By Richard G. Ll. Kendall
Kyrylo Anatolyevich Zuev does not record his motivation for beginning the ‘Sphere of Immeasurable History’ in his otherwise exhaustive diaries. We are therefore left to speculate on the origins of the idea, whether the Histogram of James B. Sparks published in 1931 influenced the project, or if the satirical cartographies that emerged in the Russo-Japanese war and the Great Patriotic War itself were more direct inspirations. Certainly, the importance of the works of Kandinsky and other abstract artists of the period has long been acknowledged, as has the wider tendency in Russian art towards the visualisation of geography and society (exemplified by the famous ‘Pyramid of Social Hierarchy’ published by the Union of Russian Socialists in 1900). While the influence of these works is never explicitly stated by Zuev, the transmutation of society into colour, accompanied by the clear attempt at universality inherent in the project, demonstrate the impact of these works on the Sphere without doubt.
Nevertheless, it is also certain that Zuev did not receive formal artistic training before beginning the project, or at any stage in the production process. Nor had he any official training in history, philology, archaeology, or any of the disciplines now termed social science, which makes the exactitude of his design staggering. Rather, Zuev was a soldier, from a poor family in North Eastern Ukraine, who was schooled between the ages of seven and fourteen, and received army training from seventeen to nineteen, before his deployment in the Great Patriotic War in 1940. At this point in the war, the Russians were being forced back by the relentless Nazi advance and, his survival aside, there is nothing distinguishable about the private at this point. After the victory at Stalingrad, which Zuev played no part in (being stationed at the Finnish border), and the subsequent change in the fortunes of the Soviet forces, the fervent patriotism of the young man was noticed by his superiors, leading to his promotion to Sergeant in 1943, at this point based in Pannonia.
After the war, Zuev spent six months walking east toward his hometown. The route he took was one of near total devastation. It is highly likely that for much of this journey he was without food, shelter or company. He arrived in the spring of ’46 to find a town of ruins. Nothing remained of his house, school, or family. His whereabouts for the subsequent thirteen months remain a matter of speculation.
His diaries begin with the first application of paint to the medicine ball he had dedicated as the core of his ‘great project’. It is 13th May 1947 and he is in the city of Astrakhan on the Volga, where he remained until his death. The name ‘Sphere of Immeasurable History’ appears to be colloquial, as it appears nowhere in his writings. He describes in detail the brush used to apply the coat of ebony black paint, listing not only its size, shape and make, but the number of hairs it has, and the position of his fingers around the grip of the handle. He also records the precise time he began the application, and its endpoint: 16:43 and 17:14, respectively. It is thought this exactitude is a legacy of his army days.
The only display of creativity in the entry, beyond the essential act of painting, is also the only indication of the overarching aim of the project, and serves as definitive proof that the conjecture of Vassily Ivanovich Larionov (that Zuev changed the aim of his project midway through the 1950s) is false. This is his description of the fúnkcija, ‘function’, of the paint: magma.
The following two thousand, four hundred and forty-three entries are nearly identical to this opening account: one coat of ebony black paint applied to the project each day. The only consistent change is the hour of its application and the time it takes to apply: likely reflective both of the constraints of Zeuv’s variable employment as first miner and then butcher, and of the increasing size of the sphere. In the two thousand four hundred and forty-fifth entry, however, the first substantial change takes place. After listing the regular brush, and colour applied across the sphere, Zuev adds information regarding a second brush, much smaller than the first, with finer hairs that end in a precise, taut point. Following this inventory is a record of the colour and location on the sphere where this brush was used: хаки; олдувай. Khaki; Olduvai Gorge.
It appears this application was minimal in the first seventeen days of its appearance: the start and end times of this paintwork are identical. Progressively, however, it appears that this work took a longer and longer time to complete, and expanded its area of application to a larger part of the East African region, although the brush used remained the same. This remains the case even when, after a further one hundred and sixty-seven days, a second colour is added to this area: оливковый цвет. Literally, olive-coloured.
In due course, this second colours supplants the first and expands across a region which gradually begins to resemble the central and eastern areas of the African Continent. This colour, in turn, is then replaced by another, сине-зелёный цвет (cyan), which is correspondingly superseded by a further colour, Лесная зелень, forest green. In the meantime, it is known that Zuev married a local woman ten years his junior, who suffered five miscarriages before succumbing in childbirth. In all of this time, he never once missed a day of working in his project: even on the day of his wife’s death (reported in the local newspaper), his diary reveals that he spent three hours sixteen minutes painting his sphere, now a light grey colour reaching to an area corresponding to the Sinai.
On New Year’s Day 1960 his paintwork finally extended out of Africa and reached the Fertile Crescent. It was soon after this that he began using a wider palette of colours. In the autumn of 1962, for example, two colours, цвет морской волны, blue-green, and тёмно-синий, navy blue, are used to pick out Нехен and Урук (Nekhen and Uruk). These colours gradually multiplied as the decade progressed, stretching across the Central Asian plain and into Northern India.
In 1963, with the world transfixed by the nuclear standoff on Cuba, Zuev was locked in calculations of the coordinates of Anyang in Oriental China, which he painted in a rich алый (‘scarlet’).
In 1965, with America landing their first troops in Vietnam, Zuev was the other side of the Eurasian continent, picking out the Aegean Islands in бордо, maroon.
In 1968, as the Soviet state crushed the revolutionaries in Czechoslovakia, Hittite armies, picked out in оранжевый, orange, spread themselves across the Anatolian plain.
In 1971, as war split East from West Pakistan, the dark blue of Sea Peoples overran the Mediterranean basin.
In 1973, the pale blue of Greece first stopped the advance of Persian green, and then, later in the year, as the Six-Day War threw the Middle East into conflict, spread across Asia into the Upper Ganges.
1975 saw Roman purple spread itself across Europe, and the yellow and pink of Maurya and Gupta empires rise and fall in South Asia, while the red of China stretched ever wider.
1978 saw the rainbow that had been Central Asia at last united under the yoke of Mongol brown. By the next year it had all but disappeared.
1979 saw the introduction of colour to America: bold golds and silver in Mexico and Guatemala, and a patchwork of dry blues and browns across the northern continent.
From 1980 to 1983, Zuev overtook the extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming exercise of plotting exactly the fluctuating borders and peoples of Europe, Africa and Asia in amazing detail, precise to the very millimetre. The rise of the Solidarity Movement in Poland did nothing to interrupt the process.
In 1984, as a Soviet leader died and was replaced by another also terminally ill, Zuev increased the brush size for the first time in six years, to a medium size object better suited for depicting the vast swathes of land now conquered by the European Great Powers. In pink he depicted the might of British rule, in cobalt blue the stretch of the French domain, and in terracotta red the expanse of Tsarist Russia.
1985 was a landmark year in many ways.
Firstly, Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union. He was the first leader born after the 1917 Revolution, and for Zuev that fact alone ensured existence of the U.S.S.R. forever.
More importantly for our interests, however, 1985 was the year that Zuev designated the project complete. There is an increasing sense of excitement discernible in his diaries of this year: the meticulous records remain the same, but the hours spent on the work increase, as does the variety of brushes used simultaneously. It is know that by this point Zeuv had quit his work, which we can speculate was to devote his full energies to the project.
From January to May, he plotted the battlements and shifting power struggles of the First World War. May to September was spent on the Interbellum period, the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires presenting particular difficulties to the now elderly Zuev.
It is his accounts of the 27th September to the 24th December that present the most enthralling passages to be found in his entire archive. At last the monotony of records is broken by occasional comments, quips even, denigrating the advance of Hitler with the benefit of hindsight. They are not sophisticated, often things like ‘Szkop thought he was through to Moscow — he learnt Russian zeal the hard way!’, or ‘Fricis couldn’t topple the Slavic giant, try as he might!’, but they reveal more of the man behind the project.
Finally, on Christmas Eve 1985, we have the final record. It is possible to imagine even Zuev, not known as a sentimental man, sighing, satisfied at the end of his great work. He certainly enjoyed the final application of paint. Exclamation points accompany each record for the only time in his writings, with five following the measurements of the paint brush, which was unusually large for Zuev’s work: not since the Mongol hordes of ’78 had such a brush been used.
There was only one colour used: красный, pure Soviet red.
A huge expanse from Germany to Korea, all in red: ‘это красиво’, ‘It is beautiful’ wrote Zuev. The Nazi black completely eradicated by the glorious red of the Soviet Union. ‘это закончено’, ‘It is finished’, he writes at the bottom of the final page.
Forgive me an indulgence: It seems to me pertinent at this point to posit my own hypothesis for the overarching reason for the project, given that it follows logically from the exuberance seen in Zuev’s own account of these final coats. I believe he wished to demonstrate the ultimate triumph of the Soviets, across all history and all lands. The largest continuous area, under one state, one system, and overcoming one evil: the Nazis who had destroyed his home and family in the Ukrainian North East. To a fervent patriot, the Great Patriotic War assumed an epic status as the defining battle of Good versus Evil, and Zuev, lacking skill as a writer or conventional artist, chose this medium as the sole way he could express the cosmic enormity of the Soviet victory.
It is also to be noted that the majority of Russian scholars, and many in the West (where, alas, there is significantly less interest in the project), reject this theory of mine, seeing in it a theological element that they argue would have been anathema to the committed atheist Zuev. I leave it to my readers to decide which of us is right.
Following the completion of the project, Zuev began publicising his work. It was at this time that the name ‘Sphere of Immeasurable History’ is first attested. He charged seventy kopeks to view the work, which he hung from the ceiling in the front room of his apartment.
For five rubles, however, the visitor could partake in an extraordinarily innovative venture. Zuev had constructed a glass tube, slightly smaller in diameter than a one kopek piece, with edges so fine that it could well have served as a tool for trepanning. With this device, Zeuv could produce, with a quick push in and out, a cross section of any area of the sphere, and show the visual history of any point of the earth. Paying visitors could choose a spot anywhere on the earth's surface and see this cylinder of the past, and for four rubles extra they could have the colours explained to them in exhaustive detail by Zeuv himself.
I personally experienced this excellent feature of the project when I first visited Astrakhan in 1988. I heard news of the sphere from a friend who ran an art gallery (and was hoping to inherit the ball once the frail Zuev finally passed on), and arranged an appointment the next week. It was important to give notice not only of arrival but also of whether you intended to pay for a cylinder viewing, as it took time for the glue placed on extracted cylinders to set and keep the ball complete.
I chose the view the cylinder corresponding to contemporary Elista, the main urban area of the Autonomous Republic of Kalmykia, and an area I felt had perhaps not been previously asked for, despite its relative proximity to the native Astrakhan. To my surprise he replied: ‘Another one? You aren't a separatist are you, I won’t have terrorists in my home.’
I explained that I was just an interested observer. ‘Good,’ he replied, ‘Well that’s all right then.’ I assumed this was the crankiness of age, until I discovered before I had arrived that the various separatist groups of the region had indeed been playing frequent call to Sergeant Zuev, whose strict adherence to historical fact had inadvertently served to provide evidence for historical claims to self-determination. In the last week alone, I was told, over a dozen Ossetians had arrived at Zuev’s door, where they were told in no uncertain terms that they were not welcome.
He had already prepared the cylinder by the time I reached his apartment. There it was, a long prism of colour, showing the history of that place in the steppe, hardly even a town by Muscovite standards. Yet even here, in this backwater of nomads and antelope, history had layered herself. There the Khazar mauve, then Kievian light green and the brown of Genghis Khan’s Mongols. The Oirats appeared as a pale pink, before the terracotta and pure red of the Tsars and Soviets took over. Very early in the cylinder, however, there was a shade of yellow I could not interpret. I paid my four rubles and asked for an explanation.
‘That, that is the culture known to us as Indo-European. They started here and spread their influence across the continent forever.’
The omnipotence of history struck me suddenly. Here, in this wasted steppe, lived those whose language we speak a bastardised form of to this day, corrupted by the centuries. There, manus had first rasied a suhnus and a dhukter. There, deyn had first been split from nokwts, and the yeh first measured by the seasons. I thought of the great nebhos above us, a near dead-ringer for my modern небо, and felt at once connected to the great unending spread of history and culture. I looked from the tube to Zuev, from Zuev to the tube, and stayed in a state of utter reverie until the old man began coughing at alarming volume and length. I left quickly after he had recovered, thanking Zuev without ceremony.
I did not think much on the sphere for a long time after this, overtaken by work and family. It was not until I heard the news of Zuev’s suicide that I even remembered my brief encounter with Immeasurable History.
In a small obituary focusing largely on his military accomplishments, a brief sentence intrigued me and made me investigate further: ‘Recently Zuev had caused controversy in disputes with the local administration regarding the standards in accommodation.’ For one so dogmatically committed to Communism, complaining about his Soviet apartment seemed unusual. I called my friend who had first mentioned Zuev to me to see if he had any further information.
‘Yes, he hanged himself; I’m told it was the new regime, although yes he did seem to have a gripe about the housing. There was some talk of a hunger strike, but I guess he chose the quicker option.’
I was not in the mood to laugh. I discovered that, until a decision had been finalised about its permanent location (with many various local and regional galleries vying for it) the sphere remained in the apartment. Feigning an interest in its acquisition for the hastily invented Museum of Russian Folk Art, I was able to book a viewing for the coming week. I cleared that whole day in my schedule, unsure of what I might uncover.
Times were changing in Russia. Even in this provincial city you could feel it. The local Party official who met me outside the apartment and gave me the keys dropped in an English ‘cool’ when I described the ease of my journey. I left him outside and walked up to the third floor, unlocked the door and entered.
I saw the beam from which he had swung before I saw the sphere, but there it was, in the same place as it had all those years ago. I turned on the light switch and was greeted by an electric spark from the decades-old Soviet lamps. I looked up and saw the peeling ceiling, and smelled the damp in the air. I could see why he would complain about these conditions, particularly now that western products were in every shop window, but my instincts led me on, knowing that the fervent Zuev would never have betrayed his glorious Republic for a facile infatuation with the West.
As I looked around the room, investigating the bookshelves and rifling through Zuev’s possessions for an answer, it came to me. First, as a sound: a single drop of water. I turned and I saw: above the globe, directly above, there was a damp patch in the ceiling, from which fell a single drop of water every few minutes. It landed with an almost silent plop on the sphere itself, and then trickled down and across the artefact. Moving closer, I investigated the damage.
The drop had landed directly on the area of Eastern Europe. It seemed to have hit around Warsaw first, and then the Baltics before dripping down into Bulgaria, Romania and the Balkans. It was difficult to be sure as this area had become smudged. The damage was extensive: the red had paled in places, and in others was peeling right off, revealing once again the colours of the Interbellum period. The continuing dripping was making the colours of the blot run even as I stared at it.
I realised what had happened. I sat down on the floor and looked from the globe to the beam from which I knew Zuev had hung. I could imagine his growing anger at the world around him, his countrymen’s rejection of all that was communist for the shallow fancies of the West, and then — here — in his own room, the sudden encroachment of the failings of his state onto his most prized possession. The water, falling sporadically, but fatally, was hardly noticeable even now in the silence of the apartment; Zuev could not have seen what was happening until it was too late. I looked again up at the ceiling: desperate hooks hanging from beams nowhere near substantial enough to hold the weight of his work, and a world gone to ruin outside. He had watched the project he had dedicated his life to falling apart from its own fragility, and I saw that he resolved to use the one other suitable beam to hang his second and final piece: his own response to the end of history. Tears came lightly to my eyes as I thought about it; but the official was outside, and wanted an offer, so I had to get up and explain brusquely that I was no longer interested in purchasing the Sphere.
‘Yeah, it's that blotting isn’t it? It’s put a lot of your sort off. Sure it can be fixed though if you wanted to — certainly if you were as dedicated as the old guy in there.’
He laughed a little as he locked up the apartment.
‘Still, we’ll find a buyer. People are buying everything these days, even old junk like that Sphere.’
I must have shown my irritation as he didn't speak again. We descended the stairs and left.
Pythia in trance
Oil paint, silver leaf, adhesive, on printed paper
From the series 'The Dying Pythia'