The monument to the great Russian realist painter Ilya Repin (1844-1930) stands with its backside aimed in the direction of the Kremlin on the other side of the Moscow River, and facing in the direction of the spectacular Tretyakov Gallery of art just south of it. It stands in the middle of what is called Bolotnaya, or Swamp, Square, the site of many historical events over the centuries. Here in this place the rebels Stepan Razin and Yemelyan Pugachyov were executed in tsarist times, in 1671 and 1775, respectively. Here in the 2000s numerous huge political demonstrations were held, protesting, to one extent or another, the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Here, on Bolotnaya Square, on May 6, 2012 – exactly two years ago today – Russian authorities coaxed protesters into conflict then reacted swiftly and violently. To this day there are people in prison who were caught up in that confrontation and used as examples by the authorities to frighten off future demonstrators. That policy worked. Two years ago today there were some 100,000 participants in the so-called March for Freedom; today perhaps 500 people showed up on Bolotnaya Square to declare solidarity with those who were arrested and are still in prison. Repin did not gaze upon the executions of Russian rebels in the 17th and 18th century, but he has presided over all of the protests in the 2000s, big and small. For some reason it always seems like there is a particularly momentous sky behind him, even when the common low Moscow clouds obscure all sunlight. This monument has a genuine nobility to it, a lovely line and a very human feel, even though it is very big. That was brought home to me deeply one day when I approached the statue on one of my walks (I live in the general neighborhood) and I saw a young boy, perhaps eight to ten years old, break free of his mother’s hand and run hell bent for leather towards the statue. “Repin! Mama! Repin! Look, mama! It’s Repin!” he shouted with absolute, genuine glee. For that boy the statue was no statue, it was Repin, in the flesh. The boy’s excitement about the huge bronze structure was no different than if he had espied his grandmother or grandfather and was running to greet them.
Many years ago – I’m talking ancient 1979 – I had the marvelous opportunity to visit Repin’s home in the woods northwest of Leningrad (St. Petersburg). It is a lovely wooden structure, filled with light and space and fresh air, and you can easily imagine an artist living and working there. Repin’s reputation as one of the great portrait painters and chroniclers of Russia’s lower and working classes will, I suspect, never be in doubt. I am particularly fond of the Moscow statue. Ever since that day when I encountered that happy young boy, I cannot approach the monument without hearing in my head the words, “Repin! Repin! Mama, it’s Repin!”