At Large  April 13, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

How Soviet Non-Conformist Art Challenged Creative Repression in the USSR

Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union, © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris, 2000.0868, Photo Peter Jacobs

Erik Bulatov, Danger, 1972-1973, Oil on canvas


Non-Conformist Art was counter-culture art that went against the state-approved Socialist Realism in the former Soviet Union in the latter half of the 20th century. But its roots go back to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, when Vladimir Lenin launched a coup d’etat against the Duma’s provisional government in Russia. Lenin called for a government that would be ruled directly by a council of soldiers, peasants, and workers. The Bolsheviks instated Lenin as their head, and under Lenin, artists were under the control of the Communist Party.

Wikimedia Commons

Vladimir Tatlin and an assistant in front of the model of Tatlin’s Tower for the Third International, 1920


One such artist, Vladimir Tatlin, was one of the most important figures of Soviet avant-garde art. Tatlin was commissioned to create a monument to the Bolshevik Revolution in St. Petersburg. Though never built, the proposed 400-meter building was conceived as the headquarters for the Third International and was envisioned as a towering symbol of modernity. 

Fast forward to 1932: Lenin died, the Soviet Union had been formed, and Joseph Stalin rose to General Secretary of the Communist Party. With Stalin at its helm, he sought to industrialize the USSR, and this held true for the art that was made and exhibited. Socialist Realism became the only art that was acceptable, characterized by its depiction of Communist values, such as the emancipation of the proletariat. Figures are often highly idealized with heavy leanings on classical sculpture.

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Isaak Brodsky, The official state portrait of Stalin, 1930's


Though Socialist Realism was the only art style approved of by the state, from 1956 to 1986, the Soviet Non-Conformist Art movement stood in opposition. The historical Russian avant-garde had been flourishing in an underground community since the Bolshevik Revolution. When Stalin took control of the arts, if artists did not follow Soviet guidelines, they faced severe repercussions, such as expulsion from art school or even exile in Siberian labor camps. The time after Stalin’s death in 1953, known as the great “thaw,” allowed more freedom for artists to create non-sanctioned works without fearing these severe repercussions.

The goal of Non-Conformism was to question the status of official artistic reality, to challenge it, and to treat it with irony. There were many groups and movements that were active in the USSR during this time, including Moscow Artists’ Group, Lianozovo, Sretensky Boulevard, Moscow Conceptualists, and the Petersburg Group, among many others. There are so many artists who deserve recognition, but a few of note include Yuri Albert, Victor Skersis, Ilya Kabakov, Andrei Monastyrski, Irina Nakhov, Komar and Melamid, Natalya Nesterova, and Vadim Zakharov.

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Ilya Kabokov giving instructions in his installation, “The Man Who Flew in to Space from His Apartment,” 2016


One of the most well-known Non-Conformist artists is Ilya Kabakov, whose revolutionary practice spans painting, drawing, book-making, installation, theoretical texts, and memoirs. In one series of albums called Ten Characters (1972-75), Kabavok tells the story of a man who attempts to write his autobiography, though along the way realizes he has nothing to write, as nothing has ever happened to him. So instead, he creates ten different characters to explain his perception of the world. Kabokov relates these stories to theater, where the viewer is bound by the action and the darkness, but is allowed the freedom to interact with and interpret the art for themselves.

Under Cold War socialism, an artist group in Moscow was formed known as the Collective Actions Group (CAG). The CAG produced a number of performances, called “actions” that incorporated little to no materials but focused on social participation among members in a set period of time. These actions might not look like art to the contemporary eye, but were a way for artists to produce work under restrictions of a highly surveilled military state. The CAG also had to cope with finding and selecting reliable colleagues and participants who would not inform on each other to the surveillance state. 

Courtesy Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union. 

Collective Actions Group, Action 16: Ten Appearances, February 1, 1981, 1981, gelatin silver print on paper mounted on cardboard


Andrei Monastyrski was one of the leaders of the Collective Actions Group. Monastyrski participated in the legendary action, Ten Appearances (1981). In this action, ten participants were led into the middle of a vast snowy field somewhere near Moscow, totally unaware of the other participants or what the action was going to be like. They were instructed to grasp a piece of thread and walk in a straight line out toward the woods. After that, there were no further instructions, and each participant was free to act at their own will: return to the field’s center or leave the scene. Eight out of the ten participants returned within an hour. 

Photography and written accounts of the ephemeral action were central to the action. Photographs were taken to capture the spirit and account of the action, but also to document who returned from the forest. Ilya Kabokov spoke of the small emotions he felt while completing this event, saying that he shifted from feeling anxious to scared, to joyful and melancholic.

Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union

Leonid Sokov, Project to Construct Glasses for Every Soviet Citizen, 1975, Painted wood


If you want to see any Non-Conformist artwork and are in the NYC metro area, then look no further than the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The Zimmerli Museum holds an unmatched collection of Russian artworks, providing a vast overview of art from the 14th century to the present day. The Zimmerli also holds the largest collection worldwide of Soviet Non-Conformist art, thanks to an incredible donation from Norton and Nancy Dodge of over 20,000 artworks by over 1,000 artists. 

You can view the collection online at the following link:

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