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How an Afghan war veteran ‘improved’ a Modernist masterpiece A Yekaterinburg security guard drew the ‘missing’ eyes on figures in an abstract painting on loan from the Tretyakov Gallery. The court just cleared his charges.
The gallery staff at the Boris Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg were shocked when they realized that their contract security guard, the 63-year-old Alexander Vasilyev, had “improved” an abstract painting loaned to the center by the Tretyakov gallery. Anna Leporskaya’s “Three Figures,” painted in the 1930s, was in Yekaterinburg as part of the traveling exhibition “The World as Objectlessness.” Vasilyev mistook the paintings on loan for children’s drawings and put a ballpoint pen to the “Three Figures” to fill in the “missing” eyes. The case caused a furor in the Russian art media, but the court of appeals has now cleared Vasilyev of his charges — partly because, as a veteran of two Russian wars, he suffers from mental health problems.
In the evening on December 7, 2021, two women visiting the Yeltsin Center art gallery called out to the gallery staff, pointing to the eyes drawn on Anna Leporskaya’s abstract canvas, “Three Figures.” When the gallery administrators reviewed the security camera footage, they realized that the “vandal” was their new security guard, who “completed” the painting he thought “unfinished” on his first, and last, day at the gallery.
The gallery chose to keep quiet about the incident, conducting “an internal investigation,” and the story only emerged in the media a month later. Two weeks after the event, the Yeltsin Center finally reported it to the police, who then refused to open a criminal case — since, in their own opinion, “the painting hadn’t lost its qualities.”
Vasilyev came to the Yeltsin Center in December 2021. According to the security guard himself, he had no idea that the exhibition was on loan from the Tretyakov gallery, and thought that it was all “just a bunch of children’s drawings.” When some teens passing through the exhibition joked that the “Three Figures” needed some eyes, Vasilyev picked up his pen and proceeded to improve the painting.
The prosecution was not convinced by this cover story, since the security cameras don’t show any record of this conversation — only Vasilyev himself strolling up to the painting, pen in hand.
When evaluated by a psychiatrist, Vasilyev was diagnosed with “a non-psychotic disorder” and “a slight cognitive impairment.” The court psychiatrist recommended that Vasilyev should go through a compulsory psychiatric treatment.
Leporskaya, a longtime assistant to Kazimir Malevich, is a significant representative of the Soviet avant-guard. Although the painting was promptly and completely restored, and all expenses covered by insurance, the Tretyakov Gallery insisted that Vasilyev should face criminal charges for defacing a work of art. Following their complaint, the Russian Ministry of Culture appealed directly to the federal Attorney General, demanding that Vasilyev be charged with vandalizing “an object of cultural heritage.”
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The Russian Criminal Code prescribes up to three years in prison as a punishment for this type of crime. The prosecution in fact demanded a sentence of 250 hours in compulsory work for Vasilyev. His defense lawyer, who volunteered his services after seeing Vasilyev interviewed by the local media, was in doubt that his client could perform this obligation, given his age and his serious health problems. As a veteran of wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, Vasilyev has noticeable mental health problems. Still, last August, Vasilyev was found guilty of vandalism, and sentenced to compulsory work as well as mandatory psychiatric treatment.
The appeal has now made it to the Verkh-Isetsk district court of Yekaterinburg, which overturned the previous guilty verdict, ruling that Vasilyev’s actions did not constitute a crime. The prosecution is, in turn, weighing the court decision as it tries to decide whether to appeal.
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