|Born||Nikolay Nikolayevich Punin
November 28 [O.S. December 11] 1888
Helsingfors, Grand Duchy of Finland
|Died||August 21, 1953
Gulag, Vorkuta, Soviet Union
|Occupation||scholar, writer, political prisoner|
|Subject||contemporary art, art history|
|Spouse||Anna Arens (1917–?)|
Nikolay Nikolayevich Punin (Russian: Никола́й Никола́евич Пу́нин; November 28 [O.S. December 11] 1888 – August 21, 1953) was a Russian art scholar and writer. He edited several magazines, such as Izobrazitelnoye Iskusstvo among others, and was also co-founder of the Department of Iconography in the State Russian Museum. Punin was a lifelong friend and common-law husband of poet Anna Akhmatova who is famous for writing the poem Requiem.
A key figure in the Russian art world
Nikolay Punin was born in Helsingfors (now Helsinki), Grand Duchy of Finland, into the family of Nikolay Mikhaylovich Punin, a Medical Doctor of the Imperial Russian Army stationed in Helsingfors. Young Punin moved to St. Petersburg and attended the classical gymnasium where he first met young student Anna Akhmatova. From 1907 to 1914, Punin attended the St. Petersburg University, studied history of art under professor Dmitry Aynalov, graduating in 1914, as an art historian, and began a career as an art critic and editor. Punin's involvement in such schools as Acmeism, Constructivism, Formalism, and other developments in art and culture, eventually made him one of the key figures in the Russian art world.
Punin was among the first art critics who focused on the emerging new trends and styles. Punin's own multi-cultural exposure, as well as his diverse education and broad vision, made him the leading ideologist of the "Left Art," embracing and representing many innovative and experimental movements. Punin was nicknamed a "Futurist" and a "Leftist" by both artists and historians. His circle of friends included artists Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Vladimir Lebedev, Lev Bruni, Nikolai Tyrsa, and others.
In 1917, Punin married Anna Arens, a physician; they had one daughter, Irina.
In 1918, Punin was appointed by Anatoli Lunacharsky to several important positions, such as the Head of the Petrograd Committee for Education (Narkompros), People's Commissar of the Russian Museum and the Hermitage Museum. For the next thirty years, Punin held several posts at the State Russian Museum.
Union with Anna Akhmatova
Nikolay Punin was in a civil union with poet Anna Akhmatova during the 1920s and 1930s. Punin and Akhmatova had much in common since the years of their youth, when both were students in Tsarskoye Selo. They had regular meetings since 1913, when both worked with the "Apollon" publishing in St. Petersburg. At that time Akmatova was married to Nikolay Gumilev, and Punin was a regular guest in their home during the 1910s. In 1922, Akmatova came to visit Punin at his home in the garden wing of the Sheremetyev Palace. She eventually moved in with Punin, and their relationship lasted fifteen years. The home of Punin and Akhmatova was a meeting place for the St. Petersburg's cultural milieu, and later became a museum of Anna Akhmatova.
Akhmatova had saved Punin's life after his first arrest, in the 1930s, regardless that their relationship ended at that time. Punin was released after Anna Akhmatova's written petition to Joseph Stalin, but later he was arrested again. Nikolay Punin was twice arrested and imprisoned by the Soviet secret service under the dictatorship of Stalin.
Under Stalin's dictatorship
In 1949 Punin was arrested on accusations of "anti-Soviet" activity, because he said that many thousands of Lenin's portraits are tasteless. The Soviet government punished Punin by imprisonment in the Gulag camp in Vorkuta, northern Russia. This time nobody could help Punin, because the intellectual elite of Leningrad was devastated by the Leningrad Affair. Most intellectuals who could help, were imprisoned, killed, exiled, or silenced by fear of Stalin's attacks.
A secret file on Nikolay Punin was created with numerous accusations of his anti-Soviet activity. Most accusations were fabricated by various agents of the former Soviet KGB office in Leningrad, such as Lt. Prussakov, who accused "former professor of Leningrad University and Academy of arts, Punin" of "anti-Soviet" propaganda. Punin's popular lectures about European artists, such as Rembrandt and Impressionists were seen by the communists as evidence of his anti-Soviet activity.
In 1953, just months after Stalin's death, Nikolay Punin died in the Gulag camp of Vorkuta, after spending the four last years of his life under harsh conditions of cold and hunger, in an old barrack crowded with two hundred prisoners lit by one light bulb.
Punin was known as "savior of art collections" because he protected many valuable paintings of western artists, which were labeled "decadent bourgeois art" by the communist propaganda. In doing so, Punin took many risks by raising his voice in opposition to the Soviet officials. As curator of the Hermitage Museum and the Russian museum Punin saved many important masterpieces of art from destruction by revolutionary mob and undereducated communists. He was severely attacked by the Soviet communists for his efforts in preservation of "Western" art in Soviet museums. He was respected by artists and intellectuals as the key figure in Russian art history.
Punin was also a remarkable lecturer; his lectures were extremely popular among open-minded members of the Soviet Academia, and among his numerous students.
Nikolay Punin's art essays and his memoirs were published in English and in Russian.
In June 2012 the first biography of Punin, The Unsung Hero of the Russian Avant-Garde. The Life and Times of Nikolay Punin, written by art historian Natalia Murray, was published by Brill.
- Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center
- Russian source: "The Keeper of the Future" Archived October 27, 2007 at the Wayback Machine
- N. N. (Nikolai Nikolaevich) Punin. Diaries and correspondence
- Punin's files at Sakharov center
- Russian source: НИКОЛАЙ НИКОЛАЕВИЧ ПУНИН (1888–1953) – ИСКУССТВОВЕД, ПЕДАГОГ, МУЗЕЙНЫЙ РАБОТНИК. 
- The Diaries of Nikolay Punin: 1904–1953 University of Texas Press (1999) ISBN 0-292-76589-4 
- Natalia Murray, The Unsung Hero of the Russian Avant-Garde. The Life and Times of Nikolay Punin ISBN 9789004204751