Vlad Men, Part One

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By David Michael Newstead.

The sketch paper was pristine and white, sitting out on the rectangular tabletop in the center of the large art room. All morning, Danik Drapushko had passed by it with an instinctual desire to fill the vast blank space however he chose. But for the entire morning, he had been occupied with other tasks and more pressing deadlines from the directors of his department. All during that time though, he jealously kept his eye on the table and that particular sheet of paper.

At lunch, the normally bustling art room cleared out and Danik was left alone. So, he ate and lit a cigarette and stared down at the majestic expanse of plain white paper. He waited for his cigarette to expire, then stubbed its remains into a nearby ashtray and sat down to work. The artist drew a rough sketch that quickly formed the familiar, sharp angles of the Sputnik satellite centered by a gleaming, metallic sphere. He decided to place the Moon in the distance, Earth in the bottom corner of the page.

That urge that had been ruminating in his imagination all day finally crystallized and a kind of razor-sharp intensity took hold of him as he drew. Danik added more detail, texture, and shadow to his work, reaching for the enormous jar of colored pencils. He fumbled about and sifted through it for the ones he wanted, piling them onto the table. Blue, green, gray, silver, gold for the stars in the background, all set against a lightly applied shade of black. His right hand moved furiously inside the margins. In short order, the scene went from an outline to a vivid portrait of scientific exploration. Sputnik’s exterior seemed real and reflected back outer space as the mirror image bent around the curvatures of the satellite. Before he could finish, Danik was momentarily absorbed in the other worldly depiction he’d just created. The Earth was lodged in the bottom left corner of the picture and beyond that he’d envisioned infinite possibilities.

Danik was so focused on his sketch, in fact, that he hadn’t noticed Pyotr returning from lunch. It was only after a light snowstorm of ash fell from the end of Pyotr’s cigarette onto the surface of the Moon that Danik sat up in confusion. Pyotr flashed the smug grin that everyone had grown accustomed to and hated. Once again, Danik was subjected to a speech on the department-wide regulation that art supplies should be conserved except for official party reasons and assigned projects. Then, he was informed that he was “no longer an art school student.”

“You’d be better off if you concentrated on the meeting this afternoon with the new ministry officials. Not this shit…” Pyotr told him as he walked to his desk.

Danik wiped the ash from his drawing and didn’t respond. Pyotr Kamkin was not one of the artists in their department. Nor was the man artistic by any measure. Instead, he was the relative of someone of remote importance in one of the ministries. Their influence granted a handful of people administrative positions in the government and Pyotr was one of them. Outside of that blessing, Danik and most other people in the building considered him to be a scheming, worthless rat. He had no real authority. He contributed nothing. Instead, his sexual appetites were frequently set towards devouring the foolish, young typist girls and his drinking habits were excessive, even by the most generous Soviet standards. Worse than that, however, were his transparent political ambitions and his contempt for artwork of any kind.

It was this last point that Danik took the greatest offense to. The posters that he and the other illustrators made were distributed across the whole of the Eastern Bloc and to the farthest reaches of the USSR. The skill that was required to produce truly new works, while also appealing to the aesthetic sentiment of his superiors, government censors, and political commissars was like threading a needle blindfolded each day. So many great pieces of art amounted to nothing in the labyrinth-like approval process between offices and apparatchiks. Much of his own work had been discarded in this way, he thought. Often, this reduced him to rehashing bland and tired motifs all to please one rotund bureaucrat or another. The uniformity of it all bored him to tears! It was only those brief windows when he could be original and creative and innovative that drove him, even if it was just a rare opportunity on his lunch break.

Danik ignored Pyotr and leaned over his desk. He was just completing the finishing touches as Sergei and the others came back from eating.

“What do you think?” he said to his friend and held up the drawing.

“It’s good…” Sergei replied and he removed his jacket. “But there are only so many things you can sketch in space. Besides, we have other pressing business for the time being. I have to say though, you really captured Sputnik’s likeness,” he said, admiring the work.

“Stop worrying. I have them here,” Danik told him, pulling three posters from a drawer. “The Minister will be happy enough.”

He then unrolled a long cylinder of paper, revealing their latest assignment: a poster covered in red illustrations and Cyrillic lettering.

SOVIET PROSPERITY IS THE ENVY OF THE WORLD, it read.

The other two drafts were almost identical in theme, if not their precise slogans. All three depicted some variation on productive factories and plentiful, endless farmland populated by happy, two-dimension people. As was typical, the world that Danik and Sergei constructed in poster form was uncomplicated. It was orderly and an obvious fairy tale, even to the two of them. But the men at the CM CCCP Censorship Board seldom approved anything else.

“You’re not the least bit concerned?” Sergei asked and lit a cigarette. “A full review by ministers from the Kremlin and you think three posters will save you.”

“It’s what they want,” Danik replied. “It’s what they’ve always wanted. You know better than anyone. Things that are too thoughtful are labeled abstract and bourgeois. Not sufficiently socialist in character,” he mocked. “How many times have you heard this response? I tell you that not one grain of realism or social criticism or deviation from official protocol is possible. It could be a masterpiece. It wouldn’t matter. All our original work does laps around a few desks at the ministry, then it ends up at the bottom of a waste paper basket. You know it’s true.”

“Such a cynic,” Sergei grinned. “At least let’s bring them something interesting for the Industrial Exhibition in a few months. Or would you rather spend the whole afternoon sitting on your ass?”

Danik smiled. “I’d rather take a nap, but you make an excellent point. There’s a few hours until the meeting. Let me have a cigarette, then we’ll touch up one of the Exhibition drafts.”

Sergei handed him a cigarette from his shirt pocket. “Can’t finish that design without red ink. And we’re out of red ink again.”

“Shit. Every day!” Danik exclaimed.

Their most widely and excessively used color was always in short supply. No other ink was ever in such high demand. Red was highly coveted by five floors of artists at all times and a necessity for finishing most projects. It was also common for people to compete over the ink and Danik was sure that the older illustrators hoarded stockpiles in their desks.

“Did you check the store room?” Danik asked Sergei and lit his cigarette.

“There’s none in there,” he replied. “You have to go down to the basement supply closet.”

“I thought it was your turn,” Danik asked.

“It is most certainly your turn,” Sergei told him. “I’ve already been down there three times this month. Too many ghosts and skeletons for my tastes.”

“Funny,” Danik said, tobacco smoke escaping from his nose.

He grabbed his coat and walked to the stairwell. The basement wasn’t heated and it was January in Moscow. In the summers, of course, no one cared who got the last jar of ink. But during a Russian winter, it was only fair to share the hardship with one’s friends. Danik clasped his hands together to stay warm and watched his freezing breath exhale the same color as smoke. He noticed the glass jars in the first box he opened had shattered from the cold, so he lifted them to the side and rummaged around. The closet was dank and neglected. The boxes were unorganized, while the basement went largely unused. If not for the sunlight coming from the window panes at street level, it would have been pitch black down there.

Just as he found the right container, Danik noticed a few old posters between the ink box and the wall. He had seen some of them before in art school, but that was years ago and they had fallen out of circulation. Like everything else in the basement, the pictures were forgotten about, left to decay. The edges of the paper were brittle and deteriorating to the touch. Danik moved a column of boxes to the side to get a better look. He soon realized this particular print must have been from their original production in the 1930’s and had probably been sitting in the closet undisturbed ever since. He leaned in. He examined the image more closely and was mesmerized by the surreal overlap of Stalin and Lenin merged together. The result was not human and the creature seemed to glare at him. The poster was very ominous without intending to be. And Danik automatically thought back to when his parents disappeared, then he buried the memory. The name of the artist stenciled at the bottom was Gustav Klutsis and Danik knew for a fact that he had disappeared as well.

He left the basement supply closet with five jars of partially frozen red ink stuffed into his coat pockets. When he got back to the third floor, Sergei put the jars beside the heater until they were thawed and ready to use. The two of them spent the rest of the afternoon perfecting their final poster for the presentation to the Ministry of Culture at 4:30.

Below their bold and stylish artwork, the poster read, SOVIET INDUSTRIAL EXHIBITION 1961, in magnificent type.

As they were preparing to leave for the meeting, Sergei took two of the posters carefully under his arm and Danik stayed behind for a moment. After finding Klutsis’ work downstairs, he wondered if he would meet a similar fate. In a sudden spontaneous act, he hid the Sputnik drawing from lunch beneath the two remaining posters with a paperclip. Then, he rushed off to the presentation.

The room they met in had a long wooden table. On one side sat Danik, Sergei, Pyotr Kamkin, and one of their department heads, Ruslan Strelnikov, who said very little around the office and did even less. The man mainly smoked and drank and sometimes told old war stories that always ended in a joke. On the other side of them was a small battalion of middle-aged bureaucrats from the Kremlin who surrounded the newly appointed Deputy Minister of Culture and they all trembled at the sound of his voice. The minister, Leon Garin, led much of the meeting. Ruslan contributed only opening pleasantries and then went silent as Deputy Minister Garin launched into a speech.

“Premier Khrushchev seeks a new way of doing things for the Soviet people and the Communist Party that works tirelessly on their behalf. But some offices have been slow to change. Some party members are too preoccupied with the old ways. They’ve failed to embrace the socialist spirit with real enthusiasm and we cannot go on living like this. At the request of Comrade Khrushchev and Minister Trenin, I’ve taken on the responsibility of bringing the many different departments of our ministry up-to-date, especially those who are woefully lagging behind,” he told them, his hands resting on his large pot belly.

“These posters of yours are well executed, I’ll admit. But they lack zeal and humanity. Comrade Khrushchev wants to ignite the innate artistic talents of the Soviet people on all fronts, fostering creativity and scientific innovation. You cannot simply keep tracing and reprinting the same shit from 1950 and expect that no one at the ministry will notice. I promise you that!” he remarked and pointed into the air.

Ruslan said nothing. The man was made of granite. Pyotr and Sergei appeared unsettled. But Danik only listened, feeling a wellspring of hope.

“Just the other day,” Garin continued. “The Minister of Culture and I were walking down a corridor where many of the posters from your department are framed on our walls. Then, he turned to me and we started to discuss the merits of…”

Danik wiped his forehead and breathed, trying to appreciate what an opportunity this might be, that it could be. Someone was finally saying what he had been feeling for so long. It was hard to believe.

But right as the Deputy Minister was concluding his story, Pyotr, in a clear testament to his stupidity, began to talk.

“Comrade Commissar,” Pyotr said. “Our department adheres only to the strictest standards of the party, producing imagery and slogans of the purest socialist ideology within the artistic perimeters laid out by the ministry. In my time here, we have been able to dictate to the masses on a number of quite successful campaigns that I believe–”

Garin’s eyes narrowed and he interrupted Pyotr in the middle of his comments.

“Be quiet, you little bastard!” he yelled. “I know your uncle. You should count yourself lucky that you’re not manning a weather station in the Far North. There are towns up there no one has bothered to name, it’s so cold. Besides, no one cares what you think. I want to hear from these two. The artists who are going to modernize this country. What do you have to say for yourselves?”

Sergei froze. He pushed his eyeglasses against his nose and could only sputter a response, while the others looked on. At the same time, Danik took a moment to collect himself. Then, he spoke.

“I think our department is in a unique position to inform and inspire people across the world, Deputy Minister,” and he paused.

“Inventions like television and radio are impressive, but they cannot reach everyone. Inside our own vast country, there are those with electricity and those without. Some people speak Russian and millions of others speak their own mother tongues under the unifying Soviet banner. Outside the USSR, the capitalists have reduced much of the Earth to abject poverty and the peasants of those nations are illiterate. But the most well written newspaper is unable to appeal to those who can’t read. Radio transmissions cannot galvanize peoples without electricity enough to be in earshot of hearing it. But an image…” Danik said, hanging on the word.

“An image does not require translation into any language. It is basic and essential. Men know the truth of something when they see it. It could be heartfelt patriotism, the importance of education, or the injustice of the West. Any number of things. That is the reason our posters must be able to speak to the hardworking peasants as well as the urban intelligentsia. That artwork can bridge any divide in an instant. An instant!” he continued. “I think it is an immense opportunity to educate and to mobilize. Every classroom and post office, every factory floor and page of a magazine can carry a carefully crafted idea that does not need words. It says everything that needs to be said with art and ink that captivate the masses of this country. We use bright colors and stirring scenes! We create images that come from every man’s heart. The trick is to reflect back the hopes of the proletariat and use that to motivate them to act in unison with the state. To show that we are one in the same.”

The Deputy Minister sat back like it had been sometime since he had heard an original thought. He ran a hand over his balding scalp and turned back to the four, red-tinted posters displayed in front of him.

“You speak very articulately on the nature of your work, young man,” Garin replied. “But where is that passion in your art here,” he motioned again to the stale propaganda posters.

Danik stood up. He removed the paperclip that held it in place, then revealed his drawing of Sputnik from underneath the Exhibition poster: the universe reflected back in a piece of Soviet technology.

Garin got up to look. “Incredible…” he said.

“This is the sort of thing we need,” he commented to his staff. “Something with imagination and perspective. Our students see this and want to become pilots and engineers.”

Garin stopped to think. “I’ve been told by the Premier himself that there’s a special project in the coming months. A very big event for this country! But a secret for the time being. Ruslan, I want you to make sure this young man is part of our ministry’s efforts. It is a top priority! As for your department, there are, of course, one or two things that need improving as you’ll see in my notes. But if this picture shows what you’re capable of then there shouldn’t be a problem,” he concluded.

Danik smiled wide. A potential crisis averted, the meeting quickly became friendly and informal. A few glasses of vodka appeared. Then, true to form, Ruslan Strelnikov began regaling the men from the Kremlin with a story from the Great Patriotic War.

“…and when the whole shootout was over…” he told them. “Just one German soldier stumbled out of the building, not wearing any pants!”

The group practically fell over laughing and they patted Ruslan on the back.

While he was still sober enough to do so, Leon Garin put his arm around Danik and asked if he could keep the Sputnik drawing. Danik readily agreed, not accustomed to genuine requests from a superior.

“It’s a gift for my son,” Garin admitted proudly. “He will love this. My boy is quite smart, you know. Wants to fly a jet when he grows up,” joyous drunkenness had set in and it showed in the man’s facial features.

“Comrade Drapushko…” the Deputy Minister told him, his words starting to blur together. “You’re very talented. It should serve you well in life. Keep up your work.”

By the time Danik left, his friend Sergei was leading a boisterous chorus of singing officials. Pyotr Kamkin was passed out in the art room. And Leon began detailing his own memories of the war to Ruslan Strelnikov who was too drunk to point out the numerous inaccuracies.

It was close to midnight by then. Danik walked the frigid streets of Moscow for some time before arriving in front of an old, wooden door. He had known his way around that apartment complex by heart and went up four flights of stairs. From there, it was the sixth door on the left. He breathed in, his head spinning slightly from the vodka. The doorknob staring back at him was a tarnished, metal ball that captured his image, reflecting and distorting it. Danik blinked several times. He had the foresight to pull his wedding ring from his finger and to put it away, hidden in his pocket. His hands still felt like they were freezing when he knocked. Then, a minute went by, while his entire body warmed up from the cold.

Danik knocked a second time.

He could hear footsteps softly pacing the floor of the apartment and, soon after, the door opened. He smiled at her from the hallway. The two of them didn’t speak to each other, just exchanged looks. And a moment later, Danik went inside, closing the door behind him.

Next Chapter

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