ALEX "SASHA" GAMBURG has been contributing
artwork to New York Press since last summer. Quick with
a story and always eager to draw a portrait, his work graced
our table of contents page until last week's redesign. He
is currently featured in the Mail, p. 94.
Though we recognized a Modernist
quality in his distinctive style, little did we know just
how important Modernism is to Gamburg, one of many Russian
artists who emigrated to New York City in the 70s (see Edward
Limonov's account of this period in our Aug. 13, 2003 issue).
For this, the first in a planned
series of Q&As, we talked with Sasha about his life
in the former Soviet Union, his development as an artist
and the importance of serendipitous initiative.
DO YOU KEEP IN TOUCH WITH ANYONE
STILL IN RUSSIA?
I was working 10 years before my departure from Russia
for Agency Press News (APN). Which was created by the
right hand of Nikita Khrushchev [as an] independent publishing
agency. But in reality, it was a department of the KGB.
And the function of this department was to [provide a
network], especially for different citizens of different
countries who would like to collaborate with the KGB...
Agency Press News was the first independent institution
that emphasized it did not relate to the government at
all. So when one or another agent related to this particular
department of the KGB was arrested -- and it was, in my
presence, perpetual -- in different countries all around
the world, the consulate or the Russian agency in that
country always said, "I'm sorry, we don't relate to the
activity of this agency, APN, because it is an independent
agency, which [isn't] even in touch with the government.
So we don't know who is she or who is he because for us,
it is simply not our agenda."
But it was one of the major departments of the KGB to
go through the network of espionage and collaborate with
foreigners in all countries of the world.
DID IT APPEAR TO BE? A NEWS SERVICE?
was an agency that published a huge number of newspapers
and gorgeous, luxurious magazines and books around the
in the language of that particular country. When I came
in 1974 to America and came to a bookstore, I immediately,
to my pleasure, [found] a number of these particular publications
on the shelves. Among them, one book that was illustrated
by me, and was thought to be successful -- even in Russia.
WAS THE BOOK?
The History of Russia.
function was to show potential readers -- in America, in
Europe, in any part of the world -- that Russia, under the
new government, which was led by the dictator Khrushchev,
was a modern country... [T]his particular agency collected
the most modern writers, the most modern photographers
and the most modern artists. And I was their art director.
In the beginning, in the Japanese department. After that,
I was the art director for Arab countries. And as an illustrator,
I worked for all departments, without exception.
You asked me if I'm in touch with someone in Russia. And
the answer for you, that [from] all the group of my friends -- with
whom I literally created the style of Modernism of this
particular decade in which I worked...from '64 to '74...only
two artists survived. One of them is me, another is my
friend who lives right now in Toronto. [The others] died
because the [lifespan] of people in Russia is horribly
At any age, people are ready to die.
YOU WERE WORKING AS THE ART DIRECTOR, WHAT WERE YOUR FEELINGS
ABOUT YOUR COUNTRY?
literally hated Russia, like the majority of artists from
the 19th century [on]. You can talk about such great writers
like Gogol from the period of Soviet-Russian Romanticism,
or you can talk about writers or artists of the Roaring
Twenties -- the modern age of the 20th century -- all of them,
and musicians, like Tchaikovsky, they dream only about
one thing: to run away from Russia...
They created art that is now proclaimed as the substantial
part of Russian art. It may be music, we may talk about
painting, you may talk about literature, poetry or everything
else -- as soon as any of them, like the greatest Russian
poet of the Roaring Twenties, Mayakovsky...as soon as they
begin to feel that they are strong enough to return to
Russia, they die. Mayakovsky was a great poet of the Roaring
Twenties. Tchaikovsky is one of the greatest composers.
Both of them committed suicide. The same way the man who
established Russian Romanticism, Gogol. When he was rich
and famous, he returned from Italy to Moscow. He committed
So we talk not about the accident, we talk unfortunately
about a very specific feature.
IN THE RUSSIAN SOUL THAT DOES THAT?
the time of Khrushchev, there was a very interesting philosopher
who was a director of the Institute of Philosophy -- and
Marxism especially -- his last name was Ilechov. He wrote
a marvelous essay on the agenda of a certain kind of social
ethics and social psychology of different groups. [He
said that] we cannot overcome our social ethics, even
if we are many, many steps upon our -- how do you say? -- the
first place of our birth.
he wrote...the minimum [time for one to] promote oneself
is three generations. Russian serfs had been proclaimed
free and regular citizens in the mid 19th century, but
in reality they didn't feel themselves like regular citizens
[even in] the beginning of the 20th century. Just before
the revolution, in 1917, they began to feel they were
regular -- poor, but regular -- citizens; it was practically
only the first generation that began to feel it.
THE REVOLUTION CAME.
And Ilechov insists that even...in the second part of the
20th century...only very, very small amount of the population
felt that they were free men...
When I was in Russia, I passed different social levels.
I was born in a very successful family. My father was
a member of the Moscow Jewish mafia, which was created
by my uncle Solomon Raskin [who was] one of the leading
party leaders of the Moscow district -- including Moscow
and its vicinity. His right hands were my father and General
Mark Raginsky [who testified at Nuremberg] about the crime
of Germans in different countries, in this case about
their crimes in Russia...
Before the war, [Raginsky's job] was to exterminate any
kind of Modernism because the Russian government declared
Modernism in arts -- visual arts, music, literature, any
kind -- as a certain kind of capitalistic propaganda. A
lot of [artists] died in concentration camps in Siberia
and so on.
The leading figure who did it was General Raginsky.
RAGINSKY WAS A FRIEND OF YOUR UNCLE'S?
was a close friend of my father, and my father brought
him to my uncle... Before the war, his [first] function
was to destroy as much as possible all kinds of Modernism
in all ways -- in literature, music and especially visual
arts. And his second function was to destroy ancient buildings,
ancient mosaics, the ancient heritage from the Russian
Orthodox Church. Russia had elements of the Byzantine -- all
these mosaics, all this sculpture -- everything was systemically
YEAR WAS THIS?
from '27 until the beginning of the war. Under Stalin.
As soon as Lenin died -- he died in 1924 -- and Stalin was
officially proclaimed the absolute -- without any divisions -- dictator,
he began to destroy any Modernism in any field... What was
funny, in all the newspapers that were published in all
the languages, [Raginsky] wrote that the [heritage] was
destroyed by Germans when they invaded. Their first action
was to destroy the two sides of the Russian culture: Modernism
and the ancient.
DID STALIN EXPECT TO PUT IN ITS PLACE?
new style that he requested to be created: Social Realism.
The style of social realism in literature or visual art
was...a demonstration of the reality... [T]he agenda was similar
in literature and visual art: to demonstrate that the
development of Russian society under the leadership of
this great man, Stalin, was beautiful.
YOU ALWAYS FEEL THAT YOU WERE A MODERNIST?
felt that I had nobody but Modernists. It brought horrible
conflicts between me and the people all around me -- except
General Raginsky. This gentleman, who was the major exterminator
of Russian Modernism, was the greatest -- whom I ever met -- lover
of Modernism... He was a great expert in Modernism; it is
why he was made to destroy it. He was literally exterminating
and killing artists and collectors -- because to collect
Modernism at that time was a crime -- and he was the greatest
collector of Modernism. When I visited his apartment in
the government buildings [set aside] especially for the
members of the cabinet in the center of Moscow, one block
from the Kremlin, I walked with him along room after room
after room -- the greatest collection of Russian Modernism.
DID HE SPEAK OF MODERNISM?
talked of Russian Modernism as the substance of a new
era, of the substance of 20th century, of a certain kind
of manifestation of the development of modern civilization,
culture, the social infrastructure.
YOU EVER ASK HIM HOW HE FELT ABOUT WHAT HE WAS DOING?
anti-Modernism propaganda -- theoretical, philosophical -- was
all around in the air. Even newspapers, always in the
parts dedicated to the arts and culture, had to explain
to the population that so-called modern artists and modern
scientists are liars and destructors of culture and anti-social
propagandists of the horrible infrastructure of disgusting -- literally
"disgusting," not my definition -- capitalism.
YOU THINK HE DID HIS JOB?
He did it very, very successfully.
HE FEEL GUILTY ABOUT IT?
at all. If you would ask me, "Was Stalin the idiot and
criminal?" I would answer, yes, he was a horrible criminal,
but it would be a mistake to name him an idiot... Before
the revolution, his profession was to be the extortionist -- he
demanded money all around Europe. [Yet] by education,
he was a priest. He got his education in theology...
In the same way, I met not one, not two, but a number
of high-level people in Russia. Among them was General
Raginsky, who was by one hand one of the most aggressive
figures of the Communist party -- the KGB in particular.
And by another hand, he was an expert of Modernism and
collector of Modernism.
DID YOU COME TO BE A WORKING ARTIST?
I was at the Stroganov Institute [now the Moscow Higher
Artistic-Industrial College]...there was only one artist
who I sincerely adored. He was a sculptor -- you'll never
see his name in any kind of Russian art literature, but
if you visit Moscow, in the center of Moscow in front
of the city hall, you will see his large monument [to
the man] who, in the 11th century, established Moscow,
named Prince Yuri Dolgoruki. This monument was created
by this particular sculptor, Sergei Orlov...
He was known to be a personal friend of Stalin's [and]
had a huge building in the center of Moscow, where his
studio was. I dared to see this man, because I wanted
to be in touch with the great artist, at least to see
one great artist in reality. But how might I reach him?
It is impossible, he is wealthy and rich like a billionaire,
I thought. If I bring my modest drawings and knock on
his door, his secretaries will kick me out immediately.
Not even secretaries -- his doormen!
I thought, okay, I will try to be -- how do you say -- ?
precisely. I will knock at the door for the garbage... I
will knock at one of the doors and maybe a worker will
step out, and I will ask to speak with the artist, and
who knows? Maybe he will let me.
So I went to this set of doors, and I knocked. The door
opened and out stepped a middle-aged gentleman in a very,
very dirty smock, covered in plaster and oil, and he said,
"You! What do you want?"
I told him what I wanted: to show my drawings [to Orlov],
and even if he would give me one second, I would be the
lucky one, that I would take one second of his glorious
and precious time.
okay, everything is possible. Show me your drawings, and
if I like them, I will bring you to him."
He looked at my drawings. One after another, he looked
at them, and maybe there were 50 or 60 drawings altogether,
and he said, "Okay, the story is over. My name is Orlov."
He brought me in and told me that from now on, I was his
pupil. [T]o cover that time, he paid me.
HOW LONG DID YOU WORK WITH HIM?
was with him two years. He paid me 65 rubles a month,
which was the average salary of a blue-collar worker at
YOU LEARN A LOT?
learned not only a lot, I learned from him the substance.
He not only told me the theory of art, but because he
was involved in drawing and painting and sculpture, he
[taught me] how to turn the theory of art into the practice...
HAD HE BECOME SUCCESSFUL?
life was an illustration of the life of the artist in
Russia. He was born in St. Petersburg and decided to go
to the art academy to study sculpture... [There] he met
a young lady [whom he] married on the spot because they
discovered that they not simply liked each other sexually
and what else, but esthetically they were in the same
way. And they began, very secretly -- in the 30s, maybe
five years before the Second World War -- to collect remains
of Russian medieval art. Small items, small pieces of
ancient Russian sculpture, and so on. They did it secretly
because it was a crime.
But they had friends, and inevitably they [showed] their
collection to [them]. And the result? Precisely what they
didn't expect, but very logical. [Their friends] informed
the directors of the academy, and the directors had no
choice but to offer them one choice: Leave the city. So
they went to Moscow... He began to work as a doorman, she
as a floor cleaner in one building [and they were given]
a room in the basement... The war was coming, and the war
took place...and the government gave the order that all
men and women who didn't work directly for the government
had to leave Moscow.
was completely deserted...until the German army was moved
away. [Then] the government gave the order to the KGB
agents to visit everyone who, without exception, didn't
follow the order to leave Moscow. Orlov and his wife didn't
go away. Instead, Orlov spent three years doing nothing
but a huge statue of his mother. [She was] dressed as
a traditional Russian, not sitting but on her knees, crying
Two officers came up to them and asked, "What is the problem?
Why didn't you leave Russia? Did you want to collaborate
with the German army? Or sell secrets?"
Sergei answered the gentleman: "My wife and I were 100
percent sure that Germans would never enter the city,
and we didn't want to leave the city because to leave
would be to give up. Instead of this, I created this monument
that would celebrate the grief and the sorrow of the Russian
When the officers were brought to the basement, they lost
their mind and immediately made photos and information
to [Lavrenty] Beria. Beria brought it to Stalin, and Stalin
immediately sent his officers back to Orlov. They brought
documents [saying] he was a member of the Russian Art
Academy, they brought him documents for one of the best
apartments in Moscow; they brought him documents for a
building to create sculpture. This sculpture was immediately
created in bronze, and he began his glorious life.
DID YOU COME TO AMERICA?
I was in Moscow in the 70s, everybody, all artists, knew
the name of the very famous Russian artist who was the
art director of stage design at the Metropolitan Opera
at Lincoln Center: Vladimir Odinokov. A few months before
my departure, I met a gentleman who was a friend of Mr.
Odinokov's when Odinokov, in his youth, was working in
Moscow. So I asked him, maybe you can give me a letter
to your friend who is in such a high position? It would
help me in New York.
He told me, "You know, Sasha, I have already had the experience.
I gave letters to a few artists who wanted to meet Odinokov,
to talk with him. Not just anybody, but very, very few.
They wrote me back that they brought these letters to
his secretaries, and the secretaries dropped them into
the garbage and said, 'Odinokov is too busy.' It would
be a waste of time for you."
DID YOU EXPECT TO GET TO THE U.S. IN THE 70S?
1971, there was a Jewish revolt in Moscow provoked by
the KGB and agents of the KGB. (If it had been a real
demonstration, all those people would have been killed
on the spot -- without discussion of what they wanted.)
The KGB organized this demonstration, and the Russian
government gave the Jews official rights to apply for
emigration [to appease the American government].
YOU AWARE THAT YOU WERE WORKING FOR THE KGB WHEN YOU WERE
AT THE AGENCY PRESS NEWS?
I entered this agency, I worked as an art director for
the first Russian advertising publishing center, the Moscow
Advertising Center. This newspaper was extremely modern,
and they asked me to participate because I was a modern
artist. I was very pleased with my job, but we had a photo
retoucher, a freelancer who worked for us and Agency Press
News. She began to torture me: "Sasha, please get out
of here. APN is waiting for certain guys like you. They're
looking for Modernists." She was torturing me daily.
I told her, "It is a pleasure to work with you and you
are a very attractive lady, but everything you say is
a nuisance. The agency is like a military center. They
wouldn't open the door for me."
After one and a half months, just to demonstrate how wrong
she was, I went to APN.
There was my second wife... [W]e had already been separated
but were lovers and her parents were still madly in love
with me. Her father was a friend of Stalin's, one of the
leading generals of KGB... She was Voloshina, her father
was General Anatoli Voloshin. He and his wife, who was
one of the leading members of the Moscow bureau of the
Communist party, loved me very much. And in spite of the
fact that we had been separated, they saw that we were
So I told my [second] wife, "Tomorrow I'm going to APN."
Blah blah blah, it was nothing. At 10 in the morning,
I was knocking on the door of APN, which was on the Pushkin
Square in Moscow. The officer opens the door and asks
me, "What is your name?" I told him my name, and he told
me, "Okay, the art director is waiting for you." I was
astonished, but understood that [Voloshin] informed them
that I was coming.
Immediately I was brought up to the art director, and
he told me, "Sasha, you came at the right time. You are
the art director of the Japanese department."
YOUR WIVES: WERE THE BREAK-UPS GOOD, OR BAD?
had a break with my first wife. Bad break because she
hated everyone, looking for an opportunity to hate -- in
this case she hated me. I divorced my second wife only
because she was a lesbian.
WIFE WAS A LESBIAN?
never was able to understand why, being a lesbian, she
was in love with me. I was the only man in her life that
had relations [with her].
IS THE WIFE WITH WHOM YOU REMAINED LOVERS?
Then I met an art director at APN. She was a very sophisticated
lady, the Baroness van Klodt, a colonel of the KGB. The
second wife was my girlfriend, and the baroness was my
wife, and they came to be friends because the lesbian
fell in love with the baroness...
Then I decided to emigrate because after the death of
Khrushchev, I started to hate Russia. I hated the government
of Brezhnev. The baroness, who was still in love with
me, told me, "Sasha, let us divorce, and I will cover
all of your problems." And the general, the father of
my second wife, he told me to apply for emigration.
that time, it was very difficult. Of the people who applied
for emigration, practically three-quarters of them had
been sent to Siberia. But I was under the protection of
this colonel and this general, and I had no problems.
Just before I was to leave Russia, between two and three
months, the baroness told me, "Sasha, you are free." But
I had a good friend whose wife was a former prostitute...
He told me [that she had a cousin] who is the ugliest,
most disgusting whore and woman [he'd] ever met. Months
before my emigration...he invited me to have dinner. So
I went to a party... I opened the door to the living room,
and I saw at the table two ladies: his wife and her cousin.
I took a chair, sat next to them and talked to Vera.
WAS SHE LIKE?
me, she was like a dream of my life. The most beautiful
lady I'd ever met. So I told her, "I am desperately in
a hurry. I have to emigrate. Let us to marry as soon as
possible, and we will leave Russia together." She said,
"Okay, let us think. We will wait a few days."
SHE A WHORE?
She was a virgin.
DID THE FRIEND DESCRIBE HER AS A WHORE?
was a professional swimmer; she had the top place among
Russian swimmers. She was very strong, and she had almost
the absence of breasts. To look at her from the side or
the front or behind, it was difficult to tell if she were
a man or a woman. She was very masculine with wide shoulders.
My mother always asked me, "Sasha, I never saw your wife
naked, but are you sure that she is a woman?"
married her in a few days.
SHE COME WITH YOU?
We began to fight. She told me, "I will never leave Russia."
DID YOU LEAVE RUSSIA?
YEAR DID YOU MARRY VERA?
At the end of the three years, she told me, "Sasha, congratulate
me. I am a lieutenant of the KGB." I told her, "Vera,
congratulations, goodbye. The fight is over."
YOU CAME TO AMERICA?
I came to America.
myself... I was two blocks from Lincoln Center, at the corner,
talking with this barber from the Ukraine... And next to
us, with his back to us, was a very prestigious gentleman.
Now, at any time you may meet someone else who speaks
Russian, but at that time, it was simply difficult to
imagine. We were talking in Russian, not because of any
secrets, but because neither he nor I knew enough English
to talk. Suddenly, this gentleman turned to us and said,
"I have the opinion that you are from Russia." We answered,
yes, we are from the Soviet Union. He asked who we were,
and I told him, "I assume that I am artist."
assume? Do you have any proof?"
So I told him, yes, I have some proof in the hotel that,
at the time, was at Broadway and 70th St. (now it is a
condominium). I was on the 11th floor. He said, "Let us
meet in the lobby of this hotel at five o'clock."
I met him and he came with me upstairs to my room where
I was placed by the Jewish institution named NYANA [New
York Association for New Americans] and I had hundreds
of drawings and paintings...
He told me, "Okay, I believe that you are an artist. And
now I may tell you that we are both artists."
Odinokov. I lost my mind. And he told me, "Sasha, now,
drop everything that is here because I will supply you
with everything -- I will buy you a new costume, new underwear -- you
will not need a pencil. Come with me to my car, and come
to my house in Connecticut."
I was astonished, and I ran after him into his car. [And]
the same way the sculptor, Orlov, guided me in Moscow,
he was my guide here in New York.