The Red Cavalry at Perekop depicts a crucial moment in the struggle between the Red and the White army for control of the Crimea. Painted by Nikolai Samokish, the celebrated Soviet battle-painter who spent the 1920s and 1930s in the Crimea, much of this eminent artist's work addresses the theme of the Russian Civil War and particularly the events that took place in this region itself.
The present work is closely related to The Red Army crossing the Sivash (1935, Simferopol State Art Museum, Ukraine) for which Samokish received the State Stalin Prize in 1941. Sivash Lake, or, as it was known locally, the Rotten Sea, is a series of lagoons on the west coast of the Azov Sea, which almost divides the Crimean Peninsula from the mainland. Famously shallow, it is of great historical significance as a result of the surprise crossing by the Red Army in 1920 depicted in the present work, which took place during the Perekop-Chongar manoeuvre under the leadership of Mikhail Frunze (1885-1925). This dynamic, complicated composition brilliantly captures the heady atmosphere of war. Lower centre we see an unknown soldier, identifiable only via his boots, who is of great symbolic import: he is the first cavalryman to set foot upon the Crimea. This episode proved key: the Bolsheviks were subsequently able to expel the White Army, commanded by General Baron Pyotr Wrangel (1878-1929), from the Crimea.
This impressive and important painting was presented by the artist to Jan Birzgal, a significant Latvian figure and an artist himself, who played a key role in preserving the Crimea's cultural heritage following the Revolution. Samokish initially visited the Crimea in 1918 in order to improve his health. Here he became acquainted with Birzgal, who had known of the talented artist since his own studies in St Petersburg at the Stieglitz Academy of Art, and made every effort to support Samokish in his endeavours. In 1923 Birzgal left the army and took up an important post at NARKOMPROS, the body devoted to promoting Soviet cultural aims. Via this position he played a tremendous part in preserving the area's cultural heritage from its architecture to its libraries and his involvement with artistic life in the region was significantly strengthened. Over the course of his career Birzgal was appointed director of various museums including the Alupka Palace Museum and the Simferopol Gallery of Art. In 1940 in recognition of his 80th birthday, Samokish was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. The occasion was celebrated with the publication of Birzgal's book: N. S. Samokish: His life and work. In 1949 Birzgal returned to Riga at the request of the Government of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, bringing with him his belongings, including paintings, books and correspondence. Birzgal remained in Riga for the rest of his life, serving for a time as Director of the Foreign Art Museum.