Playground of the Autocrats: Works by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Anne Bobroff-Hajal’s series of polyptychs titled Playground of the Autocrats is comprised of multilayered panels that reflect the artist’s simultaneous interest in contemporary animation and history. Bobroff-Hajal earned a Ph.D. in Russian history for which she conducted extensive research in the Soviet Union. As a lifelong animation enthusiast, she served as a board member of the New York chapter of the International Animation Society. She began expressing herself artistically from a young age, encouraged by her father who organized private lessons with a local portraitist. Bobroff-Hajal stopped painting in graduate school, but profoundly missed the art world. “I loved doing the research, but it was not the right world for me. I express myself in images, I think visually,” says Bobroff-Hajal. She began working on Playground of the Autocrats over a decade ago and found that this project finally allowed her to reconcile her passion for both history and art.

Bobroff-Hajal initially conceived Playground of the Autocrats as a series of short animated films about Russian history. Later, she decided to create the collage-like polyptychs, utilizing speech bubbles with lyrics she had written as the films’ soundtrack. This creative process allows for a multisensory experience of her work as the visual and auditory are simultaneously stimulated. While the collages are whimsical in form, the content confronts the autocratic regimes that have recurred throughout Russian history. Bobroff-Hajal believes that the best way to understand this difficult history is with imagination and humor, a technique actively used throughout Playground of the Autocrats. The artist describes this work as “comical, but deadly serious.”

To create the panels, Bobroff-Hajal conducts extensive research to ensure that each part is as historically accurate as possible. She then combines anachronistic figures and episodes to highlight the main thematic considerations. Next, she uses complex computer programming to plan out each section, carefully layering each detail to create a balance of color, line and movement. Only once she is satisfied with the historical accuracy and visual organization does she proceed to physically create the panels by using a combination of printing, photographing, enlarging, reducing, and painting. In this way, these complex works function as collages both from the artistic and the historical perspectives.

Bobroff-Hajal named this series Playground of the Autocrats because Russia’s landscape, which is marked by thousands of miles of steppes, is reminiscent of a colossal playground. Seen together, the series tells the story of the Russian playground, those who ruled it, and those who lived under this rule. The figures of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great – imagined as the infant Stalin’s flying fairy godparents – are the panels’ narrators. Learn more at annebobroffhajal.com

Darling Godsonny: Ivan The Terrible Advises the Infant Stalin

2017, Acrylic paint and digital images on canvas and board, original lyrics

Darling Godsonny tells a satirical story of Tsar Ivan the Terrible advising his “godson” Stalin on how to consolidate and maintain power. Ivan underlines the parallels between Stalin’s challenges and his own. The Tsar advises the infant to follow his example as he sings a lullaby to the tune of Kalinka, a common Russian folk song. This work is a meditation on the ways in which state terror and purges built support for an authoritarian government.

The central panel portrays the details of Ivan the Terrible’s Terror (the Oprichnina) as well as of Stalin’s purges. Though terrible to behold, the depiction demonstrates some of the ways in which the two leaders controlled society. One such common mechanism was the traumatic experience of witnessing the arrest of loved ones. Another, represented in the fourth and fifth panels, depicts people climbing ladders, excited by the opportunity for upward social mobility. The removal of one person from the top allows for an opening for someone from lower in the hierarchy. In this way, each purge creates and perpetuates newfound supporters for the system.

Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes

2011-2012, Acrylic paint and digital images on canvas and board; original lyrics

Catherine the Great ended the slave raids by incorporating the steppe into the Russian Empire. However, even following this monumental event, the majority of the population did not enjoy many civil liberties as the autocratic system was marked by a vast bureaucratic web resistant to change.
Catherine extended serfdom, deported peasants, instituted strict press censorship, and arrested political dissidents. Later rulers made use of the institutions established during her reign to maintain and strengthen their power.

Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes visualizes the concept that Stalin built his autocracy on Russia’s past. Like Catherine, he borrowed philosophical concepts from European thinkers to obfuscate his actions. As Catherine advises Stalin in windows three, four, and seven, new European ideas that championed the lower classes could be used to muddy the popular consciousness of the ruler’s actions.

Character Designs: Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Ivan the Terrible

2010, Triptych of framed works on paper: acrylic paint and digital images

The first stage of creating an animated film is to design its characters. Bobroff-Hajal bases her three sinister fairy godparent narrators on the features that each ruler was known for. Each one flies around Stalin’s cradle, bestowing his or her autocratic blessings.

Catherine the Great is known for her resplendent wardrobe and extensive correspondence with famous French Enlightenment figures. Within Russia, however, she intensified serfdom and created the Jewish settlements. Bobroff-Hajal portrays Catherine’s wings as a glorious golden sham, beneath which serfs on stilts struggle to lift her into flight.

Peter the Great is known for shipbuilding and his interest in European machinery. In this panel, he flies by mechanically operating his wings constructed out of ship sails.

The symbols of Ivan the Terrible’s Terror are a broom and a severed dog’s head carried on the saddles of the secret police. The broom signifies his effort to sweep away the Tsar’s internal enemies; the severed dog’s head is symbolic of the brutal tortures that marked his reign.

The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth

2008, Acrylic paint and digital images on canvas

This triptych is Bobroff-Hajal’s earliest exploration of Russian autocracy. Each element, including the frame, reflects Russia’s homogeneous flatness. For centuries, its steppes exposed the population to annual raids and subsequent occupations. From the tenth through the eighteenth centuries, twenty million Slavs were abducted as slaves; in fact, the English word “slave” derives from the word “Slav.” The Tatars sold the abductees in the Crimean slave markets, calling the slave raids “the harvesting of the steppe.”
To survive, Russians accepted a militarily organized government that offered protection but did not allow for public debate, free speech, or assembly. In Russia, absolutism began earlier than in Europe and lasted into the twentieth century.

Home Security at Any Crazy Price

2009, Acrylic paint and digital images on canvas and board

When Bobroff-Hajal initially drafted the lyrics for this piece, in which the tsars block civil liberties by taking advantage of popular fears heightened by centuries of enemy onslaughts, she assumed that such ideas applied narrowly to Russia. Following 9/11, she realized that a similar situation can occur wherever and whenever a population comes under attack.

This piece was displayed at the Contemporary Confrontations political art exhibit at the Katonah Museum of Art in Westchester, New York in 2009.

Character Design: Stalin in Sheep’s Clothing

2010, Acrylic paint on paper. On loan from the collection of Amy Saldiner and Robert Axelrod

Akin to Catherine the Great in Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes, Stalin is depicted here as a sheep on the outside and a wolf on the inside. The artist once more underlines the ways in which Russian rulers used liberal European ideas to further their rule. In a country notoriously prone to external raids, autocratic power is simultaneously seen as a necessity and a tragedy.

Serfdom and Collectivization

2011, Diptych of framed works on paper, acrylic paint, and digital images

In the 1930s, Stalin forced peasants into large collective farms, whose harvests were turned over to the State. Many peasants experienced this new development as a return to serfdom, while some called collectivization “serfdom with tractors.”

This diptych is comprised of the original paintings for the smaller prints used in Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes. It illustrates the similarities between serfdom and collective farms. In the depiction, only the addition of tractors has changed the lives of the peasants, who are now chained to their collective farms instead of to a lord’s manor.

Still with You

2009, Acrylic paint on linen

The haunting facial expressions, clothing, and body language in this painting are based on the many black and white photographs of Russian peasants that Bobroff-Hajal has collected for years. She initially painted this row of figures to represent the peasants in Home Security at Any Crazy Price. However, at three inches tall, the tiny triptych version could not reveal the desired level of detail. She repainted the same group at twice the original size to convey more detail, especially in their facial expressions.

Art in Process: Peter the Great’s Grand Embassy through Europe

1697-98, Triptych of Peter the Great’s song of advice to the Infant Stalin

To learn shipbuilding, the six-feet-nine-inch Peter traveled “incognito” through Europe for over a year. This diplomatic mission was known as the Grand Embassy, during which the Tsar spent several months working as a laborer in the Dutch shipyards. When he ascended the throne, the only Russian port was in Arkhangelsk on the largely frozen Arctic Ocean. Peter tried to achieve his dream of a warm-water port by seizing land on the eastern Baltic and building St. Petersburg. Despite his efforts, the city never became a working port during his lifetime.

In what will become a vibrantly-colored large polyptych, Peter—with wings made of ship sails—towers aboard his ship frozen in the Arctic, singing lyrics in speech bubbles to his godson, Stalin. In satirical verse written by the artist, Peter laments over Europe’s countless warm-water ports with their easy access to the ocean.

The central panel is an eight-foot-wide map of the world in Peter’s time. Each continent, created by closely looking at early illustrated maps, is filled with hundreds of three-inch-high portraits. The scenes depict the European enslavement of indigenous populations and theft of valuable natural resources. The seas teem with gold and silver plundered from the Americas. Minted into coins in Europe, the precious metal gushes down the West African coast, around the Cape of Good Hope, and into the Indian Ocean, financing European domination over local populations from Africa to India.

As Stalin sobs at Peter’s vision of the West as much more prosperous than that of Russia, the Tsar hurriedly reframes his portrayal, singing that Russia – the Playground of the Autocrats – is by far the most fertile ground for absolutists.

In its current state, this is a series of pre-paintings as well as a portion of the finalized polyptych. This panel is thus a true work in progress as the artist continues to actively research and create it. It is slated to be fully completed in a year and will ultimately result in a complete map of the world in Peter’s time. We are extremely grateful to the artist for lending this unfinished piece, allowing us to understand both her creative process and working methods.