of machine guns fired by those attacking the Winter Palace and those engaged in its defence. Shubski remembered watching the signs of struggle inside the Palace, seeing figures fighting behind its windows and, finally, seeing the news of the assault’s success conveyed to the crowds outside. At that crucial moment, he wrote, “the banner of the victors floats out of the dark heavy and purple… A rain of sparks sprays off the waterfall of fireworks. The ‘Internationale’ resounds, and a victory parade starts up to its tune, illuminated by spotlights and rockets.”

The 1917 seizure of the Palace had not culminated in a firework display, but in 1920 the outcome was never in doubt, and as such the struggle could be made more intense, the resistance more stubborn, and the heroism (of its conquerors) more visible. Recalling his impressions of the re-enactment in the 15th November 1920 issue of Krasnyi Militsioner, Evreinov invoked the mood as the struggle for the Palace reached its climax in “a deafening symphony of decisive battle” of some two or three minutes “of continuous noise” that seem[ed] like an eternity” to the “overstrained nerves” of those looking on. The fact that he could measure the tension of this event in minutes indicates how carefully controlled this re-enacted ‘storming’ actually was. Not everyone was convinced by the result, however. Shubski’s account ends with his overhearing another spectator, a man who was genuinely a veteran of the Palace’s capture, noting that “they fired less in 1917 than today!”

The same photograph before editing, showing the ‘control tower’ in the centre, and spectators in the Square. Source: State Central Museum of Contemporary Russian History / Inke Arns, Igor Chubarov, and Sylvia Sasse (eds.),  The Storming of the Winter Palace,  (Zurich: Diaphanes Press, 2016)

The same photograph before editing, showing the ‘control tower’ in the centre, and spectators in the Square. Source: State Central Museum of Contemporary Russian History / Inke Arns, Igor Chubarov, and Sylvia Sasse (eds.), The Storming of the Winter Palace, (Zurich: Diaphanes Press, 2016)

In the years that followed, photographs of Evreinov’s spectacle would find themselves reproduced on posters and in Soviet history books as if they were indeed records of the original event. One particular image, showing the ‘Revolutionaries’ racing across Palace Square was passed off, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes knowingly, as documentary proof of the crucial moment in Soviet history.  This overlooked the fact that the photograph was clearly taken in daylight. It was not, of course, an image of the 1917 seizure of the Palace, or even of the 1920 re-enactment – both events taking place at night when such photography would have been impossible – but was in fact a photograph of the dress rehearsal for the 1920 re-enactment, which had been held a few days earlier.

Comparing two versions of the same image allows us to see the ‘control tower’ set up near the Alexander Column to allow Evreinov to co-ordinate events in the Square, along with a host of onlookers who would surely not have been standing around on the night of 25th October 1917. Given the ease with which the Soviet state was able to manipulate and restructure its own history in the 1920s and 1930s, however, this fabrication of the historical record was entirely in keeping with the need to give formative events a sense of historical inevitability.

The effect of Evreinov’s ‘Storming’ of the Palace was to replace, in the Soviet imagination, the actual event with something spectacular enough to make the Revolution’s origins seem much grander than they may once have been. A few years later the film director Sergei Eisenstein would capture the drama of those 1917 days in his film October, commissioned to mark the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. Eisenstein was given full use of the Winter Palace for his film, which provides one of its most famous sequences as the massed ranks of Red Guards seize the Palace after a pitched battle with its numerous defenders. So intent was Eisenstein to extract the greatest possible sense of drama and spectacle from this scene that he famously did more damage to the Palace in the filming of his re-enactment than had been caused in the original seizure. By then, however, as Evreinov’s 1920 spectacle had already demonstrated, historical ‘reality’ was not really the issue. The Soviet state was happy if its re-enactments were accepted as authentic records of a Revolution that could never be too dramatic for the regime’s taste.

The Winter Palace and the Hermitage in 1917: History was made here is screening at Pushkin House on 28th November at 7pm. Tickets are available here.


Dr Peter Lowe teaches classes in English Literature at the Bader International Study Centre, East Sussex. His interests are in the culture and history of the early 20th century in Russia and in western Europe, and he is currently researching the nature and uses of 'nostalgia' in the early Soviet period

World Homeless Day: 'This is Not a Hat', applied theatre, and homelessness in Russia

Natalia Jafar-Biglou describes her work creating an interactive drama performance with marginalised women in Russia

Artwork by Charlotte Ager

Artwork by Charlotte Ager

For the past six months I have been running an applied theatre project, working with women experiencing homelessness in Russia.

Broadly speaking, applied theatre is the use of theatre and performance for social change, often as a response to social or political challenges. It involves using theatre techniques with people who don’t consider themselves to be artists, creating work outside of traditional theatre spaces in order to discuss, educate or heal. All participants are involved as active theatre makers in the process and the aims of the project are dictated by what the community thinks they need.

I’ve worked with more than 30 women over the duration of the project. Some are affected by war, including the ongoing conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine and South Ossetia in the Caucasus. Many have left violent and abusive partners and some have been defrauded out of their homes. Others have disabilities and ill health which prevent them from working, and they do not receive any support from the state. I’ve even worked with a participant from Cameroon, who came to Russia during the World Cup as a refugee using a Fan ID.

Their routes to homelessness are multiple. What they share is one thing: the way homelessness disempowers, makes invisible – the way they are by and large, silenced.

one of the biggest barriers to dealing with homelessness is the belief that people are homeless because of their choices

Homelessness is a big problem in Russia. Official government statistics say 3.4% of population is homeless – but it isn’t clear whether this includes ‘invisible’ people who aren’t registered. By way of comparison, 0.46% of the UK population is homeless. The problem has a particularly sinister way of affecting women, who face having a period without access to supplies, the risk of sexual assault, and being pregnant without access to services.

One of the biggest barriers to dealing with homelessness in Russia is the stigma that surrounds it: the belief that people are homeless because of choices they have made. This is a common belief across cultures, though the reality is homelessness is not a choice and safe, secure housing is a right for everyone.

applied theatre can use exercises or games to uncover essential truths about societies

My project culminates in a one-off performance of our play ‘This is Not a Hat’ on 10 October, World Homeless Day, in partnership with Russian theatre company Teatr.doc. The formidable creative team includes dramaturge Anastasia Patlay and designer Shifra Kazhdan. Our aim is to use theatre as a discourse and facilitate a dialogue about the stigma surrounding homelessness. The performance will feature both audience members and project participants.

Throughout the process of creating the play, I have used ‘exercises or games designed to uncover essential truths about societies without resorting to spoken language’, to quote Adrian Jackson, founder of the UK’s first theatre company focused on homeless people. The performance will feature a number of these exercises too.

For example, in one exercise, participants are asked to identify two other people in the room and label them ‘bomb’ and ‘shield’. Participants have to walk around the room keeping their ‘shield’ between themselves and their ‘bomb’. Discussing the response to this exercise as a group can help shed light on what it feels like to be someone’s ‘bomb’, what it feels like when someone avoids eye contact and rushes past you.

In another exercise, I ask participants to stand in a circle facing outward. I give them a word as a prompt (for example a dragon, a boat, the colour red) and they have ten seconds to turn in to the circle and use their bodies and faces to create a still image in response to the word. During one workshop I ran this exercise and prompted with the word ‘home’. In response, Kristina, a 34-year-old mother of one who has been defrauded out of her home in the far east of Russia, mimed being asleep. When I asked what she was dreaming about she said, “A world of love and safety. My family around me, around the table, with freshly baked bread and a glass of homemade wine in my hand”.


Natalia Jafar-Biglou is a British Theatre Practitioner of Polish and Iranian descent. She uses theatre techniques to create spaces for conversation, empowerment and transformation in communities. For more information about Natalia’s work in Russia visit her theatre company: www.koloboktheatre.com.

For more information about ‘This is Not a Hat’, being performed at the Fergana House in Moscow, see the event’s Facebook page.

For more of Teatr.doc’s work, Pushkin House is hosting a reading of a new play about the deaths of the group’s founders, next Friday 19th October. Tickets are available here. Also, on 20th October we are showing video excerpts of the company’s most significant performances. More information here.

Back in the USSR: Recollections and pictures of six weeks in the Soviet Union, fifty years on

Jeremy Poynton describes his school trip across Russia, Georgia and Ukraine at the peak of Soviet power.

Red Square, Moscow, 1968. All photos courtesy of the author

Red Square, Moscow, 1968. All photos courtesy of the author

I have always felt very fortunate that I had the opportunity to visit the USSR. This happened as the school I was at, The Leys School in Cambridge, was one of only a few to have a Russian teacher; Mr. Armstrong was so fluent in Russian that he twice turned down offers from the UN to work for them as an interpreter. Happily he remained a language teacher – his vocation.

He had visited the USSR before – and been arrested. He took a picture of an old lady with a basket of mushrooms, not noticing that in the background there was a watchtower belonging to some sort of military installation. Within minutes he was surrounded – luckily he managed to persuade the police he was not a spy!

So in July of 1968, Mr. Armstrong, along with another teacher, an ex-pupil and eleven current pupils including myself, set off for the Soviet Union in a Bedford Dormobile van (shown below, being loaded onto the ship), and a Morris Minor Convertible. We embarked at Tilbury and a three day voyage across a very stormy North Sea saw us land in Leningrad, to start a trip that would take us through Novgorod, Moscow, Kursk, Kharkov, Pyatigorsk, the Caucasus, Tbilisi, Sochi, back up through Rostov-on-Don and finally Odessa.

Of course, at this time the Prague Spring was coming to its end. As a 16 year old, I had no interest in politics, other than knowing that the Cold War was at its fiercest. I still recall the Cuban Missile crisis and the fear that gripped everyone at the time. At the same time, I was fascinated to take a look behind the Iron Curtain. I was by no means a teenage Marxist, though there were a few at school (and even a token Maoist!).

The Bedford being loaded onto the ship at Tilbury

The Bedford being loaded onto the ship at Tilbury

Leningrad I loved; waterways everywhere, extraordinary Orthodox churches, so ornate and resplendent. We spent much of one day in the Hermitage; again, as a 16 year old I had little awareness of fine art, but was still awestruck at the extraordinary collection there – in truth, one would need much of a lifetime to take it all in.

On to Novgorod – I can still recall the wonderful old City walls there, and buying kvas, a rather revolting fizzy drink! Moscow I think was a disappointment after Leningrad and Novgorod; huge, hot and dusty; the Red Square and St. Basil’s of course impressed, as did a visit to the Kremlin, where I remember being staggered by the collection of Romanov Fabergé eggs. And the metro was magnificent, making the London Underground look very paltry and shabby indeed.

In both Leningrad and Moscow we had strangers come up to us and show us some of the magnificent cemeteries there. One in particular I remember had a photo of a pilot, and on the obelisk above his grave was attached a full size propeller! It was in one of the cemeteries in Moscow where we ran into the state, so to speak. A student came up to us to talk to us, and it turned out he was a Czech at Moscow University; he wanted to know if we knew what was happening in Prague. We didn’t, but very rapidly we had two plain-clothes policemen with us, one with his gun out.

The student was marched off at gunpoint, and we were told in no uncertain terms not to talk to strangers. This was hard, as people came up to us all the time when they saw we were from the West (wearing jeans was a good sign – I was offered ridiculous sums for my Levis!), they wanted to know what was going on beyond the Iron Curtain. Nowhere did we meet with any hostility. Another Czech student who approached us elsewhere was arrested – this time by soldiers, at rifle point – before we could warn him away.

Peterhof (then known as Petrodvorets)

Peterhof (then known as Petrodvorets)

Random memories. Buying vodka in a vodka bar. Go to counter. Hand over money, get a glass, small bottle, and a few slices of salami. And back again. And a truly terrible meal in a cafe, which I think was noodles and gristle. We did have some good meals along the way though, two in railway station restaurants which we were told were generally good; my first Borscht was, I recall to this day, delicious!

My memories from Moscow onto the Caucasus are dim – a lot of road, rolling steppes, and nothing that stood out. One memory – stopping in a very poor village where a funeral was about to take place at the little church in the middle; the dead man was laid in an open coffin, with pennies on his eyes. I knew this was a tradition in some parts of the world – nevertheless, it was odd to see it. The evident poverty of the village was plain to see.

Pyatigorsk is the next stop that I remember, near the splendidly named Mineralnye Vody. Pyatigorsk, on the approach to the Caucasus with the mountains ahead, was lovely. There was a lake which we swam in, and got shouted at when a couple of us decided to swim right across it!

Driving into the Caucasus the scenery became spectacular. We stopped at one place where pipes came out of the mountain side, with carbonated water pouring out of them, and people refreshing themselves there. Also, a gaggle of wild and woolly men, who had just slaughtered a sheep, invited us to share the truly delicious kebabs they were cooking over their fire.

We were told that the Trans-Caucasian highway was one of the marvels of Soviet road building. Well, maybe 400 yards were tarmacked – then it might as well have been river bed! Winter floods destroyed the road. Every winter! So our drivers had to pick their way carefully along the “road”, avoiding potholes and boulders. The scenery was spectacular – by one rushing river, we stopped for lunch, and a few of us climbed the steep side of the hills to explore caves which had clearly been used as homes or places of refuge.

Novgorod kremlin

Novgorod kremlin

Setting off from our campsite we decided we would go up into Chechnya a little way to take a look see. (By the way, our whole trip and every stop had to be pre-documented for approval before we came. We had an Intourist guide with us all the way, though we got rid of one as he was a drunk!) Chechnya was extraordinary – we stopped at a village, with small stone homes, that had the most curious beehive shaped stone buildings clustered a little way off. Speaking to the locals – who were clad in furs, and all the males were bearing ancient rifles – we found that the buildings were plague homes; whenever somebody in the village got the plague, they were put in these buildings and left to die. If you were “rich”, you got one to yourself or family. The others were jam-packed with bones and skeletons.

The locals did know of Manchester United. Thanks to Mr. Armstrong, by the time we left, they also knew of the new football league champions, my team, Manchester City!

Returning to our agreed route, we were hauled in by the local police, and charged with trying to destroy the Five Year Plan. I am not jesting. Quite how we got out of it, I don’t recall – I suspect after due deliberation, the officers decided that arresting 14 Brits in the middle of nowhere might not be the best thing to do!

And thence to Georgia. Lovely Georgia. It was like emerging into a Mediterranean country; cafes with tables on the streets, edible (gorgeous) flat bread, kebabs, lovely wine and some grape derived spirit we had at one vineyard, which left my eyes spinning for a few hours. Small and very old Orthodox churches here, there and everywhere, almost all abandoned, almost all covered with wonderful frescoes. Three, I think, great days based in Tbilisi, where, each night at 6pm on the dot, the heavens exploded and a monumental electrical and rain storm pounded us and the nearby mountains, finishing on the dot at 6.15pm!

We were heading for Odessa, from where we would leave the USSR, taking a ferry to Istanbul; our first stop after Tbilisi was of course Gori, to visit the Josef Stalin museum. (I would add that whilst we were driving through the Caucasus, painted in 20 ft high letters on the side of a cliff was “Long Live Stalin”!) I don’t remember a lot about it, bar that the house was within a marble shell to protect it, and there were many Stalin era, somewhat kitsch in hindsight, paintings of the great men and various people. Lenin we think had been “paintshopped” out of many of the pictures, although there were a couple in which you could see him peeping out from behind a crowd of people. Slightly surreal!

Church in Georgia

Church in Georgia

Thence, travelling inland of the coast, through some lovely hilly and forested countryside, to Sochi, were we slept on the beach; behind us a Soviet style “holiday” camp. Sochi was then the prime holiday place for those who could take them in the USSR. Sea and sand, a promenade by the beach, and at table after table, people playing chess. From Sochi we went through Batumi, to Odessa, where we embarked early, got the vehicles loaded and spent the day in Odessa, visiting of course the Potemkin Stairs, and in the evening, going to the Opera House to watch Boris Godunov.

До свидания СССР!

I feel very lucky to have experience this. We were aware of great hardship all around us, worse as you got away from urban areas, and it did seem that people’s spirits were, if not crushed, subdued. Regardless, I remember great friendliness and many loca happy to show us around wherever simply to be able to talk from people from the West and to practice their English. And I still have my passport, stamped with entry at Leningrad, and exit at Odessa.

‘Degenerate' German Art and the Russian Connection

Dr Peter Lowe examines the real and fabricated cross-cultural dialogue behind the art banned by the Nazis

Pictures at the "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich, 1937

Pictures at the "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich, 1937

Names and labels are important. The Wiener Library reminds us of this in its current exhibition remembering the display of 20th-century German art that was held in London over the summer months of 1938. With more than 300 works included, this was an opportunity for British visitors to engage with developments in the European art world. The greater significance of the exhibition, though, lies in the fact that the artists whose work was admired in London were those cited by the Nazi regime as examples of ‘degeneracy’. Their works had been removed from German museums and in some cases destroyed while they were subjected to personal attacks resulting, in several cases, in the decision to leave the country to avoid further humiliation or danger. By proudly showcasing the work of 62 artists that had been labeled ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, the 1938 London exhibition deserves to be remembered as a stand against prejudice and persecution.  

To put the London exhibition in context, as the Wiener’s display so usefully does, we must go back to the summer of 1937 when the state-sponsored exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’ opened in Munich. This allowed the Nazi regime to display the works that it judged unfit for the public in such a way as to foreground their offensive nature and lead visitors to concur with the state’s assessment of their faults. The exhibition, which later toured other German cities, was free to enter (no one could be asked to pay for such an experience, the Nazis argued) and designed to be seen alongside the inaugural exhibition of ‘official’ German art that was taking place in the vast galleries of Munich’s new neoclassical House of German Art.

Once inside the ‘degenerate’ exhibition, held in the cramped rooms of the University’s Archaeological Institute, visitors were encouraged to marvel at the ‘insanity’ both of those who would produce such artworks and those who could be duped into praising them. In a case of manipulation worthy of our own ‘alternative fact’-based media, artworks were often displayed with their price-tags showing values in the hyper-inflated Weimar-era currency in order to secure maximum outrage from the German public at the money that museums had ‘wasted’ on such things.

By outlining the Nazi cultural policies that formulated the state’s twisted ideas of order and style the Wiener Library enables the visitor to see why the bold experiments of artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emile Nolde, and Max Liebermann were judged ‘unacceptable’. This was not, however, a purely artistic assessment. The application of the term ‘degenerate’ enabled the Nazis to suggest a direct link between artistic work and the artist’s social and ethnic suitability for a place in the German state.

From there, it was a short step to connect the artists and their work with a network of museum directors, critics, and dealers who could be seen as subversive elements in the German community. Tragically, the fact that many practitioners and patrons in the German art world were of Jewish origin enabled the Nazis to argue that modern art was a fraud perpetrated on the German people by ‘alien’ elements. It was a cosmopolitan conspiracy, made and sold everywhere from Paris to Moscow and, as such, it owed nothing to the twisted ideas of racial, nationalist culture the Nazi regime wished to promote.


"The inclusion of works by Kandinsky attests to a process of exchange dating back before the First World War"


Although the two may seem to have little in common, Nazi propaganda made sure that Communism was seen as a correlative to artistic ‘degeneracy’. Thus, when faced with a London exhibition that attracted praise for the works on show, the Nazi-run Völkischer Beobachter saw this as proof that the British had been duped by “Judaism and Moscow” into aesthetic judgments that had no place in the German Reich. The inclusion of ‘Moscow’ here reminds us that by this point Nazi art criticism was not only positioned against the ‘Jewish’ artistic community but needed to see that community as being in league with the other tangible threat from which it was claimed that Germany needed defending – the ‘Bolshevist’ menace in the East. Using the convenient catch-all term Kulturbolschewismus (‘Cultural Bolshevism’), Nazi art critics saw modern art as a plot hatched on two fronts, both designed to undermine Germany’s racial and political purity.

Like the many lies of Nazi propaganda, the linking of Judaism and Bolshevism enabled the regime to see coordinated threats everywhere while relying on a conditioned populace not to think at length about whether the link was real. Had they probed more deeply into the Soviet artistic sphere they would have found that by the late-1930s the state’s policy was firmly behind the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’ that renounced ‘formalist’ experimentation in favour of a monumental depiction of ‘reality’ as it was in the USSR, or as the Party believed it would soon be. A regime that was prioritising monumental images of collective farm workers, factory personnel, and the cadres of its senior leadership all depicted with the emphasis on their being ‘life-like’ had no more time for the innovations of modern art than the Nazi Reich did. German attempts to link modern art with Moscow were by 1938 founded less in reality than in a desire to focus prejudices on perceived ‘threats’ to future German greatness.

The irony is that there had been a time when German artists had enjoyed creative dialogue with their Russian peers, and the evidence of some of those interactions was to be found in the works singled out for attack in the late-1930s. The inclusion of eight works by Wassily Kandinsky in the London exhibition attests to a process of exchange dating back before the First World War, when the young Russian had made his home in Munich and, working with Franz Marc and others in the ‘Blue Rider’ group, forged a new visual language for the new century.

Blue Horses , 1911, by Franz Marc (1880-1916)

Blue Horses, 1911, by Franz Marc (1880-1916)

Marc’s 1911 painting Blue Horses, which shows the influence of Kandinsky’s experiments with colour, provided the 1938 exhibition with its poster image. Three of the eight works by which Kandinsky was represented in the London exhibition were pre-1914 compositions, capturing on canvas the thrilling process by which he turned his borrowings from Russian folk art into the material for new experiments in colour and form. The outbreak of war had sent Kandinsky back to Russia, but after a spell teaching and working for the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment he had returned to Germany in the 1920s, teaching for some time at the Bauhaus, that creative laboratory for German modernism, before finally leaving for France in 1933.

Kandinsky’s cross-border career was by no means unique. El Lissitzky had exhibited his work in Berlin in 1923, showcasing the architectural designs he had originally proposed while at the People’s Art School in Vitebsk, and his former colleague Kasimir Malevich had visited the Bauhaus in the course of a highly successful exhibition tour of his Suprematist work in Germany in 1926-7. In the early 1920s, with relatively open borders making travel between Berlin and Moscow possible, cultural dialogue had been a defining feature of Russo-German life. In 1937, however, 57 of Kandinsky’s works were seized by the Nazis as part of their purge of German galleries, with 14 of them displayed in the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition that year.

Untitled Improvisation III , 1914, by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Untitled Improvisation III, 1914, by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Sadly, the high point of Russo-German cultural exchange had passed long before the Nazi regime decided that ‘Bolshevism’ was the enemy. Modern art fell from favour in the USSR as swiftly as in Germany, although whereas Hitler’s regime promoted its imperial pretensions through a revived classicism indebted to Greece and Rome, the Stalinist state reverted to a monumentalised version of the 19th century Realist tradition. In both cases, though, the bold Expressionist colours and abstractions of early-20th century art could only be seen as threatening in their exuberance and presented only as the ‘tricks’ that the state’s enemies wished to play on the populace. In suggesting that these ‘degenerate’ works had backing in Moscow the Nazis further deceived a populace already overwhelmed by years of manipulation, for they would have been no more welcome there than they had received in Munich. Happily, they were able to find an audience in London, and in doing so could rebut the lies spread about their ‘degeneracy’ and that of their creators.  

The Wiener Library’s excellent exhibition reminds us that there was indeed a Russian element in the world of Modern German Art, but it was not the state-sponsored subversion against which the German public was warned to be on guard. Rather, it was something mutually loathed by both the Nazi and Soviet regimes – a process of cultural exchange, not ideological confrontation. Fittingly, then, the London exhibition of 1938, as this thoughtful display shows, highlighted not the ‘degeneracy’ of the art but the innovation and daring that neither fascism nor communism could wholly subdue.

‘London 1938: Defending Degenerate German Art’ is at the Wiener Library, Russell Square, until 14th September. For more information, see www.wienerlibrary.co.uk/London-1938


Dr Peter Lowe teaches classes in English Literature at the Bader International Study Centre, East Sussex. His interests are in the culture and history of the early 20th century in Russia and in western Europe, and he is currently researching the nature and uses of 'nostalgia' in the early Soviet period