“Art from Russia”, at The Saatchi Gallery. By Andrew Graham-Dixon.

 “Gaiety is the outstanding feature of the Soviet Union,” Stalin once said. This chillingly empty pronouncement has been borrowed as the title of a new exhibition of contemporary Russian art at the Saatchi Gallery. The irony could not be heavier, the underlying message of the show more dark. Has Russia become a better place in which to live since the days of Perestroika, and Glasnost? Not a bit of it, to judge by this grim collective portrait of the nation, assembled from an intriguing but uneven collection of recent painting, sculpture and photography. Walking through its galleries is like wandering into a blasted, desolate landscape – a place without hope, let alone gaiety.

 The show opens with a remarkable series of photographs taken in the 1990s by Sergei Vasiliev, a former prison warden, showing the tattooed bodies of the inmates of Russian jails. The men who are his subjects have turned their skins into lopsided canvases, raggedly inked with homemade designs expressing rage, disgust, despair. The imagery is coded – staring eyes above the navel indicating homosexuality, skulls at the shoulder signifying a lifelong commitment to crime – so Vassiliev’s pictures double as a catalogue of the hieroglyphics of an underclass. The KGB are said to have studied them carefully. Darker than all the inked symbols are the expressions in the convicts’ eyes.

Even more blatantly dismal are the photographs of Boris Mikhailov, whose Case History occupies two large galleries at the centre of the show. The pictures are drawn from around 400 which he took in his hometown of Kharkov, in the Ukraine, in 1997-8: images of distressed youth, of the mentally and physically ill, the desperate and the destitute, wandering the barren precincts of a city abandoned to...

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