• Anne Bobroff-Hajal,
  • Darling Godsonny Stalin (Ivan The Terrible Advises The Infant Stalin),
  • acrylic paint and digital image on canvas and board,
  • 108" x 75"

From the time of Ivan the Terrible to today, Russian society has been built of vertical patronage clans.  Why has Russia repeatedly reverted to “vertical reach” rather than horizontal alliances, even after ruptures like the Russian Revolution and the fall of Communism?  Can visualizing power structures through art provide clues to this mystery?

Anne Bobroff-Hajal’s series of satirical, icon-like mixed-media triptychs about Russia, collectively entitled PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS, incorporates her dual interests in art and in Russia.  A long-time Board member of the international animation society’s New York chapter, Bobroff-Hajal also earned a Ph. D. in Russian History, living for a year in Soviet Russia to research working class women’s political activism and daily life.

In Darling Godsonny Stalin (Ivan the Terrible Advises the Infant Stalin), the artist satirically portrays Russia’s clans as tower-like structures in which ranks of nobles scramble desperately upward.  The highest ranks grab onto the Tsar’s robes seeking favors and patronage.  Clans compete against each other, kicking down competitors.  Sometimes they form marriage alliances.

Recent historians of the Soviet period have discovered the same kind of vertical patron-client clans among Bolsheviks.  These are portrayed inDarling Godsonny Stalin‘s 3rd panel.  Since the fall of Communism, clan structures have again powerfully reconstituted themselves – represented in the Crown St. Window by an appreciatively smiling Putin and top oligarchs.

Darling Godsonny Stalin‘s middle panel portrays Ivan the Terrible’s Terror (the Oprichnina), and Stalin’s purges, executions, GULAG starvation and deaths by exposure to cold.  Panels 4 and 5 (not yet completed) convey Terror’s use to prune and control clan structures.

Why has “vertical reach” so dominated Russian society over centuries?  Other works in the PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS series address this question directly.  Darling Godsonny Stalin‘s background maps of Tatar slave raids and Western Allies’ post-1917 Revolution invasions allude to Russia’s very foundation: it is by far the most immense plain on earth.  For hundreds of years, Russia’s vast open steppes, lacking any natural protective mountains or seas, left its people vulnerable to Mongol occupation, then yearly slave-raids across its southern plains.  Over centuries, slave-trading nomads abducted hundreds of thousands of Slavs, marched them in chains across the steppes, and sold them in Crimean slave markets.  Except for black Africans, no other population on Earth has been enslaved more than Slavs.  In fact, our word “slave” derives from “Slav.”

To survive, traumatized Russians accepted a militarily-organized government that protected them but allowed no public debate, free speech or assembly.  Russian society was permanently organized as a “vertical reach” military chain of command because – under attack every summer –  it had to be.  Russia’s geographic vulnerability continued into the 20th century with the its World War II deaths of 26 million, by far the largest number of dead experienced by any nation during that or any other war.  The memory of this profoundly traumatic loss is revived and manipulated by Putin today to underpin yet another re-centralization of media, wealth, and power in Russia.

For more about Russia’s “vertical reach,” see Playground of the Autocrats: The Russian Empire & How Terrain Shapes Society  and What If We Had a 9/11 Every Year for Centuries?

This installation is part of the exhibition Vertical Reach: Political Protest and the Militant Aesthetic Now.