Lev Kerbel was born in 1917 in the village of Semyonovka (in present-day Chernihiv Oblast, Ukraine), in a Jewish family. Lev's father Yefim, a salesclerk by profession, became politically active after the October Revolution. He later worked in the supply system.
The Kerbel family moved repeatedly from city to city. By the mid-1920s, they had settled in Smolensk.
As a student, Lev Kerbel was a prolific sculptor, winning school competitions. At the age of sixteen, he achieved official recognition for the first time: His bas-relief depicting the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin was favorably reviewed by professional sculptors.
In 1934, after finishing high school, Lev Kerbel moved to Moscow to continue his education, thanks to a scholarship obtained from the Smolensk Department of People's Education.
He was received by Lenin's widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, to whom Kerbel showed his bas-relief of Lenin. Krupskaya wrote a letter of recommendation for him and mailed it to the All-Russian Academy of Arts in Leningrad. In 1937, having completed a preparatory course at the Academy of Arts, Lev enrolled in the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and Art Studies.
In late June 1941, following the outbreak of the Soviet-German War, Lev Kerbel was sent to dig trenches. Afterward, the Institute where he was studying was evacuated into the Soviet interior. Kerbel wished to become a frontline fighter, but he was able to do so only in 1942.
Lev Kerbel went on to serve as a military artist in the Northern Fleet. He sailed out to sea on destroyers and torpedo boats, and met numerous submarine crewmen. When Arseny Golovko, commander of the fleet, learned that Kerbel was a professional sculptor, he instructed him to sculpt portraits of the heroes. This resulted in the creation of sculptures of the submarine sailor Izrail Fisanovich, the pilot Boris Safonov, and many others.
In the course of the war, Lev Kerbel was awarded the Order of the Red Star and some medals.
In 1945, shortly after the end of the war, Kerbel was dispatched to Berlin upon the orders of Marshal Zhukov. There, he and the monumental sculptor Vladimir Tsigal erected a monument in honor of the heroes of the battle over that city. At the same time, Kerbel also created a memorial to the Soviet soldier near Berlin.
Kerbel then returned to Moscow and resumed his studies at the Art Institute.
In subsequent years, the monumental sculptor Kerbel, who adhered to the officially approved "socialist realist" style, created a large number of famous monuments throughout the USSR, and in other countries belonging to the Soviet sphere of influence. The subjects of some of these monuments were: heroic medical doctors; shipbuilders (at the North River Terminal in Moscow); the poet Ğabdulla Tuqay (in Kazan); Solomon Bandaranaike, the fourth Prime Minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and many others. Kerbel also sculpted several portraits of Karl Marx. One of these sculptures, which had been erected in Sverdlov Square in Moscow, won its creator the Lenin Prize in 1962.
In 1965, the Jewish members of the informal "Moscow Initiative Group for Commemorating the Victims of Fascism in the Town of Rudnya" asked Kerbel to help them install a monument to the Jewish residents of the town who had perished in the Holocaust. Kerbel not only agreed to erect a sculpture, named Grieving Mother, at the shooting site, but also repeatedly discussed the planned monument with the local authorities in Smolensk Oblast, acting on behalf of the Jewish community. The involvement of a person who enjoyed the favor of the regime in the memorialization process spurred the local authorities to give the Jews financial and organizational aid (see the Untold Stories1
Kerbel tried his hand at various genres of sculpture, and he created tombstones and monuments to various celebrities, including the director and actor Sergey Bondarchuk, the Twice Hero of the Soviet Union David Dragunsky, and many others.
Lev Kerbel became a professor, and went on to teach at the Moscow Art Institute for many years. In the course of his artistic career, he received numerous prestigious Soviet honors, such as the USSR State Prize and the titles of Hero of Socialist Labor and People's Artist of the USSR and the RSFSR. He also received several foreign awards, including an Israeli one.
Lev Kerbel died in Moscow in 2003, and was buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery.