Dasha Zhukova addressed a roomful of architecture critics at the ICA in London earlier this year, announcing the latest move in her mission to bring contemporary art and culture to Moscow. It was the first time, she tells me afterwards, that she hadn’t read from notes, and although this seemed to improve her performance – she reckoned – it was still pretty nerve-wracking for her.
There was something almost school-girlish about her demeanour as she answered questions from the audience. She wore her hair in a long pigtail on one side, a white shirt with a buttoned-up collar under an orange sweater, orange tweed Capri trousers and high-heeled white patent shoes. She speaks in perfect English with a faint Russian intonation, as well as an occasional upwards Californian lilt. She is very beautiful, as has often been noted, but her face has an open, appealing quality about it; her critics have called it blank, but there is nothing vacant at all about her steely gaze.
The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Zhukova’s initial cultural foray into her birthplace, which opened in Moscow in 2008 – housed in a vast former bus terminal designed by the constructivist architects Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Shukhov in 1926 – was an encouraging first move on her part. It announced an approach, which now seems to be her modus operandi, of taking over ruined Soviet architectural masterpieces and working with world-class architects to create sympathetic restorations. That Garage lease has come to an end, and the exhibition space is now moving to Gorky Park.
The Garage’s first home was in the northern, semi-industrial outskirts of town and attracted about 300,000 visitors a year. The new site will accommodate 3.6 million annually, and after Gorky Park has been renovated that number is expected to rise to nine million. The job of transforming the 1960s concrete prefab building in the park, which was a popular restaurant until it was abandoned in the 1990s, has been entrusted to the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.
Zhukova has a cold and asks her assistant to get her something to soothe it. At 31, she looks younger and has a son – Aaron Alexander, who will be three in December – by her 46-year-old partner, Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire and Chelsea Football Club owner.
She explains that she is not restricting her sights to Moscow. Zhukova and her partner have big plans for St Petersburg, too – namely, transforming New Holland, a 19-acre island and former naval yard in the heart of the city, into a creative hub.
When this is completed in 2018, she is hoping that New Holland will be part of the international must-see arts chain linking MoMA in New York, Tate Modern and the Pompidou Centre. It is Zhukova and her non-profit Iris Foundation, dedicated to promoting contemporary culture, which are behind the overall design. (She has just received an award from Independent Curators International for her work.)
“Both these projects share the same backbone. What kind of drives me to do these works is to really progress contemporary culture in Russia,” she says. “I think a good term for it is ‘cultural urbanisation’. It’s entertainment as well as education. I’d like to set up a school of design, which doesn’t exist yet in Russia, and do a lot with technology there as well. The internet can give young people a fantastic platform to become financially independent and have global businesses without leaving Russia.”
I tell her how much I like the idea of keeping the original faded-but-beautiful fabric of the Gorky Park building. “I’m very proud of Soviet aesthetics,” she says. “I guess that once the Soviet system collapsed, it wasn’t a very desired design feature. I don’t know if it was because I was too young or … well, I don’t know why, but I really like that aesthetic. It’s so important for what we are doing in Russia [by “we”, she means the foundation, presumably, as well as Abramovich, but it does rather add to her arts tsarina aura] – and for Russia in general to find itself in the contemporary world. It’s good not to turn our back on such a beautiful history …”
Zhukova has a large vision of what she wants to accomplish and pulling it off cannot be easy in Russia, despite her partner’s influence and connections. “We have bureaucratic problems like everyone else – but, you know, it’s important to know how to operate within the system you are existing in,” she says pragmatically. “You can yell and complain about it all you want, but that’s not going to help you.”
Is she impatient? “I can be, but if something captures my attention, I am completely absorbed. I am very determined; I tunnel-vision straight to where I need to go. I guess that’s the thing I really know how to do.”
So does she never have hissy fits? “I don’t. I never yell or scream. I mean, definitely not at work,” she grins, and her face opens like a flower. “I never yell at anyone I work with. I get frustrated, but I have this survival instinct – whenever I have a hurdle, I figure out how to solve it.”
Zhukova is circumspect. She cannot afford to alienate those in control of the country, but she is, one suspects, naturally non-committal. This may be the ingrained suspicion of opening up to strangers that can come with being born into extreme wealth, or perhaps partly a sort of historic defensiveness in her Soviet DNA. At any rate, if you long for her to be a bit more spontaneous and less of a controlled diplomat, you long mostly in vain.
Zhukova was born in Moscow in 1981 – christened Daria (Dasha is a nickname) – the only child of Elena, a molecular biologist, and Alexander, who became an oil magnate. Her family was well connected – largely scientists, writers and linguists: “It was the usual, normal Moscow intelligentsia,” Elena has said. She was three when her parents divorced, and her mother left the USSR in 1990, with nine-year-old Dasha, because she had been offered a good position at the Baylor College of Medicine, a leading centre of biomedical research in Houston, where she had some family.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed, my mother found it very difficult to be in this quite aggressive environment and she couldn’t really handle the abrupt changes,” Zhukova explains. “So we didn’t actually emigrate to America, we thought we were just going for a year or two and then, I guess, she decided to stay. You know, I can’t imagine what it takes to get up in your thirties, with a child, and say, ‘OK, now I’m leaving and going somewhere I don’t know.’”
Elena is Jewish and Zhukova identifies herself as Jewish, although her father is a Christian. Zhukova’s first school in the US was a Hebrew college, which she attended for three years. It must have been tough not speaking a word of English when she arrived. “I’m a quick learner,” she says. “When you’re in a situation that is foreign to you, you just have to pull yourself together and adapt.”
Elena was then offered an opportunity at UCLA – “which was a huge honour” says her daughter – and mother and daughter moved to California. By the time Elena retired, she was a professor of molecular biology there, as well as an authority on diabetes. “My mother is quite a serious person, who is more interested in substance than aesthetics. We always had very serious scientists hanging out at our house,” Zhukova says, before correcting herself. “That sounds a bit silly. What I mean is she had all these graduate students who would constantly come by the house – and I always thought that was very funny, because they were so studious and a bit geeky.” Zhukova went to a small, sporty private school – Pacific Hills – in West Hollywood (alumni include Monica Lewinsky and Drew Barrymore), which she loved and describes as “a kind of weird utopian community. I still stay in touch with some of my friends, which is one of the reasons why I’m on Facebook.”
She had a great college experience, too, she says, at UC Santa Barbara, where she considered following in her mother and grandmother’s steps in medicine but graduated in 2003, instead, in Slavic studies and literature: “Although I’m very interested in science and technology, I guess I couldn’t sit still long enough to be a doctor.”
At 22, she moved to London to study homeopathic medicine, a course she didn’t complete. She was living in one of her father’s penthouses in Kensington, dating a tennis player and generally living the kind of life that earned her the label “glamorous socialite”. It was also where she first began to take an interest in contemporary art.
In 2005, she met Abramovich – a friend of her father’s from his oil-trading days – at a dinner party in Moscow. Abramovich, who was born into poverty and orphaned at the age of four, had just sold his stake in the Russian oil giant Sibneft for $13bn and was moving into steel, gold and real estate, which he still invests in through his Millhouse company. He divorced his second wife, Irina, in 2007.
Despite the couple’s properties all over the world – three in London alone, as well as three yachts, houses in the south of France, Moscow and St Barts, where Abramovich made headlines, in January, for spending £5m on a New Year’s eve party – Zhukova has said that it is her mother’s home in Los Angeles that still feels like home to her.
It is striking that Zhukova is at her most open when talking about her family (her partner, of course, is another matter; the closest I get to that subject is to ask if she likes football; “I’m the last person you should be talking to,” she replies).
When I ask her which parent she is most like, she says probably her father – who lives in Moscow now – although as she was brought up by her mother, she figures it balances out. “My Dad is a very optimistic person,” she says. “He’s very positive, he loves people, he’s very clever and he’s very funny. He’s a great dad. Obviously I saw less of him when we were in America, but it always just felt normal when I saw him again.”
Both her parents remarried and both had twins – her mother, a boy and girl, now aged 19; her father, twin boys aged 16: “My parents have always stayed good friends and I feel like I’m part of a huge family. I don’t think of any of my siblings as half-siblings – I’m actually very close to all of them.”
Her mother is “very affectionate. She was and is very reasonable with me. I always felt like I had independence but enough structure not to fly off the deep end. I always felt that I never wanted to disappoint my parents, so that kept me on track.”
Sometimes, she admits, this involvement can be a bit annoying: “[My mother] is just involved with everything that I am doing. She will probably read this interview, for instance. I’ll speak to her just casually about a project, and she will come back the next day and say, ‘You know, honey, you should also consider this.’ Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Oh, Mum, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ but a lot of the time it stays in the back of my head.”
Does her mother have a say about her private life? “Not so much about my private life! I draw the line there!”
I ask her if she is affectionate to her son in the same way that her mother was to her? “Oh I just want to bite him and kiss him and hug him … He runs away from me when he sees me. The older he gets, the more obsessed I become because you can really communicate now.” So is it time for another one? She grins: “These controversial questions!” Zhukova’s first child is her partner’s sixth: “I would like to have a big family,” she says.
Zhukova has made some mistakes in the past when talking to journalists. On one occasion, when asked who her favourite artists were, she sounded as clueless as a valley girl, saying that she couldn’t, like, really remember any of their names. “I was new to this whole world. I thought I shouldn’t name names because it might seem like giving preferences. I was just getting started and didn’t know how to handle it. I feel a bit more confident now and feel that it’s OK to have personal preferences. I’m also less shy than I was.”
So what has been her favourite show at the Garage? “Let me think if I want to answer this.” Can she at least name one of her favourite pieces? “I will say that my favourite installation was Dan Flavin’s long, wide corridor of multicoloured light installations. That was just so beautiful …”
Although she may be associated with the monumental splash of her partner’s big buys in 2008, when Abramovich spent £43m on Francis Bacon’s 1976 “Triptych” and £17m on Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, Zhukova’s personal taste seems to be quirky and modest. “I am drawn to humorous art that is ironic,” she says.
She also has a rebellious streak and a love of the outré and extreme. One of her ambitions, she said in an interview, was “to push the boundaries of publishing”. Garage, the magazine – with Zhukova as editor-in-chief, and former Paris Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck as editorial consultant – has certainly published some firsts. The inaugural issue last year commissioned a number of big-name artists to design tattoos, which would then be grafted on to the bodies of various “living canvases”. Damien Hirst came up with a butterfly tattoo for a vagina, which was one of the covers of the magazine (even with a concealing sticker, this was still banned by WH Smith). “I was slightly hesitant, because it’s very provocative,” she says. “But I just love the image and I love the extra dimension that the sticker gave it. It’s not offensive at all, it’s quite beautiful. I’m glad we did it.”
In the same issue, there is a profile of her maternal grandmother, “Soviet Scientist, Maria Rudnitskaya”, written by her granddaughter. Zhukova’s granny, who moved to the US in 1992 to help her daughter with her family, looks brilliant – small and plump, with a lovely smile – wearing an animal-print kaftan, massive earrings and leaning on her walking stick. She remembers the war, spending shifts on the roof, picking up the hissing balls from the firebombs dropped by the German planes. Then the evacuation to Tashkent, working in the military plant during the day and in the evening working for her chemistry degree. Back in Moscow, she worked as a clerk in the naval ministry, then as a technician at the Institute of Haematology and Blood Transfusion, completing her PhD. During her career she developed therapies for infertility and gangrene, for haemophiliacs and diabetics. In trying to understand what motivates Zhukova, with her pioneering zeal to make a difference to her old country, I don’t think one can underestimate the influence her mother and grandmother must have had on her growing up.
Zhukova’s looks and her relationship with such a wealthy man make it easy for her critics to dismiss her. For instance, when she first appeared on the London scene, she was always described as a model. But when I couldn’t find any modelling stints in her CV, I asked her about this. She sent back an email, saying: “When I was 14 I tried modelling, but my career lasted exactly one month. I was more interested in playing volleyball!”
Not long after we met, the news from Russia was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. I did try to get Zhukova to comment on the unfolding story of Pussy Riot but she declined. However, one of the two issues of the Garage magazines she had sent me was a celebration of gay marriage: “With same-sex marriage now enshrined in state law [in New York], Garage celebrated by inviting designers and artists to collaborate on special wedding outfits and cast real life couples to wear them.”
At the end of our conversation, I read back something she had once said: “I definitely see the Garage as an institution that can implement social change in the country.” How did she feel about a country that bans Gay Pride demonstrations on the grounds that gays are satanic? “You know, I’m very bothered by any kind of intolerance, and I think that comes from ignorance and from being part of a very closed-off society. It is something we are definitely fighting, indirectly, at the Garage. But there’s no point just sitting and criticising Russia; what we are doing is the opposite of complaining about what’s wrong. We are trying to give choices, to educate people and make a positive change.”
Dasha Zhukova is only 31. If she wants to change the world, she has plenty of time ahead of her.
Dasha Zhukova is expanding her Garage arts centre in Moscow, and now has designs on St Petersburg. Her critics in the art world may still not take her seriously, but they can’t ignore her.