A security guard who was arrested last December for drawing eyes on a painting of faceless figures at the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg spoke about the vandalism in an interview with Russian news site E1. Aleksandr Vasiliev, a decorated veteran of the Afghan and Chechen wars, told journalist Elena Pankratieva that he believed the 20th-century work by Anna Leporskaya was a “children’s drawing” and claimed he was goaded by teenagers to deface it.
“I’m a fool, what have I done,” the 63-year-old told Pankratieva.
News of the vandalism had been around since December, although it took until this month, when tabloids picked up the story, for the event to be mocked on social media as a comically disastrous first day on a job. Vasiliev’s retelling, however, wasn’t so funny: he seemed obviously distressed while explaining how fellow veterans helped him get the gig at Yeltsin Centre despite his significant injuries. He sustained bullet wounds across his body, as well as trauma to his head and lungs, during the First Chechen War, which was fought from 1994 to 1996. He was awarded a medal for courage for his service. According to E1, his “psychological and emotional health” was permanently affected, though he found employment as a security guard for various businesses over the years. His personal life was also rife with trauma: his wife and only son had both died. He feared the job at the Yeltsin Center would be too mentally and physically straining.
“At first I wanted to refuse, I was afraid that I would not be able to be on my feet all day, without the opportunity to sit down,” he said, referring to his leg injuries. “But they told me: if you work one shift, we will pay you right away. I went to work.”
The gallery had recently opened an exhibition of abstract art that included Anna Leporskaya’s painting on loan from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Vasiliev wasn’t moved by the show, saying, “To be honest, I didn’t really like these works. They left a bad impression.”
Vasiliev described the vandalism as a misunderstanding: “I watched how people were reacting, and saw that 16-17 year-old kids are standing, discussing why there are no eyes, no mouth, no beauty! There were girls in the group, and they asked me: ‘Draw eyes, you work here.’ I asked them: ‘Are these your works?’ They said: ‘Yes.’ They gave me a pen. I drew the eyes. I thought it was just their childhood drawings!”
Leporskaya painted Three Figures between 1932 and 1934, and before the vandalism it was insured for 75 million roubles ($1.4 million). The painting has since been returned to the State Tretyakov for a quick restoration that is estimated to cost 250,000 roubles ($4,600). Meanwhile, protective screens were installed over the remaining artworks on display at the Yeltsin Center.
The vandalism was first reported on December 7 after two visitors noticed the graffiti and alerted a gallery employee. The Yeltsin Center filed a complaint with the police, but Yekaterinburg’s ministry of internal affairs at first declined to press charges against Vasiliev as the damage was considered “insignificant”.
Vasiliev has since been charged with criminal vandalism and faces a fine commiserate to the amount the painting was insured for, and up to one year of correctional labor or up to three months of prison time, according to the Guardian. The E1 article said that the teenagers who allegedly encouraged the vandalism did not appear on security camera footage.
Vasiliev’s second wife told E1 that Vasiliev is “absolutely normal in daily life,” but in some ways was “naive as a child.”