Russian artist explores crumbled Soviet empire, Jewish themes

As a child growing up in Moscow, Grisha Bruskin would stare out the window of his apartment and see the fierce visage of Josef Stalin staring back at him.

Like Ozymandias of old, that towering steel statue of Stalin rose above the square, surrounded by several smaller statues of Soviet sports heroes. Perhaps even then, in Bruskin’s young mind, those figures stood precariously on their pedestals.

Today, Bruskin calls New York home, living the pampered life of an internationally acclaimed artist. But his work invariably harkens back to the two major influences of his life: the USSR and Judaism.

A major exhibition of Bruskin’s art — including paintings, sculpture, photography and tapestry — is now on display through Jan. 10 at the Meyerovich Gallery in San Francisco.

Bruskin calls the exhibit “Mythology & Mysticism,” and features work spanning the last 20 years. Most striking are paintings and sculptures that toy with the style known as Socialist Realism. The works often depict average Russians atop pedestals, many of them in the process of toppling. Some works, in fact, are literally crumbled statues that apparently never survived the fall.

“Nobody expected the USSR would collapse,” says the thoughtful 61-year-old. “We thought it was like ancient Egypt, with an army so strong and with the KGB watching us. Then in one moment the historical magician raised his hand and it collapsed.”

In much of his work Bruskin invokes discarded Soviet icons, from military insignia to the Kremlin’s spires. Some are no bigger than toys, others hefty statuary. One displayed work is a section from “Leben uber Alles” (Life Over All), a 1999 triptych he created for Germany’s reopened Reichstag.

As much as his work comments on the vanished Soviet civilization, Bruskin focuses equally on Jewish themes. Because Russian society forbade him to explore Judaism until he was well into adulthood, Bruskin made that connection through art.

The new exhibit includes several Jewish-themed works, including paintings and a grand tapestry project he calls “Alef-Bet.” All feature Bruskin’s distinctly Jewish characters — from angels and shepherds to tefillin-toting Chassids — some superimposed over Hebrew script.

“The basic idea is to make art as a text,” he says. “I do these pieces not as religious icons, but doing them I continue creating myths about Judaism.”

Growing up in the Russian capital, he first encountered Jewish myths in the form of anti-Semitic taunts. “Before I was 6,” he recalls, “nobody told me I was a Jew until some kid teased me, called me a kike. I wanted to be like everyone else so I began to cry.”

Later, his mother confirmed that he was indeed a Jew, and she warned him: “The worst shame in life is to deny you are Jewish.”

As an adult, Bruskin got hold of as many books about Judaism that the black market could provide. At the same time he studied art, graduating from the Moscow Art Institute in 1968. Long before Gorbachev’s glasnost, Bruskin was getting in trouble for his decidedly unconventional style.

“There was underground art in Russia,” he says. “But we had no possibility to show or sell our art.” In 1987, with the end of the Soviet empire nearing, Bruskin held his first one-man show without any censorship. Even Yoko Ono turned up for that momentous occasion.

Since then, Bruskin has had solo exhibitions at New York’s Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art, London’s Barbican Art Gallery, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and multiple showings in Russia, including at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

In recent years, Bruskin’s Jewish studies have taken him into the mystical tradition of Kaballah. He is drawn to the symbolism of the shattered vessel myth and the Jewish people’s obligation to repair that vessel however possible. “Why did God make the diaspora?” he asks. “That the Jewish people should find those parcels of divine light and restore them.”

Living in New York these days, Bruskin wears his multiple identities well: artist, Russian, American and Jew. But even an internationalist like him cannot forget where he came from.

“I used to think I was born in Russia by mistake,” says Bruskin. “When I came to the West, I realized I was Russian.”

“Grisha Bruskin: Mythology & Mysticism” is on display 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturdays at Meyerovich Gallery, 251 Post, S.F. Information: (415) 421-7171 or online at

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at