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Russia: Villages Trying To Prevent Painter's Legacy From Being Brushed Aside

  • Sophie Lambroschini

At least 20,000 villages in Russia count less than 10 inhabitants. Half-forgotten at the end of muddy roads across the country, they are being deserted by Russia's younger generation and are expected to disappear. Even in Moscow's budding chic suburbia, however, villages are facing extinction -- cultural extinction, residents say. In Nemchinovka and Romashkovo, just outside Moscow, villagers are joining forces to protect the neglected burial site of pioneering Russian painter Kazimir Malevich.

Nemchinovka/Romashkovo, Russia; 27 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Most residents of Romashkovo and Nemchinovka, two Russian villages of mostly wooden houses, still take the train to work. Moscow's ring road is just a few hundred meters away, but the only roads into the city are rutted tracks, so the villagers largely live apart from the bustling capital.

All this will change, however, if Moscow goes ahead with plans to build a highway through fields near the villages, unlocking locals from their relative isolation. The highway is expected to further accelerate the real estate boom overtaking Moscow's suburbs. Property rights for plots near Moscow's prestigious government dacha district will likely be sold for a fortune.

But some of the villagers say they are not interested in money, at least not at the cost of losing their cultural identity. For them, the landscape around Nemchinovka and Romashkovo reminds them of modernist painter Kazimir Malevich, whose remains are buried somewhere in those fields.

Malevich, who died in 1935 in St. Petersburg, lived and painted in the villages, depicting the nearby fields in some of his works. Malevich's abstract art was shunned by the communists, who recognized only the Socialist Realism style. Though he died in poverty, Malevich's paintings of geometric shapes -- called Suprematism -- can today fetch up to $15 million or more. A major exhibition of his works was held earlier this year at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Aleksandr Matveyev lives in Nemchinovka and has set up a grassroots association aimed at preserving Malevich's legacy. He spoke about the impact the highway could have.

"It will completely change the village. It will be a big federal road. It will change the spirit of the place where Malevich liked to stay, where he's buried. And the aim of [our] noncommercial organization is to protect what is left today," Matveyev said.

The painter's niece, Galina Zharkova, is fearful that Malevich's grave may end up becoming the site for the bungalows of New Russians. A 75-year-old pensioner, Zharkova still lives in Malevich's house, a typical Russian cottage with wooden lace trimmings framing the windows. All that is left in the house of Malevich's art is a painted wooden box that Zharkova keeps her medication in.

Zharkova was 6 when Malevich died at age 57 from cancer. She still calls him Uncle Kazia. She remembers Malevich's avante-garde funeral procession, which had been planned by the artist himself. She says the most striking thing was his coffin, which was shaped like a cross:

"What really stuck in my mind was his coffin. It was made according to his own design. It wasn't like the coffins you see today -- it was Suprematist in style. On top it was like this, the sides like that, and all decorated, and so was the cart in which they brought Malevich. We were standing there with our mouths open," Zharkova says.

Malevich was influenced by a mix of traditional Russian art and the newest experimentation coming from the West. He said he wanted to free art from what he called the "tyranny of easel painting." His "Black Square on White Ground" and later his influential "White on White" series of 1918 were controversial illustrations of his quest.

After Malevich's cremation, the urn containing his ashes was buried at the foot of an oak tree in a clearing halfway between Nemchinovka and Romashkovo. The location was set with a black stone cube, recalling the shapes in his paintings.

At the beginning of World War II, however, the oak was hit by lightning. Its blackened stump removed because it was feared it could serve as a strategic landmark for German troops. The black cube marker itself disappeared after the fields were plowed and transferred to the local kolkhoz, or collective farm.

Nemchinovka Mayor Aleksei Bondariyev says finding the grave is the crucial first step in preserving Malevich's legacy. Bondariyev says regional authorities are, at least in theory, ready to protect the place.

"We talked, but they put down their conditions -- find the exact location [of the grave], mark the territory of the plot [you want], then we'll see. But for now, there's nothing to talk about," Bondariyev said.

The grave site is believed to be somewhere in a 200-by-200 meter square. Matveyev and his associates have been pouring through cartography archives in the hope of finding the oak tree marked on a map. They are negotiating with the Russian Interior Ministry for the use of a detector that notes irregularities in the soil.

"Maybe we can find the oak's roots that way," says Matveyev. "Unfortunately, the urn appears to have been made out of porcelain and not metal."

Zharkova recalls that, in Soviet times, Malevich was completely unknown, a nonperson, his work censored. In the 1970s, she and one of Malevich's daughters attempted to set up a memorial to the painter by appealing to the local communist administration.

"At the time, to get the authorization to set up something there, you had to get an authorization from above. We went to see our deputy head of the executive committee for culture and education. I can't remember her name. We gave her the letter. She read it. Then she laughed and said, 'Well, I'd also like to put up a monument for my father, too. So what?' " Zharkova said.

It wasn't until 1988 that villagers finally received the authorization. But the Communist Party ruled that the memorial had to be in the form of a cube with a red square, instead of Malevich's trademark black cube, in order to appear more revolutionary.

Today, that 1988 memorial is squeezed between a housing compound of New Russian-style bungalows and a birch tree forest being used as a toilet by the families of immigrant workers living in sheds nearby. The little group of grassroots activists succeeded in convincing the compound owners to leave the memorial in place.

Indeed, the housing compound is now called Malevich, as is its main street. Locals claim a Cafe Malevich is next. "It gives the New Russians some intellectual cachet," one association member says, with more than a touch of sarcasm.

Mayor Bondariyev says finding Malevich's grave has become a major concern, no less important than organizing local water and gas supplies.

"Wise men say, if we don't know our history and learn to cherish it, then we deprive ourselves of a future. So we have to keep this local color for future generations."