Let's go back in time
To fully understand the origin of Oblomov Art I have to go back in time. My fascination with all things Soviet started when I was a little boy. I could barely read, but I learned by playing with a device called LOCO. LOCO or Mini LOCO translates to Learn, Practice, Control, Order. It worked by answering questions and placing certain plastic cards in the right spot. If you turned the device around you saw a figure decorated with a green, blue, and red pattern. You could tell whether you had successfully completed the task or not by how the pattern looked.
What I found interesting was that it stated that the plastic holder was made in West Germany. ‘Made in West Germany,' it read, as did many toys of the era. As I grew older I often wondered what that meant. My father had told me what North, East, South, and West were, but why was Germany, as I knew it, called West Germany? Was there also a North Germany or perhaps an East Germany?
“Yes, well…” said my father. “West Germany and East Germany arose after the 'division'.”
I asked no further. I now knew: there are two different 'Germanies', and they were once divided. I didn't need to know more at that age.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. More information about the image is on this Wikipedia page (opens in a new window) and more information about the Berlin Wall in general to be found on this Wikipedia page (this opens in a new window as well).
Sometimes I was allowed to stay up a little longer in the evening and then I would see an old man with a red spot on his head on the news broadcasts. He said he wanted to be friends with 'the West', and that there was room for collaborations. 'The Russians were terrifying' according to many people around me, but Gorbachev was quite popular in Western Europe… I didn't really understand at that age that the Soviet Union suddenly no longer existed – I was only 5 or 6 years old. I also remember seeing a lot of footage of the Berlin Wall being torn down. I thought the whole thing was quite remarkable. East and West were no longer divided. This was my first real introduction to Soviet Union culture. From here, my interests grew with age.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, speaking at a news conference after a Soviet-American summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, 1986. Photograph by Y. Abramochkin.
More information about Mikhail Gorbachev is on this Wikipedia page (opens in a new window).
When I was older, my oldest sister went on a high school exchange trip to post-Soviet Hungary (a satellite state of the Soviet Union, actually). She returned with exciting stories; soup with nothing in it, soldiers chasing her around the city (nothing good I later learned), and cameras with camera rolls being pulled out. The stories intrigued me, further clawing at my curiosity about Eastern Europe and Russia. Everything seemed cool and exciting in my imagination, but I also remember her saying: "I will never go there again and if I ever have children they should not go there”.
The girl next door had a boyfriend who had fled the Ukrainian army. The time he served in the army wasn’t very nice, so he deserted and left to seek out the family that already lived in The Netherlands. Unfortunately, the IND (Immigration and Naturalization Service of The Netherlands) sent him back to Ukraine. At that time it was clear that it would work out badly for him if he stayed in Ukraine for a longer period. The ex-Soviet country had an exodus of smart people, so it did everything to keep its citizens within its borders.
Friends and family chimed in to collect money to get this guy back to his family and girlfriend in The Netherlands. To pay for his release I also gave some of my own pocket money. I think ten guilders, which was a huge amount for a boy of about eight at the time. I still remember the guy's aunt giving me a Poljot watch as a thank-you gift. The back had an inscription; foreign letters and the abbreviation 'CCCP'. I had never seen this before, but I thought it was beautiful.
From the remarkable story of the guy fleeing the Ukrainian army, the watch with characters I didn't understand, the toys from West Germany, and my sister's experiences in Hungary, I knew: my childhood in The Netherlands, in the Western world, was nothing like 'the East'. Everything seemed so exciting there, so different, so interesting, dangerous even. Yet, I could not help but feel curious. In my mind people did horrible things to each other there, you had to watch everything you were doing, who you were talking to, where you were going. The more and more I read and the older I got, the more interesting it became, and the more I found out that with the above thinking I had as a child, I was sometimes not far from the truth.
To sate the curiosity I felt when I was a kid I went to several ex-Soviet countries in the world. They are now again their own countries, with their own identity, of which the Soviet era was only a phase in their centuries-long history. I've seen with my own eyes that the people there don't do terrible things to each other every day and that there is a nuance between who did what and when. It is nothing like the news broadcasts I saw as a child.
In Riga, they didn't mind the Germans coming, as they were already dominated by the Soviets, but when the Soviets chased the Germans out again, the Latvians weren't so happy with "the Russians" returning. These facts and defining moments, I never learned in school. By visiting the countries I learned other interesting facts I never learned in school. For example why certain population groups are fighting each other, why people in certain parts of Europe still speak Russian as a second language, or why Poland has shifted a bit to the left (on the map!). The more I read and the more I travel, the more I learn and discover. The people I meet on these trips are all very friendly and helpful. ‘They don't hurt me,’ as I used to think when I was little. We are all humans. People with their own story, with their own dreams, their own struggle, their own paths. And sometimes those paths come together and you tell each other something about your story, your dream, your struggle and you show someone else a new path or little detour.
Yours truly checking out an Antonov AN2, central Ukraine, 2021.
During my travels, which sometimes last a weekend, a few days, or even weeks, I keep finding new things and new stories. Everyday items like an alarm clock, a poster about safety in the workplace, or a bust of Lenin. To some, they might be the most ordinary things in the world, but to me, they are as magical as the Mini LOCO box, the toys I played with back in 1989, or the Poljot watch that I got as a gift. My fascination elevates the objects from everyday to art. Everything has to be carefully packed and taken with me so that I can show it at home. To say “I’ve been there, look, those people used this, they were reading this, this is from a country we would be afraid of back then, from people we would never meet in person if the Iron Curtain still existed.”
Oblomov-love kept me going
What does the name Oblomov mean? Ilya Ilyich Oblomov is the central character in the novel by Russian writer Ivan Goncharov (published in 1859). I’m not doing the book any justice with this three-word summary, but in short: he did nothing. This man invented procrastinating. I'm all for reading this book. Please give it a try, because it is certainly not all tragedy and misery! While I was trying to recover from burnout, I went on a journey with a few friends. I didn't want to become ‘an Oblomov’. “Keep going” was all I imagined. Bring nice items home. Keep looking for stories. Stay interested in more, in history, in people.
Last fall I visited Ukraine. I went back to The Netherlands by train because I had collected too much of my precious artworks (like clocks, piano-stools, and random posters!). I couldn't get on the plane anymore, and I felt adventurous after hanging out in the rural parts of Ukraine for a few weeks. 33 hours on a train with six suitcases and a box was doable. Everything for art. Everything to be able to show this at home. To my friends and family waiting. To people with the same interests as me. To you.
Yes, that's me (and mom), The Netherlands, 1990-ish.
Thank you, Alina, for helping me and doing this together, thank you Oksana for picking us up and driving us around and thank you Marjolein, my wonderful wife, for letting me go on these trips. And finally, thank you ‘people from the East’ for your amazing stories.
Bas van der Horst
The article was edited by Julia Christiaanse