A Fight About Putin’s Reach Erupts at the Cooper Union

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Getty, Gevorg Kochar, Junmin Chung , Foivos Geralis , Jamie Lindsey, Austin McInnis

Just a few hours before the Cooper Union was supposed to open an exhibition about the Vkhutemas — a tuition-free art school known as the “Soviet Bauhaus” that ran between 1920 to 1930 — the school abruptly announced it would be postponed. “The complexities of the world’s geopolitical landscape have been compounded in the last year by the horror of Russia’s ruthless, oppressive campaign,” read the announcement published January 25. “It is important for us to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and our own Ukrainian community members and neighbors as we thoughtfully explore our next steps.”

What happened? Many traced the decision to an op-ed published four days ahead of the opening in the architecture blog Archinect. The headline itself was incendiary: “The Cooper Union Promotes Russian Architecture. Why?” In the original article, which has been significantly edited since it was posted, Peder Anker, an environmental-science historian and professor at the NYU Gallatin School, characterized the exhibition as “Russian propaganda” and described the father of one of its curators as a “renowned Putin insider who wields tremendous influence,” hinting that the curator, Anna Bokov, was guilty by association. Archinect later removed the paragraph with a note that these statements were potentially false and defamatory. (Bokov did not respond to requests for comment.) Anker called on the Cooper Union to “terminate” the exhibition, Vkhutemas: Laboratory of the Avant-Garde, 1920–1930, and to pause its courses on Russian and Soviet Union architecture, which he described as “insulting” to the Ukrainian community around the school. “The exhibition organizers seem unaware of being part of a legacy, neighborhood, and community of Ukrainians,” he wrote.

After publishing the article, Anker shared it on Facebook, stating that he had written it “in support of the Ukrainians of New York” and tagging a public Facebook group with nearly 3,000 members, who then flooded the Cooper Union’s Facebook page with angry comments echoing Anker. “The exhibit, which will run during the anniversary of the Ukrainian invasion, smack in the middle of the Ukrainian Village is an outrage,” wrote Roma Lisovich, a member of the group who has been corresponding with Anker. “How disrespectful to hold this exhibit when Russia has attacked an innocent nation,” reads another comment. “It would have been much more respectful and a tribute to democracy to showcase the architecture of Ukraine.”

According to Hayley Eber, Cooper Union’s acting dean, Anker’s article had triggered other “queries regarding the exhibition,” which influenced the school’s decision to postpone. “The opinion piece, which was not fact checked and has since been significantly amended, sparked concerns and continuing dialogue at Cooper, within our community, and the field at large,” she wrote in a statement.

But many architects and scholars in the field were alarmed by the decision. Since January 30, a letter condemning the Cooper Union’s actions as a “troubling instance of censorship and historical erasure” and appearing “to have been in part fueled by an intellectually questionable article that appeared online last week” has received 745 signatures by the time of publication. The list includes Rem Koolhaas, Beatriz Colomina, Rosalind Krauss, and Yves-Alain Bois along with dozens of Cooper Union students and alumni, curators, and historians. The Cooper Union denies the accusations. “The decision to postpone was not made because of one person’s opinion and was not made lightly,” Eber said in her statement.

If the controversy surrounding the Cooper Union’s Vkhutemas exhibition seems familiar, that’s because it is. For some, including architectural historian and NYU professor Jean-Louis Cohen, the discourse surrounding the exhibition is resurfacing long-held xenophobic sentiments against Russian culture dating from the Cold War as well as a more contemporary outrage against Putin and his war against Ukraine. What’s surprising is that this debate about Russian culture has converged on a small exhibition of student work that would probably go mostly unnoticed outside of academia. The show has already been postponed twice, once because the invasion of Ukraine began three months before it was scheduled to open. The exhibit itself displays only the work of Cooper students based on Vkhutemas, not archival items from the school itself. “Cooper Union is suppressing its students’ work,” says Olivia Crough, an art historian who contributed a chapter to a yet-to-be-published catalog for the show. She points out that when the New Museum, which is just eight blocks away from the Cooper Union, exhibited a library of Russian literature in its recent Theaster Gates exhibition, there were no calls to cancel that show. Moreover, the Cooper exhibit has no financial ties to the Russian state; it was funded by the Graham Foundation and the New York State Council of the Arts and co-curated by Stephen Hillyer, director of the Cooper Union’s architecture archive.

But the decision to postpone was especially perplexing because the op-ed’s arguments rested on such shaky intellectual grounds. To call Vkhutemas an exhibition about “Russian architecture” that will “soften our politicians’ support of Ukraine,” as Anker did, mischaracterizes the history of the institution. Founded in 1920 in Moscow during the early Soviet era, the public school was committed to very different ideals than the totalitarian tenets of Putin’s Russia in many ways. Unlike Putin’s approach to education, which is prescriptive and based on propaganda, the Vkhutemas curriculum was experimental and encouraged open-ended inquiries from its students. It was tuition free, and its students and faculty were multinational and multiethnic, coming from all countries that were part of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, like the abstract painter Kazimir Malevich, who joined the staff in 1925. Unlike state schools of the Russian Empire, Vkhutemas did not have quotas for minority students and encouraged enrollment from women as well as rural and working-class people. But the school’s style of thinking and teaching fell out of favor with Stalin, who believed it represented western propaganda and closed it in 1930. In an article for Primer, the Walker Art Institute’s magazine, Bokov writes that this perception of the school led it to be forgotten in art and architectural history. “It’s paradoxical to argue that the innovative, free, subversive culture at the school represents Putin today,” Cohen says. It isn’t even representative of the politics of the Soviet Union for most of its history. “If we were to transpose this school and its values and practices of creative freedom, anti-nationalism, and equitable access to education, it would be shut down by Putin, no question,” Crough says, adding that there are similarities to the school’s origin and the Cooper Union’s own, which also sought to open arts education to people who had been systematically excluded.

But these finer distinctions are often flattened, especially in Anker’s piece, by the conflation of the Russian Empire (which lasted until 1917) with the Soviet Union (which grew to include 15 republics and existed until 1991) and present-day Russia. Unless you have specialized historical knowledge, there’s “sort of an inability to differentiate” between them, says Owen Hatherley, a culture editor at the U.K. Tribune who writes frequently about architecture and politics. He worries that “we’re going to hold everything about Russian culture as universally suspicious,” adding that this type of reaction didn’t happen with Germany in World War II. “It’s like saying reading Goethe or listening to Schubert makes you someone that commits genocide.”

Bokov’s research into the Vkhutemas as a scholar and curator seeks to situate the school as a distinct moment in the history of modern art. Polina Godz, a graphic designer from Kharkiv, Ukraine, who now lives in New York, also wanted to add nuance to the understanding of Vkhutemas, arguing in Jacobin a few years ago that the school was even more radical than the Bauhaus. “It felt important to highlight a shared design legacy that also belongs to Ukrainians,” says Godz, who spoke about typography at the Vkhutemas in a Cooper Union event in November, which received no negative attention. “Unfortunately, Ukrainians aren’t willing to claim cultural things as their own when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.” But other historians are less inclined to separate Vkhutemas from Russia today. “To present what is widely accepted as ‘Russian’ modernist culture to which Ukrainian artists have contributed greatly makes us complicit in the war being waged on Ukraine,” wrote Myroslava Mudark, a professor emeritus of Eastern European and Soviet Art at Ohio State University, in a comment posted to an academic forum.

Before the publication deleted it from the piece, Anker’s op-ed tried to use Bokov’s personal family history as evidence that the show was an example of a Russian “soft-power” campaign. Bokov’s father is a prominent architect in Russia, but beyond a photograph of him shaking hands with Putin, Anker presented no evidence of him being a “renown Putin insider.” Of course, the use of “soft power” to cast Russia as a cultural and intellectual center is real — the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow and the Strelka Institute, which has flown out American architects to speak in its conferences, have significantly raised the country’s profile in the arts. But, as the letter against Cooper’s cancellation noted, shutting down critical scholarly engagement with Russian history feels much more like “a chilling impingement on academic freedom and education,” an example of decision-making that is less informed by fact than fear.

Anker’s emphasis on Bokov’s family history raised a lot of speculation that his call to cancel was motivated by personal relationships. According to Archinect, Anker did not disclose to the outlet ahead of publication that he personally knew Bokov. In fact, Anker and Bokov have co-authored scholarship in the past, and Anker is an advisor to Terreform ONE, an architecture firm where Bokov was once design director, according to a past CV, a position now held by Anker’s wife. But Anker denies his past with Bokov motivated the oped. Instead, he says the article came out of a conversation he had near the school with someone in line at a coffee cart he regularly visits in Astor Place. It was after the Cooper Union had sent out its exhibition announcement, and the person, who identified himself as Ukrainian, “became very angry” talking about it as someone who was “living in a neighborhood suffering from war.” “He had a long rant about ivory-tower academics not caring about their neighbors,” Anker recalls. He now says he hopes the school postpones the exhibition until the war is over — a softening of the opinion he originally shared in the Archinect story.

This isn’t the first time a Cooper Union exhibition has rankled its Ukrainian neighbors. In 2008, the community rallied for the school to remove a two-story banner featuring a portrait of Stalin painted by Picasso that hung from its Foundation building. The banner appeared just days before the 75th anniversary of Holodomor, a Ukrainian famine Stalin ordered that led to millions of deaths. To Andrij Dobriansky, director of communications at the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, the Vkhutemas exhibition felt like a familiar reprise of that incident. Back then, he said, “The curators dismissed those concerns and said, ‘This isn’t a monument; it’s an advertisement.’ It’s the same dismissiveness and elitism now.”

When Dobriansky learned about the Vkhutemas exhibition in early January from a Ukrainian colleague in the East Village, he wrote to the Cooper Union to ask what the show would be about. He said he never received a reply. “The issue for me is, if you’re going to do something culturally insensitive, have a dialogue with the community instead of not talking to us,” Dobriansky says. “Cooper Union is, historically, a great supporter of the community. There are plenty of alumni and professors of Ukrainian descent. This is an opportunity for a teachable moment in academia. We hope they change their viewpoints and understand that what they do actually hurts people.” Among the larger changes Dobriansky said he and his colleagues want to see is a bigger shift in the field as a whole away from a focus on Russia. “There’s a movement around the world to decolonize Slavic studies, which are almost entirely taught from a Russian-centric viewpoint,” he said. For him, it matters less that many of the students and teachers at the Vkhutemas were ethnically Ukrainian because “it’s the focus on Moscow as the center of cultural history.” While Dobriansky wants to continue an open dialogue with the school, many Ukrainians who have read Anker’s piece are calling for the exhibition to be canceled outright rather than postponed.

The question remains: How will art and culture related to Russia and its history continue to be received or censored, and who gets to make those decisions? Dismissing its history and scholarship wholesale poses a danger in itself — especially when exhibits like the one at Cooper seek to challenge a monolithic understanding of the country and the region at a particular moment in history. It’s not happening only at the Cooper Union; many cultural institutions are struggling with the same issue. “I know of at least five books at MIT Press, including one of my own, that could be reconsidered if this line of thought were to prevail,” Cohen says. The Cooper Union is still working through the controversy. “We are in the process of continuing conversations with the exhibition co-curators, our students, and faculty, as well with members of Cooper’s Ukrainian community, as we plan a way forward,” Eber says. “Plans for the project will be shared once we have had time and space to consider these issues thoughtfully and sensitively.” A talk related to the exhibition that was scheduled for February 7, which would have featured Cohen and Bokov in conversation, has been canceled, and a new opening date has yet to be announced.

Update, February 6: After publication, Cooper Union announced that it will open Vkhutemas: Laboratory of the Avant Garde, 1920-1930 later this Spring — the date still to be finalized — along with “additional contextualizing material.” The school will also hold a discussion series with Cooper Union students and a public roundtable “to unpack the multidimensional issues relating to the exhibition and its presentation.”

Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly said that Anker “sits on the board of Terreform One.” He is an advisor to the architecture firm.

A Fight About Putin’s Reach Erupts at the Cooper Union