The impact of “Mystery of the Twentieth Century” might be compared to the explosion of an atomic bomb. The first version of the painting was completed in 1977, when Soviet art, mired within the stifling framework of the lies of Socialist realism, was busy singing the praises of Lenin, Khrushchev, and the Communist Party. The work, which required a titanic effort, portrays with concrete images our apocalyptic twentieth century world.
What courage and fearlessness it took during those times of totalitarian terror to express this uncompromising truth! Moreover, Glazunov refused to attend a long-awaited exhibition of his works, yet did not concede to the demands of the Communist Party, Ministry of Culture and official Artist’s Union by removing “Mystery of the Twentieth Century” from the exposition. The Party was prepared to expel him from the Soviet Union, as it had Solzhenitsyn, whom he dared portray in convict’s clothing. The artist stood his ground to the end, and the exhibition did not open. Only one vote tipped the scales during the Party’s vote on whether to revoke the decision to expel Glazunov from the country. It was argued: “Why should we continue to produce dissident after dissident? Let him go to Siberia to work on the BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) and remain there as long as possible.” Photographs of the painting circulated throughout the enormous expanse of the Soviet Union. Many western journalists published its reproduction with the subtitle: “The painting the Russians will never see.” It was only many years later, after the advent of Perestroika, that thousands of visitors finally saw the painting at an exhibition of the artist in Moscow.
On the occasion of his last exhibition of the 20th century, Ilya Glazunov completed work on a new version of the world renowned “Mystery of the Twentieth Century.” This was dictated by the artist’s need to comprehend on an artistic and philosophical level the profound significance of the events of the last quarter of the century, including “Perestroika,” the collapse of the USSR, privatization, and the reign of democracy in Russia). This, of course, necessitated an increase in the painting’s size. Finally, in the newer version the author has painted his portrait on the right (Glazunov marked his 70th birthday in 2000).