The James Gleeson oral history collection

James Gleeson interviews Australia's major artists

Select another interview

Danila Vassilieff Stenka Razin 1953 sculpture, carved and waxed Lilydale limestone 57.0 (h) x 40.0 (w) x 13.5 (d) cm  purchased 1973

Danila Vassilieff
Stenka Razin 1953
sculpture, carved and waxed Lilydale limestone
57.0 (h) x 40.0 (w) x 13.5 (d) cm
purchased 1973
more detail

Elizabeth Vassilieff on Danila Vassilieff

8 & 5 November 1979 [unknown location]

Elizabeth Vassilieff: Now, the generic theme of this is horseman. He did a lot of paintings on horsemen because he was a cavalryman.
James Gleeson: Of course, yes.
Elizabeth Vassilieff: In the Cossack Army.
James Gleeson: It’s in his blood.
Elizabeth Vassilieff: A Cossack, I ask you.
James Gleeson: Yes, yes, yes.
Elizabeth Vassilieff: He was in Denikin’s 8th Army in the end, in a particular—at the moment I can’t remember the name of his regiment but I could easily check it. But, anyway, first and foremost it’s a horseman, a Cossack. Secondly, it is a warrior horseman, which he knew. They all were.
James Gleeson: Yes, of course.
Elizabeth Vassilieff: Particularly in wartime. Now, the specific genesis of this image would be from several sources in his memory. First of all, the bearded Cossacks or cavalrymen whom he commanded during the war from the age when he was a Lieutenant at 17.
James Gleeson: Goodness me.
Elizabeth Vassilieff: And a Lieutenant-Colonel at 22, because he went on fighting until he was 22. He commanded a heap of Cossacks whom he used to call ‘my men, my horsemen, my cavalrymen’. ‘My Cossacks’ was his way of expressing it. This image of these bearded horsemen would be fused always with the timeless Cossack rebel hero, Stenka Razin.
James Gleeson: So it’s related very closely to another one we’ve got?
Elizabeth Vassilieff: Indeed it is.
James Gleeson: Yes.
Elizabeth Vassilieff: He couldn’t separate. He even did Stenka Razin over our fireplace as a mural in Stoneygrad.
James Gleeson: You’ve shown me photographs of that, yes.
Elizabeth Vassilieff: Yes. Also, he had by this time the image of the Australian bearded horseman rebel, Ned Kelly, in his head. At this time he was painting a lot of watercolours in which he did a Ned Kelly in his armour with his head gear.
James Gleeson: Long before Sid Nolan?
Elizabeth Vassilieff: Oh, long before Nolan did it. So here’s a wild man on a horse and he is a warrior, he’s got a beard, he’s a Cossack, he’s Stenka Razin. It’s important to know what Stenka Razin did in Cossack history, why he is a hero, if you can be bothered listening to a bit of history.
James Gleeson: Yes, yes.
Elizabeth Vassilieff: This is how Danila explained it to me. He said, ‘We Cossacks were not Russians, we’re not an ethnic group. We happen to be a cultural group living in a certain area along the banks of the Don. We were rich farmers because we had 40 feet of black earth under us. Everything was owned communally by the whole tribe and we could never be subdued. The Tsars over the centuries had managed to make serfs of everybody else in all their empires, but not the Cossacks’. He said, ‘The Cossacks consisted not only of escaped serfs, of whom there were many, but Chinese and Negros and all kinds of people, so long as they accepted the Cossack ethic’, which was simply do we give one man, the utter man, three years absolute power. And if we don’t like him we kick him out at the end of three years.
James Gleeson: Yes.
Elizabeth Vassilieff: Absolute equality for women. In fact, they were in fear of their women, most of the Cossacks, they were so ferocious.
James Gleeson: Goodness me.
Elizabeth Vassilieff: He said we kept our freedom by our having horses, by our refusal to submit to the Tsars attempts to subdue us. Instead of waiting to be subdued, Stenka Razin raised a Cossack army of two million men. They built enormous war boats that looked like Viking boats, very similar in shape, and he painted them over our fireplace in Stoneygrad.


Download transcript
Return to index