A British and Russian soldier, side-by-side, in art and war

(Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

Two nations, two men, one passion, and one war—the Dual Perspectives exhibition showcases artworks of the late veterans and architects Pavel Afonin and Edward Milligan. Both men were not only soldiers but also artists. Their drawings of the war depict exhausted, old women, abandoned cities, and brutal landscapes, showing two different perspectives on WWII

The year was 1944. Edward Arthur Milligan was on his first mission as a bomb aimer for the Royal Air Force. His aircraft was taken down by the Germans. Three men from his crew died immediately. Milligan survived and was taken prisoner. In the meantime, Russian sapper Pavel Ivanovich Afonin took part in the march of the Red Army from Moscow to Berlin and was severely wounded during the Leningrad offensive. To avoid the advancing Soviet troops, the Germans moved their captives westwards to Luckenwalde. This is where Afonin and Milligan’s paths crossed. Afonin was in charge of building river crossings near bridges destroyed by German troops. Milligan was freed from his camp by the Red Army at the time. The two men never met, nor did they ever correspond. They could have no idea that one day they would be honoured in the same room. Today their drawings hang side by side.

“Both of them shared the dream of rebuilding their countries and were looking forward to a brighter future without war. They realised that opportunity through architecture,” explains Jon England, who was close to Milligan and is a trustee of his artwork.

Milligan was very active during his time in the camp. He formed an art group, helped to produce a newspaper, and, despite confinement, managed to complete the first part of his BA in Architecture. His drawings depict the suffering he endured: scenes of the prisoner-of-war camp he was held in, people queuing for soup, grim-looking soldiers, and the grinding march from Bankau to Germany. The British soldier’s work shares the same wall with impressions by the Russian soldier Afonin at the exhibition. Their drawings look similar. They used coal pencil on yellowed paper and mostly produced portraits.

Afonin drew buildings he planned to construct in the future. He had completed his degree in Architecture in Moscow before joining the army. Later, he would become one of the architects that would rebuild Kaliningrad.

“It is incredible that they left this legacy for us in two different countries,” says Ksenia Afonina, the granddaughter of the Russian soldier. She has been an important force behind preserving her grandfather’s art and establishing the exhibition.

Ksenia Afonina did an exhibition of Afonin’s work in Cambridge, where one of Milligan’s relatives approached her and introduced her to Jon England. They started to research the history behind the drawings and noticed the similarities between them.

“All the emotions that come through [in the drawings] tell a fuller picture of the war,” says Afonina.

“Right now, relationships between our countries are not at their best. I think projects like these help bringing people together and create an understanding beyond geopolitical borders,” she concludes.

(Photo credit: Till Rimmele)

Event: Exhibition: Dual Perspectives
When: From 4 May to 5 June
Where: St Petersburg State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering, 4 2-nd Krasnoarmeyskaya Ulitsa, St Petersburg, 190103
Price: Free
Language: Russian, English

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