The col­lapse of com­mu­nism

Whanganui Chronicle - - 48 Hours/Feature - —AP

An artist born in a chem­i­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing city records a crum­bling Soviet mythol­ogy

Hu­mour helped them come to terms with their re­al­ity but they weren’t es­pe­cially heroic. They just got used to it.

Pavel Ot­del­nov re­calls how as a child he saw his mother boil his par­ents’ bed­ding ev­ery day. His fa­ther worked in the fac­to­ries of Dz­erzhinsk, the cen­tre of Soviet chem­i­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing, and the chlo­rine and phos­gene that yel­lowed the sheets seeped through pro­tec­tive gear into his skin.

“Dad was born in a work­ers’ camp and gave his en­tire life to chem­i­cal in­dus­tries around Dz­erzhinsk,” Ot­del­nov writes in the notes for Prom­zona, a new ex­hi­bi­tion at Moscow’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art that fea­tures his paint­ings of in­dus­trial ru­ins in­ter­spersed with ob­jects from work­ers’ daily lives.

The artist’s huge, ar­chi­tec­turally pre­cise paint­ings of de­cayed fac­to­ries in his home­town, some over­grown as na­ture re­claimed the land, show what he calls “the ru­ins of a Soviet mythol­ogy”. Many of the chem­i­cal plants, once a proud part of Soviet his­tory, sit aban­doned in a city fouled by toxic waste, the re­sult of a utopian mythol­ogy which never trans­lated into re­al­ity.

“Peo­ple who worked in those fac­to­ries un­der­stood a long time ago, in the 1970s, that the Soviet idea, com­mu­nism, was a myth and would never be re­alised,” says Ot­del­nov, whose post-Soviet land­scapes are also in the Rus­sian Mu­seum, the State Tretyakov Gallery and pri­vate in­ter­na­tional col­lec­tions. “They un­der­stood that a long time be­fore the col­lapse of the Soviet Union.”

Ot­del­nov was born into a ‘labour dy­nasty’ that gave Dz­erzhinsk sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of chem­i­cal work­ers, start­ing with his great-grand­fa­ther. Just be­fore World War II, his grand­mother came from a re­mote vil­lage to the for­mer se­cret city lo­cated 355km east of Moscow and named for a feared Bol­she­vik se­cret po­lice chief.

After the Soviet Union started mak­ing chem­i­cal weapons start­ing in Dz­erzhinsk in 1941, the artist’s grand­mother worked on the shop floor as­sem­bling lethal pay­loads. She met her hus­band after the war in the same fac­tory, Org­steklo, where he was in charge of qual­ity con­trol of the plex­i­glass it pro­duced.

Ot­del­nov’s fa­ther and aunt worked in the same fac­tory after they fin­ished school. Ot­del­nov’s cousin cur­rently works in a Dz­erzhinsk fac­tory lab.

Re­ports vary as to when Dz­erzhinsk fac­to­ries stopped mak­ing lewisite, mus­tard gas and other chem­i­cals de­signed as weapons of war. Some ac­counts put the date as late as 1965. Huge stocks of the deadly com­pounds were sealed and kept in the city’s in­dus­trial zone un­til they were moved to dis­man­tling fa­cil­i­ties and de­stroyed un­der an in­ter­na­tional chem­i­cal weapons ban in the 2000s.

Dz­erzhinsk still has a chem­i­cal in­dus­try pro­duc­ing com­pounds for mu­ni­tions along with fer­tilis­ers, pes­ti­cides and plas­tics. Many plants that were part of the mil­i­tary in­dus­trial com­plex didn’t sur­vive the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, but their toxic waste re­mains buried in un­der­ground dumps or in land­fills.

Dz­erzhinsk of­ten is listed as one of the world’s most-pol­luted cities. The Ecol­ogy Com­mit­tee of the lower house of Rus­sia’s par­lia­ment put it among the 10 with the worst pol­lu­tion in Rus­sia. Last year, Ot­del­nov used a drone to record the in­dus­trial ru­ins from the air, cap­tur­ing a huge mul­ti­coloured lake of chem­i­cal waste, open to the sky, nearby.

Per­sonal sto­ries

The Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art ex­hibit in­cludes a room dec­o­rated like a lo­cal mu­seum with ev­ery­day ob­jects like fac­tory news­let­ters and safety in­struc­tion films. Gas masks from the old chem­i­cal work­shops lit­ter the floor of an­other room. Brown chem­i­cal bot­tles la­belled with the names of gases also are dis­played.

Run­ning through the whole show are the voices of the peo­ple whose lived re­al­ity was so far from the Soviet mythol­ogy, their sto­ries recorded by Ot­del­nov’s fa­ther and writ­ten on the ex­hi­bi­tion walls.

Ot­del­nov’s grand­mother de­scribes an ex­plo­sion in the capro­lac­tam plant in 1960 that killed 24 work­ers and never was made pub­lic. The work­ers were buried in dif­fer­ent parts of the city ceme­tery to avoid ques­tions from other res­i­dents about why 24 peo­ple who worked in that fac­tory died on the same day.

Th­ese per­sonal sto­ries are a telling coun­ter­point to the of­fi­cial Soviet nar­ra­tive of “Glory to La­bor and Sci­ence” in Dz­erzhinsk, strik­ing in the sto­icism and of­ten hu­mour fac­tory work­ers dis­played in a haz­ardous en­vi­ron­ment.

“Hu­mour helped them come to terms with their re­al­ity but they weren’t es­pe­cially heroic. They just got used to it,” Ot­del­nov says.

In a mem­oir writ­ten for the show, Ot­del­nov’s fa­ther, Alexan­der, re­called ran­dom ac­ci­dents work­ers had in the chem­i­cal fac­to­ries, due to faulty equip­ment or sim­ple hu­man er­ror.

Some­times they es­caped un­harmed. Some­times they died. On New Year’s Eve in 1981, as the men hur­ried to get home, car­bon monox­ide from an over­flow pump filled a gas hold­ing tank to ca­pac­ity, then burst into the pipe sys­tem and through to the em­ployee show­ers. The 12-man crew was killed.

Many of the ex­hi­bi­tion’s view­ers on a cold Fe­bru­ary evening were young peo­ple from Moscow and other cities. Ot­del­nov’s pared-down in­dus­trial aes­thetic is cer­tainly part of the ap­peal, but 23-year-old Anna Kise­ly­ova said the ex­hibit held valu­able po­lit­i­cal lessons for Rus­sia’s younger gen­er­a­tion.

“Our present gov­ern­ment tells us this all hap­pened such a long time ago,” says Kise­ly­ova, a Rus­sian teacher from Moscow. “It may seem like a very dif­fer­ent world, but I don’t think it’s just a prob­lem of the past, and we need to be aware of that.”

Cen­tre, Rus­sian artist Pavel Ot­del­nov poses in front of his workRu­ins #4. Other works in the ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludePas­sage (top),Ru­ins, Glory to Labour (be­low left) and Ru­ins #6 (be­low).

Pho­tos / AP

Far left, a vis­i­tor to the Moscow ex­hi­bi­tion is awestruck by an Ot­del­nov paint­ing.

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