The Ransom of Russian Art

John McPhee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

192 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
In the 1960s and '70s, an American professor of Soviet economics forayed on his own in the Soviet Union, bought the work of underground "unofficial" artists, and smuggled it out himself or arranged to have it illegally shipped to the United States. Norton Dodge visited the apartments of unofficial artists in at least a dozen geographically scattered cities. By 1977, he had amassed a thousand works of modern or contemporary Russian art, but at that point, after the mysterious death of leading dissident artist Evgeny Rukhin, and with a sense that he had flouted the Soviets perhaps more than too much, Dodge made only one more trip to the Soviet Union. Thereafter, he continued to acquire works through his established contacts. Dodge eventually secured another eight thousand works—by far the largest collection of its kind.

In this keen and engrossing exposition on the history, politics, and culture of dissident Soviet art, McPhee investigates Dodge’s clandestine activities—as well as the motives for his collecting and the fates of several of the artists whose lives he touched. The Ransom of Russian Art is a suspenseful and fascinating report on a covert operation like no other. It also offers unprecedented insights into Soviet culture at the brink of the Union’s collapse.


Praise for The Ransom of Russian Art

"An excellent survey of the artistic worlds of Moscow, Leningrad, and other Soviet cities during the neo-Stalinist deep freeze."—David Remnick, The New York Review of Books

"McPhee has created a style—blending detailed reporting with a novelistic sense of narrative—and a standard that have influenced a whole generation of journalists."—Timothy Bay, The Baltimore Sun

"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 8,000 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, McPhee's engaging narrative sheds light on this suppressed creative milieu. The prolific author also tracked down emigre Soviet artists now living in the United States, and [in this book] he ponders the West's relative indifference to their rebellious art."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Ransom of Russian Art, The
Norton Townshend Dodge, born in Oklahoma City in 1927, first presented his curriculum vitae to officials of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the early spring of 1955. They let him in for thirty days. His stated purpose was to travel with his father (a retired college president) and assist him in a study of Soviet education. Norton did not reveal his real mission. In a journey that encompassed three hundred thousand square miles, he gathered material for what eventually became a nine-hundred-page monograph on Soviet tractors. It served as his doctoral dissertation
Read the full excerpt


  • John McPhee

  • John McPhee is the author of more than 25 books, including Annals of the Former World, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction in 1999. He has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1965 and lives in Princeton, New Jersey. McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were both nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science.
  • John McPhee Peter Cook