My Russian Interrogation
A Story of Art, Intrigue, and a Very Special Life Moment
By B. Eric Rhoads

I was looking for a place to sit in the cafe at the Los Angeles Art Show. There were no tables open, so I glanced around for someone I could share a table with. Sitting alone was an intimidating-looking man with long gray hair and a giant gray beard. Though he didn’t look homeless, it was clear no one was sharing his table because he looked a little like Charles Manson. So I — not wanting to be “that guy” who pre-judges people — asked if I could share the table to eat my soup.
 
As we chatted, this man came alive with passion about Russian art. Though I had a small feel for the art of Russia, he added color and dimension and told me that if I went to Russia, I’d never look at art in the same way again.
 
I’m not one who believes in coincidences, and my conversation with this man, an art dealer who specializes in Russian art, led me to my first Russian adventure, as a guest on his next buying trip.
 
Though I’m an experienced world traveler, I have to admit that the movies and all the propaganda about Russia had intimidated me. I was not sure what to expect.
 
Upon landing in Moscow, I took a taxi to my hotel, which was something out of the Soviet era, complete with statues of Stalin and Socialist Realism propaganda paintings around the building. The note when I checked in said, “Meet us in the lobby at 4 a.m. and pack a bag for a couple of nights away. Bring a winter coat and boots.”
 
I tossed and turned that night, not knowing what lay ahead. Of course I imagined cossacks breaking into my room and whisking me away, or spies listening to my every word. Every scene from every movie about Russia I’d ever seen haunted me that night. Should I drink the water? Will it be laced with vodka?

The Kremlin in Moscow
A Trip into the Country
Walking through the lobby at 4 a.m., I spotted the man I had spoken with at the art show. With him were three bearded men: an American and a Russian, both of whom had studied at the Surikov Institute of the famed Russian Academy, plus another who was a famous professor from the academy. 
 
Walking through the darkness while snow filled the Moscow sky, we approached a tiny Russian car, smaller than a Volkswagen. All five of us large men piled into this clown car and drove off into the darkness. I’d still not been told where we were going, but we had to get an early start to make our appointment.

Mud on the Windshield
Driving into the country wasn’t easy. The roads were less than perfect, the windshield was soon covered in mud and snow, and the car shook with every pothole. When we stopped for gas, I suggested I get some windshield cleaner, but was told that automatic window cleaners don’t exist in Russian cars. So we continued down the bumpy, muddy roads hoping the snow would help take off some of the mud so we could see. The driver kept opening the window and reaching out to try to clear the windshield with his hand. This was my first real impression of Russia.

Poverty Everywhere
As daylight broke, I could see poverty everywhere. Tiny Russian homes, lots of mud and snow, and people living their lives in small-town Russia. As we drove farther, we started seeing deep forests. Then, five hours into our drive, the driver’s old mobile phone rang, some Russian was spoken, and we pulled over to the side of the road to wait. “We’re waiting for our escort,” I was told. I still didn’t know where we were going, and no one was talking.
 
Soon a man of about 70 pulled up in front of us. He waved his arm, and we followed him for another half hour. We pulled up at what looked like a 1950s high school building, and walked into a room filled with paintings. There were probably 75 paintings, and some of the most incredible landscapes and portraits I’ve ever seen. As it turns out, the man who guided us in was the artist, and this was a local show of his work being held in a community center. Suddenly Russia did not feel so antiquated. 

A Sacred Place for Painters
We looked at paintings for an hour or so, then followed the artist through more forests and ended up turning down a long wooded drive that led us to a small complex of buildings on a lake. There was a mustard-colored, octagonal-shaped church with a statue at the front. Another building there was a small red clapboard house, and there was a long 1970s-era modern concrete building with rows of skylights. 
 
We had arrived at the Academic Dacha, a place where art students spend their summers to do plein air painting as part of the curriculum of the Russian Academy of Art. The statue in front, as it turns out, portrays Ilya Repin, one of the great Russian artists who had lived and studied on the property.

A Jewel Filled with Paintings More Valuable than Gold
The little red house filled with Russian masterpieces
Soon we made our way to the 100-year-old red building. Before we entered, the older man punched in a code to turn off the alarm, and as we went in, we saw paintings filling the walls of the tiny two-story home. The paintings were done by students when they were living at the Academic Dacha — names like Repin, Levitan, Shishkin, and others. There had to be 200 paintings, taking up every bit of wall space from floor to ceiling.
 
Suddenly I realized I was seeing something most men would never see in their lives … a private museum of paintings by the best Russian artists, only for the eyes of the few visitors to this private place in the middle of nowhere. Works that were never published, just for the eyes of artists studying at the dacha, to inspire them. Here in the middle of the woods, five hours from Moscow and St. Petersburg, was one of the most important museums in the world, and I was probably one of only about 700 people who had ever been allowed inside.
 
After looking at two amazing displays of art for the next couple of hours, we made our way into the cafeteria of the facility, where I had my first Russian meal. While we were eating, my host leaned over to me and quietly mentioned that someone was going to come in and ask me some questions and that I should just answer them. He did not tell me why.

Rows of art studios for rainy days
The Interrogation
Soon the artist we had met earlier came in and started interrogating me — in a very friendly way — through our interpreter. His questions were very direct. He wanted to know about my interest in art, what artists I loved, what were my favorite paintings, why I paint. There must have been an hour of questions. Then he excused himself and left the table.
 
We sat there just killing time for another 45 minutes or so, when a younger man, about 40, came into the cafeteria, sat down, and started asking me more questions. It turned out he was the son of the other man, and an artist himself. After another hour of questions, he excused himself and left.

Prison in Siberia?
I turned to my host and asked what was going on. Why were these men interrogating me? It all seemed very odd. He simply said, “I can’t say.” Suddenly I was wondering if I had been trapped and was about to end up in a prison in Siberia.
 
Clearly we were waiting for something, but I had no idea what. I just had to trust my guide. Then, another half hour later, the older man came back into the room and in English said, “He will see you now.”
 
“Who will see me? What’s this all about?” I asked. 

Russia’s Top Living Artist
“The reason I could not tell you is that the person you are about to meet is very important and the top living artist in Russia. In Russia, artists are as big as movie stars are in America, and they have to be very careful about screening people. Though I knew we were trying to see him, I could not say until it was approved. You’re about to meet Yuri Kugach, the father and the grandfather of the two men who interviewed you. It would be like meeting Andrew Wyeth or Norman Rockwell in America.”
 
We walked down the long, muddy, pine-tree-lined road. I could hear the frozen ground crunching under my boots. My feet were freezing. After about a half mile, we turned right, then walked down another road until we reached a tiny log cabin, a dacha. We walked into the house and were greeted by a little balding man with lots of energy. Yuri Kugach was age 90 at the time, but he seemed like a 50-year-old.

Stacks of Historic Paintings
The dacha of Yuri Kugach
Our host, the art dealer, was hopeful Yuri Kugach would release some paintings he could bring back to America to place in his gallery. Yuri had told us the paintings we were about to see in his studio were the best of his life’s work, including studies he had done for important paintings that hung in the top museums in Russia. They were all very important, and very expensive.
 
Kugach told the dealer to go ahead and pick out the best pieces so he could purchase them and take them back to the States. “I’m starting to get old,” he said, “so I’ve decided to sell some of the paintings I’ve never wanted to part with before now.”

Yuri Kugach in his studio
Pick the Best Painting
Soon Yuri turned to me and said, “You must look. Let me see what you would pick.”
 
There were stacks and stacks of paintings, probably hundreds. So I went through every pile and every painting and pulled out about six paintings that I thought were very special.
 
He then said to me, “Which is the best?” and I pointed to one very gray and gloomy snow scene.
 
“You’re right, that’s the best painting in the room,” he said. “I painted that outdoors starting in 1938, and I’ve worked on it every couple of years since then. I just finished it a year ago.”
 
Then the unexpected.
 
“You must buy it.”
 
I felt a little trapped. I did not have enough money for the entire trip to buy that single painting. Even if I did, I needed my money for travel, and hopefully to take home a few additional paintings.

Don’t Insult the Artist
So I said to the translator, “I don’t want to insult him. I’d love to own this, but I don’t have that kind of money with me. You need to somehow get me out of this.”
 
They spoke for a minute and then the translator said, “He wants you to buy it. I told him you’re not in a financial position to buy it, and he said you need to make an offer.”
 
Of course I wanted the painting, but I told the translator that I had such a small amount I could offer that I’d rather not offer anything, because I simply did not want to offend him. But, talking back and forth, and with him insisting, I offered an amount of money that I felt I could part with, though it was a fraction of the value of the painting.

A Painting for Generations
Eric Rhoads with Yuri Kugach in 2005
Then Yuri Kugach said this: “I want you to own that painting because you picked the best painting in the room, and because I can see your passion. I’ll give it to you at this price if you promise not to sell it, and to pass it down for generations in your family.”
 
I agreed.

Paintings from the Entire Family
Soon after this special visit, I was able to purchase paintings by each member of this famous Russian art family … the grandfather, the grandmother (then deceased), the son, and the grandson. It’s a special collection. Yuri Petrovich Kugach (1917-2013) lived to be 96. He had been such an important painter that Russia had declared him a national treasure and hid him and his family during World War II, along with a handful of other artists.

Moscow’s Top Art Studios
Following our two-day visit to the dacha, we drove five hours back to Moscow and spent 10 days visiting the studios of the top artists in the city. We also visited the Art Academy, where I saw 7-year-old children drawing unclothed figures from life. These children are placed in art school early and study until they are college age, concentrating on nothing but art. By the time they are young adults, most are already very high-level painters, but only a handful are selected to become part of the top academies in Russia. It is these students who get the best training in the world and become top Russian masters.
 
Of course, I visited many of the tourism areas like the onion-domed churches and the Kremlin, and amazing ornate palaces and museums where I saw art unlike any I had ever seen.

My trip to Russia was the best trip of my lifetime. More amazing than any place in the world I had ever been. The dealer was right. The art in Russia was some of the best I’ve seen in my life. 
Though I had been intimidated in the beginning, I learned that Russia is safe, and I learned that I did not know art until I had seen the best Russian art, which rivals and in many cases exceeds any art to be found anywhere in the world. 
 
I made deep friendships with artists and art professors that have lasted for years. And I discovered some things about myself that have to do with a deep love for the warm Russian people. I got to know many Russian artists by visiting their studios.

Our First Russian Trip
A meal at a traditional Russian restaurant on our first visit.
After my visit I was telling Fine Art Connoisseur editor Peter Trippi about the experience and suggested that we had a responsibility to help our readers have the kind of experiences we were having as a result of our connections through the magazine. From that conversation, we invented our annual Fine Art Cruise — and our first trip went to Russia. But, because of the limitations of the cruise line, we were able to visit St. Petersburg for only a couple of days and could not visit Moscow at all.

“When Are You Going Back?”
A giant Repin painting inside the Russian Museum
Since that first trip, seven years ago, people have kept asking me, “When are you going back to Russia?” Most say it’s a “bucket list” item, and they want to go next time we go. It has been by far the most requested trip; I think everyone has Russia on their bucket list but wants to go with someone they can trust.
 
Plus, I’ve always wanted to do a trip where we go deeply into the art world and visit the artist studios and academies in both Moscow and St. Petersburg.

A street painting of Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in St. Petersburg
I’d like to announce that this “ultimate art trip to Russia” will take place this September. There is so much to do, between behind-the-scenes art tours, studio visits, academy visits, private art shows, and so much more, that we’re spending five days in Moscow and five days in St. Petersburg.
The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg
This trip will be richer and more unique than the first trip. We are leveraging our friendships and our contacts to get you into the studios of the top artists in both cities, and to offer you an art experience that no one else can give you. 

We will do things on this trip that no travel company in the world could replicate.
Peterhof Palace outside of St. Petersburg
Not only will you see the legendary places most visitors want to see in these two amazing cities, you will visit top museums, and see them through the eyes of Fine Art Connoisseur’s editor and publisher and our Russian contacts. 
 
We have arranged for special privileges that others simply could not offer. We will even have an art show made just for our limited number of attendees, allowing you to take home some very fine Russian paintings without breaking the bank. (On our last trip we arranged for the first student art show at the Repin Institute in St. Petersburg in its rich 100-plus-year history.) These students are at the highest level and considered masters by the time of their graduation. 
 
YOU WILL SEE THINGS ON THIS TRIP THAT YOU WILL NEVER EXPERIENCE WITH ANY OTHER TRIP TO RUSSIA.

SIMPLY PUT, THE DEPTH OF THE ART EXPERIENCES WE ARE OFFERING CANNOT BE DUPLICATED.

This Russian Fine Art Connoisseur Trip will be an experience you’ll speak about for the rest of your life. It will never be repeated.
If you are an art lover, art collector, connoisseur, or artist, this will be the most memorable trip of your life. 

Student copies of master paintings at the Repin Institute in St. Petersburg
You will see art being made by some of the most important Russian artists, you will visit the studios of many artists, you will see amazing closed-door art collections not available to the public, and you will visit art institutions others will never see, and in many cases are not even aware of. 
We will also visit the important art museums and arrange for special experiences there, plus all the “must see” places in these two grand cities. We’ve been planning this tour for months with our friends and colleagues in Russia.
 
Fine Art Connoisseur has become known for its ability to orchestrate trips with incredible access and unique experiences that, once again, could not be offered even on trips arranged by top museums or travel companies. This is not the trip to miss.

Peter Trippi and I will personally host and lead this trip along with expert local guides, whom we have vetted carefully along with our U.S. travel partner. We have only 50 seats available on this trip, and 42 are already taken. This leaves just 8 positions left, and we expect them to be gone soon. 
 
Due to special visas we need to apply for in early June, this is a decision that must be made very soon. Note: You must have a valid U.S. passport that expires at least six months after September 20, 2017. 
 
September in Russia is beautiful. The summer tourists are gone, the weather is still pleasant, the trees are colorful, and this is the most special time to see Russia.
 
You have our guarantee that this will be the most special art trip of your life.

Eric Rhoads
Publisher 
Fine Art Connoisseur
PS: AN OFFICIAL MESSAGE TO THOSE INTIMIDATED BY RUSSIA OR CONCERNED ABOUT THE CURRENT POLITICAL CLIMATE

I, too, was intimidated by Russia. I had seen movies and heard rumors, yet on two different trips I have spent time alone, on my own, shopping and wandering the streets and parks safely. The reality is that Moscow is a very modern and sophisticated city, with high-rises and modern fashion, and St. Petersburg is very sophisticated and safe. The shopping is amazing. 
 
But the best way to see Russia for the first time is to go with friends who know the ropes and to be with locals who can make you feel secure. We have local guides, local translators, and local artists accompanying us. You will never feel unsafe. Plus, we know the special places to go you will not find on other tours.
 
For those who are concerned about the political climate or what might happen with Russia, please know that we would never put you in danger. If you’re one who is bothered by claims of Russia influencing the election or concerned that things could escalate, please know that we have people inside Russia who would alert us if there were any indications of negative sentiment or problems. 

Further, we always recommend travel insurance, which gives you a full return in the unlikely event the trip is canceled for those or other reasons. 

Tourism makes up a major part of the Russian economy, and we don’t believe the Russian government wants to do anything to disrupt U.S. tourism, which is very strong to this day. Furthermore, if an issue exists, our own State Department will issue warnings about travel, which it has not done.

Don’t let unfounded fears disrupt the possibility of the trip of a lifetime.
 
A note about this trip for artists:

Eric Rhoads and Scott Christensen painting in St. Petersburg, Russia
This trip is an art-viewing trip and not designed as a painting trip, but you will be able to take some personal time for painting if you desire. Both cities have art stores and offer a wide variety of art supplies, but bringing your own is perfectly acceptable. I intend to paint during some of my leisure time. 

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