At first, there was the road. It swept a lonely track from Moscow to the eastern desolations: Siberia, cold and unknown.
Then there were the forsaken people. They trudged along the road, shivering in the cold, trembling with fear, accursed and damned. They fell along the road, bludgeoned, beaten, spat on, forgotten by their God.
They were sent by the Tsar. They were sent by Stalin. They trudged along that road of terror and abandonment in their hundreds of thousands.
And then there was Isaak Levitan whose depiction of the Vladimirka Road is one of the greatest and most heartbreaking works of art ever to come out of Russia.
Jeremy Poolman followed that trail and wrote the moving Road of Bones: A Journey to the Dark Heart of Russia. He wrote about Levitan’s masterpiece:
Look at me, it seemed to say, do you know where I lead? Can you see the poor souls, chained and weary, further with every step from their homes and families and closer with every step to the frozen gates of hell? And can you hear perhaps the ghosts that whisper in this tiny copse of trees?
Isaak Levitan (Исаа́к Ильи́ч Левита́н) (1860-1900) was a Lithuanian Jew, born in a shtetl in the same year as his great friend Anton Chekhov. Levitan is considered one of the finest landscape painters of Russia, but restricting him to the land is to diminish his humanity. He was ever an acute observer of the intimate link between the land and its people. To not see the shadow of loss in his work is (in Poolman’s words):
…nothing less than the loss of communion with nature, with the waters and the land and the vast, arching skies – an estrangement from the very soul of Russia herself. What others chose to see as nature abundant was for him a statement of absence, a record of theft, a portrait of abandonment. Why no people? people say of his pictures. They are gone, he says. They were here – there (they left an hour, a month, a year ago) – but now they are gone.
The painting had such an impact on Levitan’s countrymen that every spring, says Poolman, amateur painters set up their easels and squint into the sun and try to capture summer’s harsh and fleeting beauty.
Was Vladimir Kuvin (Владимир Иванович Кувин) (1927-2004) one of them? In 1956, he painted his own Vladimirka:
At an exhibition in 2002, this painting attracted considerable attention. Kuvin had portrayed it as his personal path of life, a road that he marched along under escort as though a prisoner in chains. All his life, he said, he had sought humanity and truth.