– With the war on and ensuing denial of everything Russian, do you see any change in the public interest in your collection of the Russian avant-garde? How does the situation affect its development?

– On the whole, exhibiting has become very hard. Especially for someone who’s not a big name in collecting circles and has no “heavyweights” in their collection. With the war on, the issue has become even more sensitive. We just had a large exhibition in Tallinn, where the emphasis was not on Russian art as such but on my grandfather Yakov Rubinstein, the collector of Russian avant-garde. And on the Ukrainian and Jewish artists in his collection. It’s hard to say how they self-identified back in the day because many have passed away. But the issue is being researched, and certain artists are being reclassified from Russian to Ukrainian avant-garde. One good example from our collection is Solomon Nikritin. He was a Jew, born and raised in Ukraine, where he trained before moving to Moscow. There he would work, develop a name for himself and live to the end of his life. Some Ukrainian art historians describe him as a Ukrainian avant-garde artist. Others class him as Russian. I’m a collector, and my only task is to show his work to the public. These artworks and artists deserve it. Although, naturally, this is no easy task at the moment.

– Tell us about your grandfather, Yakov Rubinstein, the famous collector. Are there any stories going around in your family about his hobby?

– I know my great-grandparents, whom I never met, moved from Poland to Saint-Petersburg in 1904. And it was a pretty unequal match. My granddad was a merchant of the first guild. Which enabled him to move from the Pale of Settlement to Saint-Petersburg. And my great-grandma was a Hofjude (editor’s note – court Jews who lent money to European royal courts and other nobility and handled their finances). Her family had lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the children were taught modern languages and educated in music, etc., got degrees in Sorbonne or Liege – I mean, education was always a big thing for the family. Jews from these circles always invested in education. Both money and time.

As to my grandfather, I know him as Grandpa, not Yakov, the collector. And my childhood wasn’t an easy one. He was a very genteel man with a solid code of civility, which I sensed intuitively. But he was pretty tight-lipped, didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. Our family always valued good manners – a particular way of standing, talking and eating. You may remember the glasses with metal holders from back in the day. So, if I as much as clinked my spoon against the glass wall when stirring my sugar, Grandpa would give me a look – such a look that I wished the floor would open up and swallow me whole (laughs). When you are nine or ten, you don’t care about manners! (laughs). I remember he had celebrity visitors. There was Kapitsa, the great academic; foreigners, too, which, in Soviet times, seemed such a cool thing and highly unusual. There were endless talks about paintings, which I didn’t care about then. It just felt too much. He would say something like: “No, this one doesn’t agree with that one over there; these need to be hanged anew… no, no, no, not here, it needs more respect… I must hang it so it is seen!” He would go on and on, and I couldn’t care less.

– So he was no regular, run-of-the-mill granddad.

– I wanted a grandfather who would teach me to ride a bike or give me an exciting birthday gift instead of another painting. So at that point, it wasn’t easy. But once I entered transition age, Grandpa became my confidant, and I came to him with my worries. He was wise and composed and could talk to me calmly without displaying undue emotions. And I loved that. My parents had no patience with me; they were divorced, and there were quite a few scandals… It was a whole different world with Grandpa. He started collecting in the 1950s after Stalin’s death, with his second wife, Tatiana Sergeyevna, and it soon became a matter of pride. Dudakov has spoken about a time they swapped paintings – he gave Rubinstein a Pavel Kuznetsov, and Grandpa gave him a drawing by Kazimir Malevich. So Grandpa left, but then he came back saying: “Valera, you know what? Give me another hundred roubles – at the end of the day, it’s a Malevich, isn’t it.” (laughs)

– Do you have the collector’s gene? Or did it just come with the legacy?

– There was a time when I cared very little. I was a state-hopping student, moving from America to Israel, from Israel to Germany… The collection was in Lithuania, biding its time, waiting for its golden hour. My Soviet background had left a bitter taste in my mouth: the Russian language, the Soviet reality, the KGB, my grandma, who’d been deported for twenty-odd years – I put it all in one corner with all the paintings and left it there, not wanting to be saddled with all this stuff. But when I took the collection to Germany, after a period of reflection, I felt I could finally tell right from wrong, see what was exciting and worth exploring and what should be laid to rest. That’s when I started going through the folders (it was all kept in folders), taking unframed drawings out of their cardboard boxes, and this gave me a new identity, a notion of who I am and where I’ve come from. I realised it had left an imprint on me from my younger days. I had soaked it all up like a sponge. It was a gradual process, nothing immediate. But when it happened, I realised there was no living without it; this would be my life from now on.

– What do you feel when you acquire a painting?

– Apologies for the crude example (laughs). I have an acquaintance. And once, when I asked her how she was, she showed me – such a tell-tale case of the post-soviet context – a Gucci (or was it Prada?) bag she had just received as a gift, and you should have seen the shine in her eyes! Well, mine shine exactly like that from a new acquisition to the collection; I get just as much pleasure. You know, I’ve just bought a new piece by an artist whose drawing we’ve had from my grandfather’s time. It felt amazing. I mean, just wow!

– Several sources say you hold only a quarter of your grandfather’s immense collection. Where’s the rest of it gone?

– Yes, it’s just a small fraction. But the story is pretty mundane – my dad and my father both really loved women. So there you go…

– Cherchez la femme?

– I’m afraid so. The collection got split, and we lost many things. In any case, I’m the only one who now actively works with the legacy. I invest my time and money to preserve and display Grandpa’s collection. So it doesn’t get lost altogether. Apart from me, there is no one else who would do it, no one who could, because I’m the only granddaughter. There’s no one else.

– Do you exhibit in several places at once or focus on one show at a time?

– We are here for a definite reason – this is Gershov, and this is Daugavpils, his city of birth. I’ve had this dream for some time – to bring him here, to his birthplace. This exhibition has already been shown at the Occupation Museum in Rīga, the KGB Museum in Vilnius and also in Tallinn. So it was perfectly logical that he should be displayed in his hometown. At the same time, there are other plans on the way. I’m negotiating with Montpellier in France because my great-grandfather had moved from Saint-Petersburg to Poland and then to France, from where he was deported to Auschwitz with his elder brother; none of them survived the camp. I want to make a memorial show for them both. The topic hasn’t been finalised because Russian art and Russia as such have become extremely sensitive issues. As of now, there are two possible concepts. One, my grandfather wasn’t afraid to collect the artists persecuted by the Soviet regime. Secondly, these are going to be the artists born in Ukraine.

– Can you tell us the story of this exhibition? How did it get here?

– Well, it’s pretty simple and somewhat funny. I was an international relations student in Washington, DC. And I had to choose a geographical area for my specialisation. Since I spoke Russian, my logical choice was Eastern Europe. I was interested in the occupation of Eastern Europe and all the socialist regimes that had sprouted here. My professor was Ilya Prizel, and we developed a very good relationship. In his course, we were five Jewish students. So one day, Professor Prizel invited us to his home, to the Passover Seder. That was before I started working on my collection, it was still in storage in Lithuania. But since I’d grown up with art, wherever I went, I would always visit the local museums. So imagine, the door opens, we all go in and… I find myself face to face with two giant Rothko paintings! I freeze in my tracks. And have the sense not to blurt out: “Lovely reproductions!” I mean, how was I to know they were originals?! In the home of my dear professor, a dreamer who’d seemed so unconcerned with all things material… I say: “That’s Mark Rothko!” Professor: “Yes. And meet my wife Kate, his daughter.” This was my first close encounter with Rothko. Later on, when we were already working on the collection, I realised Gershov had come from Daugavpils, exactly like Rothko, and everything fell into place. It became crystal clear that Gershov needed to be brought back home.

– How is the collection faring right now?

(answered by art historian Olga Sugrobova-Roth, curator of “Art from the Gulag”)

– The collection is developing. Now it’s relatively easier, but back in Soviet times, the entire thing was only half-legal. There was always the question of money and where it was from. The case of Yakov Yevseyevich was all above board – as a professional economist and member of the All-Union Knowledge Society, he toured the country with lectures, and that gave a steady income. He also had an uncle, a famous Ukrainian sculptor, who left him a fine legacy. That’s when he made all the major acquisitions.

Today the collection keeps growing, and we follow a system, which is interesting, but (!) the main thing to stress is we go in Rubinstein’s footsteps and try to maintain his signature style. Acquiring this prison camp folder by Gershov was logical because we already had his self-portrait. In fact, our current focus is firmly on Jewish art of the 1920s and 1930s – prints, drawings and books. Occasionally, we get great new pieces by artists already featured in the collection. Here, the public will see Gershov the way he’s rarely been seen. He had two prison sentences, and nearly all his work was destroyed or lost every time. The Gershov of these years is practically gone. We know his later output from Leningrad. In his later period, which lasted several decades, he focused on the Jewish theme and rediscovered his Jewish identity. We have that in our collection. In this case, we have taken one aspect: the folder of drawings he made in the camp, a fairly recent discovery. We have a wonderful exhibition designer with such a delicate sense of style and occasion. You can see the mangy paper from around the camp, the scraps of wallpaper, and the frayed edges. The girls in the “Music Lessons” are drawn on a piece of wallpaper. And there’s a signature in Gershov’s own hand. Another one on the reverse side. We’ve kept the original titles: “The Moldovan Man”, “The Lithuanian Man”, “The Seamstress”, or “The Man in a Hat”.

– Were it not for collectors, many of these artworks wouldn’t have survived…

– Yes, on a half-legal basis, they kept lots of his work for posterity. You know, this horrid Soviet realism, the endless portraits of state leaders, the artists would paint them just to survive. All the while, they would secretly paint for themselves, and these things were far from realistic. They made their own secret world just for themselves. Not to lose their humanity, to stay human against the odds. Sure, there was plenty of snitching, so the works were hidden…

– Tanya, how can you tell what counts as art and what doesn’t? What are your criteria?

– I guess I’ll repeat after Grandpa because I fully agree: it depends on whether the work speaks to me. Take the portraits of boys by Vera Yermolayeva, I saw them at an auction, and they spoke to me. I knew I wanted to buy them, look at them every day, and talk to them daily. That’s my subjective perspective. There should be a reaction – how disgusting, how beautiful… If this component is missing, the work has no value. What’s there even to talk about?

– Do you have a collector’s dream about an artwork you’re dying to get but don’t know where to start looking?

– I have a dream, but I doubt it will ever happen. I want to get back the lost part of Grandpa’s collection that’s scattered all over the world. There’s no knowing where it’s all gone. If I see anything in an auction with provenance in Yakov Rubinstein’s collection, my dream is to get it. And one more thing. Grandpa was friends with Costakis (collector George Costakis, world-renowned owner of an eponymous collection of the Russian avant-garde), and his collection is now the main attraction in Thessaloniki MOMus museum in Greece. I’ve written to the director about my idea to reunite Costakis and Rubinstein in a joint exhibition. They knew each other, visited each other’s homes and exchanged art. Before all the new names popped up, George Costakis and Yakov Rubinstein were the two leading collectors of their time.

– What’s your motivation? What keeps you going?

– Memories of my grandfather. Awareness of the privilege and joy of being born into such a family. The values they taught me, the appreciation for art and Yakov Rubinstein’s love of sharing it with the public.