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The Ransom of Russian Art Hardcover – December 31, 1994

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Dissident Soviet painters and sculptors-harassed and spied on by the KGB, their works shown clandestinely or in rare public exhibits-found an ally in Norton Dodge, a University of Maryland economics professor who smuggled their works to the West beginning in the early 1960s. On frequent trips to the Soviet Union, the awkward, gutsy Oklahoma-born art enthusiast visited the homes of underground artists and spent a fortune to buy some 8000 works by 600 artists. His collection, with styles ranging from Pop to abstract expressionism, was recently donated to Rutgers University. Interspersed with color art reproductions (not seen by PW), McPhee's engaging narrative sheds light on this suppressed creative milieu. The prolific author also tracked down emigre Soviet artists now living in the U.S., and he ponders the West's relative indifference to their rebellious art.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

During the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, nonconforming artists in the Soviet Union were deemed "unofficial" artists, which prevented their works from being sold or exhibited. McPhee (Assembling California, LJ 1/93), a prolific author and staff writer for The New Yorker, recounts the surreptitious activities of U.S. economist Norton Dodge, who, during the 1960s and 1970s, slipped by the KGB and smuggled out of the Soviet Union 8000 artworks by 600 dissident artists. Dodge spent his days researching the roles of women and tractors in the Soviet economy, but after hours, this rumpled, eccentric, absent-minded figure penetrated the networks of the underground artists, purchasing their works, shipping their art to his Maryland barn, and exhibiting it-exactly what the Soviets did not want to happen. Based on conversations with Dodge, McPhee's suspenseful narrative and anecdotes will enthrall general audiences.
Joan Levin, MLS, Chicago
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 181 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (December 31, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374246823
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374246822
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,126,694 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The Pine Barrens (1968), A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles (collection, 1969), The Crofter and the Laird (1969), Levels of the Game (1970), Encounters with the Archdruid (1972), The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973), The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), Pieces of the Frame (collection, 1975), and The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975). Both Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Bob on September 5, 2000
Format: Hardcover
An eccentric American professor of economics, Norton Dodge, travels throughout the Soviet Union during the 1960s and `70s and into the `80s. He spends several million dollars on dissident art, smuggling it out of the country, in deep violation of Soviet law but not the US's. John McPhee reports on the story, after the fact, and includes vivid descriptions of the artists and their relationships with one another, Dodge and the Soviet state. The Soviet state, of course, is the hulking force behind the story, responsible for making the artists dissidents and causing various among them, from time to time, to disappear or die. So McPhee asks Dodge how he managed to assemble the collection. Was Dodge a representative of the KGB? the CIA? McPhee defers to Dodge's explanations, but McPhee's recounting of his conversation with Dodge about CIA involvement in the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies may engender in the imagination of some readers a hint of the suspicion and paranoia that suffused the culture that originally created the art. About Norton Dodge and his collection (now housed at Rutgers University), the poet Konstantin Kuzminsky says, "Norton thinks art is international. I insist it's purely national." "Americans are afraid of everything which causes too much emotion and tragedy. That is the problem between East and West." Which suggests the gulfs in passion and experience separating this story of Russian art from the trig completeness suggested by McPhee's prose.

Bob Niles
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Scott A. Jones on November 5, 2006
Format: Paperback
The Ransom of Russian Art, by John McPhee. McPhee is a Pulitzer Prize winner who in the past has specialized in geology but really can write anything that has real people in real situations (e.g., Giving Good Weight and Looking for a Ship). In this book a chance encounter with a truly eccentric man on a train leads to a story about -- an unparalleled rescue from the Soviet Union, not of Jews, not of intellectuals, not of political dissidents or of oppressed minorities, but of the canvases of dissident artists.

The leading character is Norton Townshend Dodge. He is so well detailed by McPhee and his on words, and so far off the bubble from a boring American standard, that he must surely be a bit self aware and self-inventing. Mysterious money (basically the story is that the family knew Benjamin Graham and paid attention to him), academic economic curiosity coupled with an interest in art, a way of blundering around that worked in the U.S.S.R for no apparent reason, too many friends and acquaintances that were in the CIA, and a strange moldering estate in America that housed the only significant collection of Soviet dissident art in the world - what's not to like?

The portrayal of the Russian artists is less compelling, either because McPhee had less contact and a looser type of relationship with the artists after the fact, or because these artists are largely lost without the suppressing force of authority to define their art and ideas. There are some lovely sections that show fear, jealousy (beating up a rival lover and throwing her papers into the lions' den of the Moscow zoo), alcoholism, the need to hide and the need to show. Others' opinion of Dodge is both amusing and makes him more multi-dimensional.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By S. Smith-Peter on December 4, 2011
Format: Paperback
This book tells the story of the Norton Dodge collection of nonconformist Russian art, now at the Zimmerli Museum on the College Avenue campus of Rutgers in New Brunswick, NJ. McPhee structures the book as an alternating narrative of Dodge's own collecting, which began when he was very young and expanded to include one of the most significant collection of non-conformist Soviet artists anywhere, and the life (and death) of Russian artist Evgeniy Rukhin.

A scholar but a rich man (he knew Warren Buffett before Buffett was cool), a disorganized but highly productive scholar, Dodge is presented as a force of disorder that somehow produces order.

The other narrative deals with Evgeny Rukhin, a Russian underground, nonconformist artist presented as a force of nature and a man of titanic artistic talents and sexual drive. Rukhin pushes McPhee in a way that Dodge doesn't. One feels that there is something in the disorderliness of Rukhin that challenges McPhee's sense of order in a way the Dodge's mess never does. Rukhin is like a tornado that rips through this grid-plotted book.

Illustrated with many full-color plates of Soviet nonconformist art, this is a quick and interesting read. Take a look and then go to the Zimmerli, where you can see the originals of these works and others.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Vulcan Isadora on December 7, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Completely readable, this is a sympathetic and often amusing biography; it also places the work in the socio-political context of the time and place.
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