Pavel Otdelnov recalls how as a child he saw his mother boil his parents’ bedding every day. His father worked in the factories of Dzerzhinsk, the center of Soviet chemical manufacturing, and the chlorine and phosgene that yellowed the sheets seeped through protective gear into his skin.
“Dad was born in a workers’ camp and gave his entire life to chemical industries around Dzerzhinsk,” Otdelnov wrote in the notes for “Promzona”, a new exhibit at Moscow’s Museum of Modern Art that features his paintings of industrial ruins interspersed with objects from workers’ daily lives.
The artist’s huge, architecturally precise paintings of decayed factories in his hometown, some overgrown as nature reclaimed the land, show what he calls “the ruins of a Soviet mythology.” Many of the chemical plants, once a proud part of Soviet history, sit abandoned in a city fouled by toxic waste, the result of a utopian mythology which never translated into reality, least of all for its people.
“People who worked in those factories understood a long time ago, in the 1970s, that the Soviet idea, communism, was a myth and would never be realized,” Otdelnov, whose post-Soviet landscapes also are in the Russian Museum, the State Tretyakov Gallery and private international collections, said in an interview. “They understood that a long time before the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Otdelnov was born into a “labor dynasty” that gave Dzerzhinsk several generations of chemical workers, starting with his great-grandfather. Just before World War II, his grandmother came from a remote village to the former secret city located 355 kilometers (220 miles) east of Moscow and named for a feared Bolshevik secret police chief.
After the Soviet Union started making chemical weapons starting in Dzerzhinsk in 1941, the artist’s grandmother worked on the shop floor assembling lethal payloads. She met her husband after the war in the same factory, Orgsteklo, where he was in charge of quality control of the plexiglass it produced for military and civilian needs.
Otdelnov’s father and aunt worked in the same factory after they finished school. Otdelnov’s cousin currently works in a Dzerzhinsk factory lab.
Reports vary as to when Dzerzhinsk factories stopped making lewisite, mustard gas and other chemicals designed as weapons of war. Some accounts put the date as late as 1965. Huge stocks of the deadly compounds were sealed and kept in the city’s industrial zone until they were moved to dismantling facilities and destroyed under an international chemical weapons ban in the 2000s.
Dzerzhinsk still has a chemical industry producing compounds for munitions along with fertilizers, pesticides and plastics. Many plants that were part of the military industrial complex didn’t survive the collapse of the Soviet Union, but their toxic waste remains buried in underground dumps or seeping from landfills.
Dzerzhinsk often is listed as one of the world’s most-polluted cities. The Ecology Committee of the lower house of Russia’s parliament put it among the 10 with the worst pollution in Russia. Last year, Otdelnov used a drone to record the industrial ruins from the air, capturing a huge multicolored lake of chemical waste, open to the sky, nearby.
The Museum of Modern Art exhibit includes a room decorated like a local museum with everyday objects like factory newsletters and safety instruction films. Gas masks from the old chemical workshops litter the floor of another room. Brown chemical bottles labeled with the names of gases also are displayed.
Running through the whole show are the voices of the people whose lived reality was so far from the Soviet mythology, their stories recorded by Otdelnov’s father and written on the exhibition walls.
Otdelnov’s grandmother describes an explosion in the caprolactam plant in 1960 that killed 24 workers and never was made public. The workers were buried in different parts of the city cemetery to avoid questions from other residents about why 24 people who worked in that factory died on the same day.
These personal stories are a telling counterpoint to the official Soviet narrative of “Glory to Labor and Science” in Dzerzhinsk, striking in the stoicism and often humor factory workers displayed in a hazardous environment.
“Humor helped them come to terms with their reality but they weren’t especially heroic. They just got used to it,” Otdelnov said.
In a memoir written for the show, Otdelnov’s father, Alexander, recalled random accidents workers had in the chemical factories, due to faulty equipment or simple human error.
Sometimes they escaped unharmed. Sometimes they died. On New Year’s Eve in 1981, as the men hurried to get home, carbon monoxide from an overflow pump filled a gas holding tank to capacity, then burst into the pipe system and through to the employee showers. The 12-man crew that had just completed a shift was killed.
Many of the exhibition’s viewers on a cold February evening were young people from Moscow and other cities. Otdelnov’s pared-down industrial aesthetic is certainly part of the appeal, but 23-year-old Anna Kiselyova said the exhibit held valuable political lessons for Russia’s younger generation, not just its factory workers.
“Our present government tells us this all happened such a long time ago,” said Kiselyova, a Russian teacher from Moscow. “It may seem like a very different world, but I don’t think it’s just a problem of the past, and we need to be aware of that.”