Andrew Solomon, a writer who focuses on psychology, art, and politics, recently sat down with radio host Leonard Lopate at 92nd Street Y to discuss his most recent book, Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change. From the first time he learned about the Holocaust to building barricades with Russian artists during the attempted 1991 coup d’état, Solomon discusses the turning points in his life and career that led him to become one of the most curious, incisive writers of today. (This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity)
Andrew Solomon: Most of [these essays] have been published in some form, some place, but many of them on a very different scale. For example, I went to Rio to write a piece for Travel and Leisure about the preparations that were taking place in the lead-up to the Olympics, but while I was there I became quite obsessed with and fascinated by the relations between the privileged and the disadvantaged, and the whole program to pacify the favelas. I ended up writing a long essay about that whole complex thing. I wrote a short piece for Travel and Leisure that mentioned a lot of restaurants and hotels. There are a number of others like that. Also for Travel and Leisure I went to Myanmar, but I was really fascinated by the lives of ex-political prisoners. The weird thing about having this double purpose is that you spend your whole time veering back and forth between anxious protest marches in rundown slums and opulent hotels and lovely restaurants.
Leonard Lopate: You write that an early defining moment in your life was a conversation you had when you were about 7 years old with your father.
Andrew: It was a conversation about the Holocaust. I remember it incredibly well. We were driving up in Westchester, where we spent weekends. He thought that I knew about the Holocaust. He referred to it in passing, and I said “the what?” He said “the Holocaust.” I said “what is the Holocaust?” Then suddenly there we were, at exit 11, having this conversation about the horror of what had happened.
I just remember being so shocked. I kept thinking he would say something else that would cause it all to make sense, but there of course wasn’t anything that could be said that could make it make sense. He was very final about it and very definitive, and said it’s very important, and these things happened.
He finished, and I sat there with this very bewildered feeling. I said, “but why didn’t those people just leave if things got bad?” He said, “They had nowhere to go.” I decided, in that moment, when I was 7 years old, that I was never going to be in that situation. That I was always going to have someplace to go. I had this idea, not fully fleshed out, but that came to me. I thought, I want to have friends everywhere, because if you have someplace to go, you can escape when something like that happens.
Leonard: Many of us develop a curiosity about how people live in other parts of the world while we’re young, but quite a few people never make it out of the United States or even out of their hometowns, for that matter. Even those who do a lot of traveling rarely wind up visiting 87 countries and 7 continents. When did that become a goal, or did it ever become a goal? Did you ever say to yourself, well okay, I’ve done 30 so far, let’s see how far, how many more I can collect?
Andrew: I absolutely love travel. Yes, I definitely had — I hope I’ve gotten over it — a little bit of that collector’s mentality. Could we actually drive through Andorra on the way, so I could say I had been to one more place?
Andrew: Lichtenstein. I spent quite a lot of time in Lichtenstein actually. I had an assignment to do an article on Russia. It was my first job. I was working for a British glossy magazine, doing the arts writing. I’d always wanted to see Leningrad. There was this auction taking place in Moscow. I thought, I’m going to get these editors to send me and they’ll pay for my ticket. I went off to do the article about the sale, and my original idea was these artists are doing really terrible artwork. It’s all being incredibly hyped. I’m going to write a very funny expose about all of the fancy people who got seduced into going in on this thing.
Then I went to Moscow. I met the artists and formed what ended up being some of the most important and intense relationships of my life. I suddenly understood that I had previously been very interested in being a tourist, but that actually it was possible to do something a bit more than being a tourist, and be a traveler, and actually get to know a place. It was the most frightening and the most exhilarating experience I’d ever had. I thought, ‘I want to do this some more.’ Then it all just burgeoned from there.
Leonard: This is at the time of perestroika [a 1980s political movement for reformation within the Communist Party]. Were they allowed to make modern art? Because for so many years people were thrown in prison if they did an abstract painting and the authorities knew about it. You had to be a socialist realist.
Andrew: In the period when Stalin was actually in power, there were a certain number of people who were thrown in prison for doing a painting. By the time I got there in the late eighties, but really even in the decades before that, there had been an ethos that you could make whatever you wanted but you couldn’t exhibit it publicly. There was a famous episode in the late seventies, where a group of artists thought, “We’re just going to hang our things outside.”
They went out into the countryside in the middle of nowhere and just put them all up in a rather festive way. The bulldozers arrived within hours. It was then called the Bulldozer Show, because everything had been run down.
The artists I was meeting had made all of this work, understanding that the only people who would see it would be their friends, the other members of this avant-garde circle. When I saw it in the Sotheby’s catalog, it looked incredibly banal. Why would anyone be interested in that?
But it was constructed to look banal in order to avoid the attentions of the KGB. The key to understanding it was knowing who made it. As I got to know the artists, which happened almost by happenstance when I was doing my research, I suddenly realized that it was full of these encoded and very profound meanings, and that it was made with huge moral conviction.
One of the artists, Nikita Alexeev, when we were talking about what happened as western galleries came into their lives, said, “You see, we had been in training to be not artists, but angels. Now there’s a western commercial world. They aren’t interested in angels, and all of us have to become artists.” That was my topic.
Leonard: I once interviewed a filmmaker who had gone through that period, who said that he felt that art in a way was on a higher level because you had to work in subtext. People had to understand what you were saying. The people would understand, whereas the censors would not get it. Once you were totally free, you became a lot more obvious.
They were building to build, and these people were designing to dream.
Andrew: I was amazed by how people were able to turn their limitations into their strengths. That’s a theme in all of my work, really, and certainly throughout this book.
There were a group of architects who I got to know when I was in Moscow. In the first place, you couldn’t work as an architect in the Soviet Union unless you were in the official union. Even if you could, you had to design things to general official state plans, and there were no supplies. There was one kind of window. Whatever you designed, that was the kind of window there was.
This group of architects, who knew that they would never be able to make it in that world, all had other part-time jobs. They would sit together at night, and they would design the Tower of Babel. They would design a theater that was made to float in the Baltic Sea. They designed all of these imagined things. What they designed was so fantastic. Their sketches were unbelievably beautiful. They were actually much more dramatic and much more impressive in many ways than what even Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas could do, because they were building to build, and these people were designing to dream.
Leonard: Have you been back during the Putin era? Is it any better for artists?
Andrew: I was back in the early Putin era. It’s better for artists insofar as the censorship is not as acute, and people don’t get imprisoned as readily. Certainly Pussy Riot got imprisoned. Certainly, there have been several shows which had content that alluded to gay topics. Those people have been thrown pretty rapidly behind bars under the gay propaganda law.
There isn’t a state-sponsored art, and there therefore isn’t an unofficial art which exists in contrast to what the state accepts, but there is a sense that if what you do is too explicitly provocative, you’re going to get yourself in a lot of trouble. It’s very sad because there was a time of freedom. It then collapsed back into this oppression.
Leonard: When you met those artists the first time, your life experience had been very different from theirs. Did you find it easy to relate to them?
Andrew: I was surprised at how easy it was to relate to them. The thing that made it so easy was an essential reciprocity. Those artists were just as curious about the world I came from as I was about their world. Now on the surface our lives were incredibly different, but I was trying to make art of a kind. They were making art themselves. I found them impressive because they had stood up to such authority. They found me interesting because I could tell them what it was like to think in a world full of freedom.
Leonard: Then you went back in ’89 as they prepared a giant exhibition of Soviet and German art. This was at a key moment in Russian history.
Andrew: It was, and I feel very fortunate. Some of it’s been by design, and some of it’s been by happenstance. I happened to have just finished grad school. I happened to want to go and see Leningrad. I happened to land that assignment. The Soviet Union happened to fall apart shortly thereafter.
They spoke about freedom in a way that I who had grown up in a free society could never possibly have done.
Leonard: You were there during the attempted putsch [attempted coup d’etat in 1991].
Andrew: I was. The putsch, that was the moment that I thought, ‘I’m not just going to write about these artists and about art, I’m going to write about these societies and what happens in them.’ It got me my first assignment at the Times.
The experience during the putsch was an unbelievable time. Gorbachev was kidnapped in August of 1991. A group of arch conservatives were trying to retake the Kremlin. Tanks rolled into Moscow. These artists, whom I’d been writing about, suddenly emerged as those who were organizing the resistance. All of these people who I was staying with were going off to build barricades. They looked at me, “Okay, you’ve spent this time with us, you’ve become our friend. Are you with us?” I thought, “I guess I’m with them.” So off we went, and we worked on building the barricades.
We had many bizarre and uproarious experiences. I particularly remember a very large Soviet woman who was trying to jumpstart a piece of construction equipment. At the time, it was very fashionable to have clothing with English writing on it, even for people who couldn’t understand it. This woman was ordering people around wearing a shirt that said “I’d rather be playing tennis.”
On the third day of the putsch, we had gone to see where some people had been shot the night before. We were all standing around, flowers on the ground, old women speaking about tragedy. Suddenly this young man came running up. He said, “There are tanks approaching the barricades. You have to come defend the barricades.” People had kept saying tanks, and we really hadn’t seen very many tanks. We sort of wandered up to the front of the barricades, and we stood there. Then a column of tanks rolled up. I thought, “This is not like the other writing about art I had been doing.” The soldier on the front tank said, “Look. We have unconditional orders to destroy this barricade. If you get out of the way, everything will be fine. If you refuse to move, we’ll have no choice but to run you down.”
One of the artists said, “Would you give us just one minute? Just one minute to tell you why we’re here?” The guy sort of folded his arms. The artists started talking about freedom, about democracy, about liberty. They said, “You’re very young. You don’t remember what it was like in the days of real dictatorship. Let us tell you what it was like. It was terrible.” One of them said, “You will say that you were only following orders, but if you follow orders it’s because you have chosen to do so. You are making this choice.” They spoke about freedom in a way that I who had grown up in a free society could never possibly have done. They talked for about 10 minutes. Then they finished, and we all stood there. It had been raining for days. We were all coming down with colds. We were bedraggled. We were in front of this ramshackle barricade that we’d made with stuff found on the street.
The soldier on the front tank looked at us. He thought for a minute. Then he said, “What you have said is true, and we must bow to the will of the people. Clear some space so we can turn around, and we’ll go back and leave you your barricade.” That was the moment when I thought, actually all of that talk about being angels not artists, about this urgent purpose in finding a language within which to describe their reality, that wasn’t just a fantasy. That was a reality. If you could only say things right, this pen could be mightier than the sword.
Leonard: That led to your first book, The Irony Tower: Soviet Artists in a Time of Glasnost.
Andrew: It did. The book came out before the putsch actually. Then I was back visiting the artists. It was the summer of ’91. It had been a very difficult summer. I had lost my mother. I thought, I’m just going to go see my friends in Russia and have a nice, quiet, relaxing time. Then the Soviet Union came to an end, and there we were on the barricades.
We are the ones holding on to truth in a society which is focused on annihilating truth itself.
Leonard: You’ve written about the arts in other countries as well, including persecuted art scenes in Afghanistan and China. Why do you think that totalitarian regimes feel the need to crack down on artists? Aren’t they among the least powerful people in the world? I used to be an artist.
Andrew: Don’t say that to Sheena Wagstaff and the crowd over at the Met Museum. I think that it’s interesting that these regimes, especially communist regimes and fascist regimes who produce propaganda, have had a strong sense that the arts are a way of expressing political ideals, or political non-ideals as the case may be, and convincing a lot of people of them. As soon as you set up a system where there are official communications that you want everyone to buy into, you automatically, by implication, create an unofficial world which says other things. You need to repress it because you cannot have a competing voice. When your power is supposed to be absolute, that’s what happens.
Now the irony of it is that here, where we don’t have any particular official art coming out of Washington, we don’t have a sense that that’s an important part of our soft diplomacy. The people who are making radical art are of enormous interest to other people who are either buying or creating their own radical art, but they don’t have that much effect on the society itself. When you take a group of people, and you say, “You will not be allowed to do this, because you’re doing it constitutes a threat to our hegemony,” then you actually enfranchise those people and give them the power to say, “We are the ones holding on to truth in a society which is focused on annihilating truth itself.”
This conversation was originally recorded at 92nd Street Y — the New York cultural center that convenes influencers and innovators who inspire a world of ideas. From the arts to business to politics to science, it’s where tomorrow’s most important issues are revealed, and today’s most intriguing conversations begin.