In July 1988, when the revolutions of 1989 were still unimaginable, a remarkable event took place in Moscow. Sotheby's held an art auction. It was the first occasion since Stalin's purges of the 1930s when "unofficial" Russian artists were able to sell their work openly in the capital city. The dealers at Sotheby's had managed to gain access to the attics and cellars where these "nonconformist" artists had their studios and selected 29 of them to put forward pieces. The fact of the event, as much as the quality of the 119 lots on sale, was further proof that the ice of Soviet censorship was finally melting. Foreign buyers were attracted by curiosity and by the relative cheapness of the pieces on offer. At the end of the sale, it was reported, applause broke out spontaneously, a standing ovation that recognised a cultural wall coming down.
For the artists, although the event was something they had long dreamed of, the arrival of the market in Moscow brought unexpected consequences. They reportedly looked on unbelievingly as western buyers bid hard currency for paintings that had been hidden for years. The critic Andrew Solomon, who wrote a book on the subject, was present to see the sale bring in nearly $2.1m, 60 per cent of which went to the artists, "along with the feeling that their whole world had caved in, and they could not imagine what would arise to replace it . . . Formerly members of a relatively cohesive and staunchly non-commercial group, they had now been split into two rival camps: those who sold, and those who didn't."
To commemorate the event, Igor Makarevich, one of the most celebrated of the artists on show, created a painting the colour of a dollar bill that mimicked the lettering on the front of a Soviet bank, and called it Sotheby's.
Twenty-two years on, a few of the artists who featured in that Sotheby's show - along with several contemporaries who did not make the auctioneers' cut - are gathered again in a sharply curated reappraisal of the late Soviet period at the Haunch of Venison gallery in London. Their work is locked in a moment between repression and its release, and though not all the exhibits stand the test of time, historical context gives them a compelling charge. The conceptualist Ilya Kabakov, a powerful influence on this group, has recalled that "fear, as a state of mind, persisted in every second of our life, in every action". Yet it is not fear that you see here; it is rather defiance - an often playful kind of bravery.
In the years before the 1918 revolution, Kazimir Malevich and the Russian futurists imagined an artistic utopia independent of dealers and prices; they might have been careful what they wished for. After Stalin, only one kind of art was allowed in the Soviet Union - stark social realism. In a decree of 1932, all "religious, pornographic and formalistic art" was outlawed. "Formalistic art" included cubism, constructivism, surrealism and all forms of abstraction. This censorship was enforced until a brief period in the 1950s, early in Khrushchev's era, when a short-lived "thaw" allowed Picasso, Matisse and others to show in Moscow. After attending a show of Russian abstraction in 1962, however, Khrushchev smelled dissent, and the wall of censorship came down once more.
One of the lessons of the underground movements that followed was that there are always ways of making the visual a challenge to the
established order. Many of the artists on show were inspired by the example of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who were the first to see the possibilities of combining Soviet realism with pop art - to add an edge of irony to what had been conceived in state-sanctioned earnest. One of the effects of their "Sots" (socialist) art, was to make Stalinist realism seem a style like any other, the implication being that all fashions eventually become absurd and die out. In 1974, Komar and Melamid were arrested during a performance in their apartment entitled Art Belongs to the People, but by then their mischief was already abroad. Totalitarian power can't bear laughter. When an outdoor exhibition was demolished by the authorities, they rechristened it "The Bulldozer Exhibition" and turned it into a happening. Merely by putting their names to party slogans, they made them comic. The line "We were born to turn the fairy tale into reality" became rich in ironies when Komar and Melamid added their signatures to it.
Before he emigrated to the US, Melamid was a teacher. One of his students, Yuri Albert - represented here by a wonderful cartoon of the self-replicating artist (the authorities' worst nightmare) - kept up the spirit of Warholian resistance, creating a Muscovite version of the Factory in a squat-cum-studio in Furmanny Lane in Moscow. Most of the art in this exhibition was made by people who passed through Furmanny Lane - the first port of call for foreign gallerists and collectors in the Gorbachev years.
The anonymity forced on these artists became a statement of intent. A group called Champions of the World advertised their exclusion from art history: a telephone on a table is headlined "To Our Regret We Couldn't Bring Our Work"; a workaday slot machine becomes a ready-made roughly scrawled in Cyrillic text reading "Wild Songs of Our Native Land".
The quiet daring of some of the works needs deciphering now. In 1987, Eduard Gorokhovsky could make a profound political statement simply by painting a group of ordinary Muscovites. His realist, almost monochrome Bitsa and Dukat show a dozen or more people in close proximity. At the centre of the crowd in one painting is a man with a paintbrush in his hand. In the far distance, greatcoated soldiers chat among themselves. Bitsa Park and the Dukat tobacco plant were among the first places where nonconformist artists were allowed to show work as Gorbachev's reforms slowly took hold.
Some of the most memorable images come from the photographers in the exhibition. In Andrey Bezukladnikov's haunting twinned photographs, near-identical images are separated by a horizontal black line, which acts like a premonition of the coming before and after of Russian history. A man is half asleep and then half awake; unnamed artists in an unnamed studio stare into the camera, watching and waiting. As you look at these photographs now, it is as if Bezukladnikov had seen the future: the camera would not have known the difference after 1989, but history would.
Another photographer, Sergei Borisov, was already celebrating little acts of liberty within the confines of the Soviet present. Borisov opened his own photo studio, 50A, in 1979 and it became a centre for like-minded "unofficial" photographers, a kind of radical camera club. There is a Kundera-like lightness to his pictures. Flying shows a grimly prosaic Moscow street in which a soldier stands to attention on a bridge, while in the foreground another man jumps above a parapet and appears to levitate for a moment, happily weightless in this heavily weighted place. Elsewhere, in the most striking image in the gallery, a pair of what appear to be statues of Lenin are carted away in an army truck, wrapped up for transit like convicts, with each tethered at the neck. Glasnost and Perestroika, Borisov calls the piece. This was 1986, and all bets about the future were still off.
There is more pointed certainty elsewhere. In Andrey Filippov's Last Supper, the places on the top table are set with hammers and sickles for knives and forks; the table is empty. Georgy Gurianov, meanwhile, pictures an ageing man in bed in Soviet Union PJs, green with sickness, looking death squarely in the face. Pop-art influences creep in everywhere - a Marlboro fag packet carries the logo "Malevich", and Gorby himself is silkscreened in anticipation of his 15 minutes of world-changing fame.
“Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression," wrote Saul Bellow; "if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining." This exhibition is a testament to the converse: suppression will always, somehow, be the grim stepmother of invention.
“Glasnost: Soviet Nonconformist Art from the 1980s" is at Haunch of Venison, London W1, until 26 June. Details: haunchofvenison.com