“Naked Vanka”

Artist: Stefan Erzia
Date: 1920
Media: Marble
Dimensions: 6 metres
“Naked Vanka”


Before the revolution, Ekaterinburg’s main piazza was known as Cathedral Square and symbolised the union of the two pillars which held Imperial Russia together – Autocracy and Orthodoxy. The square was the site of the Baroque Cathedral of the Epiphany (1771–74) and a cast-iron statue of Tsar Alexander II, sculpted by Mikhail Popov. The statue weighed nine tons and was opened on 5 October 1906.

While Tsar Alexander II was murdered in March 1881, it took twenty-five years for the statue to actually be created in Ekaterinburg. Firstly, the government did not want to pay for it, so the initiative relied on private donations. At one point, those collecting the money vanished with the proceeds. The first version cast at the Kusa Foundry was rejected by the council and had to be recast at the Kasli Iron Works.

In 1917, the statue of the Tsar-Liberator was pulled down and replaced a year later, in May 1918, by a version of the Statue of Liberty by an unknown sculptor. The Statue of Liberty was dismantled after the city was captured on 25 July 1918 by the Czech Legion and White Army (too late to save the family of Tsar Nicholas II, who were murdered in the nearby Ipatiev House on the night of 16/17 July).

A year later, on 14 July 1919, Ekaterinburg was recaptured by the Red Army. Cathedral Square was then renamed 1905 Square – in honour of a political punch-up which had taken place there between students and nationalists on 19 October 1905, following the proclamation of the October Manifesto. The new Bolshevik rulers decided to commission a bust of Karl Marx for the empty pedestal.

The bust of Karl Marx was designed by Stefan Erzia and installed on 26 January 1920. But the sculpture only consisted of a head and a long beard, which looked out of place on the large plinth. So the local council asked Erzia if he could create something better in time for May Day. Fortunately, he happened to be working on a marble sculpture inspired by Michelangelo’s famous statue of David (1501–04)...

Stefan Erzia had originally planned to show his sculpture, which he had already christened David Liberated, at an exhibition of proletarian art in Ekaterinburg. The artist wanted to challenge the Futurists, who were overthrowing the classical art of the past and, as he later wrote, “omnipotent back then; I saw in Ekaterinburg how the Futurists were destroying works of art which were, in their opinion, bad.”

The council persuaded Stefan Erzia not to show the statue at the exhibition, but to sell it to them instead for installation on 1905 Square. A contract was quickly drawn up and signed on 18 March 1920. Erzia had been working on the sculpture in the nearby village of Mramorskoe, so he had it transported to Ekaterinburg, where he completed it in record time with the help of a stonemason called P. Y. Belenkov.

When the statue was unveiled on 1 May 1920, everyone at the ceremony gasped when they saw the enormous six-metre statue of a naked worker with his bulging muscles, proudly displaying a very impressive, life-sized “tool”... The official title of the sculpture was Liberated Labour. The nude figure represented Soviet workers liberated from the chains of the past – and so was also “liberated” from its clothes.

The public was unaccustomed to such revolutionary art and nicknamed the statue “Naked Vanka” (Vanka is the diminutive of Ivan). Old ladies were outraged at the presence of an enormous statue of a naked man right next to their cathedral and spat in its direction after crossing themselves. People threw ink on it at night and children were forbidden by their parents from going anywhere near 1905 Square.

The nude statue might not have looked so bad if only Stefan Erzia had been allowed to complete his planned monument. He wanted his naked worker to be the crowning glory of a much larger group of twenty smaller sculptures, depicting such famous writers as Tommaso Campanella, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Karl Marx. But the council ran out of money and so the other sculptures were never made.

All the time, the demands to do something about the naked statue grew louder and louder. The authorities finally reacted and “Naked Vanka” was dismantled between 3 and 4 am on the night of 11 July 1926. The official reason given was the need to pay heed to the public outrage, but the real reason may have been the criticism of the Communist regime by Stefan Erzia, who emigrated to Argentina a year later.

The empty pedestal was dismantled four years later – around the same time as the Cathedral of the Epiphany was blown up on 30 June 1930. They were replaced by a viewing platform made of cement and granite for the Party bosses to stand and watch parades. A full-length portrait of Joseph Stalin was added in the 1930s.

A statue of Stalin was erected in its place in 1948. Following Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956, the statue of Stalin was pulled down and replaced by a statue of Vladimir Lenin, which was opened on 6 November 1957. Ironically, this statue was sculpted by Vladimir Ingal, who had once studied under Stefan Erzia.

But what actually happened to “Naked Vanka”? The monument to Liberated Labour was transported to the nearby Museum of Local Studies at 4 Voevodin Lane, where it lay for years, face up under the fence near the entrance. When war broke out in 1941, the local authorities decided to simply throw it into the City Pond.

After the overthrow of the Communist regime in 1991, people remembered the naked statue and made attempts to find Ekaterinburg’s David. In the early 1990s, local scuba divers from DOSAAF (a paramilitary sports organisation in the Soviet Union) spent three days searching the City Pond, but could not find anything.

In September 2007, Governor Eduard Rossel of Sverdlovsk Region said that he was in favour of finding the marble masterpiece and restoring it to its former place. However, an opinion poll showed that only 39% of the population supported his initiative, while 48% were opposed to the idea (13% did not have any opinion).

But first they will need to find the missing masterpiece – which might prove to be an impossible task. One local sculptor claimed that the statue was never actually thrown into the pond back in 1941. He says that it was given instead to a nearby stone-cutting workshop, which used it to make marble busts of political leaders.

“Naked Vanka” inspired similar monuments in other Russian cities. In Petrograd, an even larger statue was sculpted by Mikhail Blokh and opened on 20 July 1920. This time, the creator was forced to cover up the enormous figure of a naked worker wielding a hammer with an “apron” (which still left his backside exposed).

Not to be outdone, when celebrating May Day in 1920, Moscow also launched plans for a similar monument to Liberated Labour. The location was to be on the Prechistenka Embankment, next to the Church of Christ the Saviour, on the former site of a monument to Tsar Alexander III installed in 1912 and demolished in 1918.

The foundations were laid in the presence of Lenin on 1 May 1920, but the statue was never built. The plinth was demolished in 1931, along with the Church of Christ the Saviour, to make way for the planned Palace of Soviets (originally intended to be crowned by an eighteen-metre statue of a “liberated worker”).

Although there have been recent attempts in Ekaterinburg to replace the present statue of Vladimir Lenin with images of Tsar Alexander II, Boris Yeltsin and even “Naked Vanka”, the statue of Lenin is listed as an object of cultural and historical heritage and so cannot be removed without the approval of the Ministry of Culture.

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