The Power of Truth and Light

Boris Nemensky

Magazine issue: 
#2 2015 (47)


A winter storm, a snowdrift; a dim moonlight shines through myriads of snowflakes carried on the wind. The wind has knocked over the sticks that marked the wire leading to the front line. The wire is covered with snow, and I am walking around in circles looking for it. Finally, thank Heaven, some soldiers find me, and are now taking me to their headquarters.

All that came with no experience - none at all. The only thing I had going for me was that I had graduated from the Saratov Art School. It is only recently that I have begun to consider what was going on: the German troops were closing in on Moscow, my country under the ultimate strain of immense material damage, loss of human life and a long military retreat... And yet, senior art students (not even Military Academy cadets!) were not being conscripted into the army before they had the chance to graduate.

Did the nation realize that we, as artists, had to finish our education? Or was our faith in our military might so strong, in spite of everything? Did it come from our military commanders? Or the people?

In due time, I was drafted into the army. I ended up in a small military unit - the Grekov Studio of War Artists. All my fellow soldiers and officers were artists, and all were given assignments at the front line. My first assignment took me to the Panfilov Division at the Kalinin Front. Later I learned that the colonel in charge of that regiment was Momyshuly, a hero of Kazakhstan, a man with a refined, aristocratic face.

So there I was, on my first assignment at the front line. How unfortunate that the wire was lost under the snow. However, everything turned out well, after all. Soon I was taken into a spacious dugout lined with rows of logs, filled with officers sitting by a long table made of boxes and lit by rather elegant lamps made (as I learned later) from empty cartridges. Naturally, there was food - noodles, canned meat, and the like...

Suddenly my escort and I froze. A young girl was singing some unknown oriental tune in a beautiful high voice, strong and melodious. The singer began to cough - the smoke from the lamps and tobacco was thick in the air.

My documents were in the captain's hands; he was studying them carefully. Everyone went silent. All eyes, Russian and Kazakh, were on me: "Who are you? Friend or foe?"

My documents were examined in every possible way. I had ended up in this unit on New Year's Eve, during the last hours of 1942. What was to be done? Call headquarters? Make enquiries? "No, lad, we will give you our own test! You were looking for your regular regiment, but you've ended up at a reconnaissance intelligence unit..."

Back at headquarters, Captain Stepan Shai (after the war, we would remain friends for a very long time) had given me instructions before sending me to the front line. My "college boy" lack of experience [Nemensky was just 19 years old] was obvious to him, so he warned me: "Keep in mind, we may have losses, but there are good supplies of vodka. They will make you drink. If you get drunk, you will lose people's respect, and it will get in the way of your work. I can see how inexperienced you are. So, as long as they make you go on drinking, find some butter - there should be butter everywhere - and keep putting it in your mouth. It'll all simply go thorough you that way, just hold in there." Thank you, Captain Shai!

That was exactly what happened. There was butter, and there was the customary Russian "test with a mug". When it was over, the captain asked those next to him to give me some space and invited me to join them, so I celebrated the arrival of the new year of 1943 with these hosts. To this day, I do not think I have heard war stories more fascinating than those of the raids this unique reconnaissance and propaganda unit had undertaken "behind enemy lines". This was an incredible group of daring reconnaissance scouts who were equally daring as performers, too. They would even go on "outreach" informational missions in the German-occupied territories! Having captured a village, they would turn on a radio broadcast from Moscow, so that the people could hear for themselves that Moscow was alive and well, and learn the truth about the situation at the front - many living under Nazi occupation believed that Moscow had been surrendered long ago. There would be a small "concert" after that, and having sung a few songs the unit would move on to another village, often fighting their way through. Indeed, on the day I met them they had made their way back "home" from German-held territory to celebrate the coming New Year, only to quietly cross the front line again the next day. They had, however, secured a safe way to cross, through a no-man's strip of marshland.

"Listen, kid, why don't you draw this?" they asked. I tried, but could not come up with anything better than a scene from my imagination - it was, of course, naive, since I had no personal experience at all.

After that, it was your "normal" life in the trenches. We were not engaged in real battles, but routinely exchanged fire with the German troops. Even the mail came only very rarely, and we would read letters from our loved ones at home until the sheets of paper began to fall apart. I petitioned my commanding officers to let me go to Velikiye Luki, where we were finally mounting an offensive.

My memories of that time, a time that seemed so boring, so routine, would later become the subject for my painting "Of Those That Are Far and Those That Are Close". It would seem that I kept so much in my heart; it was only later that I realized that it was not so much what the soldiers were doing, but rather who they were as people and individuals that really interested me back then.

My time at the front was spent among soldiers, not among officers. Their thoughts and feelings were close to my own. I say "soldiers", but they were really just farmers, workers, and teachers...

I did get permission to go to Velikiye Luki. What happened to me on the way there became the inspiration for a major painting, "It Is Us, Lord!" ("An Unnamed Hill"). As I was walking to Velikiye Luki, I sat down to rest and munch on a piece of dried bread on what I thought was a tree stump protruding from the ground, but it turned out to be the shoulder of a dead German soldier, not yet frozen in the snow. I turned the body over; I was stunned to see a young man of my own age who somehow looked quite a bit like me, only with red hair. It was the first Fascist soldier with whom I had come "face to face". My enemy? This boy? Later I saw many dead soldiers, both German and our own. Often they would be lying on the ground, sometimes next to one another. It could have been me lying there…

As the years went by, this incident made me contemplate the causes of war and the origin of Fascism that led to what was effectively fratricide. What happened that day moved me to draw many sketches of two dead soldiers, first on a beautiful flowering spring meadow, and later various other versions of the same composition. These versions are now in Aachen, Tokyo, Omsk and Moscow. The latest version of "It Is Us, Lord!" poses the question to everyone concerned - when will this stop happening?

This painting caused a lot of controversy, both in the press and when it was exhibited. The famous writer Konstantin Simonov organized a separate show for the painting at the House of Writers, with a serious discussion about the nature of this phenomenon, the fundamentals of relationships between nations, and the fate of their young sons. This subject remains relevant today.

When the battle for Velikiye Luki was over, the place was left devastated and deserted; we were only able to find a single living being - Anya, a little girl whose face was as wrinkled as that of an old woman, who had almost forgotten how to speak. These events became the inspiration for my painting "Soldiers and Fathers". It is now on display in Pskov, and for my solo exhibition at the Moscow Museum [of the Great Patriotic War] at Poklonnaya Gora the painting was reproduced on posters and advertising banners. To this day people post their thoughts on the painting, or rather on its subject matter, on the Internet. Surely that means that it remains relevant and haunting for our contemporaries. Again, we are tempted to ask: when will this stop happening?

Those were my first experiences at the front and the roots of my art. The final chapter of my war education was written on the way from the Oder to Berlin. This was, however, a very different experience, resulting in numerous drawings and sketches, but no ideas for future paintings. Unfortunately, only one study of those that I drew during that April offensive survived. It was an image of a street close to the centre of Berlin; today i cannot imagine how i was able to paint this scorched, roaring chasm of a street, with whirlpools of smoke, flying ashes and burning, collapsing buildings.

Somehow, I managed it. Our soldiers were interested in my work: "Go ahead, show everyone how Hitler's lair burned! Let no-one be tempted again..." They helped me move forward an armchair (for some reason, there was an armchair in the middle of the street) in which I installed myself to draw, warn ing me: "Watch out you don't end up under the rubble." I was lucky, unlike my friend and colleague, the wonderful painting student Pavel Globa: a fragment from a shell that exploded next to him lodged in his chest so close to his heart that the doctors would not attempt to take it out, so he lived with it, millimeters from his heart, all his life.

On May 9 1945, Victory Day, I was able to paint two studies of Berlin streets, with all the dust, people, vehicles and flags. I began working on a last study at the Brandenburg Gate ("unter den Linden in Smoke"), but did not have time to finish it. Konstantin Kostenko and Nikolai Denisov, my friends from the Grekov Studio, spotted me and climbed up the assault ladders to join me. They had a huge bottle of French wine with them, so the Victory Day celebration was a great success. It was already dark when we climbed down; my study slipped out of the sketch-book, and the palette fell onto it. The sketch-book itself, made to be used at the front, survived intact, and was recently exhibited at the Museum on Poklonnaya Gora.

Unlike the first of my studies painted in Berlin, the final one was saturated with light, sun, new green foliage, and the joy of spring; it was a view of a peaceful street that had survived intact, with a church at one end. When the war was over, the artists from the Grekov studio were ordered to stay in the city under the command of the soviet commandant of Berlin, Nikolai Berzarin, to paint posters and portraits; they were billeted with German families.

When the fighting stopped, along with our studies we began to paint posters for the streets of Berlin. We wrote slogans such as,"the likes of Hitler come and go; the German people and the German state remain". I remember those words well, and I remember their message equally well. I would very much like it If people over there would also remember the true sentiments of both our army and our people, the people that did not start that war but was forced to fight its way to Berlin to stop it.

Soon normal human relations returned to the city. Farmers from the surrounding areas brought in strawberries, and stores and cafes opened their doors; their owners' daughters tried to teach me to dance. One memory of that time is of the visit that famous Soviet artists paid to the Grekov Studio graduates - among them were Sokolov-Skalia, Deineka, and the "Kukryniksy"1 trio, all three in colonels' uniforms. As Nikolai Denisov, a Grekov Studio artist, remembered:"They took a long time looking through our drawings and studies, of which there were many. When we were all hungry, we opened the sliding door to the next room - and it was worth seeing the surprise on our guests' faces when a middle-aged German lady and her two charming daughters in crisp starched aprons welcomed them to a feast..." What a surprise it was for our guests - to be sitting at the same table with a German family! And these were the famous Kukryniksy... What an idyll! That dinner party was quite different from the current view of those events, as well as those of our army of the time.

I do not have a photograph of that dinner, just one with the Kukryniksy by a vehicle. I regret I did not take more photos, but I had to use somebody else's camera, so I did it seldom.

However, I remember it all well - all the long way to Berlin, the path from the image of the burning streets to the sunny study of the balcony, with a church in the background. It was not just the joy of our victory, the happiness that the end of that Great War brought to us - we could not think of it as anything other than our Patriotic War. We were so glad to be alive, we believed in light, in happiness, in the triumph of peace, but also in everything that was good about human relationships, as well as the relationships between nations. The Cold War was still a thing of the future.

So we gradually came to terms with the war years, and eventually those experiences gave rise to new works of art, no longer directly connected to the war itself, but rather with our understanding of the present, of the meaning and joy of life itself. But these verses by David Samoilov express it better than anything else:

That's how it was when all was twined -
War, horror, dreams and youth!
My heart and soul deeply wounded
Later to reveal the Truth.2

For me, it was all awakened in my later work. My time at the front, along with the experiences of my fellow Grekov Studio graduates, turned out to be my fundamental education, both as a person and as an artist. My faith in my people, in my country, in the power of the truth and light of human relationships, and therefore in art, has stayed with me to this day. It is still alive.

Postscriptum. In this article I write of my memories; there is no mention of pictorial language or my search for the right imagery in my work. That is a different topic. And it is a quest, forever a quest, with the exception of the quick sketches, which are spontaneous. My Berlin studies are an example of that, my first work en plein air. Pictorial language is always an interesting topic of discussion. Viktor Ivanov was absolutely right when, at the opening of my solo show at the Russian Academy of Arts, he said that "there is more than one pictorial language" in my work. I do try to let the subject "search" for its own unique expressive means; consequently, I paint many versions of one work, and often get rid of the first drafts. This search takes years. One may say that the essence and the pictorial expression shape each other; I let it happen. To me it means that time takes its due course.

  1. "Kukryniksy" was the collective name derived from the letters from the names of three caricaturists, Mikhail Kupriyanov, Porfiry Krylov, and Nikolai Sokolov, who were famous for their war-time caricatures of Nazi leaders.
  2. Translated by Natella Voiskunski.





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