Roads to Revolution The Art of Russia


Roads to Revolution

Andrew Graham-Dixon follows the history of Russian art. Here, he looks at how art was affected by Russia's change from a feudal nation to a hotbed of revolution.


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Imagine a shimmering city conjured out of thin air,

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rising in just a few decades

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where once there had been a wilderness of barren marshes.

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A place to rival the beauties of Venice and Paris...

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St Petersburg.

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St Petersburg was founded at the start of the 18th century

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in imitation of the great western European cities.

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Russia had never seen a place like this, with its elegant classical facades.

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It was part of a great cultural project

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to end centuries of isolation.

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But when Russia opened its doors to Europe, it didn't just let in

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new ideas about art and architecture,

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it let in a host of other, even more dangerous ideas.

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Ideas that would lead to bloodshed and, eventually, revolution.

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For the next two centuries, art was to be a battlefield,

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pitting the glories of the court...

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..against the anguish of its peasants.

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Showing the beauty of the landscape...

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..and the demons of the mind.

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From a crushing symbol of tyranny...

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to an art that would devour Russia itself.

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This is the story of Russia's journey from royal excess

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to mass rebellion, and of how art went from being

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the servant of the state to an agent of its destruction.

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For centuries, Russia had been cut off

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from the culture and ideas of the West.

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But in St Petersburg,

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you see a whole nation making up for lost time.

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Peter the Great began the immense project

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of Europeanising Russia by founding the city in 1703.

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But he never lived to see

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the imperial splendour of its architecture.

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Its brightly coloured palaces

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were created in the decades after Peter's death by his daughter.

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She would dress St Petersburg up

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in the colours of a thousand ball gowns.

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Her name was Tsarina Elizabeth I.

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Elizabeth's been rather written out of Russian history.

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Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, never Elizabeth the Great,

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but she was great in her own way,

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and she certainly left her mark on Russian culture.

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Because when we come to St Petersburg

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and we admire its wonderfully elegant architecture,

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what we're really admiring is her taste.

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Peter might've got St Petersburg built,

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but it was Elizabeth who really decided what it would look like.

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Elizabeth was positively bacchanalian

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in her pursuit of pleasure.

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She loved parties and masquerades and she was drawn

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to the grandiose European style of the baroque.

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In the 1740s, she employed an architect with Italian blood,

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Bartolomeo Rastrelli, but their buildings

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have a distinctly Russian feeling of excess.

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The Catherine Palace

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was Elizabeth's own Versailles, but on an even grander scale.

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The facade's nearly a quarter of a mile across.

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And this, the Smolny,

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was Elizabeth and Rastrelli's version of a convent.

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Their take on the baroque was an exotic hybrid.

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Painted in bright colours, like the churches of old Russia,

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and topped with glittering onion domes.

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Now, Elizabeth was no mere follower of fashion.

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She was one of the most dynamic and progressive

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patrons of art and architecture of the entire 18th century.

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And when you look at this wonderful wedding cake of a building,

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what you realise is that she brought into the world of Russian art

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a new spirit of panache and theatricality.

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And nowhere else in Europe was the baroque style

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pushed to this extreme level of fantasy.

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The most magnificent of all these creations

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is on the coastal fringes of St Petersburg, Peterhof.

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It was begun by Peter the Great as a modest affair,

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but in the 1740s, Elizabeth and Rastrelli

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waved their magic wands over it.

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With its grand staircases and its gilded water-pumping statues,

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Peterhof's a wonder of architecture and engineering,

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but it's also a miraculous survival.

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The Nazis tried to blow the palace up during the Second World War,

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and reduced large parts of it to a shell.

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It's taken more than 60 years to return Peterhof to its former glory,

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and the work still continues.

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This is Elizabeth's chapel, the very last section to be restored.

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A mind-boggling 200 pounds

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in weight of gold leaf will be needed to complete the job.

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Here, the finishing touches are being applied by an army

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of blue-suited architectural make-up artists.

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TRANSLATED FROM RUSSIAN:

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Don't you ever sometimes sort of look around and think to yourself,

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"Isn't it a little bit over the top?

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-So is your house at home like this?

-HE CHUCKLES

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Thank you very much. I got the joke, even with my terrible Russian.

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If you want to experience the full baroque blast of Peterhof,

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you have to go to the grand state rooms of the main palace.

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It's almost as if Elizabeth had a Midas complex.

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She wanted everything she touched to turn to gold.

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This is Tsarina Elizabeth's ballroom,

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and it's the great set piece demonstration

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of the baroque style as SHE wanted it reincarnated in Russia.

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Absolutely dripping with giltwood decoration.

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You've got wonderful candelabra, you've got giltwood Cupids,

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you've got sexy mythological scenes set into little roundels.

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There's not a square inch of this room that isn't decorated.

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Now, the art history term for it is "Russian baroque",

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but I think of it as the baroque of bling.

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It's just fantastically excessive. And you have to also imagine

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that in Elizabeth's day,

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these rather ugly light bulbs wouldn't have been there,

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there would've been actual candles with flames.

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And then, if you imagine this whole space full of people dancing,

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the effect must've been positively hallucinogenic.

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Now above,

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as if to underscore her role as the great founder

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of Russian visual culture, Russian art and decoration and architecture,

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Elizabeth had herself painted as...

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almost as the patron saint of Russian art. There she is,

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hovering in the sky, holding aloft

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a sceptre of enlightenment. And she's above

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Mount Parnassus of classical legend, where Apollo and the muses -

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those who inspire artistic creativity - are to be found.

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There's the muse of music, the muse of theatre and there,

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with her compass, the muse of art and architecture.

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But for all the lofty myth-making, there's also a kind of mania

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to prove that Russians could do European culture

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even better than Europeans themselves.

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And nowhere more so than the portrait gallery...

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..a breathtakingly overloaded version of the galleries

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in grand European houses,

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with walls like pages of a stamp album.

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Like Rastrelli, the artist responsible was of Italian descent -

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Pietro Rotari.

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It's said that Elizabeth paid Rotari the sum of 1,000 gold roubles

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to come to Russia - a world record transfer fee for a portrait painter.

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And what she got in return, were some of the very first pictures

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of Russians seen through a European lens.

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Now, in this room there are 367 altogether

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and they're all in a well-established European tradition

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of painting so-called beauties.

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Innocent, rather coquettish young ladies. But the twist here

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is that each one of these individual girls is meant to represent

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a different region of Russia. You can tell by the different costumes

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and headdresses. So what this amounts to

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is a kind of ideal catalogue of Russian womanhood.

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But there's more to it than that too, because Rotari employed

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an army of Russian apprentices, and many of these pictures

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were painted by them.

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So what we've got here is a kind of extraordinary capsule

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of a particular moment. We've got Russians

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painted by a European but we've also got Russians

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painting in a European style.

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In the new St Petersburg, portraiture flourished.

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Russian artists became expert

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at capturing the glamour of an aristocracy

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in love with its own, fashionably European image.

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The city's elite made a cult of luxury,

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so even eating could become a kind of artistic performance.

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Consuming caviar became the ultimate symbol of one's nobility...

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..but one that might leave a bitter aftertaste.

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For all its glittering social rituals,

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Russia was essentially a feudal society.

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You have to remember that the aristocracy was a tiny elite,

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supported by a mountain of human misery.

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Their lifestyle were sustained by the existence of the serf class.

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Serfs were owned peasants, effectively slaves,

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and they made up half of the country's population.

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Among them, poverty was rife.

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They lived a hand-to-mouth existence.

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The treatment of the serfs might've improved

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when Catherine the Great came to the throne in 1762.

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Schooled by the European Enlightenment,

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a patron of both Diderot and Voltaire,

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she boasted of her benevolent treatment of Russia's peasants.

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And in the art created during her reign,

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the Russian peasant suddenly moved centre stage.

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Whether it's Shibanov's Peasant Wedding -

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a heart-warming celebration of rural life -

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or Argunov's Peasant Woman, beaming health and happiness

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with her smooth skin and perfectly plucked eyebrows.

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But such pictures were really just propaganda -

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the lot of the poor had worsened under Catherine's reign.

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And one truly monumental work of art

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shows the brutal reality

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behind the myth of Catherine's Enlightenment.

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In the 1760s, she commissioned a statue of Peter the Great,

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now known as "the Bronze Horseman".

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It shows the tsar as a dynamic Caesar.

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This was Catherine's way of claiming Peter's power as her own.

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She too would master the Russian people as Peter masters his horse.

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But for me, the most fascinating thing about the monument

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is not the statue itself, but the enormous plinth on which it stands,

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the so-called thunder rock.

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According to legend, it's the stone

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from the top of which Peter first surveyed the site of St Petersburg.

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Now, at Catherine's insistence, this enormous piece of granite -

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it weights 1,800 tonnes -

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was transported to this site several miles.

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It took hundreds of men nearly two years.

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No beasts of burden were used.

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It's quite possibly the single largest piece of stone

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ever moved by human force alone.

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Now, it's a crushingly powerful, overbearing symbol

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of the real relationship between ruler and ruled in Tsarist Russia.

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This was Catherine's way of saying to her people,

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"No matter how difficult it might seem,

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"no matter how mad it might appear,

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"whatever I tell you to do, you do it."

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And artists too had to endure their own form of servitude.

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The St Petersburg Academy was built as a Roman temple.

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It rigidly controlled the training of artists

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in the European classical tradition...

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emphasising the study of Greek and Roman art.

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This depiction of the studio of Venetsianov -

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the leading Russian artist of the early 19th century -

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is dutifully filled with casts of classical statues.

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In the Russian Museum,

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you can see how this overwhelmingly academic approach

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was to keep a tight leash on the development of the nation's art.

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Now, if you want to experience

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the Russian tradition of European style art, 100 years of art history,

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squeezed into just a few rooms, this is the best place to do it.

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Here, you might be in an English style portrait gallery,

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look at those two pictures of a young girl

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and young boy, like mannequins

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in the airless interior of some palace.

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They were determined to have everything in their palaces

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that you'd find in any of the great European palaces.

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Tapestries made at the newly founded in St Petersburg tapestry factory,

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great monumental bronzes - this time it's Empress Anna,

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attended by an Arab boy.

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They also quickly developed their own traditions

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of classically inspired art - heroic nudes, or scenes from Homer,

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designed for the moral contemplation of the Russian aristocracy.

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Now by the time you get to the end of the 18th century,

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Russian artists have really mastered most of the major European genres.

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And this room is devoted to the work of Dmitri Levitsky,

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who's the giant of late 18th century Russian portraiture.

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He's Russia's answer to Sir Joshua Reynolds.

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This great picture here, a wonderfully theatrical portrait

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of Catherine the Great,

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could almost have been painted by Reynolds himself.

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It's an utterly competent, completely derivative work of art.

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But that's the point, they didn't want originality.

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They wanted EXACTLY what the Europeans had.

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And Russia's tradition of grand, academic copycat painting

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would come to a wild crescendo with THIS picture.

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It's my favourite picture in the museum.

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It's not so bad it's good...

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it's so bad it's fantastic.

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It's Karl Bryullov's The Last Day of Pompeii.

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Bryullov's painting gleefully captures

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the destruction of the ancient Roman city,

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but it's really an excuse to show off

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his mastery of European style and subject matter.

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Almost everything in the picture is second-hand.

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It's a wonderful collage of borrowings. The dead mother

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with her baby in the foreground is taken from a classical source.

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Those figures masked with the cloak are from the Italian Raphael.

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If you look up at the back the man on the rearing horse,

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he's nicked from Delacroix, the French Romantic painter.

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But the picture's more than the sum of its parts

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and once all of these elements have been whirled around

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in Bryullov's magic liquidiser, the result is an extraordinarily,

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theatrical, mad vision of apocalypse.

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And what it makes me think of, more than anything else,

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is the great Russian genius for theatre, for opera.

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In fact, I think it's a painting

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that really aspires to the condition of cinema.

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After all, it's painted in Cinemascope format.

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I think, in a way, the only thing that's missing

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is a little man coming up through the floor playing an organ!

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But by the start of the 1840s,

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Russian culture was on the brink of a momentous change.

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Writers like Gogol were beginning to show

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that the lives of ordinary Russians

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could be the stuff of great literature.

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And, after a century of academic repression, artists were desperate

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to follow their lead.

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There was a growing hunger for images of real day-to-day life.

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And by the middle of the 19th century,

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Russian art had reached a kind of tipping point.

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Artists were fed up with endlessly depicting the same tiny elite,

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or churning out huge classical melodramas.

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They wanted to paint what they saw as the real Russia -

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Russia in the here and now.

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The first painter really to peer beneath the surface

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of Russian society was Pavel Fedotov.

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From the 1840s, he caricatured the ruling classes.

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Russia had virtually no history of satirical art,

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so people were truly shocked by Fedotov's feckless young woman,

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his preening major

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and his penniless noble

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hiding a pauper's breakfast.

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This picture is called the Fresh Cavalier,

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and it's one of Fedotov's biggest hits.

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When he exhibited it at the 1846 exhibition,

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thousands of people crowded round to see this satire

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of a rather small-minded cavalry officer.

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He's been given a medal, and he's spent the whole night carousing

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and celebrating this honour that's been bestowed on him.

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He's a vain man, his hair is in curlers. He's also immoral,

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because he's spent the night with his mistress.

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Fedotov was a huge fan of Hogarth

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and of the European satirical tradition and you can see that

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in his love of incriminating details.

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Look at the drained champagne bottle,

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the broken crockery symbolising smashed virtue,

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the guitar without its strings, which is a symbol of discord...

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..and the cat, scratching away at the silk cover of the chair.

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And I think the cat, in some way, is a symbol of the man himself -

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a privileged person who's abusing his status.

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Fedotov's own life ended unhappily.

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He was brutally jumped on by the Russian censor,

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who prevented him from publishing his work in the form of engravings

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or lithographs, reaching out directly to the wider public

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because it was seen as simply too inflammatory.

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What happened was that the artist gradually retreated in on himself.

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He died at the age of 37 after a long depression.

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In fact, he ended his days in a lunatic asylum.

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And this picture,

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ironically entitled Encore Encore is one of his very, very last works.

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And it takes us to a far bleaker and darker place

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than anything seen in his earlier pictures.

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Here, we've got this image of a man,

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a military officer, somewhere at the rump end of the Russian Empire,

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perhaps in Siberia.

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There's a glimpse of snow and perhaps a rook or two

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in the murk outside that window.

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He's in a log cabin, he's on his own, the implication is that

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he's spent months here

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and he's passing the time

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by teaching his dog to jump over a stick.

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The dog is this blurred, strange form.

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And it's hard not to read it as a kind of metaphor

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for Fedotov's very bleak view of Russian society.

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In a sense, aren't we all doing something as pointless as this?

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But the trickles of discontent in Fedotov's work

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were about to become a tidal wave.

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The great rebellion had taken more than a century to arrive

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but it would revolutionise the course of Russian art.

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In 1863, the students at St Petersburg's rather stuffy academy

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started lobbying to be allowed to paint purely Russian subjects.

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But their professors said, "No," and the subject set

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for that year's final exam was Odin entering the gates of Valhalla.

0:24:450:24:49

Fourteen students left in protest.

0:24:490:24:52

They decided to turn their back on St Petersburg

0:24:520:24:55

and take their art to the whole of this vast country.

0:24:550:24:59

They were to be called the Peredvizhniki - The Wanderers.

0:24:590:25:03

The Wanderers saw themselves as more than just artists.

0:25:120:25:16

Acutely aware of Russia's lack of democracy,

0:25:160:25:19

they believed it was the painter's duty to explore

0:25:190:25:24

and expose every aspect of Russian life.

0:25:240:25:28

They showed the bitter lives of the peasants.

0:25:280:25:31

They celebrated the splendour of the landscape.

0:25:330:25:36

They remembered Russia's tyrannical history,

0:25:370:25:40

the blood-letting of mad Ivan the Terrible.

0:25:400:25:43

They didn't paint the idle rich

0:25:460:25:48

but kindred spirits wrestling with Russia's destiny.

0:25:480:25:51

Writers like Ivan Turgenev

0:25:520:25:55

and the brooding Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

0:25:550:25:58

Above all, they painted the towering figure

0:25:590:26:03

of 19th century Russian culture,

0:26:030:26:06

Leo Tolstoy.

0:26:060:26:08

The Wanderers regarded Tolstoy as their spiritual godfather.

0:26:100:26:14

And for him, the purpose of writing novels

0:26:140:26:17

was to point the way forward for Russia.

0:26:170:26:19

So take a book like Anna Karenina. Yes, it's a great tragic love story

0:26:190:26:23

but, at its heart, it's really a political tract,

0:26:230:26:26

a great rejection of the values of the court and the city

0:26:260:26:30

and an embrace of the values of the land.

0:26:300:26:32

The central scene in the book has the male character Levin

0:26:320:26:36

being taught to wield a scythe by his peasants.

0:26:360:26:39

And suddenly, at this moment, he realises

0:26:390:26:42

that he feels truly Russian, he feels at one with the world.

0:26:420:26:46

Tolstoy was celebrated in a series of paintings by the Wanderers.

0:26:510:26:55

Here by Nesterov, wearing peasant garb.

0:26:570:27:00

Here by Repin, ploughing a field.

0:27:020:27:06

But there was nothing twee or escapist

0:27:060:27:08

about this retreat to the land.

0:27:080:27:11

Tolstoy believed the nation could only be saved

0:27:110:27:14

by reconnecting with her ancient traditions...

0:27:140:27:17

and Russian artists followed his lead.

0:27:170:27:20

The Wanderers were fascinated by documenting the Russian landscape.

0:27:250:27:29

They were part of a broad movement towards landscape painting.

0:27:290:27:32

Artists all over Europe were getting back to nature -

0:27:320:27:35

most famously, the French Impressionists.

0:27:350:27:38

But the Russians weren't interested

0:27:380:27:41

in impressionistic effects of haze or blur

0:27:410:27:44

because, for them,

0:27:440:27:46

Mother Russia had the value almost of a spiritual absolute.

0:27:460:27:49

They wanted to capture every leaf, every stalk, every cloud.

0:27:490:27:53

So they opted for a style of almost hypnotic, photographic realism.

0:27:530:27:59

The Wanderers' greatest landscape artist was Isaac Levitan.

0:28:020:28:06

Regarded with suspicion by many Russians, Lithuanian and Jewish,

0:28:060:28:12

he nonetheless set out to capture the essence of Russian nature.

0:28:120:28:17

He painted the nation's great birch forests -

0:28:200:28:23

a world of silver and green, dappled by sunlight.

0:28:230:28:27

He said he painted to touch people's souls.

0:28:350:28:39

And here you can see his positively religious sense

0:28:390:28:43

of the vastness of the Russian landscape.

0:28:430:28:46

He looks down, as if from God's point of view,

0:28:460:28:51

to a tiny Orthodox church set within the greater cathedral of nature.

0:28:510:28:55

But Levitan could chill the soul too.

0:29:000:29:03

One of his most celebrated landscapes, Vladimirka,

0:29:030:29:08

is shot through with a sense of morbidity and dread.

0:29:080:29:11

You need to know this was the path political prisoners tramped down

0:29:130:29:16

on their way to Siberia.

0:29:160:29:18

Levitan had used landscape as a vehicle for protest.

0:29:260:29:30

Political dissidence lay at the core of everything the Wanderers did.

0:29:300:29:34

The most famous member of the group saw himself

0:29:360:29:40

as Russia's conscience.

0:29:400:29:42

His name? Ilya Repin.

0:29:420:29:46

This is Ilya Repin's estate, and to Russians it's hallowed ground.

0:29:540:29:59

He's not that well known outside Russia, but within Russia

0:29:590:30:02

he's considered a giant, every bit as famous as Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy.

0:30:020:30:08

And that's because he used painting

0:30:080:30:10

to address the great issues of the day.

0:30:100:30:13

In fact, during the course of his long career, there was hardly

0:30:130:30:16

an aspect of Russian life that he didn't touch on.

0:30:160:30:19

Repin's paintings are a panorama of Russian society.

0:30:240:30:28

His Religious Procession in Kursk

0:30:310:30:33

is on the scale of a great Russian novel.

0:30:330:30:36

It's a piercing, pitiless image of a divided society,

0:30:360:30:39

full of flawed figures of authority -

0:30:390:30:43

the guard lashing out at the crowd,

0:30:430:30:47

the vain priest primping his hair,

0:30:470:30:51

the cruel father, beating his crippled son.

0:30:510:30:55

Repin had his own wars with Tsarist authority, and the state censors.

0:30:580:31:03

This picture, The Arrest of a Propagandist, shows a heroic revolutionary seized by the police.

0:31:030:31:10

But Repin suppressed the image, knowing it was too inflammatory to show in public.

0:31:100:31:18

He did plan to exhibit this even more shocking painting

0:31:190:31:22

of a political prisoner spurning confession before his execution,

0:31:220:31:27

but it was banned outright by the censor.

0:31:270:31:30

Even in his portraiture, Repin was drawn to rebels and firebrands -

0:31:310:31:36

this picture of the young, pallid Maxim Gorky emanates intellectual unrest.

0:31:360:31:41

Elena Kirillina, the curator of the estate, has a particular love of Repin's portraits.

0:31:450:31:51

If you had to name your favourite Repin painting, which one would it be?

0:32:270:32:31

Repin lived in this dacha,

0:32:450:32:47

which he designed himself in a simple, folksy style.

0:32:470:32:51

But don't be fooled by appearances. This house, too, had an intensely political purpose.

0:32:550:33:01

Repin's house embodies his values, and although he was rich enough to

0:33:090:33:13

employ an army of servants, he prided himself on having none.

0:33:130:33:17

In fact, visitors to the house were greeted by this sign...

0:33:170:33:20

'Don't call for the butler, we haven't got one! Please announce yourself with a tam tam! '

0:33:200:33:24

I think it was Repin's way of quietly banging a gong for his own democratic values.

0:33:260:33:33

And this is his dining room. And because he didn't have any servants to wait on his guests,

0:33:370:33:42

he devised this rather ingenious circular table, to make sure the plates got to each and every person.

0:33:420:33:48

It was really quite revolutionary!

0:33:480:33:49

You can see a smiling Repin on the left of the screen in this fragmentary home movie.

0:33:540:33:59

And here he is, proudly shovelling away snow without a servant in sight.

0:34:030:34:09

The living embodiment of the Wanderers' revolutionary ethos.

0:34:090:34:13

I think the great thing about Repin was the breadth and the depth of his humanity.

0:34:180:34:22

And unlike many other 19th century painters who depicted poor people,

0:34:220:34:26

Repin didn't approach them in any patronising or sentimental way.

0:34:260:34:30

He'd been brought up in poverty himself, as a peasant,

0:34:300:34:33

and I think it was that background that gave him the ability to capture the harsh realities of Russian life

0:34:330:34:39

like no other artist.

0:34:390:34:41

In the 1870s, Repin created the most celebrated painting in the history of Russian art.

0:34:570:35:03

It was to shock the nation with its unflinching depiction of peasant life.

0:35:030:35:08

Barge-Haulers on the Volga is Repin's most famous picture.

0:35:140:35:17

It's a great work of social protest.

0:35:170:35:20

I'm not interested in painting light and colour, he said.

0:35:200:35:23

I want to paint content.

0:35:230:35:24

And the content here is unadulterated human misery.

0:35:240:35:29

11 men hauling, with their own force,

0:35:290:35:32

a great barge to the shore of the Volga river.

0:35:320:35:38

They are human beings who have been reduced to the level of beasts.

0:35:380:35:41

Now these figures draw the eye

0:35:410:35:43

in so much that it's quite easy to miss

0:35:430:35:45

a very important detail which is this little tugboat.

0:35:450:35:50

And what it tells us, quite simply, is that there is another way of doing this.

0:35:500:35:54

We've got steam power.

0:35:540:35:57

But the fact is, that human labour is still so cheap,

0:35:570:36:00

and our disregard for any sense of human rights is so enormous,

0:36:000:36:04

that we're still prepared to treat people like this.

0:36:040:36:07

Now, one of the things that's most interesting about this picture

0:36:070:36:11

is that from the very moment it was painted, it was hugely popular,

0:36:110:36:16

and its popularity has never diminished.

0:36:160:36:19

It was, for example, Stalin's favourite painting.

0:36:190:36:22

This was the picture that he held up to the artists of communist Russia

0:36:220:36:26

as a model on which they should base their own work. And it's not hard to see why.

0:36:260:36:31

because to a communist this would look like a depiction of

0:36:310:36:35

the energies and the will that would lead to revolution.

0:36:350:36:38

And the key figure of all, and this was said at the time when the picture was painted,

0:36:380:36:42

the key figure, who's picked up by the light,

0:36:420:36:45

is this boy in the middle.

0:36:450:36:47

He's the only figure looking up, looking out as if to a better life, as if to a more optimistic future.

0:36:470:36:54

And he even looks as if he's about to take off the shackles of slave labour.

0:36:540:36:58

This was more than just a painting.

0:37:030:37:05

This was an incendiary work of art, a manifesto for political change.

0:37:050:37:12

So what was the Wanderers' alternative to this brutal world of oppression and servitude?

0:37:340:37:41

You can glimpse it here at the estate of Abramtsevo,

0:37:410:37:44

where they founded an artists' colony.

0:37:440:37:50

Surrounded by buildings designed in homage to ancient folk architecture,

0:37:520:37:56

they studied the arts and crafts of old Russia.

0:37:560:37:59

Abramtsevo was to be a model society, taking Russia itself back to basics.

0:38:050:38:09

At its centre they built an orthodox church,

0:38:130:38:17

which still bears witness to their highly charged sense of mission.

0:38:170:38:21

HE SAYS SOMETHING IN RUSSIAN

0:38:240:38:28

I'm sorry my Russian is terrible but we'll get there in the end.

0:38:280:38:33

The keeper to the church.

0:38:330:38:35

That is a big key.

0:38:350:38:37

Spasibo.

0:38:400:38:41

This is the Church of the Holy Saviour.

0:39:210:39:23

And it marks a very important moment, a point where the artists of the late 19th century here in Russia

0:39:230:39:29

reconnect with the mysteries of orthodox Christianity.

0:39:290:39:33

And a whole group of painters, craftsmen and sculptors

0:39:330:39:37

collaborated to create the decoration for this church.

0:39:370:39:40

An artist called Viktor Vasnetsov created this rather beautiful,

0:39:400:39:46

naive style mosaic floor.

0:39:460:39:51

But he real splendour of this little church is its iconostasis,

0:39:510:39:55

the screen that separates the congregation from the altar.

0:39:550:39:58

And here Repin himself, the greatest of the Wanderers,

0:39:580:40:03

contributed the image of Christ as if imprinted on the veil, like the Turin shroud.

0:40:030:40:09

I think what's fascinating about this is the solemnity of the gaze

0:40:090:40:13

and the fact that Repin has made Christ look like an archetypal Russian.

0:40:130:40:17

This could almost be an image of Russia itself as Christ, as the sacrificial victim.

0:40:170:40:25

I think what this moment of reconnection with orthodox Christianity

0:40:250:40:29

gave to the whole movement was a powerful, almost mystical sense of vocation.

0:40:290:40:34

There was one artist who would bring together this heady mixture

0:40:470:40:52

of ancient mysticism and folk motifs, and in doing so, push Russian art to its outer limits.

0:40:520:40:59

Mikhail Vrubel.

0:41:010:41:03

Unlike most of the other artists who came here to Abramtsevo,

0:41:110:41:14

Vrubel didn't need to be taught the rudiments of Russian folk art.

0:41:140:41:18

He understood it at a gut level.

0:41:180:41:20

Very unusually, he had grown up painting icons, restoring murals in Russian churches.

0:41:200:41:25

And here where they preserved his studio almost intact, you can see his homages to the folk tradition.

0:41:250:41:31

These ceramics,

0:41:310:41:33

depicting figures from myths and fairy story.

0:41:330:41:36

But for me there's also something obsessive, strange, almost grotesque about some of these figures,

0:41:360:41:42

and Vrubel himself was a deeply neurotic individual.

0:41:420:41:47

In the end, his greatest achievement was to take this popular language of Russian folk art,

0:41:470:41:52

and merge it together into a new form of Russian painting,

0:41:520:41:57

a painting of dark prophecy.

0:41:570:42:00

Vrubel's work always has a disturbing, decadent edge -

0:42:000:42:06

an end of century fixation with dark forces, which he shared with many European artists.

0:42:060:42:13

But he took it to an extreme, obsessed with a figure that was like

0:42:130:42:17

the ghost of ancient Russia, bent on a terrible vengeance.

0:42:170:42:22

During the last 20 years of his life,

0:42:470:42:50

Vrubel became fascinated by a figure he simply called 'The Demon'.

0:42:500:42:54

He painted picture after picture of this mythical creature.

0:42:540:42:58

The series began as illustrations to a poem, but they developed into a strange private obsession.

0:42:580:43:05

And you can sense that in a picture such as this,

0:43:050:43:09

Vrubel is straining, almost self-consciously, to create

0:43:090:43:12

a very Russian language., there's a vibrancy of colour.

0:43:120:43:16

And over here on this side of the picture you've got this tremendously adventurous use of paint

0:43:160:43:21

which seems almost to prefigure Cubism, these blocks of colour have been placed here like this.

0:43:210:43:26

But I think they're actually meant to evoke the mosaic traditions of folk art and their ceramics.

0:43:260:43:32

And in the centre we've got this figure of the demon,

0:43:320:43:36

this brooding spirit of modern Russia, of Russia as the 20th century approaches,

0:43:360:43:40

which I think is meant to be somehow pondering the great questions that face the nation -

0:43:400:43:46

who are we, where are we going?

0:43:460:43:47

But if you want to see just how far

0:43:500:43:53

Vrubel would push the Russian folk traditions towards a kind of fin de siecle melancholia,

0:43:530:44:00

you need to look at this picture, the very last of his demon paintings.

0:44:000:44:04

- The Demon downcast. Now at first sight, it's a baffling image.

0:44:040:44:08

Here at the centre you've got this elongated, strangely dislocated figure of the demon,

0:44:080:44:15

who appears to have been wedged into some piece of hillside

0:44:150:44:20

in the middle of a barren Siberian plain, cloud-capped, snow-capped mountain in the distance.

0:44:200:44:26

And once again you've got, very much you've got the colours of the Russian orthodox church.

0:44:260:44:32

You've got this gold everywhere.

0:44:320:44:35

And yet the whole things been whipped up into a storm of almost total visual incoherence.

0:44:350:44:39

This is figurative painting that's almost on the brink of abstraction.

0:44:390:44:43

You've got the sense of almost as if the elements of your visual experience

0:44:430:44:48

have been put into a kaleidoscope by the artist and whirled around.

0:44:480:44:53

Like many another Russian artist and writer of his time, Vrubel ended up in a lunatic asylum.

0:44:580:45:04

But I think there's a kind of passionate sanity about this image.

0:45:040:45:08

I think he genuinely did feel

0:45:080:45:11

that Russia at the start of the 20th century was on the brink of some kind of apocalypse.

0:45:110:45:17

And this image of a world almost ripped to pieces by its own elemental energies

0:45:170:45:22

was his way of saying what he thought perhaps lay ahead for his nation.

0:45:220:45:28

Vrubel's sense of approaching apocalypse was shared by many Russians.

0:45:360:45:41

And it was a feeling fuelled by new, radical strains of political thought from Europe.

0:45:410:45:49

A book which would change the course of Russian history was published in the late 19th century,

0:45:490:45:55

the work of a dangerous German revolutionary.

0:45:550:46:00

Das Kapital got past the Tsar's censors

0:46:040:46:06

on the grounds that nobody in Russia could possibly understand it!

0:46:060:46:10

And although it is a dense and difficult book, it's also full of prophecies and Biblical metaphors

0:46:100:46:15

that appealed very strongly to Russia's mystic, apocalyptically inclined thinkers.

0:46:150:46:20

Marx compared the accumulation of capital to original sin,

0:46:200:46:25

and described capitalism itself as a demonic force, hatching golden eggs.

0:46:250:46:31

As Russia accelerated into the 20th century, this book became its new bible.

0:46:310:46:38

While Marxists plotted, back in St Petersburg Russia's old tsarist regime

0:46:440:46:49

was looking ever more out of touch.

0:46:490:46:52

Ancient structures of power had barely changed in Russia

0:46:540:46:57

since Peter the Great and the cracks were beginning to show.

0:46:580:47:01

In 1894, Nicholas II took to the throne,

0:47:060:47:10

a feeble ruler who resisted calls for democracy.

0:47:100:47:15

The people were stirring into open revolt,

0:47:150:47:19

but Nicholas chose to ignore the abyss opening before him.

0:47:230:47:26

His own favourite art shows him disappearing into a darkly intoxicating dream world.

0:47:370:47:44

The Tsar commissioned a series of eggs from the Faberge workshop.

0:47:440:47:50

With the shimmering colours of silk, miraculously fixed in enamel,

0:47:500:47:55

they're like Marx's golden eggs come to life.

0:47:550:47:58

Housed behind bullet proof glass, these cold, glittering, brilliant objects of luxury

0:48:110:48:16

are still the greatest symbol of the Tsarist regime in its last and most vulnerable years.

0:48:160:48:22

And in fact, you can even see a tiny little portrait of Tsar Nicholas II

0:48:220:48:26

embedded in the top of this particular Faberge egg.

0:48:260:48:29

He looks as aloof and remote as ever.

0:48:290:48:32

The timing of this weird imperial cult of mad extravagance could hardly have been worse.

0:48:320:48:39

This egg was created in 1900, and just a few years earlier,

0:48:390:48:43

half a million people in Russia had died of famine.

0:48:430:48:46

Talk about obscene self indulgence.

0:48:460:48:49

Nicolas' disconnection from the people was fanning the flames of revolution.

0:48:530:48:56

And artists were growing so bold that even a royal commission

0:48:580:49:03

could be used to undermine royal authority.

0:49:030:49:07

This is the hippopotamus, as it was instantly nicknamed by the Russian people.

0:49:120:49:18

A statue of Tsar Nicholas' late father, Alexander III,

0:49:180:49:23

it's an outrageous parody of the heroic Bronze Horseman.

0:49:230:49:28

This is the Obese Horseman.

0:49:280:49:31

But so out of touch was Nicholas,

0:49:310:49:33

he gave it the royal stamp of approval.

0:49:330:49:36

The great Wanderer, Ilya Repin described the horse as an image of the Russian people,

0:49:420:49:47

oppressed by the burden of the tsar, digging its heels in and refusing to go on.

0:49:470:49:52

And even the sculptor responsible for it, Trubetskoy, who later fled to France,

0:49:520:49:57

admitted that he'd intended the piece as a caricature.

0:49:570:50:00

"I wanted to depict one animal on top of another." he said.

0:50:000:50:04

So, ironically, what had been conceived as a grandiose celebration of the power of the Tsar,

0:50:040:50:11

became a rallying point for those who wanted to overthrow his regime.

0:50:110:50:15

And there were plenty of them.

0:50:150:50:18

The Hippopotamus was the last gasp of the art of Imperial St Petersburg.

0:50:210:50:28

An emblem of a culture about to be swept away.

0:50:280:50:31

As the 20th century dawned,

0:50:370:50:39

the energies of Russian culture shifted away from the capital

0:50:390:50:43

and found a new home.

0:50:430:50:45

A revolutionary centre for these revolutionary times.

0:50:530:50:57

The City of Moscow!

0:50:570:51:00

This great city had long been Russia's alternative centre of power,

0:51:050:51:10

a place that defined itself in opposition to St Petersburg.

0:51:100:51:14

And while the Tsar's city became ever more museum like and stultifying,

0:51:140:51:18

Moscow embraced the spirit of a new age - bold, progressive, modern.

0:51:180:51:24

At the start of the 20 century, this was one of the most exciting places in the whole world to be an artist.

0:51:240:51:31

Moscow was a natural home for artists who wanted to combine radicalism

0:51:360:51:40

with a renewal of Russian culture.

0:51:400:51:42

Vrubel emblazoned Moscow's grandest hotel with figures from legend and fairytales.

0:51:450:51:52

Languid spirits casting a spell on the city.

0:51:520:51:54

Inspired by Cubism and Futurism,

0:51:580:52:00

Natalia Goncharova celebrated Russian life,

0:52:000:52:05

in pictures that also evoke icons and folk art.

0:52:050:52:07

But one Moscow-born artist would catapult Russian modernism further than anything found in Europe,

0:52:150:52:22

creating a completely new, revolutionary style of art.

0:52:220:52:26

Wassily Kandinsky turned Moscow into a tapestry of colour.

0:52:330:52:38

And he dissolved it into the swirling forms of a bewildering dream.

0:52:400:52:48

It was the city's ancient forms that enthralled him.

0:52:480:52:52

Above all, its exotic onion domes.

0:52:520:52:56

Kandinsky said that Moscow itself was the catalyst for his new form of disorientating painting.

0:53:010:53:07

He saw it as a kind of fairytale city

0:53:070:53:09

and said that the music of its streets made his heart tremble and vibrate.

0:53:090:53:16

Filled with these heady, intoxicating visions of old Russia,

0:53:200:53:24

Kandinsky would leap into the unknown.

0:53:240:53:27

Between 1909 and 1914, Kandinsky worked to untether his art

0:54:080:54:16

from any reference at all to the visible world.

0:54:160:54:21

And he created what have been remembered as the very first abstract paintings.

0:54:210:54:25

This for me is the greatest of them all, Composition seven, which he created in 1913.

0:54:250:54:30

Now, for all the importance of the French influence on Kandinsky, the influence of the Cubists, of Monet,

0:54:300:54:36

the Impressionists, I think you can really see his Russian roots.

0:54:360:54:41

This is almost like that extraordinary Vrubel painting of the demon cast down.

0:54:410:54:47

This could almost be that picture seen through half closed eyes.

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Vrubel's kaleidoscope has become Kandinsky's vortex.

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A kind of whirlpool in which the last vestiges of representation float free.

0:54:580:55:06

Kandinsky was also a mystic.

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He believed that we were on the brink of what he called the great epoch of spirituality,

0:55:100:55:15

and that is what he was painting.

0:55:150:55:17

He was tearing the veil from the over materialist eyes of mankind,

0:55:170:55:23

I think that what this picture expresses, more than anything else,

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is his genuine belief that the world was on the brink of some kind of spiritual revolution.

0:55:270:55:35

As Kandinsky launched Russian art into abstraction, Russia itself was degenerating into formless chaos.

0:55:410:55:46

In 1915, in the throes of the first world war, the Tsar was losing all control over the country.

0:55:500:55:57

As communists demanded revolution, the most radical Russian artist of all,

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Kazimir Malevich, created art for a new world to come.

0:56:060:56:11

A series of stark geometrical shapes,

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thrusting away all the old conventions.

0:56:150:56:19

He was marching towards one of the most shocking works of the 20th century...

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..the Black Square.

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This cracked and fading painting has the status of a holy relic,

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an icon touched not by God, but by revolution.

0:56:460:56:52

It's an image of Russia itself as a blank space,

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ready for the great change to be written into it.

0:56:570:57:01

Malevich was a revolutionary, in politics as well as in art.

0:57:030:57:06

He had fought on the barricades against the Russian state.

0:57:060:57:09

Here, he's followed Kandinsky into abstraction,

0:57:090:57:12

but he's purged the image of all colour, all form.

0:57:120:57:17

He's left you with nothing but a void.

0:57:170:57:21

The traditionalists tried to laugh the picture off.

0:57:250:57:29

They said Malevich had gone mad, he must've painted the black square in the dark.

0:57:310:57:35

His response was straight forward.

0:57:350:57:37

"I'm glad I'm not like you.

0:57:370:57:39

"I can go further and further into the wilderness,

0:57:390:57:43

"because it's only there that transformation will take place.

0:57:430:57:47

"My black square is a bare and frameless icon for our times.

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"Arise, Comrades and free yourselves from the tyranny of objects."

0:57:520:57:58

In the same year the Black Square went on display,

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Lenin was in Switzerland plotting the overthrow of the Tsar.

0:58:120:58:17

Russian troops were retreating from German forces.

0:58:200:58:23

Strikers were bringing the nation to a standstill.

0:58:260:58:29

Revolution was coming.

0:58:320:58:34

Russia had reached Year Zero.

0:58:340:58:37

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:58:500:58:54

E-mail [email protected]

0:58:540:58:59

Andrew Graham-Dixon explores how Russia changed from a feudal nation of aristocratic excess to a hotbed of revolution at the beginning of the 20th century, and how art moved from being a servant of the state to an agent of its destruction.

From monuments that celebrate the absolutism of the tsars to the epic Russian landscape as inspiration; from the design and construction of gold and glittering palaces to the minutiae of diamond-encrusted Faberge eggs; and eventually to the stark and radical paintings of the avant-garde, the journey through Russian art history is one of extraordinary beauty and surprise.


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