Siberia: In the Eyes of Russian Photographers

Reviewed by John McIntyre

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In early February 2014, a man shot and killed a nun and a churchgoer at a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Sakhalin, a remote island off Russia’s eastern coast which is roughly considered part of Siberia. Six others were wounded in the attack. Follow-up stories in the days after the shooting were limited. There was no dissection of the shooter’s motives or larger cultural tensions which the event might have exacerbated. Under normal circumstances, I would likely have noted the news briefly as it scrolled across the news ticker at the bottom of the screen and forgotten it as a blip on the radar, a flukish, violent act in a setting so vague and distant that further reporting would only demonstrate how little Americans know of the region.


It’s this sense of remoteness and unknowability that editor Leah Bendavid-Val sets out to address in Siberia: In the Eyes of Russian Photographers. “Most photographs of Siberia that we see in the West are by non-Russians,” Bendavid-Val writes, “and these pictures by Americans and Western Europeans have shaped our thoughts and opinions of Siberia.” The cultural artifacts in so many of these photos—the clothing, architecture, hairstyles—defy the viewer to locate them in time, a factor which no doubt encourages viewers from outside to speculate that the residents of Siberia are, or were, backward, or at least delayed in receiving and embracing the latest styles and trends. We could impute simplicity to their lifestyles, or scoff at the relative material poverty, but the scope of images presented here shows just how misguided such an outlook would be.

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Siberia in the Eyes of Russian Photographers rests on an apparently programmatic foundation. Bendavid-Val organizes these photos in a handful of distinct periods, including an exploration of the striking visual and cultural likenesses between Siberia and the American West. A section on prison life, complete with late-19th century images of inmates on Sakhalin Island and insights on Dostoevsky’s time there, marks another high point. There’s also the story of “notorious criminal Sonya Golden-Hand,” and Chekhov’s assessment of her faded charms. She was “a small, skinny, already graying woman with a crumpled, old-womanish face.” The particulars of his report are confirmed by the photo on the following page.


But Bendavid-Val shines brightest in the sections on Socialist Realism and the realist photography that emerged in resistance to government-imposed aesthetic guidelines. She acknowledges the difficulty of absolutely distinguishing a Socialist Realist photograph by appearance alone: “Subjects are staged and shot from below in heroic poses. But the Socialist Realists also produced simpler, looser compositions—humble, satisfied people on the streets of towns and cities.” These latter images are highlights from the section, like Viktor Akhlomov’s deep focus black-and-white shot of men and women on the fringe of a construction site in Komsomol in 1970, walking beneath an overlay emblazoned with Lenin’s image. On the following page, Yury Krivonsov captures Lower Amur village circa 1964 from atop a slight slope. The image takes in several rows of modest houses and a dozen villagers, scattered casually along the length of the street. It wouldn’t be entirely out of place with stills from Béla Tarr’s film, Sátántangó, nor does it feel particularly devoted to illuminating the glories of the communist state.

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The section on realism entitled, “Pictures for the Drawer,” suggests photographers from the latter stages of the Soviet era working with the same intent and engendering the same frisson that writers producing samizdat texts must have felt. These images defied the government prescription for the photographic arts. There appears to be overlap between these shots and the Socialist Realist images, although the realist work adjusts the frame just enough to show the viewer what lies outside the carefully-managed images of the Socialist Realist period. Some of the absolute finest shots in this regard are from Evgeny Ivanov’s series, “Panoramas from the Lives of Veterans of the Great Patriotic War.” Ivanov captures aging military veterans in full regalia, their chests lined with medals. Yet instead of placing the veterans at the center of the frame, we see them in mundane, sometimes unkempt domestic surroundings. Though the soldier standing to the right of the frame, wearing his dress uniform and hat retains the dignity the cut of his clothes afford him, the foodstuffs arrayed on the counter to the left of the frame, and the reproduction Mona Lisa leaned against a packed bookshelf reveal much about the larger circumstances of his life. The same is true of the man in another shot, seated on the sofa with his wife and her cane. His hair is receding and their bodies appear to have thickened with age. A young man off to one side, slightly nearer the camera and dressed casually, is making a phone call. A Socialist Realist depiction of their life would’ve automatically trimmed the young man from the photo, but here he shares the frame. He is active, while they sit for the photo, passive. Another particularly memorable image by Vladimir Sokolayev depicts a father carrying his daughter across a flooded street after a summer downpour in June of 1984 while passengers aboard the bus they’ve just left appear to consider whether they can cross safely. As pure photography, none of the realist images are revelatory, but with their full context, they are arresting.


The same is true of the post-realist section, which Bendavid-Val presents as evidence of contemporary photographers “imagining Siberia.” These are more fanciful in their use of light and color, and in some cases, in terms of the comfort and demeanor of the people in the pictures. It rounds out an expansive view of the region, one ample enough to reorient Western viewers’ understanding of a vast land we can hopefully begin to view as more than “daunting and inhospitable.”

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Leah Bendavid-Val, Ed., Siberia: In the Eyes of Russian Photographers, (Prestel, 2013)


Images: Cover and interior of Siberia: In the Eyes of Russian Photographers