Ernst Neizvestny was born in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg, Russia) in 1926. His father Iosif was the son of the owner of a printing shop in the Urals region and the grandson of Yosl Neizvestny, a Jewish cantonist (until 1856 – a youth drafted into the tsarist army for life-long service) The last name Neizvestny (literally: "unknown") was given to Yosl when he was a cantonist. During the civil war in Russia, Iosif served in the White Army – contrary to the widely held view that all Jews had supported the Red Army. After the civil war, he became a physician. Ernst's mother Bella Dizhur became a Soviet writer after the revolution. In the 1980s she wrote a poem about Janusz Korczak.
Neizvestny began to study drawing prior to the Soviet-German war. In 1942, he entered an art school affiliated with the Academy of Arts of the USSR. In the same year, the school and the Academy were evacuated to the Soviet Central Asia. In 1942 also, Neizvestny forged his birth year in his documents, changing it from 1926 to 1925 in order to be conscripted into the Red Army. He was accepted to officers' school. In 1943, following a fight with a Red Army officer, Neizvestny was demoted to private and sent to the front lines as a soldier in a penal battalion. After he was wounded, Neizvestny was reinstated as a lieutenant. He served in the airborne troops on the 2nd Ukrainian Front.
The war ended for Neizvestny in April 1945. In that month, during Red Army operations in Austria, his platoon was ordered to attack the enemy under heavy fire. In the face of great fear exhibited by his platoon and its reluctance to get up out of its trenches, Neizvestny stood up from the trenches alone in a "solitary attack". Only then was he followed by his soldiers. He was seriously wounded. His comrades who found him took him for dead. With a bullet in his spinal cord, almost paralyzed and unable to breathe – he indeed appeared lifeless. A death notice was sent to his parents. He was also "posthumously" awarded the order of the Red Star. However, on the way to the morgue, Neizvestny fell from the military truck, and the "dead man" cried out in pain. His healing took years, and for a long time after the war he could only walk with crutches.
After the war, Neizvestny became a renowned sculptor. Following his quarrel with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the Manege exhibition in Moscow in 1962, he was expelled from the Union of Soviet Artists. There was something paradoxical about his expulsions, first from the Union of Soviet Artists and, eventually, from the Soviet Union and the continuing criticism he received from the Soviet authorities, given the fact that he never was a political dissident.
Despite the fact that his artistic style was not welcomed by the Soviet "gendarmes of art" (his artistic style from the 1960s through the 1980s may be identified as expressionistic), and, furthermore, the subjects of some of his works were unconventional, Neizvestny never regarded himself a dissident artist. Rather he considered himself to be a monumentalist sculptor and was quite willing to create works on commission from the Soviet state. Nevertheless, in 1976, when he was already well known in the West, Neizvestny was forced to emigrate from the Soviet Union. He first moved to Switzerland, then to the USA. Between the early 1960s and his emigration from the Soviet Union, the artist created more than 850 sculptures.
The well-known Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestnyi, holder of the Red Star decoration, passed away on August 9, 2016, at the age of 91.
A poem by the poet Andrei Voznesensky dedicated to Ernst Neizvestny,
In 1964, the Russian-language Soviet poet Andrei Voznesensky (who was on friendly terms with Neizvestny) dedicated a poem to him: "Lieutenant Neizvestny, Ernst: A Requiem in Two Steps".
Neizvestny – Requiem
In Two Steps, and an Epilogue
In memoriam of lieutenant
Of the Soviet Army
Ernst Neizvestnyi who fell in battle
On the 2nd Ukrainian front
Lieutenant Neizvestny Ernst.
For thousands miles around
the plain is being ironed flat
by death, by a fiery iron
The platoon won’t rise for an attack
Even though the radio scream from up high:
‘Get up, you mother fuckers and attack!’
And Ernst simply replies: “Yes”.
But your soldiers are eating dust
Heroically not moving an inch.
Lieutenant Neizvestny, Ernst,
on the offensive
And Death says to him, ‘Stop, Erik!’
You are standing alone like an index finger,
Whom are you going up agains?
Against a monster, Ernst!
an army and a fleet,
against a brainwashed mob.
against culture bouncers
against National Socialism
Against global brutality.
Aren’t you dead, you snotty-nose?
“No doubt” says Ernst decisively
his first step forward!
And Life is saying: “Erik!
The living need others who live.
Lilac will bloom in the squares
But not for you – for them,
for those who survive it will bloom.
And it won’t be
1945, 1949, 1960, or 1963 – it will be none of these
and the number of humans killed will reach
And you won’t be admitted to the University,
And won’t transfer to a school of sculptuoe
And you will never know
that hot plaster smells like fresh milk,
there won’t be a studio in Sretenka Street,
locked with a piece of wire,
there won’t be an exhibition at the Manege,
and on April 14, 1964 Dinka won’t pop in
and won’t put her little finger, with its peeling manicure,
on a plaster mold,
and she won’t break away, won’t run off
and run back the next morning, only to run off again,
she won’t come over at all.
Dinka just won’t be there,
Neither will the Cosmonaut be there
(actually, they will be there, but not for you,
For the yellow-haired Mit’ka Filin who did not crawl out of the trench then)
But for you – never, nothing –
And only your Mother will sink to her knees on the door-step
With a letter signifying your death.
Do you understand this, Erik?
“For sure,” Erik says.
But piercing like beams of light
And higher than Life and Death
A third thing is summoning us,
It is what singles us out as human beings .
Animals receive their lives,
Only people can give theirs.
(For there is only one animal
That is summoned by this forceful beam
To sacrifice its life
And that is the human being.)
And only Russia,
I thank you only
For choosing me.
Lieutenant Neizvestny Ernst.
When, drunk like an ichthyosaurus,
You sleep like a log at my table,
With skirt-raisers surrounding you,
When snobs and "good boys"
Squeak that your soft spot is booze
I feel that a heavy monument
Is stirring to break lose from you.
I’ll take off my hat and say to them
As a polite person should do:
“Of course, you have shaved and showered,
And your taste has never failed you,
But have you ever been shot
For our Motherland, right on the spot?