Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery, 1985. Picture credit: Votava/Imagno/Getty Images

Strange happenings back in the USSR

The brilliant story of a Francis Bacon exhibition in Moscow


This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Did it really happen? Did that place really exist? The further it shrinks in the rear-view mirror, the more wholly improbable the Soviet Union seems, some feverishly over-imagined sci-fi comedy-horror, a fairytale of indecipherable meaning written by a madman. 

James Birch’s rollicking book about late-80s Moscow, as he dreamed up the plainly ridiculous idea of holding a Francis Bacon exhibition in that peculiar place, pithily brings it all right back with bracing black comedy. As a fellow celebrant of those dog-end Soviet years, memories subsequently overlaid with gaudier images of the later Moscow came storming back.

It’s all here: how flying to Moscow always felt like going to prison, shadowed by the queasy fear that you’d never get out. Once there, everything was a hallucinatory dream of booze and hilarity, with flashes of random, desensitising horror.   

The artworld was pleasingly skint and carefree

These Russian scenes, with Birch’s disturbingly acute memory of the smells and other particularities of Old Moscow, would really be enough for a jolly memoir on their own, but there is more to the exhilarating ride of this short book. 

The grotty London of the early 80s was a different universe from the gimcrack, security-goon-infested poncification we now inhabit, and the days of the 20-something Birch’s blithely happening gallery down by Stamford Bridge (at least some things never change: pissed-up Chelsea trogs would poke their heads round the door asking “What’s all this fucking shit, then?”) make the point that our own past is just as foreign as the Russian one, if marginally less frightful.

To all appearances rather hopeless, the Neo Naturists were 29-year-old Birch’s headliners in ’85. You might dimly remember Jennifer Binnie doing a Lady Godiva on a white horse down King’s Road to publicise her show. Jennifer lived in a Camden squat with Grayson Perry, the bolshie potter rather far from the celeb darling of the twenty-first century. 

The Neos’ gimmick was nudity and body painting and their bit of the artworld was pleasingly skint and carefree. One evening, Birch rolls up to a party on Campden Hill with the punk poet David Robilliard, runs into Russophile academico-cultural gadabout Bob Chenciner, who in an access of drunken genius tells Birch to take his artists to Moscow rather than New York, and that the mysterious Klokov will fix everything, and we’re off.

Birch tracks down this Klokov — who tuns out to be an urbane KGB cultural fixer — in Paris, and is beguiled by his accompanying siren Elena Khudiakova, correctly beautiful and unsmiling, a “high priestess of fashion” variously togged out for “a high-end roller disco” or “a Wham! video directed by Eisenstein”. 

We plunge amid the world-class bores and freaks of ’80s Soho

As usual with Russians, everyone has obscure motives and arcane uses for everyone else, only some of which ever become clear, so an intricate quadrille ensues as things unroll with the curious inevitability that so justifies Russian fatalism. Birch, his reading list full of Dostoyevsky as ordered by the exigent Elena, goes to Moscow, and shadowy machinations in the Union of Artists result in a Bacon rather than a Perry exhibition becoming the plan. 

Luckily, Bacon (“Eggs”) is an old pal of the Birch family, and James knows his elusive gentle and charming side as well as the abrasive drunk. Back in London we plunge amid the world-class bores and freaks of ’80s Soho, its locus classicus the ghastly old Colony Room with its collection of pissed-up bitches. Birch shuttles about like a guileless Candide, reporting back with likeable candour on things he has no right to remember.

The rest is history. The exhibition happens, and half a million Muscovites queue round the block for Bacon’s visions of horror, some way from Party-time Soviet art with its camp factory workers and allied nonsenses, and they leave messages in the visitors’ book that remind you of the point of art. 

Bacon in Moscow by James Birch (Cheerio, £17.99)

Just about everyone in the book is dead now, except Birch and Perry: Bacon back in 1992, then the rest — his lover John Edwards, Klokov, Chenciner, bit-part players like Misha Mikheyev from the Union of Artists, the raffish biker-arthound Johnny Stuart, Grey Gowrie — even the enchanting Elena, a rather tragic figure with “a broken brain” who drifts through the book like a sad muse. 

Birch and his co-writer Michael Hodges have put together something strong and beautiful, a monument to basically grim times and places that retained at least some paradoxical, vestigial human traits, all the atmospheres of the freakish past that joltingly reminds us how fantastically random the world is, and what a blast the Soviet Union could be — just so long as you had that return ticket. 

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