Bacon in Moscow by James Birch review – darkly funny account of art behind the iron curtain

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In July 1986, James Birch, a young London gallerist with vague designs on global domination, set off for the Soviet Union. It was his first visit and he had no idea what to expect. Mikhail Gorbachev had then been general secretary of the Communist party for one year: perestroika and glasnost were in the air (or, at any rate, in the British newspapers). But still, Moscow was a world apart. On the advice of his travelling companion, a “cultural entrepreneur” whose carpet business often took him to the USSR, Birch carried among his luggage a packet of chocolate digestives, just in case he found himself short of food, and cartons of Camel cigarettes, to be used as payment to all the drivers he would have to flag for a lift, there being virtually no taxis in the city.

At this point, Birch hoped to convince the Soviet authorities to allow him to stage an exhibition of work by his beloved neo naturists, a group of British artists that included the future Turner prize winner Grayson Perry. Through a Sotheby’s expert in Russian icons, he had already written to Tahir Salahov, the man who ran the Union of Artists, the organisation that strictly controlled the output of creativity in the USSR. But negotiations (if that’s the word) now needed to be conducted in person via a go-between, a KGB officer called Sergei Klokov, who seemingly had some kind of special responsibility for culture.

This was the first time a British artist had been accorded the honour of an exhibition in the USSR since 1917

Klokov, whom Birch had briefly met in London some months before, was quite scary. In the war in Afghanistan he had operated a flamethrower (“I remember the smell of burning flesh”); the merest flash of his KGB papers caused waiters and customs officers alike to tremble at the knee. But he was also, by Birch’s telling, just a little bit ridiculous. In his Pierre Cardin suits, and with a small leather handbag at his wrist, he looked to his new English friend like nothing so much as “a hairdresser”.

Somewhat predictably, Klokov and his masters soon gave the neo naturists the thumbs down. But this didn’t mean they didn’t want to help Birch. What about Andy Warhol? Would he like a show in Moscow? Or maybe Francis Bacon, whose name young Soviet artists seemingly uttered with such reverence? Birch believed he would get nowhere with Warhol – and he was right – but thanks to family connections, he’d known Bacon all his life.

Back in London, Francis was excited at the idea. He would be able to get the train from Moscow to St Petersburg, where he had long dreamed of gawping at the Rembrandts in the Hermitage. Birch knew the road ahead would be tricky: Bacon was controlling and quixotic, and Klokov had already warned Birch that any work that was too “cock-exalting” would fall foul of the censors. But who could resist such an opportunity? This was the first time a British artist had been accorded the honour of an exhibition in the USSR since 1917.

Birch’s picaresque memoir, Bacon in Moscow, written with help from the journalist Michael Hodges, is the first book to be published by Cheerio, an imprint established in partnership with the estate of Francis Bacon (“cheerio” was Bacon’s preferred drinking toast) – and, yes, who would have thought, considering the dozens of books about the artist that already exist, there would be anything left to say? But this really is a peculiarly evocative and authentic title: one that, at moments, brings Bacon to life far more vividly than do, say, the several hundred of pages of Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s biography, published last year.

Thanks to the fact they’re not buried beneath a thicket of research and pseudo-scholarship, and to Birch’s excellent recall, which comes nicely garlanded with irony, amusement and an intense fondness for Bacon, his anecdotes shine. Birch’s father, a former sheriff of London, had access to the invitation-only “Black Museum” at Scotland Yard, where ghoulish souvenirs are housed (hangmen’s nooses, the “acid bath” used by John George Haigh), and a visit was arranged for an eager Francis. It’s darkly funny reading about it, the visit having delighted him so much he took Birch for lunch at the expensive London restaurant Wiltons afterwards. How pleasing, too, to learn that Bacon voraciously read everything from Aeschylus to – yes, really – the cookbooks of Robert Carrier.

But if anything, Birch is even better on the late-era Soviet Union. It’s all here. The surveillance and the spies and the bribery; the unappetising salads, the flat Coke and the state hotel rooms whose bathrooms stink of rotting apples (the result, says Birch, of vodka on the digestive system). How far off it seems now. Flying home on an almost empty plane, he finds himself sitting across the aisle from an unemployed Yorkshire miner who has just enjoyed a fraternal holiday on the Black Sea, courtesy of the Soviet state.

Did his show happen? We know, of course, that it did; that in 1988, people queued around the block to see it (at the back of Bacon in Moscow, which comes with good reproductions of all the pictures that were included in it, is a series of priceless comments from the visitors’ book, my favourite of which reads: “It is good that the exhibition is small. It could drive one mad”). But the real joy of Birch’s book lies in his getting there: the spats, the hissy fits, the threats; the almost comically brazen moment when Klokov swiftly sells a painting Bacon has unaccountably given him, using the proceeds to buy a snake farm in Uzbekistan.

Bacon in Moscow by James Birch is published by Cheerio (£17.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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