Shemyakin on serving Russia without Russian citizenship

Shemyakin: 'Of all the Russian officials, President Putin is the only one who offered me help of his own volition and who kept his word.' Source: Dmitry Koscheev / RG

Shemyakin: 'Of all the Russian officials, President Putin is the only one who offered me help of his own volition and who kept his word.' Source: Dmitry Koscheev / RG

Nonconformist artist Mikhail Shemyakin, whose works are currently on display in New York and Saint Petersburg, became an American citizen after being expelled from the Soviet Union. In an interview with Izvestia he discusses why he won't apply for Russian citizenship.

The Mimi Ferzt Gallery in New York is hosting an exhibition of art by Mikhail Shemyakin entitled “Sidewalks of Paris.” In Russia’s St. Petersburg, the artist has two exhibitions running at the same time: “A Blurred Image” and “The World in Water Droplets.” In an interview with Izvestia, Shemyakin spoke about some of his numerous projects and told the story of how President Putin advised him against obtaining Russian citizenship.

Izvestia: Several years ago, you left the United States and moved to France. Was it easy for you to undertake such a change of scenery?

Mikhail Shemyakin (M.S.): Nobody believed me when I said I was going to move; everybody just laughed. I am, after all, a sculptor, with a huge collection of stuff to match. I have 5,000 crates of books and 3,000 folders with research papers. All that stuff weighs 450 tons. But I am a stubborn man. My motto is: "You don't choose your Motherland, you serve your Motherland.”

Mikhail Shemyakin, born in 1943, is a nonconformist artist. During the Soviet period, his exhibitions were shut down, his works of art were confiscated, and Shemyakin himself was forcibly placed in a psychiatric hospital. He was later expelled from the Soviet Union. He has lived in France and the United States, and he holds an honorary doctorate from the University of San Francisco. His art is exhibited all over the world; he also works as an artistic director in theatre, ballet and opera. His works have been bought by museums and private collections in the United States, France and other countries.

I want to work with students from the Caucasus; I am half-Caucasian myself. America doesn't let such people in these days; everything that has to do with the Caucasus is an object of suspicion. Besides, I have eight cats and eight dogs. When one makes trans-Atlantic journeys once every two weeks, they have to stay on their own, and that's not good for them. So, long story short, I decided to move to France in order to be closer to Russia.

Izvestia: Have you thought about moving to Russia?

M.S.: There is so much bureaucracy on the Russian borders that bringing my 450 tons of stuff into the country is next to impossible. Russian customs officials once refused to let me through with my own drawings. They told me that first I must go to Moscow, scan my own drawings, find out from specialists how much they are worth, pay the appropriate taxes and duties, and only then leave and take them with me. They also said that, in the future, I should not sign my own drawings; that will allow me to take them through customs without even declaring them. Alas, our country is not a good place to live for people like myself. Instead of serving Russia, I would be forced to serve corrupt officials.

Izvestia: Do you hold a French passport?

M.S.: No, once you become a U.S. citizen, the law forbids you from requesting another country’s citizenship. Besides, I don’t want to become a second-class, “naturalized” French citizen. Someone who was not born in France will never have all the rights a French citizen has. You can’t even open up your own business unless you have a Frenchman by birth as a business partner owning at least 51 percent of the venture. I have never wanted to become French anyway. A person who has been brought up reading Pushkin can never feel anything other than Russian.

Izvestia:And what if Vladimir Putin simply gave you a Russian passport, just like he has given one to Gerard Depardieu? Would you accept it?

M.S.: That is unlikely. He once said to me: “Misha, I know you hold a U.S. passport. Keep it. You see, passports don't really matter anymore these days. You have been serving Russia all your life anyway." So the president himself has told me I should not do it. I can swear on the Bible, that’s exactly how it happened.

Izvestia:Seeing as how he called you Misha, you are on first-name terms?

M.S.: He was astounded by my version of “The Nutcracker.” When he saw that ballet in Moscow, he said: “Make sure to call Valery Gergiev [artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre], and tell him that President Bush is going to be in St. Petersburg on May 25, 2003. He must stage ‘The Nutcracker’ on that day; I want Bush to see it.” So Valery re-worked all his schedules and had ‘The Nutcracker’ on. At the end of the show, Bush was screaming with delight like a kid.

You know, when the audience begins to applaud at the end of the show, the president must quickly get out of the box, because it's easy to miss the sound of a gun being fired in all that noise. But I saw Bush waving and slapping his guards way; he stuck out of the box and kept yelling “Bravo.” Then we had a tea in the lobby. Putin introduced me to Bush, who kept slapping me on the back and saying, “Great man, great show.” And then Putin told Bush: “He is one of yours, and he is one of ours as well. That’s what real friendship is.”

Of all my sculptures, the one President Putin likes the most is the memorial to victims of political persecution. When I found out, I was a bit puzzled by that.

Also, of all the Russian officials, the president is the only one who offered me help of his own volition and who kept his word. It is thanks to him that we have the “Children Are Victims of Adults’Sins”sculpture in Moscow, and the Peter the Great statue on the Thames. It is also thanks to him that my education fund is now working in St. Petersburg.

Izvestia: So maybe you should apply for Russian citizenship after all?

M.S.: Well, what if I get into trouble, like I did back in 1993, when me and my wife spent the whole night on the barricades during the coup? The United States always gets its citizens out of trouble in such situations. But, if I were a Russian citizen, they would have just said: “Sorry, but Shemyakin holds a Russian passport—you deal with him. Put him back into the nuthouse if you like.”

Izvestia: Before you ended up in a psychiatric hospital in the early 1960s, you were expelled from the Repin Institute for “aesthetically corrupting” your fellow students. How exactly did you corrupt them?

M.S.: I told them about van Gogh, Picasso and Francis Bacon. I was shut in the nuthouse for three years for the simple crime of making illustrations of Hoffmann and Dostoyevsky. They came when I was at work, illegally searched my home, and a psychiatrist diagnosed me with “continuous sluggish schizophrenia." That’s why when some people say, “there’s no freedom in Russia, the government is oppressing people,” I can only laugh at that. There is so much freedom in Russia these days that it’s bordering on debauchery.

On the other hand, I am getting a little nervous about all these rallies, with protesters carrying holy banners and calling for the government to ban all kinds of things. There is no point fighting homosexuals with religious banners or placards… Making great films, creating great art—that's the proper way to express one’s ideas.

First published in Russian in Izvestia.

The exhibition will be held in Mimi Ferzt, New York till Nov. 17

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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