Ukraine Defiant: A Russian art museum grapples with a Russian war 

A woman in a red sweater stands in front of a piece of art
Curator Maria Zavialova with "The Fight" by Geli Korzhev at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis on Friday.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

Everyone has a dark side. Countries, too, says Maria Zavialova, the curator for the Museum of Russia Art in Minneapolis. She calls it the collective shadow, a term she pulls from Jungian psychology.

“Every human being, every society has a shadow,” according to Zavialova. 

Consequences are fatal when we repress it, she says.

“This shadow has to be integrated, has to be discussed, so words bring light to that shadow, if you displace it outside, then you go to war,” Zavialova says.

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This idea is at the heart of two concurrent exhibitions at the Museum of Russian Art: “Ukraine Defiant: Paintings by Elena Kalman” and “Premonition of a Dystopian Russia.” Both exhibitions run through mid-July.

As of early January, these shows weren’t even on the calendar, says Michelle Massey, the museum’s director of public programming. Originally, the museum was slated to open a show featuring thousands of Russian dolls from its collection.

But Zavialova, who is originally from Saint Petersburg, postponed that show after connecting with Ukrainian-American artist and architect Elena Kalman. Kalman started painting when Russia started the war a year ago.

“She used materials that she had at hand: paper, wrapping paper, and even some plastic bags,” Zavialova  says. “That has the immediacy of that response to the war, expressed even in the technique.” 

A painting of a tree being pulled up
"Uprooted," 2022.
By Elena Kalman

“Ukraine Defiant” features 12 paintings that feel like a bomb has gone off in each one. They spin out, off the canvases.  

To put this exhibition in context, Zavialova also curated “Premonition of a Russian Dystopia.”

At its center is the “Mutants” series by the late Soviet-era artist Geli Korzhev. In these dark canvases, semi-human beasts twist and moan, marked by fleshy horns and tails.

“These creatures that he showed were his description of what was coming,” Zovialovia says. “Even though he was a pro-Soviet artist, and he painted the series at the end of the ’80s and into the ’90s, before Putin officially became the president.” 

A woman poses next to a painting
Artist Elena Kalman with her 2022 painting "Plowed with Bombs and Sown with Bones" at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis on Friday.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

During the installation of her exhibition in early March, Kalman toured the gallery. She and her husband flew in from Connecticut for the show. They were both born and raised in Ukraine, she says, and in 1979 they came to the U.S. 

“We left as refugees, as political refugees, as enemies of the state,” says Kalman, explaining that Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union then. While they’ve never returned — “impossible,” she says — a year ago, they took a trip to Berlin.

“We saw Ukrainian refugees coming to the [Berlin] station with their children, with their pets in cages; old and young people who were uprooted and thrown into a completely unknown future,” she says. “I saw that, and it affected me greatly.”

So, she started painting and continues to. Her mixed-media paintings on paper are large —spanning more than seven feet in length — and feature varying Ukrainian landscapes trampled by war.

In her frenzied style, which Kalman describes as aggressive and confrontational, she shows us scenes including a bombed-out Kyiv; a burning home with laundry still hanging on the line; fields red with blood. People are absent.

People stand around a museum
Opening night at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis on Friday.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

“I wanted it to be kind of like in the Russian novels,” she says. “It's almost always there is some kind of description of a landscape that relates to an inner state of the soul of a main character. So, this is an inner state of Russian and Ukrainian tragedy.”

She stands in front of “Plunged into Darkness,” a 2023 nightscape of a city in ruins lit by a crescent moon.

“Even the buildings that are standing intact are dark,” Kalman says. “The night is coming, and there is no light in the windows and it's cold. It's winter and they don't have heat." 

Kalman created these images to remind people that the crisis continues. 

“That's the basic goal of my exhibit: to keep the people thinking about this war,” she says. “People are so overwhelmed with so many different news, that something that started a year ago might just slip from their consciousness.” 

On opening night March 3, Kalman spoke to the crowd. 

"I feel very connected to everything that's happening right now in Ukraine,” she said.

She explained that the connection between her work and that of the Russian dystopia exhibition is key.

“Because it’s almost like the seeds of this ugliness of distortion, of some fatal defects in character that the Russian government and military, have already been exhibited in the 1990s — that was a seed that grew into the present-day aggression.” 

A demon holds a human body
"The Fight," 1987, oil on canvas.
By Geli M. Korzhev

Earlier that day, Zavialova, stood in front of a painting in the dystopian series called “The Fight,” a 1987 canvas by Korzhev. In it a gargoyle-like beast sinks its fangs into the shoulder of a man stripped down to his red underwear — Soviet red, she says. 

“It's the fight between the beast and the human, and in a country with an authoritarian regime, there is always that fight going on,” Zavialova says. From the shadows, a glistening yellow eye appears. “Is it the future beneficiary of the collapse of the system? We don't quite know, but someone is behind it.” 

The museum has the largest collection of Soviet-era art outside of Russia, Zavialova says, which has made it a target at times for anti-Russian sentiment.

A building with a Ukraine flag on the outside
A Ukraine flag, which can be seen from I-35, is painted on the tower of the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis on Friday.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

From the onset of the war, she wanted to make it clear that the museum supports Ukraine and is anti-war. A Ukraine flag, which can be seen from I-35, is painted outside on the building’s tower, and since April 2022 there has been an ongoing anti-war exhibition featuring the work of Ukrainian and Russian cartoonists.

“We are the American Museum of Russian Art, and we stand against the war, like a lot of Russians do,” she says. “We also support Russian-Americans. We don't want that culture to be canceled or eliminated, because they are our fellow Americans.” 

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.