Pavel Otdelnov remembers that as a child he saw his mother heating water to clean his parents’ bedding every day.
His father worked in the factories of Dzerzhinsk, a Russian city about 400 kilometers east of Moscow. That city was the chemical manufacturing center of the former Soviet Union.
The chemicals that made the bedding turn yellow passed through his father’s protective equipment and reached his skin.
“Dad was born in a workers’ camp and gave his entire life to chemical industries around Dzerzhinsk,” Otdelnov wrote.
His notes are part of “Promzona,” an exhibit at Moscow’s Museum of Modern Art. The new show has both his paintings of industrial ruins and objects from workers’ lives.
The artist’s large, architecturally correct paintings of ruined and collapsing factories show what he calls “the ruins of a Soviet mythology.”
Many of the chemical factories are now empty in a city filled with toxic waste. Yet, they once were an important part of Soviet history.
Otdelnov says the worker mythology never became a reality for all the people.
“People who worked in those factories understood a long time ago, in the 1970s, that the Soviet idea, communism, was a myth and would never be realized,” he said. “They understood that a long time before the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Otdelnov’s paintings can be seen in the Russian Museum, the State Tretyakov Gallery and in the homes of private collectors.
Otdelnov was born in Dzerzhinsk and comes from several generations of chemical workers, starting with his great-grandfather. Just before World War II, his grandmother moved to the city from another village.
The Soviet Union started manufacturing chemical weapons in Dzerzhinsk in 1941. The artist’s grandmother was a factory worker who put together the bombs.
After the war, she met her husband in the same factory. He was responsible for plexiglass, the clear plastic it produced for military and civilian purposes.
Otdelnov’s father and aunt worked in the same factory after they finished school. Otdelnov’s cousin works in a Dzerzhinsk factory laboratory now.
It is not clear when the city’s factories stopped making chemicals designed to be weapons of war. Some people believe it may have been as late as 1965. Huge amounts of the deadly chemicals were stored away and kept in the city’s industrial area. Eventually, they were moved to other areas, where they were destroyed under an international chemical weapons ban in the 2000s.
Dzerzhinsk still has a chemical industry that makes products for military equipment, plastics and fertilizers. Many factories that worked for the military did not survive the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their toxic waste, however, remains buried in underground dumps.
Dzerzhinsk often is listed as one of the world’s most-polluted cities. The Ecology Committee of the lower house of Russia’s parliament put it among the 10 with the worst pollution in the country.
Last year, Pavel Otdelnov used a drone aircraft to record the industrial ruins from the air. A camera captured images of a huge multicolored lake of chemical waste, open to the sky, nearby.
The Museum of Modern Art exhibit includes a room with everyday objects like factory newsletters and safety films. Gas masks from the old chemical factories are on the floor of another room.
Heard through the show are the voices of the people of Dzerzhinsk. Their stories were recorded by Otdelnov’s father and written on the exhibition walls.
Otdelnov’s grandmother describes a 1960 factory explosion that killed 24 workers. Soviet officials never spoke about the deaths. The workers were buried in different parts of the city’s burial grounds to stop questions about why 24 factory workers died on the same day.
These personal stories often show the humor factory workers used in a toxic environment.
“Humor helped them…with their reality but they weren’t especially heroic. They just got used to it,” Otdelnov said.
On a cold February night, many people visiting the exhibit were young people. Anna Kiselyova, a 23-year-old teacher, said the show provides valuable political lessons for Russia’s younger generation, not just its factory workers.
“Our present government tells us this all happened such a long time ago,” she said. “It may seem like a very different world, but I don’t think it’s just a problem of the past, and we need to be aware of that.”
I'm Susan Shand.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted the report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
architecture – adj.of or related to archeology, the art or science of designing and creating buildings
toxic – adj.poisonous
mythology – n.ideas that are believed by many people but that are not true
plexiglass – n.sheets of strong, clear plastic
drone – n.a small aircraft that flies without a human pilot
mask– n.a cover or partial cover worn over the face
multicolor– n.many colors
cousin – n.the child of a parent’s brother or sister
aunt– n.the sister of one’s mother or father; the wife of a parent’s brother or sister