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Alexandr Zhdanov, 68; Soviet Painter and Dissident

July 25, 2006|Matt Schudel | Washington Post

Alexandr Zhdanov, a Soviet dissident artist whose life and work were marked by difficulty, defiance and determination, died July 18 of a heart ailment at a Washington, D.C., hospital. He was 68.

In the 1970s and '80s, he was part of a group of independent-minded underground artists who challenged the authority of the Soviet Union's communist officials and sometimes paid a bitter price for rebellion. His uncompromising stance as an artist and as a free-thinking dissident reached the gates of the U.S. Embassy. Then, two years before perestroika brought an end to the Soviet regime, he was thrown out of his homeland.

In 1989, Zhdanov settled in Washington, where he made haunting, sometimes grotesque, paintings and built a reputation as a serious artist and an often-drunk bohemian.

As an artist, Zhdanov adopted an expressionistic style to depict the stark landscapes he knew in his youth in the southern part of the Soviet Union and Siberia. His early works were often dark and earthy, but in the United States he discovered bright acrylic paints, which brought a new light to his work. He had shows in galleries across the country, and dozens of his pieces hang in a collection of Soviet dissident art at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Some of Zhdanov's work was purely abstract, and he painted rugged, de Kooning-like portraits. But he was best known for his brooding nocturnal landscapes, which featured the moon, leafless trees and mysterious figures lurking in the gloom.

Alexandr Pavlovich Zhdanov was born Jan. 11, 1938, in Vyoshenskaya, a village on the lower Don River in Russia. His ancestors were Cossacks, a people known for their combative independence, and his father was a member of the Soviet military.

Zhdanov was expelled four times from the Grekov Art School in Rostov-on-Don, but managed to graduate after six years. In 1973, he moved to Moscow and within a year was part of a group of artists who organized an unauthorized exhibition in a park that was dismantled by the government. The incident, which became known as the "Bulldozer Exhibit," was among the first overt acts of defiance by Moscow's artistic underground.

In 1982, Zhdanov's stepdaughter, a member of the Soviet Olympic synchronized swimming team, defected and made her way to Virginia. Authorities offered Zhdanov a studio and a dacha if he would demand that she return, but he refused.

During the 1980s, his vigorous artwork was featured on U.S. television news, yet he was not allowed to show his work in official galleries or museums. He and his wife, Galina Gerasimova, staged periodic hunger strikes, and on Oct. 22, 1987, they chained themselves to a tree outside the U.S. Embassy.

Soviet agents handcuffed them together and dragged them away, breaking Gerasimova's leg in the process. They were banished for "artistic incompatibility with the Soviet Union" and given a month to leave the country.

After living for about year in New York, they moved to Washington. Gerasimova, a mathematician in the Soviet Union, cleaned houses and looked after children to support her husband as he struggled to restart his career.

After the collapse of communism in 1989, his art was exhibited in prestigious Moscow galleries, and in 1993 his former country gave him a one-man exhibition at the Russian Embassy.

His changing fortunes only left Zhdanov embittered. He alleged that the State Department, in a conspiracy with the KGB and CIA, refused to turn over 1,500 paintings he had left in Moscow. His wife wrote hundreds of letters and once marched with a sandwich board in front of the White House to rally support for her husband. The State Department could find no evidence of an agreement, and many of the paintings were later found intact in a Moscow apartment.

Zhdanov's survivors include his wife, of Washington; his stepdaughter, Vassa Olson of Locust Grove, Va.; and two grandchildren.

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