THE LIFE, WORK AND CHRONICLES OF JEFF KOYEN: REFORMED ITINERANT, OCCASIONAL WRITER AND FRIEND TO ALMOST ALL DOGS

From Russia with Art

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?
No. 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.
WHAT DID IT APPEAR TO BE? A NEWS SERVICE?
It was an agency that published a huge number of newspapers and gorgeous, luxurious magazines and books around the world.
IN RUSSIAN?
Only 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.
WHAT WAS THE BOOK?
The History of Russia.
PROPAGANDA?
Its 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 limited.
At any age, people are ready to die.
WHEN YOU WERE WORKING AS THE ART DIRECTOR, WHAT WERE YOUR FEELINGS ABOUT YOUR COUNTRY?
I 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 suicide.
So we talk not about the accident, we talk unfortunately about a very specific feature.
WHAT'S IN THE RUSSIAN SOUL THAT DOES THAT?
In 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.
OUR STATIONS?
Because, 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.
THEN THE REVOLUTION CAME.
Yes. 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.
GENERAL RAGINSKY WAS A FRIEND OF YOUR UNCLE'S?
He 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 [destroyed].
WHAT YEAR WAS THIS?
Officially 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.
WHAT DID STALIN EXPECT TO PUT IN ITS PLACE?
The 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.
DID YOU ALWAYS FEEL THAT YOU WERE A MODERNIST?
I 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.
HOW DID HE SPEAK OF MODERNISM?
He 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.
DID YOU EVER ASK HIM HOW HE FELT ABOUT WHAT HE WAS DOING?
This 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.
DO YOU THINK HE DID HIS JOB?
Yes. He did it very, very successfully.
DID HE FEEL GUILTY ABOUT IT?
Not 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.
HOW DID YOU COME TO BE A WORKING ARTIST?
When 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 -- ?
CLEVER?
Yes, 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.
"Um, 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?
I was with him two years. He paid me 65 rubles a month, which was the average salary of a blue-collar worker at the time.
DID YOU LEARN A LOT?
I 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...
HOW HAD HE BECOME SUCCESSFUL?
His 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 MOSCOW DESERTED?
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 out...
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 nation."
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.
HOW DID YOU COME TO AMERICA?
When 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."
HOW DID YOU EXPECT TO GET TO THE U.S. IN THE 70S?
In 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].
WERE YOU AWARE THAT YOU WERE WORKING FOR THE KGB WHEN YOU WERE AT THE AGENCY PRESS NEWS?
Before 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 lovers...
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."
ABOUT YOUR WIVES: WERE THE BREAK-UPS GOOD, OR BAD?
I 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.
YOUR WIFE WAS A LESBIAN?
I 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].
THIS IS THE WIFE WITH WHOM YOU REMAINED LOVERS?
Yes. 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.
WAS THAT UNUSUAL?
At 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.
WHAT WAS SHE LIKE?
To 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."
WAS SHE A WHORE?
No. She was a virgin.
WHY DID THE FRIEND DESCRIBE HER AS A WHORE?
She 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?"
YOU MARRIED HER?
I married her in a few days.
DID SHE COME WITH YOU?
No. We began to fight. She told me, "I will never leave Russia."
WHEN DID YOU LEAVE RUSSIA?
1974.
WHAT YEAR DID YOU MARRY VERA?
1971. 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."
AND YOU CAME TO AMERICA?
And I came to America.
BY YOURSELF?
By 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."
"You 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."
VLADIMIR ODINOKOV?
Vladimir 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.