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Putin's Halo? Russian Artist Fires Back Against Online Ridicule

Aleksandr Nemtsov's The Blessing Of The Ages
Aleksandr Nemtsov's The Blessing Of The Ages

TULA, Russia -- The vision that came to Russian artist Aleksandr Nemtsov in 2012 has gone viral six years later for all the wrong reasons.

One parody account on Twitter posted the image on June 21 with the caption: "Chronicle of Lunatics."

Another wag posted the image on Facebook with the caption: "News from the madhouse."

But Nemtsov and his wife, Valentina, think it is the Internet fuss that is really crazy. "My wife and I have been have been reading what they write on the Internet for the last four hours," Nemtsov tells RFE/RL. "Where do they see a halo on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin when there isn't one? I didn't have a halo in mind and I didn't paint one. It isn't about saints; it is a slice of time. I painted the most significant people in Russian history."

Nemtsov's 2012 painting, titled The Blessing Of The Ages, is a circular image in the style of a fresco. It shows Putin driving a chariot with three horses across the sky. In front of and below him, the painting shows Tsar Nicholas II, Kievan Grand Prince Vladimir the Great, and the Madonna and child. In the front row, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill offers a blessing, while a rather haggard-looking Dmitry Medvedev waves farewell.

Behind the Madonna, the sky-blue banner of the ruling United Russia party waves in the breeze, while powerful rays of golden sunlight stream from behind Putin's head.

"There are no accidental figures in this picture," Nemtsov says. "Prince Vladimir baptized Rus. Next to him, there is the Madonna and child. Under Nicholas II, Russia achieved unprecedented progress. And what if I have Putin with the horses? Who among our politicians six years ago was guiding the horses if not him?"

"Putin was able to unite the country," he continues. "Russia is now respected internationally. No matter what people say, we have started to live better. The yards are filled with cars. Women are walking around in mink coats. Young people are participating in sports instead of just hanging around from morning until night like it was not so long ago."

'Muddled Thinking'

The general tone of the Internet commentary has been that the painting demonstrated a sycophantic devotion to the authorities and drew sacrilegious comparisons between saints and living politicians.

"Where is Stalin? It isn't finished," wrote one typical commentator.

"The horsemen of the apocalypse," wrote another.

"We never seen such muddled thinking before," wrote a third, to which another commenter added: "Never before, but, look, it's back!"

"Yes, my wife and I support Putin's policies," says Nemtsov, whose curly hair and mutton-chop sideburns give him a striking resemblance to 19th-century Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin. "Because our generation endured a lot. We distinctly remember the empty store shelves."

"Let's look at things objectively," Valentina Nemtsova agrees. "Putin raised Russia off its knees. Our country is taken into consideration internationally and there is no point in denying that."

The Nemtsovs live on their meager state pensions, "but we aren't complaining to anyone.
The Nemtsovs live on their meager state pensions, "but we aren't complaining to anyone.

Asked about a recent government proposal to raise the retirement age, Nemtsova retorts, "Notice that Putin has not commented on that topic -- it is a proposal by the government."

As for corruption, Nemtsov notes that "they always stole in Russia."

"This didn't start under Putin," he concludes. "But in the fight against corruption we need to help Putin. He can't cope with it alone. It is a very complex matter."

Luzhkov, Pugacheva, Trump...

When the image of the painting went viral, people who posted it said it was to be found in the Tula Children's Library. The library, however, told RFE/RL that they had no knowledge of the painting.

Nemtsov explains that the painting was among several he submitted to an exhibition held at the library, but he doesn't believe it was actually shown at that time.

"The painting was hanging for one day in the regional museum during a reading by poet Olga Yevsyukova, who is a friend of mine," he says. "Apparently they photographed it there and then Putin's enemies started all this hubbub on the Internet."

Nemtsov says the vision of the painting came to him in a dream in 2012, when Putin was campaigning to return to the presidency that he had surrendered to Medvedev in 2008. He'd recently seen a similar painting titled The Radiant God by 19th-century realist painter Valentin Serov hanging in the Tula Art Museum. That painting shows the sun god Helios driving a four-horse chariot across a cloud-scudded sky, firmly holding the reins while gazing downward toward the Earth. A crown of sun rays radiates from behind his head.

The 65-year-old Nemtsov graduated from the prestigious Repin Academy of Arts in 1979. He has been a member of the Union of Painters since 1979. His works have been exhibited around the world and have been purchased by the Culture Ministry and the Academy of Arts.

He has painted many political figures of modern Russia, including former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, former State Duma speaker and United Russia official Boris Gryzlov, and former First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. In general, he prefers to paint classic Russian artists and composers such as Isaac Levitan and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Aleksandr Nemtsov's painting of Boris Gryzlov
Aleksandr Nemtsov's painting of Boris Gryzlov

His painting of Russian pop star Alla Pugacheva "turned out excellently," Nemtsov boasts. "[Comedian] Maksim Galkin bought that one."

He recently painted a large portrait of U.S. President Donald Trump "because we really hope that relations with America will get better again," Nemtsova says.

"He took [the Trump portrait] to the presidential administration [in Moscow] and left it there," she adds. "He asked them to give it to Putin so that he would give it to Trump when they met in Hamburg at the G20 summit [in July 2017]. We don't know if he gave Trump the portrait or not. No one said anything to us. They just took the painting and that's all."

Now the Nemtsovs live in the central Russian city of Tula, about 200 kilometers south of Moscow.

"We are both pensioners, and we get 20,000 rubles ($318) a month between us," Nemtsova explains. "We know that we aren't exactly living high, but we aren't complaining to anyone. We live in a one-room apartment that we rent. Sasha's studio is in the two-room apartment that he inherited from his parents. All our friends are pensioners. If their health allows, they work, since you know how hard it is to get by on our pensions...."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Yelizaveta Mayetnaya of RFE/RL's Russian Service