On Soviet monumental art and the life and legacy of Alla Horska (1929–1970)
By Lizaveta German
Sometimes it takes destruction for something to be remembered. History teaches us this; it also demonstrates that someone is often first a martyr before becoming a hero in the eyes of subsequent generations. Art history is no exception. The devastating fate of a masterpiece of monumental art—a half-destroyed mosaic depicting what used to be a huge bird fighting the wind—mirrors the tragic life of its creator, Ukrainian artist and political activist Alla Horska.
In July, news and social media spread a horrible image of colorful leftover smalti reflecting the bright southern sun of Mariupol, an industrial city on the coast of the Sea of Azov that was heavily bombed in the preceding months and is currently occupied by Russian troops. The title of this 1967 piece speaks for itself—Kestrel, or Boryviter in Ukrainian; etymologically, “the one who fights the wind.” (The mosaic is also known as Bird of Hellas, in reference to the town’s Greek origins.) Horska, metaphorically speaking, was the one who fought the wind. First and foremost, she fought the boundaries of the ambiguous time she was destined to live through. And her fight came at a price: Along with some other visual artists of the generation known as the Sixtiers, Horska went so far as to give her life for her beliefs and anti-Soviet activities.
If one had to describe the Ukrainian Sixtiers through one personality, Horska would be a perfect candidate. Her practice and her life decisions embody the spirit of this important cultural epoch of postwar Ukraine, with all its contradictions and dualities.
If one had to describe the Ukrainian Sixtiers through one personality, Horska would be a perfect candidate. Her practice and her life decisions embody the spirit of this important cultural epoch of postwar Ukraine, with all its contradictions and dualities. Timewise, this period loosely spans from the late 1950s, when the so-called Khrushchev Thaw initiated certain new freedoms in Soviet public and cultural life, to the early 1970s, when everything once again came under severe state restrictions.
Horska was brought up in a family that was firmly part of the Soviet establishment. The explicit pro-Ukrainian views she espoused in her mature years and her fearless political activism were quite radical, not only in view of her training as a Soviet artist informed by the social-realist canon and propaganda-informed themes, but also among her close friends who spoke freely only in the narrowest circle of like-minded peers, wittily described as “Kyiv anchorites” by art historian and critic Borys Lobanovskyi.
Horska was in no way an underground artist—on the contrary, she was extremely active in taking government commissions and participating in state-organized group shows (there were, however, essentially no other kind of public exhibitions in the USSR). Nevertheless, she tried to hack this system and make use of its advantages: in 1963 she cofounded the Suchasnyk Creative Youth Club, supervised by the Soviet youth organization Komsomol. But she soon became bitterly disappointed about the enterprise, which turned out to be nothing but a comfortable bubble of “controlled creative freedom,” as rigid as the Union of Artists, the main organ behind the whole art system of the USSR.
First and foremost, Horska’s 1960s spirit revealed itself in the truly multidisciplinary nature of her artistic practice, which ranged from stage design to painting to monumental public art, including stained glass and mosaics. The last are the main focus of this essay.
Horska was born in 1929 in Yalta, Crimea, to Olena Bezsmertna and Oleksandr Horskyi, who held several important jobs in the Soviet film industry. Her father qualified as nomenklatura, with a number of privileges befitting his rank. In 1943, he became head of the Kyiv Feature Film Studio (today’s Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Film Studio), and the family moved to Kyiv, recently liberated from the Wehrmacht.
In Kyiv, Alla flourished as an artistically gifted teenager and took what was at the time a fairly common career path. She first enrolled at the Taras Shevchenko State Art School, and then continued her training at Kyiv State Art Institute. During her studies, she fell under the influence of Volodymyr Bondarenko (1906–1980). He him- self was a former student of Fedir Krychevskyi (1897–1947), whose works today form the core of the 20th-century collection of the National Art Museum of Ukraine. Bondarenko encouraged a certain awakening of Ukrainian identity in his students, described by Horska’s friend Halyna Zubchenko as “the first seeds of self-dignity.” Horska’s family was Russian-speaking, as was most of the artistic community of Kyiv in this period. This detail is important to mention, since in her older years she deliberately started to learn Ukrainian and speak it on a daily basis, a political gesture in itself. Under the friendly influence of the literature stars of the 1960s—Ivan Svitlychnyi, Yevhen Sverstiuk, and Vasyl Symo- nenko among them—Horska mastered the language to perfection, as a number of stylistically sophisticated letters to her friends show. One of her dearest pen pals was artist Opanas Zalyvakha, imprisoned between 1965 and 1970 in a hard-labor camp in Mordovia for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.
Right through the early 1960s, her biography was a polished example of a successful Soviet artist’s career. Her diploma work at the Kyiv State Art Institute was a painting titled Pioneer Control (1952) and aligned with the social-realist canon; it was exhibited at All-Union exhibitions and reproduced in mass-produced leaflets. After graduation, Horska and her husband, artist Viktor Zaretskyi, went traveling around Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, where they both worked on paintings and sketches of labor scenes and the severe landscape of this coal-mining region. These kinds of artistic trips, funded by factories or local councils, were common in the postwar decades, when the state apparatus was obsessed with re-establishing the power not only of Soviet industry but also of its art.
In 1959, Horska became a member of the Union of Artists. This gave her even more opportunities for exhibitions and state commissions such as monumental mosaics, using perhaps the most ambitious and spectacular artistic medium of the Soviet 1960s at large. She was also active in the aforementioned Suchasnyk Creative Youth Club. This informal, cross- disciplinary institution organized exhibitions, concerts, readings, and various other events around the shared interests of its members.
In one respect, this period marked the culmination of Horska’s happily Soviet professional path, since Suchasnyk was a Komsomol-controlled enterprise that made the liberalization of culture visible and won the loyalty of artists—a typical phenomenon of the Khrushchev Thaw. At the same time, however, it marked the beginning of a major anti-Soviet twist in Horska’s life. The aspirations and content of the club’s activities rather quickly went beyond the limits of the permitted liberties. The club’s core members were passionately focused on the rediscovery of Ukrainian folk culture and the legacy of the local avant-garde, which had both been repressed in the 1930s under Stalin’s regime. With poetry readings, historian-led expeditions to towns and villages across the country, and experimental theatrical productions of previously banned plays, the most important of the club’s endeavors were aimed at nothing less than reestablishment of a collective historical memory and national identity beyond the official Soviet narrative.
Monumental art, along with book illustrations in the huge printing industry of the USSR, was accessible to the masses, and in light of Horska’s political activism, we can assume that she deliberately chose this medium to be able to “speak” through it publicly.
This Ukrainization vector had a profound impact on Horska on many levels. As well as learning the Ukrainian language from scratch, Horska was fascinated by the splendid colors and ornamentation of traditional Ukrainian aesthetics, as her sketches for monumental mosaics and actual works made with tiles and smalti prove. Stylized floral motifs and geometric patterns in projects she co-authored (in 1967 alone, the aforementioned Kestrel and a companion piece, Tree of Life, for Mariupol’s Ukraina restaurant; and mosaics and interior murals for Kyiv’s Mill restaurant) clearly stood out from most of the monumental work of the decade: She and her colleagues were clearly above-average producers.
Artistically and technically challenging, the art of monumental mosaics was well paid and, in terms of chosen artistic language, less supervised than painting: The dimensions of these works and their construction from small glass tiles allowed for formal experiments with color and shape that would otherwise have been considered too abstract. Artists were often directly invited and paid by big factories or local authorities who were headhunting for the best of the best. Horska was just the type of artist they were looking for. It would, however, be mis- taken to think her devotion to monumentalism was merely a tool for making money with her craft. Monumental art, along with book illustrations in the huge printing industry of the USSR, was accessible to the masses, and in light of Horska’s political activism, we can assume that she deliberately chose this medium to be able to “speak” through it publicly. It thus became the place where the contradictions in her practice revealed themselves most fully.
Over the course of the 1960s, as Horska’s method and formal decisions evolved, the subject of her art changed dramatically. A profound curiosity in the officially disavowed side of Ukrainian culture culminated in the big stained-glass piece Shevchenko. Mother she co-authored with Halyna Sevruk and Opanas Zalyvakha in 1964 for the central lobby of Kyiv’s National State University. Taras Shevchenko, a 19th-century poet and artist and a key figure in modern Ukraine’s history, was welcomed into the Soviet pantheon of acknowledged local heroes as a fighter for equality and freedom from serfdom for his people. Nevertheless, what mattered for Soviet officials in charge of public art commissions was the “correct” construal of his political agenda. Horska’s interpretation of Shevchenko’s legacy reflected the poet’s oppo- sition not just to any oppressors but specifically to Russian ones. And this nuance was not in line with the policy of casting Russia as the “big brother” among Soviet nations.
Shevchenko. Mother was accepted at the initial stages of production, but was subsequently accused of being too “anachronistic” in the way it depicted Shevchenko and the protagonists of his poems. It was deinstalled and promptly destroyed right after it was completed. The team of artists, Horska included, were expelled from the Union of Artists (though they were readmitted a year later). But if the artistic misconduct of Horska and her circle could be swallowed by the authorities with relatively minor rebukes, their political activism would have much more serious consequences.
In 1962, Suchasnyk’s leader Les Tanyuk, poet Vasyl Symonenko and Horska addressed the Kyiv City Council in a bid to spur the publica- tion of information about the previously secret mass shootings carried out by NKVD troops in 1937–41 in Bykivna near Kyiv. Their proposal was rejected and led only to increasing ten- sions. Eventually, in 1964, the Creative Youth Club was closed and many of its members were punished in various ways. Symonenko was brutally beaten by police officers on the street and died from the complications of trauma the following year. At this point, Horska was subject to constant surveillance.
This balancing of undisclosed political protest and the almost nonstop production of state-commissioned projects became only more strained in the late 1960s, during the final years of Horska’s life and practice. In a single year, she signed a letter against the injustice of political trials (known as the “Letter of 139” or the “Kyiv Letter”) and did sketches for one of her last—and largest, most ambitious—collaborative monumental works, Banner of Victory, for a museum in Krasnodon in eastern Ukraine. It was 1968: Four years after the removal of Khrushchev from the USSR leadership, Soviet troops and tanks entered the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in order to stop the reforms initiated by the local government (as part of what was known as the Prague Spring). Across the globe, 1968 inscribed itself as one of the most turbulent years of the 20th century. For Ukraine, it marked the end of an era of relative freedom, which was replaced by the new wave of political toughness aimed primarily at suppressing newly established dissident movements. Horska was again excluded from the Union of Artists, but kept working on the Krasnodon project in 1969–70, protected by the museum’s chief architect, Volodymyr Smirnov.
In November 1970, Horska was found killed in the cellar of her father-in-law’s house, and he himself was found dead at a railway path nearby. The whole scene was disguised to make it look as if he had killed Horska and committed suicide afterward. Though there has been no proper investigation of her death to date, it is widely believed that the KGB was responsible. Her funeral was openly attended by a broad circle of artists and activists, and so itself turned into a pro-Ukrainian mass gathering.
Banner of Victory was also known by the title Relay Race. It was designed for a new museum dedicated to the Young Guard, an underground organization in Krasnodon set up to fight Nazi occupiers during World War II. The heroism and martyrdom of (in fact) teenage partisans had immediately become celebrated by Soviet ideology, though the story of their activities was mostly based on Aleksandr Fadeev’s novel The Young Guard (1946) and its 1948 film adaptation, rather than on documentary mate- rials. The mosaic in Krasnodon shows the main episodes of Young Guard apocrypha: the illegal hoisting of red flags around town to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the October Revolution, and the execution of its members.
The plot of Horska’s mosaic can be inter- preted on a number of levels. On a basic level, it tells a typical, propaganda-like story of the heroic sacrifice of Soviet guerrilla fighters. We see a multitude of flags, clustered together to form one borderless red piece of cloth. This total flag is unified in the hand of a central male fig- ure, as if he had been handed the flagpole by the twisted figure to the left. The latter is about to fall to a frightening void in the bottom left corner, as the bodies of killed partisans were allegedly thrown into a coal-mine tunnel. Shiny smalti are assembled to give a supernatural effect: Much like biblical characters in old Byzantine mosaics, the Soviet youngsters are illuminated through golden shapes. They look unreal, these saints of the Soviet pantheon.
The alternative title for the piece, Relay Race, opens up an extended interpretation of its plot. The girl and young men are seen not as guards of the war years, but as their descendants: none other than the Sixtiers. Brought up on similar heroic stories, soaked in Soviet patriotic spirit, they were expected to “pick up the victory flag” from their father figures and rebuild the ruined country: on construction sites and also on the cultural front. Horska was a perfect embodiment of this stratum: Herself the daughter of top-ranking figure in Soviet cinema (which was a generously funded industry responsible for bringing legends like that of the Young Guard to millions of viewers), she was supposed to bring these myths into the trendy contemporary medium of mosaic.
Horska’s works survived the hostile regime that put an end to her life and practice.
But in the end, it is not Horska’s background but her life choices that give us perhaps the most true explanation of the plot. The young guards of the dissident movement strived to overcome the Soviet legacy of lies and propaganda. The total red flag is not actually raised above their heads but likely to be left behind. The new generation—three central figures who visually hold up the museum’s roof like so many Atlases—step forward and turn their gazes away from the falling figures to the left, figures of the past, who are absorbed into the oblivion of history. The youth of the 1960s was supposed to be the generation to build communism, as Khruschev proclaimed. Instead, it was the generation that started to undermine it, filled with a complete disillusionment with its false values and the ruling party’s hypocrisy. And Horska, the “heart and soul of the Ukrainian 1960s,” as film critic and memoirist Roman Korogoskyi designated her, was the one to create a convincing monument to her rebellious circle’s legacy.
There’s a documentary photograph of the co-authors in front of the finished mosaic. Horska stands in the middle, right beneath her white-clad heroine evoking Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) (one of Horska’s sketches actually depicts a female figure with bare breasts, but nudity could never make its way into Soviet public art). Was it a hint about the actual protagonists of the piece? Or a direct, cool-headed message to those able to decipher it? Horska knew it was a dangerous game to play. She knew the piece could be destroyed after it was finished, as her Shevchenko stained-glass piece had been back in 1964. (There is a rumor that the Krasnodon mosaic was only saved because Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, the head of the Ukrainian government at the time, happened to see it and expressed his appreciation.) Did she know her life was under even a bigger threat? Perhaps. She was killed the same year the museum of Young Guard opened its doors, with the mosaic welcoming guests in the lobby.
The giant guards are still in Krasnodon; so far they have avoided the destiny of Mariupol’s destroyed Kestrel. But they have fallen victim of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war in their own way: Since 2014, the town has been a part of the temporarily occupied territory of the self- proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic. Horska’s works survived the hostile regime that put an end to her life and practice. Her legacy has not dissolved in that murky oblivion she assembled from blue, gray and red smalto pieces. Instead, her name, fixed in golden and white baked-glass tiles, stands as a symbol of resilience and resistance—and she has become a touchstone for the outstanding artistic quality of the still internationally underestimated monumental art school of Kyiv.