The Ransom of Russian Art

The Ransom of Russian Art

by John McPhee


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In the 1960s and 1970s, an American professor of Soviet economics forayed on his own in the Soviet Union, bought the work of underground "unofficial" artists, and brought it out himself or arranged to have it illegally shipped to the United States. Norton Dodge visited the apartments of unofficial artists in at least a dozen geographically scattered cities. By 1977, he had a thousand works of art. His ultimate window of interest involved the years from 1956 to 1986, and through his established contacts he eventually acquired another eight thousand works—by far the largest collection of its kind.

John McPhee investigates Dodge's clandestine activities in the service of dissident Soviet art, his motives for his work, and the fates of several of the artists whose lives he touched. The Ransom of Russian Art is a suspenseful, chilling, and fascinating report on a covert operation like no other. It offers unprecedented insight into Soviet culture at the brink of the Union's collapse.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374524500
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 01/30/1998
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 536,321
Product dimensions: 5.69(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.48(d)

About the Author

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.


Princeton, New Jersey

Date of Birth:

March 8, 1931

Place of Birth:

Princeton, New Jersey


A.B., Princeton University, 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54

Read an Excerpt

The Ransom of Russian Art

By John McPhee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1994 John McPhee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70848-1


Norton Townshend Dodge, born in Oklahoma City in 1927, first presented his curriculum vitae to officials of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the early spring of 1955. They let him in for thirty days. His stated purpose was to travel with his father (a retired college president) and assist him in a study of Soviet education. Norton did not reveal his real mission. In a journey that encompassed three hundred thousand square miles, he gathered material for what eventually became a nine-hundred-page monograph on Soviet tractors. It served as his doctoral dissertation in economics at Harvard, where he already held an M.A. from the Russian Regional Studies Program, regarded by the K.G.B. as the academic wellhead of American spies.

In this country, Norton Dodge was (and still is) looked upon by his doting friends as a person who has difficulty getting from A to C without stumbling over D and forgetting B. On his own, he returned to the Soviet Union in the nineteen-sixties. He had become a professor of economics at the University of Maryland. His initial and primary travelling purpose was to learn all he could about (as his book was eventually called) "Women in the Soviet Economy—Their Role in Economic, Scientific, and Technical Development" (Johns Hopkins, 1966). Some of his colleagues said that he was studying "the position of Russian women under Stalin." But Stalin, of course, was gone, and Dodge was obviously far ahead of those colleagues, not to mention almost everybody else, in his absorption in the topic of opportunity for women. He suspected that this was one sociopolitical area in which the American situation might benefit from Soviet example. In those Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, he went from republic to republic, calling on state farms, collective farms, universities, and research institutes, and asking to see hierarchical charts. He could not always count on Intourist to broker these interviews. Tentative at first, he soon became aggressive. He says he would just take a cab to this or that institute and ask to see its leading woman scientist. A K.G.B. person met him at the door and put him in touch with the leading woman.

He had, as well, a hidden and unrelated interest. At Harvard, at the Russian Research Center, he had known a graduate student who had studied economics at Moscow University and had shared living quarters there with a Russian artist. The grad student told Dodge that the Russian, Valery Kuznetsov, had once been enrolled at one of the Moscow art institutes, learning the techniques of Socialist Realism on his way to becoming an official artist. The style was so repellent, though, that Kuznetsov went underground and painted what he was moved to paint, as an "unofficial artist," a "nonconformist artist," and therefore a "dissident artist"—all terms that were applied to the clandestine painters and sculptors of the Soviet Union in the era from Stalin to glasnost. They consisted of small, close circles, in Moscow and elsewhere, and those that did not have a covering occupation—like, say, student of economics—could be harassed not only as dissidents but as unemployed parasites and be sent to labor camps or mental hospitals, where some of them continued their artistic work. In time, their secrecy diminished and their circles overlapped, but 1962—when Norton Dodge went to the Soviet Union with Kuznetsov's name, address, and telephone number in his pocket—was early in this parabola. Slipping away from Intourist, he called from a public telephone and was soon visiting not only Kuznetsov but also the apartments of Kuznetsov's unofficial-artist friends. They took him to an apartment-exhibition of the work of Lev Kropivnitsky. The informality and the secretiveness notwithstanding, this was apparently the first abstract-art show in Moscow since the nineteen-twenties. In time, the unofficial artists became heroic figures through the drumlike telegraphy of Soviet culture. Kropivnitsky was the brother-in-law of Oskar Rabin, who was especially revered. Middle-aged and essentially hairless, Rabin developed the incongruous status of a bald rock star. Dodge bought works of these artists and either carried them in his suitcase or, with larger items, found ways of having them smuggled out. Meanwhile, the Moscow painters gave him the names of underground artists in other cities.

While Norton Dodge is behind a steering wheel on Interstate 95 between New York City and his home in Maryland, he has been observed reading the newspaper. Funnies first. Looking up at his surroundings, he tends to concentrate on the rearview mirror, explaining, "I'm keeping the car aligned." Sometimes the vehicle has been a white pickup with a boxed-in plywood back, full of paintings. Before he retired from college teaching, he sometimes went south on the interstate, writing his lectures with one hand and driving with the other. When he travels by air, archway metal detectors routinely rebuff him. He empties pockets, more pockets; but, back in the A.M.D., he fails. He continues to search himself from knee to chin, not missing the linings loose from the inner tweed. On the tray, he builds a pyramid of metal, with incidental plastic, wood, paper, rubber, and glass. For a third time, he submits himself to the electromagnetic inductors, the result being a bzzzzzzzzzzt, a clang, and a flashing red light. In such a moment, his wife, Nancy, has said to him, "How could you ever get around the Soviet Union if you can't beat your way out of the St. Louis airport?"

In Ukraine, Georgia, Byelorussia, Soviet Central Asia, Dodge went around in the daytime collecting material for what he calls his "women book," meanwhile figuring out how to contact artists at night. There were no city maps. But he had his Baedeker with him, naturally—the 1914 edition. Although most street names had been changed, the Baedeker was useful. In Dodge's words, "The layout of transportation was not far different." He carried a flashlight—incredible as this seems to people who knew the country in those years—and he used it to find numbers in dim corridors and lightless streets. "When travelling under the aegis of Intourist, it was worthwhile to take one of the general trips around the city and spot the numbers of various streetcars and other things," he recalls. "Not only was I pursuing art but also my other research, so I liked to know where universities or research institutes or the Academy of Sciences were, so that I could go and visit them directly if I felt that I wasn't threatening directly the people I would suddenly descend on." He was, to say the least, somewhat threatening to the artists, but they were willing to accept the risk. "We were all scared to death, all of us, including him," one of the artists has said. "Maybe he needed excitement in his life. It was a threat, a constant physical threat. He could have been killed. He introduced himself as an American professor interested in Russian art. Nobody could make anything of him. He was a mysterious figure—a professor obviously with money. We couldn't understand. He was strange, clumsy. He kept dropping things. He was afraid to reveal a name. We didn't know if he worked for the K.G.B., or if somebody who brought him did. He kept his connections quite secretive. He didn't mention his contacts. We didn't ask him. His appearance may have saved him. He didn't look like an American. He was sloppy. He was more like a Russian. If he was Russian, he would have been normal."

Dodge had a great deal more hair on his upper lip than elsewhere on his head. With his grand odobene mustache, he had everything but the tusks. He dressed professor, in tie, jacket—used clothing. Various friends have likened him to an unmade bed. He is absentminded to a level that no competing professor may yet have reached. He has called a locksmith to come and get him out of a situation that could have been alleviated by a key he later found in his pocket. But he got around Leningrad. He got around Kharkov. He got around Kiev, Odessa, Tbilisi, Baku, Yerevan. By the late nineteen-seventies, he had become too anxious to continue these travels. By then, he possessed a thousand works of Soviet unofficial art. Through his network of contacts, in following years, he multiplied that number by nine. All within the chronological window 1956 to 1986, his collection of nonconformist art from the Soviet Union became by far the largest and (in the scholarly sense) most exhaustive in the world. This way and that, he brought it to his farm, in southern Maryland.

Cremona Farm, broadly peninsular, lies between two creeks, fronts the Patuxent River, and consists of nine hundred and sixty acres. There are long-range views over fields to treelines and water. In early morning on the Hat pastures, a ground fog will all but conceal the dark shapes of horses. Beyond them are stands of maple, hickory, beech, sycamore, pine, sweetgum, poplar, oak. Half the farm is wooded. Certain of the owner's friends refer to the place as "his plantation." People ride to hounds there. The owner has known horses since his youth, but does not ride to hounds. The main house is Georgian, brick, with six chimneys, and with columned porticoes on both the land and the river sides. There is a pool, emerald with algae, and rosebushes, rampant, going wild beside it. Thorns gradually enveloped a piece of sculpture cast in zinc—bold, not easily movable, a little more than semi-abstract—titled The Prophet by the nonconformist sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, who once survived what Dodge describes as a "toe-to-toe, face-to-face, knockdown discussion" with Nikita Khrushchev about the themes of unofficial art. Later, Khrushchev's family chose Neizvestny to design Khruschchev's gravestone. The sculpture beside the Cremona pool was spirited out of the Soviet Union with the help of a German diplomat.

It's a short walk to the edge of the Patuxent, which is more than a mile wide and much like the Chesapeake it feeds—drowned rivers, both of them, widely and enduringly flooded when ice melted in the north. Cremona's dock is six hundred feet long, extending straight out in the shallow water to reach the one-fathom curve. The far shore is as wooded and rural as the near one. This panorama is not seriously blemished by the coalfired power plant a few miles upstream.

The farm's driveway is a terrestrial version of the farm's dock. One straight stretch of it runs more than a mile. West of the flat pastures, it meanders through hilly woods and comes to brick pillars at Maryland 6. Dodge once employed a tenant's young son to fetch the newspaper at Maryland 6. Each morning, the boy's round trip was more than two and a half miles. Dodge paid him seven cents a week. About halfway up the drive, at an intersection of farm roads, are eleven mailboxes in a row, one larger than the others. There are about forty buildings on Cremona, well spread, eleven of which are human habitations. There are hiproofed barns, louvered tobacco barns, tall saltbox gabled barns—silver weathered-cypress barns, covered in part with carriage vine. The music barn. The brick horse barn. Under its tall cupolas and outsize weathervanes, the brick horse barn resembles a stable that President Washington built at Mount Vernon. To Russian artists visiting Cremona Farm, the milieu it has brought to mind is from a deeper stratum: "His tenants seem to be serfs. He lives in a pre-capitalist era. He's still in the feudal system. Artists who served feudalists were better off than artists are now."

In a general way, Dodge refers to himself as an "on-the-site absentee landowner." Wine is made at Cremona, from Mediterranean hybrid grapes: Vidal, Villard Blanc, Seyval, Chambourcin, Villard Noir. The winemaker is a retired professor from the University of Maryland, whose name, as it happens, is not Norton Dodge. While Walter Deshler comes each year as visiting vigneron, Norton Dodge has yet to crush his first grape, but of course he is the labelled propriétaire. Billy Morgan farms Cremona, paying rent like the tenants, and growing more than a hundred thousand dollars' worth of soybeans, barley, wheat, and tobacco, and sharing proceeds with the landlord. Of Deshler's efforts, Morgan says, "Some of that wine is good wine and some will take your head off."

Norton Dodge spent more than three million of his own dollars on the art of the Soviet underground, but in all other ways he is the antonym of spendthrift. Surveying the broad Patuxent, the long boatless dock, he will say, "The best way to do your yachting is to look at other people's yachts." To attain an antebellum polish, Cremona would require a large staff of gardeners, housemaids, and handymen, who are not there. Professor Dodge is there, alone much of the time, struggling indoors to keep up with his paperwork, while the carriage vine grows, the cypress weathers, and Cremona itself ferments. Sarah Burke, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Trinity University in San Antonio, has said, "Cremona could be one of the estates in 'Dead Souls.'"

Ante-Norton, Cremona was owned by an army officer whose very rich mother-in-law had offered to buy her daughter and son-in-law a house if it was within fifty miles of Washington. The officer went up in a small plane, flew around, spotted what he wanted, and marked it on a map. He drove there. It was Mount Vernon. He took off again, and found Cremona. President Franklin Roosevelt came to visit, in the yacht Sequoia. When Dodge, between travels, bought Cremona in 1966 and began to stuff its barns with Russian paintings, he was an untenured professor still in his thirties.

I met him on an Amtrak train in Union Station, Washington, in January, 1993. Casual as that. He came into an empty car and sat down beside me, explaining that the car would before long fill up. It did. He didn't know me from Chichikov, nor I him. His button-down buttons weren't buttoned. He wore khaki trousers, a green tie, a salmon shirt, a tweed jacket with leather elbows, and a rubber band as a bracelet. An ample fringe of hair all but covered his collar. His words filtered softly through the Guinness Book mustache. It was really a sight to see, like a barrel on his lip. Two hundred miles of track lie between Union Station and Trenton, where I got off, and over that distance he uttered about forty thousand words. After I left him, I went home and called a friend who teaches Russian literature at Princeton University, and asked her who could help me assess what I had heard, since my qualifications, with respect to the relevant topics, consisted of a used train ticket. She mentioned Marian Burleigh-Motley.

Burleigh-Motley is an art historian in the Education Division of New York's Metropolitan Museum, and her special field within modern art is Russian painting, particularly of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She told me that Dodge's collection was unique, and that in amassing it over the years he could not have had any sense that it was a good investment. "He could not have anticipated that it was worth money. He likes the stuff, and that is why he did it. What he collected is therefore more idiosyncratic and more admirable." In a later conversation, she said, "I would stress the joy that he got out of collecting," and she added, "If he hadn't collected these works, many of them might have been destroyed. This was a great moment in Russian art—the sixties and seventies. They [the younger artists] never talk about it now. It's the sons and the fathers." In passing, she referred to Dodge as "a cuddly teddy bear of a man."

The art critic Victor Tupitsyn, who is Russian, said to me, "It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Norton singlehandedly saved contemporary Russian art from total oblivion. This makes him an evangelical figure."

On March 23, I went to Cremona for the first time. It was a raw day on the edge of the Patuxent. The farm appeared to be the sort of place where you would expect to find something other than pie filling inside the pumpkins. A door would slide open. The figure that emerged was Russian. There were Russians in the library, Russians in the barns—transient, here-today, gone-tomorrow, nonresident Russians. And there was Dodge, said to look Russian, in his luffing corduroys, his perennial tweed, his wine-dust sweater, his once-white shirt and abused red tie. On his head was a blue fits-all baseball cap lettered CREMONA FARM.


Excerpted from The Ransom of Russian Art by John McPhee. Copyright © 1994 John McPhee. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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