Stalin to the rescue?

06/24/2010 12:00 AM |

Baiting Hollow artist Irra Verbitsky with her short video installation, ‘The Portrait,’ about her father, Eugene Verbitsky, in the East End Arts Council gallery in Riverhead. His self-portrait is on the wall behind her.

Joseph Stalin brutally massacred more than 40 million of his own people during his reign over Soviet Russia from 1922 to 1953. He liquidated countless government officials in the paranoia-driven “Great Purge” and starved millions during the Ukrainian “Hunger Year” in 1932. Today, he ranks as one of the most infamous mass murderers in the history of the world.

But in Baiting Hollow, resident Irra Verbitsky’s animated short video “The Portrait,” which is being shown in the East End Arts Council’s project room until July 16, Stalin actually comes to the rescue.

“When I was very young, my father told me what happened to him in Soviet Russia,” Ms. Verbitsky said. “I wasn’t even born when it happened, but I was always impressed by the irony of the story. So I did a film retelling it.”

Around 1933, the mayor of Kiev recruited Ms. Verbitsky’s father, Eugene, to paint a miniature portrait of the mayor. Mr. Verbitsky, who was a well-known fine artist, complied, but when the mayor saw his likeness, he angrily called the portrait painter back into his office.

To the mayor, the face in the portrait looked just like that of Czar Nicholas II, who was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Needless to say, the mayor wasn’t happy. Painting the likeness of the former Russian Czar was punishable by death.

“It will not go good for you Tovarish [Comrade] Verbitsky — no, not good at all,” the mayor said. “Go home and wait for the knock on the door. Tonight, they will come for you.”

But the knock never came.

That same night, Stalin ordered the execution of several hundred government officials, including the mayor of Kiev. The mayor never even had a chance to order Mr. Verbitsky’s arrest. Stalin, quite unintentionally, saved the man’s life.

“I always thought the story was very funny,” Ms. Verbitsky recalled. “My father didn’t tell me the horrors of Stalin until later. The fact that he was almost killed, to me, was very funny.”

Ms. Verbitsky, who immigrated to America in 1952 when she was three years old, first began experimenting with a “stream-of-consciousness” animation style in the 1970s, when she started making short films. Since then, her works have received international recognition at film festivals across the world, including the Silver Remi award at the Houston International Film Festival and the Jury’s Choice award at the Black Maria Film Festival in New Jersey City.

“The Portrait,” which Ms. Verbitsky completed in 2009, has itself received international recognition, being showcased at the Museum of Modern Art last June and winning top awards in festivals across the globe. Ms. Verbitsky is planning to attend the Hiroshima International Animation Festival in August, where the film will be showcased.

“What I do is, I take short episodes from my own life, and I make them into short films,” she said. “But it’s not my personal life, the way some people make personal films. Mine are more addressing the issue of universal problems. They’re addressed to the whole world. They’re not just about me and myself.”

So far, Ms. Verbitsky has completed three short films based upon her childhood experiences: “The Portrait,” “Starry Night,” and “The Departure,” all of which have been showcased at the Museum of Modern Art. Ms. Verbitsky, who has worked on hundreds of “spot” animations for Sesame Street since the 1970s, draws each of her animations by hand, using a variety of different mediums such as ink, pencil, or watercolor. She spends much of her time teaching classes on animation at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and enjoys using her artistic talents to “touch” people in big and small ways.

“I’m not trying to communicate anything in particular … I’m just trying to communicate the reality of life. In this case, I’m using my own life,” she said. “What happens is my work touches a lot of people’s hearts and souls. It brings them memories of the past.”

Each animation opens and closes with a black seagull flying over the image of a painted seascape. Eventually, Ms. Verbitsky hopes to compile her animations into a full-length feature film called “Flashbacks from My Past.” Until then, people can purchase her individual shorts, including “The Portrait,” online at

“The Portrait,” said Cathy Girardi, development director for the East End Arts Council, “is just an amazing true story. The video is animated in such a way that even a child could understand it. It’s like a fairy tale. Even a little kid would get it and appreciate it.”

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