In the Soviet postwar life there was a frontier as insurmountable as one between life and death. It was the invisible line between official and unofficial art. When the latter had recognized itself as such, it became the underground. In Moscow and Leningrad this process of recognition spanned over the 1950s. In Leningrad the formative underground group happened to be an artistic one. It gathered around the painter Alexander Arefiev and, although the circle later attracted the poet Roald Mandelshtam, poetic and artistic undergrounds largely remained unconnected. In Moscow, by contrast, the formative underground center was initially a mixed one. Young authors amassed around Eugeny Kropivnitsky who was a poet and an artist at the same time.
This convergence of arts in the Moscow underground went on in 1960s and 1970s. Artists developed close friendships with poets, and Viktor Pivovarov’s dearest friends were Igor Kholin (1920–1998) and Genrikh Sapgir (1928–1999). Both initially belonged the Kropivnitsky’s circle, both were poets in their work as well as in their lifestyles. Victor Pivovarov designed their samizdat books, watched their lives with admiration and grieved over their deaths that came one after another all too early.
In his memoir, An Agent in Love (2001), Pivovarov says that Igor Kholin was the only one among his friends and acquaintances who led a good – meaning solitary and dignified – life. Its essential characteristic was freedom. He didn’t depend on anything, including poetry. To be a poet, in his view, one had to place oneself outside poetry. The most important activity was not to write but to watch. Only then writing could make certain sense.
Genrikh Saphir, by contrast, was an ecstatic person. He didn’t try to distance himself from anything – his desire was to embrace everything. Victor Pivovarov says Sapgir’s poetic attitude towards the world is closest to his own.
Kholin and Sapgir are frequent characters in Pivovarov’s work. They feature in his album Dramatic Personae (1996), Igor Kholin is the principle hero of series of drawings Kholin and Hares (1998). This album dating back to 2005 is the latest and the final one. In its verbal part, it is done as a poem that could have been written by Sapgir rather then Kholin, for it recapitulates the two poets’ activities. All the rhyming words are active participles, which suggests that the late poets are engaged in vita activa rather than vita contemplativa. While alive, Kholin wrote: “It is on all fours. It vomits. It’s obviously a man”. After death, Kholin and Sapgir are spitting down from two clouds, as Pivovarov’s text suggests, but the picture betrays the truth: in the beyond, it is a privilege of good people to vomit joyfully rather than painfully after excessive drinking. Having performed for us all the enjoyable activities possible, Kholin and Sapgir exeunt, take a boat to cross the Styx, meet their Virgil for a thoughtful tour through Hell and Purgatory and find their eternal peace in a wonderful garden that, as it turns out, looks like a place where one can easily indulge in the sweetest of vices.
As Viktor Pivovarov’s dearest friends crossed the line between life and death, their unofficial status evaporated. Their work is being widely published (Igor Kholin’s book titled Not Anyone of You Knows Kholin came out in Prague in 2012), studied and admired. One could call that ‘the posthumous success’ if we didn’t know the two poets’ true story from this triumphant Pivovarov’s album.