The oar girl returns to moscow, in her natural state

Nude Statue Caused a Stir Under Stalin, Then Copies Suited Up Wave of Nostalgia

MOSCOW – The girl too sexy for Stalin is back, naked as the day she was created, on a riverfront pedestal in Gorky Park.

The Soviet-era ‘Oar Girl’ statue by Stalin-favorite Ivan Shadr vanished after it was banished to Ukraine in the 1930s for being too sexy. Now a reproduction is being unveiled in Gorky Park. WSJ’s Richard Boudreaux reports from Moscow.

Ivan Shadr, an artist favored by the Soviet dictator, sculpted her in 1934. His daringly modern “Girl With an Oar” became the park’s centerpiece, a tribute to beauty and Soviet athleticism.

But Josef Stalin’s enforcers soon had second thoughts and banished the 23-foot nude to Ukraine, where it disappeared. The sculptor produced a less sensual version for the park, still nude but closer to the dictates of Socialist realism. The Germans blew it to bits during World War II.

The original oar girl’s re-discovery and rehabilitation – a copy is to be unveiled Saturday, towering over the finish line at an international regatta – is part of a Russian wave of nostalgia for Soviet cultural icons.

It also punctures an oddly widespread belief.

For decades, people across the Soviet Union imagined the lost masterwork as something quite different from what Mr. Shadr had created. Statues of girls holding oars and clad in swimwear or track suits proliferated in parks from the late 1930s to the 1980s – vacuous imitations made by minor sculptors playing it safe with censors.

“The very term ‘Girl With an Oar’ became an idiom for Soviet kitsch,” says Yekaterina Dyogot, a Moscow art historian and curator. “Hearing this term, everybody who still remembers the Soviet Union starts to laugh.”

Yulia Anikeyeva, a two-time Soviet rowing champion and executive director of the Russian Amateur Rowing

Association, grew up hearing the jokes but couldn’t resist the oar girl as a potentially worthy symbol for this week’s regatta.

She set out on a quest for the original oar girl, plunging her staff into archives of a turbulent era of shifting standards and wartime loss.

Russia’s broader search for symbols and identity often leads back to the U. S. S. R., a reaction to hardships at home and declining power abroad since the 1991 Soviet breakup. Today, Russians sing a slightly revised Soviet national anthem, watch TV stations that air exclusively Soviet-era content, and frequent Soviet-chic restaurants and bars. Red stars still light up at night over the Kremlin and Lenin statues populate nearly every town.

Gorky Park, opened in 1928, is getting a multimillion-dollar facelift to restore its Soviet-era identity as a cultured playground for the proletariat. Gone are rickety fairground rides and unregulated food stalls that flourished in the 1990s. A fire-gutted theater is being rebuilt, dilapidated public facilities fixed, Wi-Fi access enabled.

Mr. Shadr’s original oar girl struck a bold pose over the park’s central fountain in 1935, left hand on her hip and right hand holding an upright oar. Her hair was tightly swept up, her muscular body on full display.

She was replaced after what the park director called “criticisms and comments of visitors,” according to a 1936 article in Evening Moscow. Artistic standards were changing, and historians say the girl was deemed too sensual, the work too overtly modern.

The sculptor’s second version was softer, less muscular, more feminine – and yet colder and more classical.

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The oar girl returns to moscow, in her natural state