Volume 4 Number 7
In Search of the Real Russia
01 July 1991

I stood before the white-painted iron cross erected last year at the place where the Tsar's family was killed. Nearby they are restoring the mighty tower of a church hitherto used as a museum of atheism. It was the day before Easter. I went inside.

The enormous Hotel Kosmos in Moscow is inhabited by more prostitutes than I have ever seen before in one place. But the woman at the reception desk begged a poster of my exhibition. `We have false ideas forced on us from childhood,' she explained. `I would like to find something real to believe in.'

I was only passing through; my destination was far to the east, where Europe ends and Asia begins. 150,000 people had seen my exhibition in Moscow - more than have seen my paintings in 50 years in Norway. Now it was moving to the magnificent Art Museum of the Urals in Sverdlovsk (population 1.5 million).

Until a few months ago Sverdlovsk, the centre of the Soviet arms industry, was strictly segregated. It seems I was the first Norwegian visitor since the explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen in 1915. The Tsar's family was murdered in Sverdlovsk, and the town was named after the commissar who ordered the shooting. It has now been proposed to revert to the old saint's name, Katharinaburg.

At my press conference in Moscow I was asked why I was taking the risk of sending my pictures to such a remote place. My answer was that I wanted to meet the real Russia. And I have done so.

I stood before the white-painted iron cross erected last year at the place where the Tsar's family was killed. Nearby they are restoring the mighty tower of a church hitherto used as a museum of atheism. It was the day before Easter. I went inside.

A severe little babushka asked my Russian companion, `Is he a believer?' When told I was, she demanded, `Then why doesn't he step forward and touch Christ's cloak and kiss his wounds?' `You show him.' At that she led me forward to the icon which lay on the altar.

Viking brooch
Sverdlovsk is the home town of Boris Yeltsin. When his 84-year-old mother saw in my catalogue the painting of my mother reading the Bible, she exclaimed, `I too am a believer.' She would only accept my gift of a Viking brooch when I pointed out that it was not silver. Then she kissed me on either cheek.

I took part in Easter midnight Mass. The church was already packed at 11 pm, with crowds outside, holding candles. At 12, the bells rang out and banners and icons were borne around the church to cries of `Christ is risen!' -`He is risen indeed!'. Emotions ran high. It was, after all, not long since those who took part in such occasions risked persecution.

In the middle of Sverdlovsk is a fearful mastodon of a monument, crowned by a feeble, conventional Lenin, eternally preaching long-dead ideas. Next to it is the KGB headquarters, where I had to be registered. The thousand or so informers employed there streamed in and out.

In the park close by, a strange group were singing at the top of their voices, making fun of patriotism, communism and religion as well. It was explained to me that they were following the old tradition of skomoroshi (buffoonery). They were handing out artistic objects, paintings on chips of wood. Their leader looked like an old tramp, but turned out to be an engineer who owned an art collection.

On the wall of a house I saw written `Russia wake up!' - remarkable to me because the main picture in my exhibition is entitled `Russia awakes'. When it was first displayed in Bergen in 1974, Dagbladet's critic called it pathetic and reactionary. Here in the East it is radical in the extreme. It has been purchased for the National Gallery of. the Urals.

Coming from the sated West, it was an experience to share the conditions of a small private family. The food consisted chiefly of potatoes, spaghetti and rice. I had fortunately brought a tin of corned beef with me. Butter they had not tasted for two months.

The eight-year-old daughter, Sonja, was a bit of a personality. Though her parents were not religious, she believed in God and wanted to be baptized. At school she refused to wear uniform and even to join the children's organization October. Her form teacher was extremely annoyed, but is no longer allowed to force her.

Since a foreigner was a sensation in these parts, I was invited to address first the teachers, then the children at the primary school. The head teacher had a pre-communist Russian flag on his jacket, and even Sonja's teacher was now full of liberal ideas. To the children I said, `Remember that God has created you all as originals: don't let society change you into copies.'

The children thanked me by each giving me a drawing. They had been well trained, but here as elsewhere children are taught much too early to draw like adults and thereby made to distrust their imagination. They also gave me a school song-book, inscribed with their neat signatures and copiously illustrated with children marching with Red Flags fastened to bayonets.

I took it upon myself to teach Sonja to pray. When her mother had translated the first prayer from English, she burst out, `Now I too have prayed for the first time!' Sonja wanted me to be her godfather, but since I do not belong to the Orthodox Church, I can only be a symbolic one. I gave her though the most precious gift my wife has ever made me: a cross which I have worn for years under my shirt.

The last thing Sonja asked me was, `What language does God speak?' `I'll show you,' I said, and gave her a Russian hug. In it was all my love for this wonderful people. They have come through unbelievable sufferings, but through them will win back their true culture and faith in the eternal values which all mankind needs.

Banned from the communist countries for years, the Norwegian painter and human rights activist Victor Sparre was this year invited to exhibit in galleries from Moscow to Siberia. A new Russian edition of his book, `The Flame in the Darkness', will shortly be published in the Soviet Union.

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