60 Years of Russian Photography

By most estimates, Joseph Stalin was responsible for the deaths of at least 20 million people; some put the number as high as 40 million or more. His purges, forced famines, executions, imprisonments, exiles and other atrocities devastated the people of the Soviet Union. Uncle Joe was an equal-opportunity murderer — whether he was starving millions of Ukrainians to death or taking out members of his inner circle, it didn't seem to make much difference to him. He exceeded Hitler's mind-numbing death toll, and it is believed he was ramping up his own campaign of genocide specifically targeted against Soviet Jews when he died in 1953.

Talking about Stalin's impact on photography can seem pretty trivial in light of horrors like these. But it's yet another example of how his iron control over Soviet society extended everywhere; photography was a useful propaganda tool for the dictator. "After Stalin, 'The Thaw,' The Re-emergence of the Personal Voice (Late 1940s-1970s)" at Williams Tower is one of three shows in FotoFest's 2012 Biennial that focus on contemporary Russian photography from the late 1940s through the present day — from the USSR and Stalin to Russia and Putin. The exhibitions were curated by Evgeny Berezner, head of the "In Support of Photography in Russia" Project of The Iris Foundation, Moscow; Natalia Tarasova, a writer and cultural affairs consultant for the same project; and Irina Chmyreva, Senior Researcher at the Russian Academy of Fine Arts.

You won't see anything documenting Stalin's atrocities in "After Stalin," but what you will see are images of the USSR as he imagined it, taken in the dictator's waning days. Consult the FotoFest exhibition catalog to see examples of the glorified and retouched images of smiling collective farmers or heroically toiling factory workers, classic Stalin-era images. In looking at these sorts of images, you'd think the Russian avant-garde and its innovative approach to photography had never existed. The only vestiges of the period remaining during Stalin-era photography, as the catalog points out, are the dramatic upward camera angles. They are used to glorify the Worker — as an icon of labor, not as an individual.

The early images at Williams Tower retain similar elements of idealized illustration. Emmanuil Evzerikhin's dramatic photo of a 1950 parade celebrating the October Revolution shows the obligatory columns of soldiers lined up, about to march through Red Square in a display of military might in front of the Kremlin — and Lenin's mausoleum. In the distance are the onion domes of St. Basil's cathedral, signifying the ancient culture of Russia; the cathedral was forcibly secularized after the revolution. You see a row of factory smokestacks, partially obscured by St. Basil's, belching clouds into the sky, a visible reminder of the USSR's glorification of industrial might.

Compared with the parade scene, Igor Gavrilov's image from 20 years later, Everything Is for Sale (1970), is positively heretical — a one-way ticket to the gulag. (I'm thinking the title is a recent addition.) With Khrushchev and his denunciation of Stalin, individuals slowly began expressing themselves more and the goals of the state less. Garilov's image was shot from a vantage point high on a shelf of metal busts of Lenin and looking out over the fur hat-clad shoppers below. The rows of mass-produced Lenin statues for sale present the leader and his ideology as a cheap commodity being retailed to the masses.

At first glance, I thought Alexander Abaza's 1973 photograph was a still from Elvis Presley's 1957 Jailhouse Rock. Despite its bureaucratic title, Builders Constructing an Iron Mill, the Azov Plan, the City of Zhdanov, South of Moscow, Abaza's stark black silhouettes of workers laboring in a grid of steel posts is a wonderful, graphically powerful image. Elvis's records weren't even released in the USSR until the '80s, and one also wonders if the photo's Jailhouse similarity is a coincidence or a sly allusion to a film seen illicitly by the photographer. In any case, to American eyes, it resembles a commie-cool version of the film still, with the decadent western icon of the rock star replaced by the strength and self-possession of the ironworker.

An image like Eduard Musin's 1969 Mowers from the Vologda Region, Northern Russia is no idealized or promotional image of rural laborers. We see these very elderly people as individuals, sharpening their scythes to cut wheat in what looks like a medieval scene — albeit one captured during the Cold War. They are cutting the crops the same way Russian serfs did for centuries. In the 19th century, an estimated 50 percent of the 40 million Russian peasants were actually serfs. Serfdom was a system that bound peasants to the land, enslaved to landowners. It was ended in 1861. "The Thaw" has a wealth of strong work like this that also offers glimpses into the former USSR.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer