Leonid Sokov

11 October 1941, Mikhalevo Village, Kalinin Oblast

In his youth, Leonid Sokov diligently worked on his image as a rough-hewn country boy. He in fact was born in a Russian village, but moved to Moscow at the age of ten. Nevertheless, he apparently needed to overcome a serious culture gap to fit in the circle of capital city snobs and intellectuals, with whom he studied at the Stroganov School and where a series of ideas was being elaborated that later would be called Sots Art. Moreover, he was the one who displayed the greatest activity in the discussions held in the early 1970s by the young rebels who wanted to find ways of integrating the factures of Soviet and contemporary art. Yet, he managed to find the coziest method to earn a living that did not require any serious moral compromises. He designed children’s playgrounds, which in those days usually involved wooden animalistic sculptures in a pseudo-folk style. The “children’s” sphere permitted substantial deviations from the canons of Socialist Realism and it even welcomed a certain amount of the “primitive” and coarseness, harking back to folk art. Of course, Russian folkloric poetics had no problem with lewdness, so there is nothing surprising when the common folk sculptural format of a tilting, never-falling doll is endowed with a juicy content—we find before our eyes a merrily swaying penis, painted gold.

Moreover, Sokov discovered serious critical potential in this seemingly innocent sphere. For example, researchers claim that one of the favorite subjects of Russian folk pictures—“How the Mice Held the Cat’s Funeral”—actually goes back to caricatures of Emperor Peter the Great. So there is nothing surprising in Sokov’s kinetic toy, which has melancholy Stalin and Hitler hammering the world globe.  The original version has a muzhik and a bear hammering something on an anvil. We are given an extremely simple, unambiguous message—two great dictators are making an enormous effort to physically destroy (or re-forge?) the world.

The bear appears as hero in a graphic drawing, where Stalin and the bear jointly urinate in the snow to make the letters USSR. This is easy to decipher as well—the Soviet myth was created by Stalin, using the Russian imperial mythology, embodied in the totemic image of the bear.

But in this case the bear is not the bloodthirsty animal that attacks the peace-loving British lion in political cartoons that began to appear in the early nineteenth century. Nor does Stalin resemble a bloody dictator, he is merely a cheerful military man with luxuriant mustaches. This work is dated 1990, that is, a time when the totalitarian empire created by Stalin was already in collapse, and the Russian Bear no longer seemed so threatening.  Stalin and the Bear chatting with him are grinning—they must be sharing the latest joke.

In 1981, Leonid Sokov immigrated to the USA and settled in New York, as did many Sots Art artists. In the USSR, Sokov’s monumental jokes reached a potentially unlimited audience. The most varied strata told political jokes, from peasants to members of the Central Committee of the CPSU. However, American viewers didn’t get them, to put it mildly. So Sokov created a joke especially for Americans. He began a series using the image of Marilyn Monroe. The sex symbol of all time and every nation accepted the courtship of the Russian Bear or had an intimate dinner and flirted openly with the Generalissimo Stalin. On another occasion, Sokov inserted the mass media image of Marilyn into canonic Soviet iconography. A famous portrait of the smiling pop star replaces Lenin in the double bas-relief “Lenin-Stalin.”

Surrealists liked to quote Lautréamont’s line about a “chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.”  Sokov reminds us of McLuhan’s “The medium is the message.”

Sokov once expressed the hope that a hundred years from now no one would be able to recall if Stalin and Monroe had ever actually met. Fortunately he is mistaken—there is the hope that the red dictator will be recognizable then only to students who paid attention in their course on twentieth-century history.

I think the same will hold with Sokov’s most famous, signature work—“Meeting of Two Sculptures.” Sokov’s source was a small sculptural work by Konstantin Klodt (1924), who worked as a sculptor at the Kaslinsky foundry. This small statuette was reproduced in vast numbers in subsequent years. Its original intended use, on a desk, creates an amusing psychological collision. The leader of the world proletariat, “The Most Human Human,” as he was called, gazes ironically at the modernist monster striding determinedly toward him. This is a good place to remind you that Sokov has good reason to define his style as “folkloric Pop Art.” So we will continue guessing—is the sculptor mocking the trivialness of Soviet ideology, or, as a postmodernist, is he criticizing modernism?

Andrei Kovalev