Former Refusenik Crafts U.S. Constitution Medals

A Soviet Jewish emigre who once held a prestigious position as a sculptor-engraver at the Leningrad Mint has etched his name into United States history. Alex Shagin, now of Los Angeles, has designed two medals commemorating the U.S. Constitution in honor of its bicentennial.

One is a multi-sided design whose outline matches the drum engraved on its reverse side. Upon the drum lies the parchment reading "We, the People of the United States," with drumsticks resting on top. On the flip side is a man in early American clothing with open mouth as though declaring liberty, and bearing a flag with a semicircle of stars curved around the date Sept. 17, 1787, the day the Constitution was completed.

"I call it my drum medal, and I felt like we have to drum up the meaning of the document that moved the modern era, modern society, modern history, and influenced all civilized countries in the last two centuries," Shagin, 40, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

"But above all, I wanted to show a man, a town crier announcing that event, as if he is crying, ‘Citizens, listen, something is happening around here… that is going to shake up the entire world and affect our future.’"

The other medal is even more intricate. It shows on one side a group of delegates to the Constitutional Convention, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison. The reverse depicts three Colonial figures with drum, flag and the Constitution.

CELEBRATED ARTIST IN USSR

In the early 1970′s, Shagin was considered one of the Soviet Union’s most gifted young artists. He was graduated from the Vera Muchina School of Art and Design in Leningrad, then worked at the Leningrad Mint from 1973-77. There he prepared the designs for many of the coins that were later issued to commemorate the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

But feeling deprived of creative — and Jewish — freedom, Shagin applied to emigrate 10 years ago. He was immediately dismissed from the mint and denied a source of income for the 14 months he waited for permission to emigrate. In 1979, Shagin left the USSR in the big wave of Soviet Jewish emigration and settled in Los Angeles.

His first job in Los Angeles was in the jewelry business, then in graphic design and journalism. He was a co-founder of An Almanac Panorama, which serves the Los Angeles Soviet community.

His first break in medallic art came in 1981 from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, for whom he designed the "Wall-Builders Medal" dedicated to those who provided funds for construction of the federation’s headquarters. Since then he has received a half dozen commissions from the Federation, including award medals that depicted the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah.

He has also designed commemorative medals depicting Maimonides, Sigmund Freud, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Simon Wiesenthal, Albert Einstein, Anatoly Sharansky and Elie Wiesel.

Shagin grew up knowing little about Judaism. He said his grandmother spoke Hebrew and Yiddish, and was brought up in the Jewish religious tradition, but not so his parents. They in turn kept Shagin "totally unaware of my Jewish culture. They wanted to protect me against anti-Semitism, especially in the 1950′s, in Stalin’s last years, when it was virtually impossible to teach a child anything Jewish. So it was a process of eventual assimilation into Soviet culture," he recalled.

"My artistic career didn’t allow me anything of the Jewish cultural values. So when I decided to enter the professional world of visual arts, I knew I would be constantly very closely watched by ideological bosses, by my artists’ union and by mint authorities." He said those restrictions combined with the Six-Day War inspired him and his friends to emigrate.

So how did he even begin to envision the giants of Jewish history?

"To bring me to a recovery of my Jewish roots, I spent a lot of time trying to reeducate myself, trying to learn more about Judaica, tradition and history," he said.

He enrolled in many local Jewish education programs. "I’m not very far away from the level of the beginner, but I felt like you don’t have to dig very deep," he said. "Your Jewish background eventually will show itself off."

Shagin said that in his work with Judaica subjects, "I always feel like I am enriching myself. Especially since I’m a great admirer of classical art, and I feel like the best Jewish artists in art history for me in my particular case are Michelangelo and Rembrandt, who weren’t Jewish. But they gave me a lot of inspiration in how can I visualize, materialize my visions for Jewish history and Judaica subjects."

The Constitution medals were designed in consultation with New York Times numismatic editor Ed Reiter. A cast bronze example of the drum medal, of approximately two by three inches, costs $87. The medal is hand-finished, numbered and personally singed.

The medal portraying the signers of the Constitution is round, about two-and-a-half inches in diameter, and weighing five ounces in pure silver. This medal is available in both proof-like and antique-finish forms, costing $115 each.

Shagin has also designed a sepia-ink litho print of a group of Constitutional Convention delegates, priced at $50. A set of the litho-print, bronze medal and one of the silver medals costs $200. Each medal is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by Shagin. Orders and inquiries should be sent to Shagin, 1319 Havenhurst Drive, Suite 1, Los Angeles, CA 90046.

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