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Eugene Yelchin

For a quick fix on Eugene Yelchin's paintings, think of them as autobiographical—not as works representing different stages of his life but rather the evolution of his sense of inner freedom and personal identification. In fact, there are two different, intertwined elements here: first, as a young person born in 1956 who grew up in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) understanding that Soviet propaganda and reality were not the same thing—often not even close—and, second, keeping separate his Russian and Jewish identities, the former insisted upon, the latter frowned upon.

Both Jewish and non-Jewish Russian artists who rejected their government's duplicity led a double life intellectually and psychologically. They lived a virtual schizophrenic existence keeping their thoughts to themselves or sharing them with a few trusted friends while living publicly as good citizens for fear of reprisals such job loss and various kinds of official harassments. The fear factor, which Americans are only beginning to understand because of the current administration's disregard for individual privacy, was a constant, stifling presence and humiliation.

For Jews, life in the Soviet Union was complicated by the very fact of being Jewish especially after Israel's success in the 1967 war. Increasingly, Jews were viewed as an alien group, synagogue entrances were monitored, the study of Hebrew was considered a criminal activity, and, in 1983, the year that Yelchin immigrated to the United States, the Soviet Public Anti-Zionist Committee was formed in order to point out similarities between Zionism and Nazism and to dissuade immigration to Israel which had begun the early 1970s. Several Russian artists have told me that their interest in their Jewish identity, which they might have willingly dropped, grew stronger ironically from Soviet anti-Semitic activities. Their interest sparked by repressive governmental policies, they explored their religious and cultural heritage for the double purpose of self-definition as Jews and as a way to demonstrate hostility to the regime. Any number of artists have managed and sustained this dual feat in their own individual manner--when still living in the Soviet Union and after immigrating to another country.