Don’t believe a word she says.

This Tuesday, Arts Editor Riva Weinstein returned to the Harriman Institute for the opening of painter-historian Anne Bobroff-Hajal’s exhibit “Playground of the Autocrats,” and her talk, “Peasants, Clans, and Effervescent Absolutists.” What is an effervescent absolutist? Why does Russia keep slipping back into autocracy? Why does that baby have a mustache? All will be revealed below.

Take the last 450 years of Russian history. Add in a slice of Monty Python, a chunk of political cartooning, a generous helping of Where’s Waldo, a vaudeville soundtrack and a distinct odor of the Brechtian macabre, and you’ve got Peasants, Clans, and Effervescent Absolutists: a spectacular new exhibit by painter and historian Anne Bobroff-Hajal.

Bobroff-Hajal’s paintings are overwhelmingly visual. Fashioned in the style of polyptych icons, the huge canvases overflow with color and tightly-packed information. Ivan the Terrible leers as boyars (pre-17th century nobles) cling to his robes. Colorful skeletons grovel at Stalin’s feet. Peter the Great maneuvers a fantastic winged boat. A mustachioed baby Stalin listens, while the tsars of old give him advice on how to maintain power by exploiting the peasantry.

It’s easy to believe that Bobroff-Hajal first conceived this project as an animated film. The larger-than-life characters – like a winged Catherine the Great, supported by her subjects on stilts – spout lyrics to music from the traditional tune Kalinka: “You’ll want to bring back serfdom quick so you can reign nonstop!/But you can’t call it serfdom, Joe, ‘cause that would be a flop!” By weaving “satirical stories” into her pieces, says Bobroff-Hajal, she’s hoped to make some of the complicated tragedies of Russian history accessible and entertaining to the public.

Bobroff-Hajal was fascinated by the concept of “patronage clans” in imperial Russia: vertically organized, family-based groups, in which the lower members helped more influential members rise to the top. Sensing hints of similar “patron clans” in post-revolutionary Russia, she tried to track this phenomenon among the Bolshevik elite. But the historical mystery stubbornly refused to be solved. With a help from her daughter(‘s access to student libraries) and a little extra push from historian J. Arch Getty, Bobroff-Hajal developed a sophisticated theory for Stalin’s success – and for why 20th century Russia bears so many similarities to the time of Ivan the Great.

Why does Russia, century after century, keep falling back into autocracy? Bobroff-Hajal’s answer was not what I’d expected: Geography. Russia isn’t only the largest country in the world, it’s also one of the flattest. It is, as she put it, “the least defensible country on earth.” Throughout its history, Russia has been invaded by Mongols, Ottomans, French, Germans, and pretty much anyone else with a hankering for potatoes and slaves. Bobroff-Hajal argues that in response to this danger, Russians were compelled to build an “organized human military barrier” – a vertically organized, autocratic bureaucracy designed to protect them from their powerful neighbors.

Bobroff-Hajal’s most spectacular piece, the massive polyptych Darling Godsonny: Ivan the Terrible Advises the Infant Stalin, is a florid, frenetic, and delightfully macabre collage, narrating the cross-historical advice from one great tyrant to another. It is this piece – which took more than 4 years to complete – that showcases just how much thought went into Bobroff-Hajal’s analysis of Russian social hierarchy. On the furthest left panel, we see the “patron clans” battling each other to grasp at the feet of Ivan the Terrible. The next panel shows Stalin and Trotsky looming unsteadily over the “Bolshevik clans.” Though at first these two “pyramids” look the same, closer inspection yields important details: intermarriage between pre-revolutionary patron clans, the top-down organization of Trotsky’s “clan,” and the lack of women in high levels of Bolshevik government.

This is just PART of that ONE PANEL.

Though Stalin’s position is initially precarious, he has one great advantage: as head of the Secretariat, he is in charge of hiring every top position in the Soviet government. This compels people to cling to him instead of Trotsky, building up his “clan.” In the next panel, Stalin takes Ivan’s advice to “Purge them, work them to death/Don’t weep for their loss!” Millions of people indeed perished in Stalin’s purges, executions and labor camps. The final panel shows the results of the purges: every clan has now become one of “Stalin’s clans.” Those people willing to aid in his fight against his enemies become upwardly mobile, represented by long ladders. The skeletons of murdered people implore others to remember the cost. Stalin looms above them all, staunch and grinning.

On a technical level, Bobroff-Hajal’s work is simply astounding. Not a single element was placed on the canvas without painstaking historical research, visual research, conceptualization, and attention to detail. Painting each individual face, she said, was like living the person’s whole life in miniature. The result we see is not a single painting, but the digitally edited compilation of years of painstaking trial-and-effort. “Art is about making a million mistakes, and then figuring out which one is the right mistake,” Bobroff-Hajal said. Each piece is so visually complex that one must “read” it like a graphic novel, which makes it easy to miss information, and to lose the feeling of aesthetic cohesiveness.

Bobroff-Hajal herself is one-fourth Russian, born in America. When asked how Russians had responded to these works, she said that Russian-Americans seemed to prefer them. Russian nationals had seen them as a prognosis. They had been frightened by the idea that Russian history was simply repeating itself, always doomed to fall back into autocracy. But a pattern is not necessarily a prophecy, so long as we’re willing to learn from history.

“I want people to be able to look at horror and try to understand it,” Bobroff-Hajal said. But it doesn’t have to be one big misery fest: “I want to leaven the horror with color and song.”

Anne Bobroff-Hajal’s Playground of the Autocrats series is currently on display in the Harriman Institute Atrium, 12th floor of International Affairs.

Images via Anne Bobroff-Hajal: Catherine / Stalin