Breaking Down the Codes of Nonconformism

Underground Judaism in the Communist Sphere

Moscow born artist, Grisha Bruskin’s Birth of a Hero depicts the Soviet civilization in a manner inspired by the biblical story of Lot’s wife who looked at the “forbidden city” and turned into a pillar salt. According to Bruskin, “they looked too far away, what was forbidden and like the wife of Lot from Bible they became er sculptures.” The Soviet people in this installation are fossilized as a collective after gazing into the communist paradise. This theme has often been repeated in other works over the course of his career. Bruskin is the first artist of Russian Nonconformism, or underground art during the Soviet time, to depict images of Judaism with those of communism as a mythology. Bruskin’s grandmother used to make matzo for him and his siblings to eat in the dark recesses of hidden cupboards during the Soviet time. 

Boris Orlov is another Russian Nonconformist artist and friend of Bruskin. In Moscow, during his interview with Archival, he stated, “We had to realize and to describe what we had seen in artistic images. And… we just faced this… this situation, this reality as analysts, as anatomists. We wanted to decide for ourselves – what was that and how we should… should live with that… live in that… face to face with… with this monster.” Monster being the Soviet system associated with bread lines, communal apartments, and prison camps as a result of collectivism, the destruction of the self, and sacrifices of totalitarianism. 


“This is the symbolism that I now look at with horror after the collapse of the when exactly all this symbolism can be found in the American empire now.”

Using Archeology as a Style to Explore Hidden Language

Grisha Bruskin’s work has progressed beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union to address the past as history of a fallen civilization. In his work titled, Archaeologist’s Collection, Bruskin shows the society in terms of lost ruins and takes on the role of a scientist unearthing artifacts in which to examine hidden truths about the Soviet life, or the Soviet “situation.” For the artist and other members of the Nonconformist Movement, the codes, signs, and symbols used in both the public life and the unofficial or underground culture have yet to be fully explored and communicated inside Russia and internationally.


Perhaps the biggest statement for Archaeologist’s Collection is the burial of the forms as a mass grave to be dug up as an excavation after three years of decaying in the earth. One of Bruskin’s forms is the archetype called, prisoner, referencing the gulag labor camps and the camp system within the Soviet Empire.

Destroy After Reading

The Iranian artist, Barbad Golshiri is also interested in burial aspects of life and death in Iran’s grave markings of political prisoners. In Golshiri’s pieces, however, the art is part of actual burial places in which families and friends of political prisoners may use to remember their loved ones. These have evolved into temporary installations that fade in weather in order to protect the sites from government authorities tasked with disturbing the tombs and relics of those who have offended the state.

The funeral is often also the subject of protests and dissent. Funerary honorations have been vehicles of resistance in Iran in times of revolution and unrest. “I’ve focused on creating grave markers so tombstones, sarcophagi, cenotaphs, even ephemeral grave markers that are mostly for political people who cannot have a permanent tombstone.” The graves of political prisoners in Iran are often destroyed in a similar manner to the destruction of satellites confiscated for accessing international news networks.

“It could be the militia forces.  It could be hardliners or God knows who but so – and many of those I do not consider as works of art because they have function.”

For one burial Golshiri describes, “he couldn’t have a proper tombstone because the militia forces or hardliners or they … each time that the family put a tombstone, they broke it. And so what I made was a stencil in two parts of iron. And each time they visit the cemetery, the bring along the stencil. They put it on the tomb and pour soot powder on it and it’s imprinted on the tomb. And depending on the wind strength or all those things, it disappeared each time, each season, so they repeat it as a ritual the first day of each – of every season.”

Photo credits: top Birth of a Hero, Grisha Bruskin, 15 Bronze and White Enamel Figures, 1985; Grisha Bruskin and Shannon Niehus, Founder of Archival Institute, in London; Archeologist’s Collection (slideshow) by Grisha Bruskin, Set of Bronze Life-size Figures, 2012; Barbad Golshiri in Rome; Stencil/The Untitled Tomb by Barbad Golshiri, outdoor installation, no date.

Learn more about Archival Institute's mini series, Iran: The Third Path

Producing a groundbreaking historical series, the Archival Institute has brought to life Iran’s history using narrative animation and documentary culminating in the release of Iran: The Third Path, which is now available for purchase through Archival on Demand. Committed to educating and entertaining audiences worldwide Archival on Demand is a multimedia streaming platform, including written and video content, for world history focused on the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, some of the most conflict heavy regions of today. The release of the documentary series Iran: The Third Path will provide historical context for Iran’s current internal conflicts and international rivalries. These long-standing cultural clashes include democratic social movements, the evolution of political and militant Islam, economic struggle, and relations with superpowers throughout the events of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, WWI and WWII, the Cold War, the global conflicts of today.

Archival Scholars Provide a New Outlook on the 1979 Iranian Revolution

1979 Iranian Revolution
Credit: CNN

Archival Scholars Provide a New Outlook on the 1979 Iranian Revolution

Dr. Ervand Abrahamian

The major event in modern Iranian history is the 1979 revolution sometimes known as the Islamic Revolution.  The roots of this revolution are debatable.  There are different theories, interpretations of what brought about the revolution.  One obvious issue is the economic crisis, the economic dislocations in 1977, ‘78, the difficulties of inflation, of unemployment, of disruptions in the economic situation in the country.  This is, obviously, very much associated with the 1979 revolution. Now, what caused those economic crisis is then controversial.

Some people argued that it was the slight decline in oil revenues because the Saudis were flooding the market with oil.  This caused the decline in oil prices and this, then, fueled the economic crisis in Iran.  I would argue that, actually, the fall in oil prices and oil revenues was not that great to cause a revolution in Iran.  This was a minor, really, decline in general increase in oil prices, oil revenues. So, there were economic problems in 1978, ’79 but there weren’t really so much due to the slight fall in oil revenues.

There is also, I think, the very, the shadow of the 1953 coup because the national hero of the country, Mossaddegh, was overthrown by the coup, by the Shah.  The Shah was seen from ’53, in a way, part mainly as illegitimate.  He’d come to power by overthrowing the national leader and in an age of nationalism, of course, national ideology, national legitimacy can carry much more weight than the weight of a medieval monarchy. The other factor that compounded this was, of course, in the nature of nationalism.  The Shah had been brought back by the imperial powers, by Britain and the United States.  Therefore, the Shah from ’53 onwards was seen as a stooge of foreign powers and therefore, by definition, lacked legitimacy.

The [1979 revolution] obviously had many different currents in it.  On one hand, you had conservative clerics, some of them to the notion of velayat-e faqih, some not subscribing to it but still thinking in terms of a clerical republic.  Then, you had much more liberal, secular thinkers who thought they would have much more of a democratic western oriented state. And as long as there was the war, there was external crisis, these differences were, in a way, muted, but with the end of the Iraqi war and the death of Khomeini, what you find is that in Iranian politics, you get eventually a division, what you could call — one could call on one hand, conservative clerical.  On the other hand, much more liberal, but they don’t like to use the word liberal.  It sounds western, so terms of either progressive or reformist.

Dr. Ali Ansari

And then in September 1980, Saddam Hussein did the invasion, he thinks it’s gonna be quick and easy, he launches the invasion through the plains of Khuzistan, through Kharomshar, to the Iranian oil industry in Abadan and other places.  What he didn’t really anticipate was the reaction that the Revolution would have towards him, and in actual fact made the mortal comment that the war in essence was a blessing.  Now, people have criticized Khomeini for this comment, because they said, “How can any war be a blessing?”  The reason was, the Khomeini felt that actually now we had an external enemy – all fighting could cease, and everyone could turn their attention to the Iraqis.

Dr. Siavush Randjbar-Daemi

So in 1979 when the revolution succeeds the papers are full of this mythology of the martyrs, of the shahids, and the shahids were by and large mujahids and fadaists.  They were not Khomeinists.  There were very few clerics amongst them.  There were very few members of the National Front amongst them. None of the leaders of the Nasat Hosedi and very few Tudeh’s passed the decimation of the Tudeh military network in the ‘50s and this is a deficit which the front loyal to Khomeini had to contend with after 1979, the deficit of martyrs, if you would. So the revolution of 1979 comes to an end, achieving its main aim which was that of bringing down the shah, bringing to fruition the main slogan uttered in the streets, mar ba shah, but it also contained a major challenge, how exactly to replace the monarchy.  That was the thing that united everyone:  unified hatred for the shah, desire to unseat the Shah and bring an end to the monarchy entirely. Not replacing the Shah with a regency council as Mosaddegh tentatively at the very end of his Prime Ministerial tenure had tried to do and so forth. So the question now beckoned as to what would be the form and structure of the new political system that would replace the monarchy?  Our republic was the natural outcome because of the very fact that the republic is the antithesis of a monarchy, and the struggle was for an end to the monarchy, to the reign of, one, Reza Shah Pahlevi and to the monarchy in a broader way.

Dr. Judith Yaphe

I don’t think that they had any arms, as such, which raises a larger story about how this war was financed and fought.  The Iranians couldn’t borrow because Khomeini didn’t believe in borrowing, so effectually, they had to pay for the war as they bought things, but they were under embargo and they were under an arms embargo by the United States from the day the hostages in the embassy were taken in 1979.  So that meant they couldn’t buy certainly American equipment.  Why is that important?  Almost their entire inventory, military hardware, software, weapons systems, especially airplanes and other arms, were American, and if you can’t replace them what do you do? Now, it is interesting and it is becoming general knowledge how much the Israelis helped them beginning in the early days of the war, that they provided them with American equipment because they were about the only other ones who had that and were willing to do that.  So they were selling their arms. But they couldn’t – in other words, they could not go out and shop – they could only get what they could get on the black or gray arms market. The Iraqis could buy anywhere, they could shop till they dropped.  You had Iraqis going out with suitcases full of money to buy all kinds of weapons systems including the beginnings of their weapons of mass destruction programs.  They could buy chemical.  They even bought biological agent in the United States for their experiments, for their WMD development, and they were looking for nuclear as well, although that was harder for them to get, but if a government is determined to get something it will.

The Iranian ambassador, after the revolution, in Lebanon and in Syria are activists, very much believing in the export of the revolution and they and the IRGC combine to create Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Now, I had mentioned earlier this cleric Musa al-Sadr, Iranian origin – Lebanese but also of Iranian origin, had been trained in Najaf and other places.  A very famous, very prominent family, Sadr is a very famous name in Shia clerical, it’s one of the major families, many branches.  You have a very activist branch in Iraq today, the Sadrs. He creates this organization among the poor Shia of Lebanon, Amal.  He becomes a very powerful, popular, charismatic leader, but there are people in Amal who are a little bit disappointed that it’s not activist enough, perhaps, and in the early ’80s, with – especially with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, very famous, that’s where the Israeli army under Sharon goes up to Beirut.  They allow the Christian militias into sovereign Shatila camps.  There’s the massacre. One of the reactions to all of this was the creation of Hezbollah, created to a great extent – again, by the Iranians, by the IRGC commander, and this was early days for this group, and there is a famous part of that group called the Quds force.  Now, Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem.  It’s also used in Persian as well.  Jerusalem is al-Quds, the holy.  So they recruit and draw in Hezbollah.  Hezbollah, as a beginning organization, follows a pattern – it becomes an established pattern.  It’s one that is followed by many semi-clandestine, semi-overt organizations.  Muslim Brotherhood will begin the same way, back in the 1920s in Egypt.  In other words, you have an overt organization dedicated to good works, mosques, helping the poor, orphans, widows, subsidies to families, proper cover hijab and veils, abaya or chador, if you will, for women, transportation, schools, education, housing, all of those good social services and they’re mosque-based and it’s social welfare. And this is one of the things that Amal did and made it so popular.  This is what begins Hezbollah, but the other side of it that the mosques and these contacts are used as places where recruitment takes place, spotting, for the clandestine side of Hezbollah, for what becomes the terrorist wing.  I have trouble saying it.  And they recruit among young Lebanese Shia and it grows rapidly, and they draw a – there are a number of recruits who come out of the PLO movements.