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George Costakis' dramatic tale of collecting the Avant-Garde in the Soviet Union: His own words

Some of his most prized works are now on show in the New York Guggenheim exhibition “The Great Utopia: the Russian and Soviet Avant-garde 1915-32”

Athens

I bought some pictures by avant-garde artists, took them home and hung them up next to some Dutch paintings. It felt as if I had been living in a room with closed curtains, and all of a sudden its windows had been thrown open and the sun had come bursting in. From then on I decided to leave all that I had and collect nothing but Avant-garde. That was in 1946.

It proved not to be easy. First, in those days their things were all banned, and whoever had any was not especially keen to draw attention to the fact. They were hidden away, and people tried not to let anyone see them. Nor was anyone eager to buy them then.

I decided that I needed to get some support, to find someone who could, let us say, take charge of me and give me advice. That was how I got to know Nikolai Nikolaevich Khardzhiev. He was, at the time, a well known art expert who knew Malevich well, had done some work on Mandelstam’s poetry, and was regarded as an expert on Mayakovsky. In a word, he was right in touch with the Avant-garde.

We met up, and I told him that I intended to collect pictures by the Avant-garde artists. “You know, George Dionisovich”, said Nikolai Nikolaevich, “this is all very interesting, but it’s a lost cause. No-one has any need for the Avant-garde, it’s completely finished. That kind of art has been forbidden since 1932. It’s no longer exhibited at museums, interest in it has lapsed; it’s been ‘buried’.”

I listened closely to what he had to say, but I then pressed him to name the best-known avant-garde artists for me. He mentioned Chagall, Kandinsky, Malévich, Larionov, Goncharova, Olga Rozanova... And that, you might have thought, was all there was. He said Popova and Klyun were unoriginal, adding that there was nothing interesting about them, while Rodchenko was no more than a photographer. “Generally”, said Khardzhiev, in final judgement, “there’s no need to spend your time on these artists. All it will do is clutter up your collection with rubbish”.

I, however, saw it my own way. I had already seen pictures by Popova, Klyun, and other artists who were then totally unknown. What struck me was how they all seemed to look so very much alike and yet, at the same time, so totally different.

In a word, I began collecting the artists of the Avant-garde. Many of my friends and even relatives felt sorry for me. They thought I had made a huge mistake in getting rid of the old collection in preference for collecting what they unanimously regarded as “junk”. In the circles of Moscow’s collectors I acquired the not entirely flattering nick-name of the Odd-Bod Greek who bought the rubbish that no-one needed.

The search for these things was very hard and complicated. At first I managed to get hold of two pictures by Popova, then the thread broke off and, completely by chance, I stumbled back on the right trail. Popova had died in 1924. I became acquainted with her brother Pavel Sergeevich Popov, a university professor. He was a very tall and good-looking gentleman. He lived in a big Moscow flat down one of the side-streets in the Arbat. I duly went along to see him and, in the first room in which he received me, I noticed one or two small Popovas up on the wall. I told him that I had heard a great deal about his sister. He said, “Yes, as you know, she died young, but I’ve got quite a number of her works”. I then told him that I was collecting her works and would like to buy them from him. His answer was, “Why not ? I’ve got a lot of them and, if you want, I’ll show them to you now”. He led me through to the next room, and up against the wall there lay a stack of some ten to fifteen canvases. They were all first rate, so I bought them from him. He found it very hard selling me the smaller works. When I told him that I would also like to buy a smaller Popova, he objected, “No, I’m keeping this because it’s small and it can always be hung anywhere, but these big ones... where can they go ?”

This Pavel Sergeevich had an adoptive son living in Zvenigorod. Once he said to me, “You should go and see my adoptive son in Zvenigorod. I think he should also have some of my sister’s pictures”. So off I went... and arrived at a country house with a large garden. It was right in the blossom season, and all the soft pink apple and cherry trees were, like everything else, out in bloom. I was very well received. Anyway, the first thing I noticed as I was going upstairs was one of Popova’s pictures with a bath-tub hanging over it...

Then we went for a walk out in the garden. And I saw that the shed window had been boarded over with some plywood, and the board had a number beneath which was the signature “Popova”. I went inside and saw a beautiful work which the artist had done on the other side. I immediately suggested buying it from him, to which my host answered by saying, “No, I can’t do that. If it rains everything in the shed will get wet. You first bring me some plywood, and then I’ll give you the picture”. So I had to go to Moscow and look for some plywood. I could not find a piece big enough, so I bought two smaller pieces and took them back to the dacha. The owner then swapped me the beautiful picture with which he had boarded his shed window.

The other pictures he sold to me, but very cheaply. So I acquired most of Popova’s works from her family. By that stage I was already working at the Canadian Embassy, and I let the staff buy some of the pictures from me, but again it was very cheaply. Hauser bought one of them, and so did Collins, Moore, and someone else as well. Altogether, I did them a good turn. Collins, for example, bought a very fine work off me for 600 roubles. That was very cheap. I made nothing out of it. I sold them for the same price that I had paid myself. When they bought them from me, I said, “For the next ten to fifteen years don’t sell these, because by then they will be worth a great deal”. For the most part, they heeded my advice. But Hauser... either he needed the money, or alternatively... anyway, he sold his pictures very cheaply to a “Modern Art” museum. And that is where they are hanging now, and they are worth a great deal.

The actual process of collecting was very complicated. I have already said that anathema had been pronounced over the Avant-garde from the beginning of the Thirties, and that made it very difficult for the avant-garde artists themselves, as well as for their families. I remember going to see some works by the artist Klement Redko. I was met by his widow. I asked if she could show me his works from the Twenties. And she replied by saying, “Well, they’re up in the loft. I can get them down for you. But why are you so interested in his early works ? My husband thought they were a failure and felt embarrassed about them, and for a long time he wouldn’t let me see them. He thought his best period was the pictures he did in the Thirties, when he worked in France”.

She went up to the loft and brought them back. Many of them were frayed and not in very good condition. Altogether, she probably showed me about twelve to fifteen works, and she asked, “George Dionisovich, tell me quite honestly, do you really like them ?” I replied, “Very much”. “Well”, she said, “if you want, you can have all of them”. I said, “Have them? No, I’ll buy them from you”. “Well, you can pay me just a bit”.

In brief, I bought the pictures from her, and she told me, “There’s one more thing, if you’d like to have a look at it; it’s called ‘Revolt’”. And from somewhere beneath a cupboard she produced an enormous canvas draped in a sheet and showed it to me. I gasped. It was an absolutely amazing thing shaped like a rhombus, and in the centre was the entire government, including Trotsky, Lenin, and Bukharin. All around them were battles, with machine-gunners and troops. The background showed buildings rising up in a fiery glow (see illustration). The overall effect from the picture was that if you got any closer you would be engulfed in fire; I was staggered when I saw it. I bought that one, too. Now it is in the Tretyakov Gallery.

1946: Stalin cracks down on “poisonous” and “apolitical” art—the old Avant-garde

It was, indeed, “not a simple time”. Collecting got harder and harder; people grew frightened. For example, I would get hold of an address, go there and negotiate. Maybe there was a Chagall or a Kandinsky being sold somewhere, and a sale would be agreed. Next day there would be a telephone call, “Is that George Dionisovich ?” “Yes”. “You know, we’ve changed our mind about the sale”.

And everyone expected things would get nasty once Zhdanov’s famous article* appeared. It left us quaking in our own home. We had first hung the avant-garde pictures in our main room, but as the man in charge of our building, and a local policeman, sometimes called on us, my wife and I decided to hang the pictures in the bedroom and put the icons in the living room. So whenever anyone came in they would see the icons. They were not so forbidden, and we were too frightened to leave our pictures out on view... Such were the times, and what was more I was a man with a foreign passport and working in an embassy, and that made it much harder for me to collect.

Opposite my house on Bronnaya Street there used to live the remarkable actress Alice Koonen, the wife of Taírov, and she and I were very fond of each other and got on very well together. She also had quite a few things—two small Picassos and a picture by Robert Delaunay called “The window” that Taírov was given when they were in Paris on tour together, and a very fine Yakulov. I often used to go to Koonen’s. She had the whole of the second floor completely to herself. She was an utterly charming lady who was by then well into old age. I always used to kiss her hand with pleasure. We drank tea, and very often I would arrive some five to ten minutes earlier than the appointed time, so the maid would tell me that I was to wait as madame was still resting. I bought the two little Picassos from her, and that Delaunay, and the Yakulov.

Overall, the period when I was collecting had its successes, but there were also some failures. Once I was given the address of Mikhoels’ wife, Anastasiya Pavlovna Pototskaya, and I was told that she had a lot of Chagalls, and that she may possibly want to sell them. That was when she used to live in the TASS building on Tverskoy Boulevard. Mikhoels, as you know, had been killed, and she was left with her two daughters. I went to Anastasiya Pavlovna’s, introduced myself, and she said, “I’ve got some works by Chagall, some studies that he did for the Jewish Theatre and several other works as well”. I noticed there were two late Chagalls up on the wall, evidently from his Parisian or American period... along with some fairly large gouaches. One was “Fire in a Russian village during the war”, and the other one done in shades of green was “Madonna driven from Europe”. Well, we had a talk and she invited me to come back in a few days’ time.

However, on the first day that I got to know her I had a feeling that there was something peculiar about the woman. The next time I went to see her she offered me another two Chagalls—one was the goat and bride from his Parisian period, and the other I can no longer recall, but it was another gouache. So I bought them. She promised to find something else to sell me, and said that she would give me a ring. I waited and waited, but she still did not ring me. Then I telephoned myself and went back to see her again. And she said, “You know, I’ll have to look in this trunk here, but I haven’t got the time, I must be off now...”. That went on for a long time. Finally I said, “Let me sort through the trunk for you !”. To my surprise, she agreed. “Well”, I thought, “thank God for that!” Anyway, so I began sorting through the trunk. There were some files, some books, some sheets of paper, stacks of dust and... nothing.

Anyway, so off I went with nothing. And the two things that I had noticed on the first day were still left hanging there... And, as I was leaving, just on the off-chance I asked, “Well, fine, Anastasiya Pavlovna, but how about these things?”. And she said, “George Dionisovich, at the moment I don’t want to sell them, but if I change my mind I’ll let you know”. Incidentally, they were things that Mikhoels had brought back from Chagall as a gift for the Tretyakov Gallery.

Probably half a year went by. Suddenly her daughter telephoned me and said, “My mother asked if you could come as she has agreed to let you have those two things you wanted. She’s getting a tombstone for my father, so she needs the money”. I took the money and set off. In my own mind I had valued the things at 4000 roubles each. I arrived. The Chagalls were still hanging there. She offered me tea. So we drank tea for a while. Then she took the pictures down. “Here you are,” she said, “George Dionisovich, if it isn’t too much to ask, I’d like three to four thousand for both of them”. Well, I said nothing, covered them up and tucked them to my side. She must have been mad !!! I took out the 8000 and put them down on the table. When she saw the money she was dumbfounded, and said, “What are you doing? That’s an awful lot !!!” And I replied, “Anastasiya Pavlovna, you have valued these things wrongly, and I do not want to—nor can I—take advantage of your ignorance”. She was, of course, very pleased. I have written before that a collector ought not to haggle. For a collector, it is better to pay too much rather than too little. The person who has sold to you must remain satisfied, because a month will pass, then two, then three, and he will have neither the money nor the thing, but you will still have the thing.

The skulduggery begins

The authorities regarded my collection as some kind of joke; no-one paid any serious attention to it. But then it started being written about in magazines and newspapers in America and England, and the “Voice of America” and West German radio did some broadcasts on it. Finally, foreign museums started contacting the Ministry of Culture and asking if they could buy, let us say, a picture by Malévich or Popova, and then it became clear that I had the pictures. Gradually, all was revealed—that is, people, including the authorities and the KGB, realized that the Odd-Bod Greek who had spent all those years collecting the “rubbish” that no-one needed had in fact made a collection that was now worth a great deal of money, and it reached a point when it became awkward living in Moscow with the collection.

We were constantly frightened of being burgled—our doors would have opened at the touch of a finger. In the end I was burgled, and they got away with a large number of the works that I kept stored.

It took me about two weeks to catch up with the loss. I went to the store to check up on some things, and saw that eight Kandinskys which I had bought from the widow of Kandinsky’s secretary were missing. A big stack of drawings and gouaches by Klyun were missing... Overall, there was a lot that was missing. I informed the police and their answer was, “There’s nothing we can do”.

A year later another theft took place, and, once again, it was from the store. The funny thing was that on the day of the theft a man who often used to come and see us, and was generally regarded as a friend of the house, had been and invited the entire family—Zina, myself, and both our son and daughter—somewhere miles out of town to go and have a barbecue. I remember that I had a bad feeling about it. I suddenly thought that might be a day when something else would happen. We got back home and everything was still hanging on the walls, but there was more missing from the store. I was dreadfully upset.

Then another two or three days went by, and my brother’s wife telephoned from Bakovka (where there was a dacha containing a collection of pictures by some young artists, along with a great many works and drawings by Anatoly Zverev): “Fire !!! Come as soon as you can !” By the time I got there half the house had already burnt down. The firemen were there, but they had no water and nothing to put the fire out with. I went upstairs and, in the place where Zverev’s works had been kept, everything was drenched in water, and a lot of things were missing. There had been some hefty wooden icons hanging up on the walls, and, if they had burnt, then there would have been something left of them lying around on the floor. In other words, someone had set fire to the dacha, and the things had been stolen from it before the fire had started. When I opened an upstairs window and looked into the ravine (this was in winter, so it was easy to see the tracks), Zverev’s works, and those of some other artists, were lying out in the snow. The thieves had obviously been back and forth over the ravine ferrying everything back to their car.

That all took place in 1977. It was quite dreadful. I decided to apply for some help, so my daughter Lilya (Aliki) and I wrote a letter to Andropov and Brezhnev, and I explained in these letters that what had been stolen was a large number of works from the collection that I had intended to give to the Tretyakov Gallery. The magazine America had already written about this; it had published an interview in which I announced that I wanted to hand my collection over to the Tretyakov Gallery as a gift, and saying that I intended to make Lilya curator of the collection. Personally, what I wanted was to spend the rest of my life in Moscow together with my collection of icons.

I was asking for help. I had a fair idea as to who had done it, and I passed on my suspicions about so-and-so and so-and-so, and asked for something to be done about it. Once I had written these letters, I then applied to the Department that was officially responsible for serving the Diplomatic Corps. I told them that I would like an audience with Andropov because I had something very important to discuss with him.

Two of their representatives came along, obviously from the KGB. “You know, Comrade Andropov is getting ready for the Party Congress, so he cannot receive you at the moment, but you can make a detailed written statement of everything, saying who it is you suspect, and so on and so forth”. So we did that, and they said, “We can see it’s handed over, if you want”. “No”, I replied, “I’m going to send this to both Andropov and Brezhnev directly via the Central Committee”. Of course, neither Brezhnev nor Andropov ever received the letters.

Then I was summoned for a talk: “Don’t worry, we’ll get this man you suspect in for interrogation and the truth will triumph”. And time went by, and suddenly I found out that the man I suspected (who was married to an Englishwoman) was planning to leave for England. I said, “How can that be ?”. “That’s how it is”, they answered, “he’s due to go on such-and-such a date”. I duly notified “the appropriate authorities”, and they replied that they could not prevent him from going because he was an English subject. I said, “What rubbish ! He’s got a Soviet passport; it’s just his wife’s who’s English”. Just the same, off he went, as calm as could be, and so the theft remained undetected.

I realized that I had been tricked, so I then turned to some American and French correspondents. I went and told them, “One way or another, what’s happened to me is that I’ve been burgled...”. And then the “voices” [Western radio stations] all started doing broadcasts on it. It was even reported that virtually the entire collection had been stolen...

After that they began openly persecuting and provoking me. At first, I was again summoned and warned, “If you want to make a scandal out of it, it’ll get worse”. They said, “We will publish material on how you’ve used the pictures for speculation, etc.”. I answered back, “You, please, do not try to intimidate me. I warn you that I’m no coward. If you come up with that sort of material, then the American and English newspapers will publish an interview that I’ll give them”.

Then they started intimidating me. I would be sitting at home, and suddenly the telephone would go: “You mother-fucking crook, you’ve sent lots of pictures abroad. You’re no collector, you’re a speculator! It’s all going to be taken away from you, we’re going to appeal to the Ministry of Culture and the Foreign Ministry”, and so on. Another two or three days went by, and again the telephone rang. It was the artist Vasil’ev, “George Dionisovich, just what has happened to you?” His tone made me think he was phoning because he sympathized and wanted to help. I replied, “There it is, you know, one way or another I’ve had this and that stolen from me”. Suddenly he said, “George Dionisovich, now why are you telling lies? Nobody’s stolen anything from you, you stole it all yourself and sent it abroad, and now you’re just looking for someone to blame. You really must bring this outrage to an end. We’re going to appeal to the Ministry of Culture and whoever else we have to ask them to deprive you of this collection. A man like you ought not to be in possession of any Russian works of art”.

Then a car would appear near the house, sometimes even two, with those sort of antennae they have for bugging. The telephone kept on clicking as they took recordings. But the main thing, after all, was that I had sent nothing abroad, although some diplomat friends had offered to do this for me. “You never know what will happen”, they said, “so let us help you get something abroad”. I kept refusing.

In brief, we got thoroughly exhausted. I stopped sleeping at night. It was so frightful that my daughter Lilya and I stopped travelling by car together. We even stopped going across Vernadsky Avenue, just where the bridge was, because we were afraid that a lorry might come and shove us into the river. We used to make a detour going down Lenin Avenue. Lilya would go in her car, and I would go in mine. And that kind of thing went on for a long time, until I could stand it no longer and decided to leave the USSR. But even that proved to be hard. I had offered to leave most of my collection, comprising the best part, in the USSR, and had simultaneously asked if they would let me take part of it with me. What else did I have to support my family on in the West ?

I arrived at the Ministry of Culture and went to see Khalturin. He said, “George Dionisovich, something’s happening, someone somewhere is putting the brakes on this and, evidently, nothing is going to come of it. But maybe you’ll just sell us the collection and take some money for it ? The state can pay you 500,000.” So I answered back, “And what am I meant to do with these 500,000? Firstly, I can’t stay here any more, nor do I want to stay”.

In the meantime the scandal had received such widespread publicity that every collector in Moscow and Leningrad had got to know of it, and they were all afraid of having anything to do with me. They had stopped coming to see me and never telephoned any more. I was left on my own, with no help from anyone. So that was when my daughter Lilya and wife Zina suggested that I should turn to Vladimir Semenovich Semenov. Semenov had at one time been the Deputy Foreign Minister. I knew him well as he was a collector. He had a very good collection from the period before the Avant-garde, including a lot of works by Falk, Lentulov, and Pavel Kuznetsov. They were fine and select items. I often used to go and see him, and he used to come and see us. He was a very nice man who was always very kind to me. And Lilya said, “Why don’t you ask Semenov if he can help you ?” I said, “Lilya, I cannot ask Semenov, because the KGB has me completely surrounded, and no-one can fight against them. And Semenov won’t be able to do anything, either”. But Lilya insisted.

So I went to see Semenov. He lived in a government building on the Moscow River. I arrived there. It was a big flat with eight or nine rooms, all of them covered in pictures. And I told Vladimir Semenovich just what had happened. He spent a long time listening, and then said, “You know, George Dionisovich, you’ve fallen into to the hands of the Mafia. As a state politician I feel awkward talking about it, but our KGB has its own ‘Mafia Department’ for the nasty work, and it does just as it pleases. They work ‘in the open’, that is without cover. If anything happens, then they’re not around... Well, those are the ones who are left to do as they please. It’s good that you came to me. Let’s have some vodka and food, and we’ll talk things over.”

We each filled ourselves a small glass of vodka, and he said, “George Dionisovich, I will try to help you—for your kind heart and for your kind deeds”. I wondered why he had said that, and I understood. A year beforehand, Chudnovsky, who was a collector from Leningrad, and a very well-known one, had been to see me and asked if I could help him. He had wanted to know if I knew a good cardiologist, because he had a granddaughter with a rare heart condition who needed an operation, or else in a year’s time she would have died. I told him, “Well sure, there’s my friend Burakovsky. He’s the Head of the Cardiological Institute. I’ll give him a ring tomorrow.”

I telephoned Burakovsky, who ordered the child to be brought in, examined her, but said there was nothing they could do because, unfortunately, they did not have the right kind of specialists. There were specialists in the USA, where the operation cost $4000, and two good specialists in London, where the operation would cost just as much in pounds. Altogether, it would have come to about $7000. The next day Chudnovsky came to me in tears, “You know, nothing can be done”. I immediately thought it over and said, “Go and ask Semenov to issue a visa to your son’s wife, so that she can take the girl to London”. “But where’s the money?” he asked, “it’s so expensive, you know !” I said, “I’ll give you the money. I’ve got some dollars in Canada. It’ll be hard getting the visa, but the Russians are very sentimental people, and when it comes to saving a child’s life, they might agree to it”.

The next day I went to the State Bank, and there I was told, “That’s fine, only we can’t give the money to the person here. You send us a cheque from Canada, and we’ll issue a cheque to our bank in London, and the payee will then receive the money there.” So that is what I did. Afterwards Chudnovsky went to Semenov and, apparently, in the course of their conversation he notified him that he had received some money from Costakis. So, you see, that is why Semenov had said “I will try to help you—for your kind deeds”.

Semenov promised me that he would have a word at the highest level, with Yury Vladimirovich Andropov. “Yury Vladimirovich is my closest friend, he and I are like two brothers, we used to play football together when we were little. And whenever I come to Moscow, like now, we always meet up—why, I saw him only recently. I’ll tell him who you are, and what you’ve done for Russian art, etc. At the moment I can’t promise you anything, but I must tell you that Yury Vladimirovich Andropov is a remarkable man. He is a very honest man. He works at the KGB like Jesus—he clears out all the filth and drives people away, because they have a lot of crooks there”. He kept his word.

* The reference is to the infamous article which Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s cultural chief, wrote in August 1946 attacking the writer Zoschenko and poetess Akhmatora. It marked a post-war crack-down on “poisonous” and “apolitical” art which “kow-towed to all things foreign”. Its obvious target was the Avant-garde.

In defence of my friend Costakis

moscow. George Dionisovich Costakis (Costaki) was a man who was exceptional in many regards. Greek by nationality, he was born and spent most of his life in Russia, returning to the land of his ancestors only at the very end of his days, where he shortly thereafter died.

George Dionisovich had no special education in art. He was an entirely self-taught man whose taste and inquiring mind were purely natural endowments, and whose ineradicable attraction to excellence was an ingrained quality of spirit. A fascination for art led Costakis to start a collection of paintings, graphics and icons. He became a collector with a truly worldwide reputation, the owner of a unique gallery of works by artists of the Russian Avant-garde.

In Moscow—at least, in official circles—athe activity in which he saw his life’s meaning was never given the recognition that it deserved. In the pre-war years, as well, indeed, as in the following decades, he did nothing to draw attention to what he was doing. That was a time when a foreign passport offered little defence against arbitrary injustice from the authorities, and the very mention of the Avant-garde artists’ names incurred the risk of repression. But Costakis took that risk. He was the first person in the Soviet Union who realized what the avant-garde meant in terms of world art, as he set about searching for and collecting drawings, pictures, canvases... He saved much that had been thrown away as rubbish, and would otherwise have perished without trace.

Unlike his predecessors who had patronised the arts before the Revolution, Costakis had no fortune of millions at his disposal. He worked throughout his entire life, having a large family and just the same burdens on his shoulders as the rest of us. His limited means, however, were made up for by the passion of his yearning to collect.

And the time came when all round the world people started talking about the Costakis collection with reverence. Anyone who came to Moscow, be it a major figure of state or a simple artist, made a point of visiting the flat on Vernadsky Avenue in order to get acquainted with its rare collection. The only ones who turned their backs on Costakis were the “proprietors” of Moscow’s museums and their bureaucratic sponsors from the Ministry of Culture, while he, for his part, nevertheless persisted in offering his collection as a gift to the state.

Finally the hot-blooded Greek’s strong character was broken by the obstinacy and indifference of the stalwart servants of state, and, much as he loathed to, he quit his beloved Russia. He gave most of his collection, which Western experts valued at fabulous sums, as a gift to the Tretyakov Gallery.

Together with his large family he moved to Athens. It took no more than a year before exhibitions of the works that he had brought out of Russia (these being just part of what he had owned before leaving his best works to the Russian people) began their triumphant tour of the prestigious galleries of Europe, America and Canada. Evidently succumbing to the charms of the luxurious catalogues received from abroad, our museum bosses gradually then started exhibiting Costakis’s gifts. Only they were, for some reason, too “shy” to put the former owner’s name on the labels! But there is no masking the truth and, when Costakis learnt of this “bashfulness”, it came as a painful blow to his self-esteem as a collector.

In 1990, after several years of enforced separation (I was forbidden from leaving Russia for a quarter of a century), I went to see George Dionisovich in Athens. He was by then mortally ill, but his strength of will and love of life were indomitable. We spent a few days talking about our friends in Moscow and Leningrad. He even managed to do some work in front of the Greek television cameras, so enabling me to make the Central Television programme “At Home with Costakis in Athens”. Sadly, it was broadcast on the same day that this remarkable man died...

Three years ago, when the establishment of a museum of modern art in Moscow was being considered, I did all that I could to welcome the idea. But I thought the main concern would be finding the right building for a museum of this type, and that there would be no need to buy any pictures for it. By mixing with remarkable artists in a number of Russian towns, I have come to know how willing they are to hand their works over to the museum free of charge, but not into the custody of the Ministry of Culture. Yet it transpires that none of the money that is so essential for restoring endangered architectural treasures is ever paid to the great figures of modern art. I have for a long time had on file one respected artist’s offer to arrange an exhibition of a hundred of his works, and then to hand them straight over as a gift to the Russian Cultural Foundation. And now I learn that the Foundation has just had to purchase a number of canvases from this very donor for a far from meagre amount.

As George Dionisovich and I were finally parting, he passed on a suggestion to Dimitri Likhachev and the USSR’s then Minister of Culture, Nikolai Gubenko, about concrete assistance for the establishment of the museum. What it essentially boiled down to was for a suitable building to be found in Moscow, while Costakis would provide the resources and materials necessary for the building’s restoration. The Tretyakov Gallery would release hundreds of the works that he had given from its stores, and then the museum of the Russian Avant-garde would open. Living artists would keep adding to it by making contributions from their works. However, the civil servants at the Soviet Ministry, headed by the legendary figure who had charge of the entire country’s fine arts, the “unsinkable” Genrikh Popov (as the experts euphemistically dubbed him), along with the Director of the Tretyakov Gallery, Yuri Korolev, did everything they could to ensure that the project was never realized. I still have the entire documentation of this sorry episode in my archive.

During his life George Costakis had to fight and to demonstrate that white is white, and in no sense black. His persecution may be accounted a cost of the Bolshevik dictatorship and the laws of totalitarianism. But how petty and unseemly are the semitransparent hints which keep appearing, like people spitting after a departing train, suggesting that this self-sacrificing collector was unscrupulous. Costakis cannot answer his slanderers. The dead are not sullied by the ill that is spoken of them. I therefore offer readers an extract of my elder friend’s memoirs, taken from the book which his daughter Aliki Costakis and I are currently preparing for publication.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Andropov himself let me leave the Soviet Union'