At age nineteen in 1946, the young art student Boris Sveshnikov was arrested for allegedly colluding in an assassination attempt on Joseph Stalin while buying kerosene in a local shop. Sveshnikov was subjected to night interrogations, trips to the Lubyanka and Lefortovo prisons for a year before he was sentenced to eight years in a labour camp in the Gulag archipelago. Nonetheless, after Sveshnikov was appointed night watchman in one of the camps, he began to produce an array of drawings and sketchbooks imbued with dark humour, despair and desolate landscapes. In these 'camp' drawings, the harsh realities of life in the gulag coexist with a fantasy of heroic scenes and commonplace brutality and cruelty. Sveshnikov was released in 1954.
According to the inscription on the flyleaf, the album was a gift from the artist to Ludvigs Seja (1885-1962), a Latvian diplomat who had been in the camp with Sveshnikov. Seja had formerly been the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Latvia in 1924; from 1925 to 1927 was the Ambassador of Latvia to the United States; and later in 1927 the General Consul of Latvia in London. He returned to Riga in 1940 and in 1944 was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo. Further ill-fortune awaited him: he was arrested by the NKVD in 1946 and sentenced to 25 years of hard labour in the gulag, where he met Sveshnikov. After serving his term in the camp, Seja chose to work in a factory and live among the prisoners. He visited Sveshnikov occasionally, sending his drawings and sketchbooks to Moscow.
The appearance of Nightlife, an album comprising 24 drawings marks the first time a sketchbook of Sveshnikov's camp drawings has appeared at auction. Another series of Sveshnikov's camp drawings titled Labor Camp Vetlosian (1952), is held in the Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University in New Jersey.