Glasnost: Bitter taste of a world lost forever

A new London exhibition of art from the dying days of the Soviet Union provides a picture of a generation on the brink of enormous change, says Mary Dejevsky
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Confronting you, scorning you and pleading with you as you enter this impressive exhibition is a wooden caricature of a winged victory. Placed above the main staircase at the Haunch of Venison gallery, in a position that could have been made for it, Boris Orlov's Bunch of Cropped Wings exudes the bitter sarcasm of its age. Its multitude of protruding wings are inscribed – with "wings of hope", "wings of despair", "wings of oblivion" – little messages from the artist to an audience he probably never dreamt would see it.

Glasnost, in which Bunch of Cropped Wings could be seen as a keynote piece, is the brainchild of the German collector Volker Diehl. It is also a tribute to his farsightedness. Diehl's curiosity and admiration were tweaked when he encountered a group of Soviet Russian artists in Berlin in the late 1980s. They were suddenly free-ish to work, travel and experiment, thanks to a relaxation of state controls presided over by Mikhail Gorbachev.

As president and head of the Communist Party from 1985, Gorbachev eased restrictions on cultural life, ushering in an intellectual ferment that soon took on an energy of its own. Artists who had worked secretly in their garrets and basements, in defiance of an art world suffocated by the Ministry of Culture and the official Artists' Union, ventured – at first timidly – into the world.

Given that defiance had been the wellspring of so much of their work, however, the growing cultural freedom that defined the last years of the Soviet Union could be seen as presenting, perversely, a threat. Once everything was allowed, there was nothing to rebel against. Thus the work in this exhibition – which spans the years 1980 to 1996 – becomes ever more outrageous and anarchic or, in the opposite direction, more superficially conventional. Its heyday was brief. It was, as Diehl calls it, "a very special time".

Among the very special works of that time, as well as the Bunch of Cropped Wings, could be singled out Sergey Mironenko's Presidential Election Campaign, 1988, an almost life-size reconstruction of an official electoral billboard with a desk and a banner nominating the artist for president. But this is only obliquely a celebration of the very relative freedom of that first Soviet presidential election. The bitterness is on display for all to see. Where the uplifting election slogan should be, at the foot of the giant billboard, is the legend: "What have these swine done to our country?"

The use of text distinguishes much of the non-conformist work of this period. It is not just that the artists want their message spelled out – text has had a place in Russian art down the ages. Religious art (the icon) and secular folk art, (the lubok, or popular print) incorporated text as a matter of routine, as did the agitprop of the 1920s. Anti-establishment the artists in Glasnost may have been, but they placed themselves, consciously, in the national tradition.

A more prevalent and obvious strand of Russian art that was co-opted by the non-conformists of the 1980s was that of Soviet Socialist Realism, from the 1920s on. The style and set pieces of such art are ruthlessly plundered and pilloried; twisted into exposes of the failings that turned out to be the death throes of the Soviet Union. Semyon Faibisovich's almost photographic treatment of vodka queues bears witness to an inhumane interlude that has been forgotten. So too does Eduard Gorokhovsky's Bitsa – a depiction of the open-air art market of the time which implicitly refers back to the notorious day in 1962 when Khrushchev ordered an exhibition of abstract art at Bitsa to be smashed.

The non-conformists of the 1980s eschewed abstraction for a more overtly political message. Alexander Brodsky is represented here by two small but eloquent sculptures. One is a model presidium, fashioned after the standard venue for Soviet Communist Party gatherings and "peopled" by used teabags. The other is a book, watched over by large, primitive binoculars: the plight of the intellectual under Soviet communism. As with the works mocking Socialist Realism, their presence comes as a salutary reminder.

Hallowed Soviet symbols also have a hallowed place. Especially memorable is Andrey Filippov's Last Supper, a long table set with empty white plates, on a red cloth, with identical hammers and sickles for cutlery.

When Diehl organised his first exhibition of glasnost-era Soviet art, Europe was a very different place. It is hard to think back to those days now. His Berlin gallery was in the western half of a divided city. The Wall was still in place – but had only months to stand. And if Soviet artists suddenly had air to breathe they, like their fellow citizens, were hampered by ubiquitous shortages.

Yet they had a window on a wider world, exemplified in the third striking trend in glasnost non-conformism: a fascination with the United States, as the ultimate expression of political incorrectness. Contemporary American art, including Andy Warhol, was discovered by a generation of Russians who had until a few years before been sealed off from the outside world. They harnessed elements of its themes and style for their own political purposes. To laud things American, such as Coca-Cola or the Statue of Liberty, was to sail very close to the wind. This was the message conveyed by Alexander Kosolapov's Gorby, a massive head of Gorbachev, somewhat reminiscent of Warhol.

There are more than 100 pieces in this exhibition, displayed in lavish space, and they offer a sweeping review of this very special period. In their bitingly intelligent and embittered way, they chronicle the last days of the doomed Soviet regime and celebrate the exuberant freedom that followed.

In so doing, they raise a question. How far are these works a testament to their age and how far will they prove to be enduring and universal works of art? Diehl argues that they are historical documents that have transcended the circumstances of their creation to become art. Of some this is true; of many it may become true. Of others, I have my doubts. There are those that evince undoubted spirit, even heroism, but for all that may prove ephemeral.

My favourite work is Premonition, a smaller canvas by Sergey Shablavin. The words "Made in the USSR" seem to split apart a stylised map of the Soviet empire, or the Soviet star. But this is no historical document – it is more like prophecy. It was painted in 1980.

An untitled canvas by Andrey Roiter might serve as a coda. It commemorates Sotheby's first Moscow art sale, held in 1988. The stylised text at the centre is a quotation attributed to Lord Gowrie, who was then chairman of the auction house: "They are opening our eyes." So that art fair did, for better and for worse. Access to western buyers gave the most accomplished, daring or fashionable artists a more secure existence. Some became rich. But the arrival of the free market also spelt the beginning of the end of non-conformism, just as it spelt the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.

For further reading: Postmodern Culture by Hal Foster (Pluto Classics)