The Soviet Dream : Ojai Couple Was Dissident Artist's Ticket to U.S. but Time May Be Short


In a small Leningrad flat that eventually became an underground mini-gallery for American tourists, Vladislav Sukhorukov painted for 15 years fearing a knock on the door from the KGB.

Under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and perestroika , freedom of expression is easier to come by in the Soviet Union today. But art supplies and sales to visiting foreigners such as Paula Spellman of Ojai are not.

With a 100% tariff on art leaving the Soviet Union and still a sometimes scrutinizing eye on the politics of a painting, Spellman knew it would be almost impossible to take Sukhorukov's paintings out of the country. So she worked, instead, to take him out.

The 40-year-old dissident artist, whom Americans call Slava, paints in Spellman's tiny, cluttered attic surrounded by newly acquired colors and the brushes he stuffed into three bags when he arrived in New York City six months ago.

His paintings have a surrealistic mood and often depict religious and political themes. The artist has a preference for dark, bold colors and his admirers describe his work as powerful.

"He had never painted with gold," said Spellman, who met Sukhorukov when she traveled to the Soviet Union as a citizen diplomat in 1989. When she bought him a tube of the color, he said, "That's 100 icons" and set out to repaint many of his religious pictures.

Spellman, and her husband, Bill, a dentist in Ventura, have had an interest in Soviet culture, architecture and history for years and traveled to the country last May to live for a few months in Soviet homes. When they met Sukhorukov they were enthralled with the dramatic messages on his canvases.

"We decided we wanted the world to see it," Paula Spellman said.

For seven months the Spellmans worked with various agencies, filling out form after form to bring the dissident artist to the United States.

Finally, Sukhorukov, who had been working on a television show with National Geographic, appealed to the show's producer, who cut through the red tape with the country's consulate. He got Sukhorukov an airplane seat that ordinarily would have required an 18-month wait.

Because Soviet citizens need three days to reserve an international phone call, Sukhorukov had no time to warn the Spellmans that he was on his way. His pocket was picked in New York and he lost his telephone book with the Spellmans' number.

But Sukhorukov had coded the phone number into his watch, and ultimately linked up with his Ojai benefactors.

"He didn't even know we'd be here," Paula Spellman said.

While Sukhorukov calls himself "a citizen of the planet," his passport expired in late July and the Spellmans say he might be forced to return to the Soviet Union if the United States government denies his request for an extension or a two-year visa.

He has 10 paintings on exhibit in a Los Angeles gallery that wants to hire him as a full-time artist, and Paula Spellman has been trying to set him up as an artist in residence at private high schools.

But it may be another week before Sukhorukov learns whether he can stay.

"If he has to go back after six months in America, after tasting the freedom of expression, I don't know what that would do to him," Paula Spellman said. "He was a misplaced person to ever have been born in Russia."

While Gorbachev's reforms have allowed artists to express themselves without government restriction, Sukhorukov and other Soviets are uncertain about their president's sincerity, the artist said.

"There is a general feeling by most Soviets that it's not going to last," Paula Spellman said.

Further, Sukhorukov and the art world benefit from his American residency because people can purchase his work without the difficulty of buying it in the Soviet Union and practically paying twice to take it out of the country, she said.

"We're hoping he can show the people his message of peace," Paula Spellman said.

In his bedroom below his attic studio, Sukhorukov has hung some of the 22 paintings he has done since arriving in the United States.

One picture, called "The Game," depicts three Soviet citizens in a room--a man playing chess in a black tuxedo to represent high society, a topless woman on heroin and an ageless man on a hobby horse who sees his reflection in a mirror as a knight. They do not even think to resist, Sukhorukov said, even though the door is barred only by a paper seal.

Another, "Golera," is a painting of a ship symbolic of Soviet society trying to progress, Sukhorukov said. But the ship is out of water and a tidal wave of inevitable doom hangs overhead.

Since his arrival in California, Sukhorukov has built a following that includes Soviet experts and gallery owners impressed by the messages that blaze from his oil paintings.

"I was absolutely entranced with his work," said Sharon Tennison, president of The Center for U.S.-U.S.S.R. Initiatives, a nonprofit group based in San Francisco that sets up exchange programs with the Soviet Union. "Slava has a very spiritual quality to his work, a universal quality."

"The Universal Mother," Sukhorukov's painting of a woman with wizened, chestnut-colored eyes looking down on a child holding the Earth and surrounded by two spaceships, hung for a few years at the San Francisco center, Tennison said. It hangs, for now, in the Spellmans' living room.

Michael Ayzenberg, a partner and director of the Sherberg Gallery showing the artist's work in Los Angeles, called the paintings original and philosophical. The gallery, which specializes in 20th-Century Russian art, has sold two of Sukhorukov's paintings for $4,000 each.

About 30% of the sales is used to purchase supplies for artists still in the Soviet Union, Ayzenberg said.

"He doesn't just paint. He doesn't just put images on the canvas," Ayzenberg said. "It's not only surrealistic, it also has some message. Usually he does it to a religious or political concept."

Sukhorukov's father worked in a Leningrad ship factory while his mother stayed at home with Sukhorukov and his sister, now a 39-year-old cartographer. He painted as a child but his parents never encouraged him to pursue his art beyond pleasure.

He spent 1968 to 1975 in higher education, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts from the College of Art Design and the Academy of Art, both in Leningrad.

"I paint my idea, only my idea. I don't paint idea Brezhnev," he said, referring to former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

When Sukhorukov arrived in Ojai he spoke little English, stumbling for words beyond hello and goodby , he said. But Paula Spellman, a former teacher and speech therapist, read Russian fairy tales with him and coached him to speak broken but coherent sentences. Speaking minimal Russian, she helps interpret his words.

"I have much to say. Not enough language," Sukhorukov said. "I only want. I only dream. I want to see America."

In addition to housing Sukhorukov and paying attorney and medical fees, Paula Spellman represents Sukhorukov and his art, but not for a fee. In fact, she says, she has never calculated the extra expenses.

"I didn't want to ever put a dollar figure on what he's given us and what we're giving him," Paula Spellman said. "And I didn't want him ever to know."

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