Revolutsiia! Demonstratsiia! The (Continuing) Influence of Soviet Revolutionary Photography

In conjunction with the annual Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies Convention and the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the Art Institute of Chicago’s current exhibition “Revolutsiia! Demonstrtsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test” provides a superb look into the visual and material culture of the Russian Revolution and the artistic developments up until the 1930s. So much of the revolutionary art and design of this period is bound to photography. The fervor of the revolution created a new visual reality in conjunction with the ideological and political paradigm shift. Visual innovations in what is commonly referred to as the Soviet “avant-garde,” (though these modernist trends were also present in other European art movements at the time), were claimed by Soviet photographers as unique to their past and continued to inform photography, photojournalism, and photographic theory for the next 40-50 years particularly in the RSFSR, but also in the Soviet Republics.

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 1.01.38 PM.png
Aleksandr Rodchenko, Cover for Novyi lef (New Left), No. 5 1927

Many of the photographs included in the “Revolutsiia! Demonstratsiia!” exhibition were shot by photographers who were associated with either of two sparring photography groups in the early Soviet period. In the 1920s and 1930s, the photography section of the group Oktiabr was led largely by Aleksandr Rodchenko but Gustav Klutsis, Eleazar Langman, Dmitri Debabov, and Boris Ignatovich identified with the group. The ROPF (Union of Russian Proletarian Photographers) was spearheaded by Leonid Mezhericher, Arkadii Shaikhet, Semyon Friedland, Mark-Markov-Grinberg and Maks Alpert and favored “straightforward, supposedly unmanipulated reportage” but also had aesthetic aspirations.  Though both groups were committed to documentary representation, they differed in their methodological approach to documentary composition.[1] The work of Oktiabr was based “on fragmentation and they viewed reality as a disconnected and puzzling space” while the ROPF “leaned toward whole images and saw the world as a concrete and continuous entity.”[2]  Aesthetic differences between the two groups stemmed from fundamentally different ideas about the purpose of the camera. Mark Markov-Grinberg’s main objection to Oktiabr was that form and style overtook content in their photographs. “Chasing after the shot dominated content,” he said. “We, in the opposite group, photographed for a reason, for a purpose. Art for Art’s sake is nothing…”  It would appear that modernist trends in photography disappeared as a result of editorial decisions at newspapers and journals, and the arrest and execution of prominent former ROPF and Oktiabr associates in the Terror of the late 1930s, rather than the apparent dissolution of the groups themselves.

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 1.05.33 PM.png
Eleazar Langman, Toothbrush, 1930-1931

In the 1950s and 1960s, the history of modernist Soviet photography was rewritten by (largely Russian) cultural and art historians. This was in part a process of reclaiming that which was excised from national and all-Union culture by Stalinist policies, and could be considered a redressing of Leninism as a means of atoning for the crimes and excesses of Stalinism – which occurred in many social, cultural and political forms. The abrupt liquidation of modernist trends in photography, and visual and material culture generally, or rather, photographer’s and critic’s perceived truncation of the evolution of Soviet avant-gardes, led to a reevaluation of the historical and cultural value of early Soviet photography. In the 1950s and 1960s though, the rewriting of this history tended not to focus on the differences between individual artists and artistic groups but instead presented the multiple Russian avant-gardes as stylistically and ideologically uniform and glossed over differing ideas about the social utility of Soviet art or, for photographers, the express purpose of photography within the Soviet context.

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 1.06.06 PM.png
Arkadii Shaikhet, New Apartment Buildings in Moscow. Stairwell from Above, 1928

This glaring omission, collapsing conflicting versions of modernist styles and philosophy into one collective, unified group came from Stalinist policies: In reevaluating modernist trends in photography, critics unquestioningly accepted the Stalinist government’s declaration of a unified photographic community. In practice, this declaration, that aesthetic differences between groups had been resolved, was absolutely false: while Oktiabr and the ROPF were officially disbanded, the dissolution of their loose collectives had little impact on individual style.  The 1935 Exhibition of the Masters of Soviet Photography contained 450 works, many of which were included in personal exhibitions of former ROPF and Oktiabr members. While the exhibition was advertised as evidence of the termination of the quarreling groups, the images included in the exhibition did not attest to ideological and aesthetic unification of the groups.

The Revolutsiia! Demonstratsiia! exhibition shows how photography was just one part of the Revolution in visual culture and objects that occurred between the 1910s-1930s, including book, theatre and industrial design, posters, architecture and so on. Like in other artistic genres, modernist photography was reevaluated in the cultural Thaw. What is interesting, however, in this reevaluation and reinstitution, was that critics’ publications accepted the collapsing of modernist groups into a single style without much in the way of introspection. Additionally and critically, modernist styles became the focal and reference point for socialist realist artistic and photojournalistic images simultaneously – absorbing and nullifying the contradictory ideological frameworks put forth by ROPF and Oktiabr photographers. In doing so, photography theory in the post-war and late Soviet periods was plagued by contradictions from collapsing diametrically opposed ideas about what was “Soviet” about Soviet photography.

Nevertheless, the specter of Russian modernist art continues to inspire current visual artists, most notably Mikhail Karasik whose lithograph images and book designs incorporate photomontage and elements of Suprematism. Despite being only a small part of Soviet modernist visual culture, modernist Soviet photography holds a lasting impact on subsequent generations of Soviet and Russian artists,  demonstrating its visual potency.

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 1.01.45 PM.png
Mikhail Karasik, Homage to Constructivism, 2012

[1] Leah Bendavid-Val, Propaganda and Dreams; photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US, (Zurich; Edition Stemmle, 1999), 37.

[2] Margarita Tuptisyn, The Soviet Photograph 1924-1937, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 67.


Why Gender Matters in Soviet Photography Clubs

Screen Shot 2017-10-21 at 2.02.37 PM.png
Members of the Riga Camera Club, Zenta Dzividzinzka Center, Leonis Balodis, 1970

Photography in the Soviet Union was a largely male-dominated endeavor. From artists to photojournalists and amateur photographers, the number of women who participated in the medium in public is staggeringly low. Article 119 of the 1936 constitution (amended in 1944 and replaced only in 1977) afforded all Soviet citizens the right to rest and leisure: “The right to rest and leisure is ensured by the reduction of the working day to seven hours for the overwhelming majority of the workers, the institution of annual vacations with full pay for workers and employees and the provision of a wide network of sanatoria, rest homes and clubs for the accommodation of the working people.”

For the majority of Soviet women, however, this equal right to leisure was not reflected in reality. The double burden of paid work coupled with domestic tasks meant that women had substantially less access to leisure time, particularly if they were married with children. This burden did not decrease with age as many grandmothers lived with their children and cared for their grandchildren and any extraneous domestic tasks.  Even today, the Telegraph reports that in the developed world, men enjoy on average 30 to 50 minutes more leisure time per day than women (though the figures do not include the Russian Federation).[1] Despite the initial goal of gender equality in the Revolutionary and NEP era Soviet Union, the Party and government reinforced traditional gender roles for the majority of the Soviet period. As a result, it’s likely that Soviet men experienced substantially more leisure time than women and the domestic division of labor weighed heavily on women who were encouraged to both work outside of the home while also performing the majority of domestic chores.

A poll of 1,800 Russian adults published by the news outlet TASS earlier this month reveals some statistics that reinforce traditional gender norms: 54% of those polled believed men should be the primary breadwinner, while only 1% conceded that women could fulfill this roll. Only 43% believed that both men and women should work. Interestingly, 74% stated that married men and women should share housework equally, while 84% stated that both mother and father should be involved in raising their children.[2] But this is perception, rather than an actuality. Many studies have shown that perceptions of egalitarian division of domestic labor differ from reality.[3] Similarly, Małgorzata Mikucka has written about the disparity between domestic chores in Eastern Europe and Post-Socialist countries, suggesting that Soviet era forced employment of women could account for the continued inequality.[4] 

Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 11.10.37 PM.png
Zenta Dzividzinska, Self-Portrait, 1968

This is one way of explaining the lack of women involved in photography clubs. Zenta Dzividzinska was a photographer, graphic designer and member of the Riga Camera Club. In addition to the disparity of available leisure time, some of Dzividzinska’s work was ridiculed by male club members because it didn’t depict women’s bodies in ways that the male club members deemed appropriate or “beautiful.” According to her daughter, art historian Alise Tifentale, this was one of the reasons her foray into art photography was short-lived, mostly taking place between 1964 and 1969. Dzividzinska’s work largely portrays the everyday life of average Soviet women in the Latvian countryside. Their worth was not determined by traditional male concepts of beauty or femininity. Rather, Dzividzinska’s representations of women focus on other aspects of personhood, particularly maternity. Her depictions of the unglamorized female form as beautiful but also utilitarian, in contrast to sexualized and glamourous male depictions of women’s bodies, were not appreciated by male photographers.

Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 11.10.25 PM.png
Zenta Dzividzinska, Untitled VI, 1968

To this day, this attitude towards depictions of women persists in the former Soviet Union and is perpetuated by women as well as men. It is blatantly obvious in everything from advertising to the selfies shared by women looking for flats or flatmates on Facebook and Vkontakte (the Russian version of Facebook), a very strange phenomenon that I can’t understand as anything other than attracting a roommate or apartment based in part on their looks. It’s symptomatic of what society values about women, and concepts about the function of women, and what the culture values about women. This is not unique to the former Soviet Union by any stretch, and male-dominated concepts of femininity and women’s bodies continue to dictate what images circulate in the public sphere. Ultimately, while Dzividzinska’s work is now admired by artists and critics, it was not embraced by her peers in the photography club.

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 11.23.38 AM.png
Zenta Dzividzinaka, Untitled X, 1968


[1]Special Focus: Measuring Leisure in OECD Countries,


[3] Wunderink S and M. Niehoff. Division of household labour: Facts and judgements. Economist (Leiden)1997;145(3): 399–419. Gager, CT. The role of valued outcomes, justifications, and comparison of referents in perceptions of fairness among dual-earner couples. J Fam Issues. 1998; 19(5): 622–48.

[4] Mikucka, Małgorzata. “Division of Household Labor between Spouses: How Do Central and Eastern Europe Differ from the West?“ International Journal of Sociology, Vol. 39, No. 1, “Across Nations”: Trust, Fear, and Inequality: Analyses of the European Social Survey (Spring, 2009), pp. 76-94.



“Dear Editorial Collective:” Amateur Letters to Sovetskoe foto

I find the published amateur letters to the editorial collective at Sovetksoe foto, a common feature of the journal, fascinating. These letters are not unproblematic sources, because of course they were carefully selected from thousands of letters sent to the editorial staff. But, if anything, they reveal the narrative of amateurism that the editors at Sovetskoe foto wished to portray and the motivations of those sending them.

There is no evidence to suggest that the editorial board distorted the content of the letters it published apart from considerations of length and clarity. For the purpose of this blog post, what people chose to write about was shaped by their knowledge and perspective of the recent, in the Soviet case violent, past. An outlandish example, which I will nevertheless make for the sake of illustrating my point: letters publicly criticizing the Soviet government about the lack of available camera equipment in the height of the Terror were unlikely.

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 3.16.57 PM.png

What is interesting about amateur letters to Sovetskoe foto, given Stalin’s recent death, was amateurs’ willingness not only to criticize, but to identify themselves in their criticism (though it is unclear if they used their real names), and further, for the journal to publish these letters. There was no guarantee that the repressive measures of Stalinism would not be reinstated. Not all letters were critical, and those that did contain criticism were not inflammatory diatribes but rather calls to action that included improving access to chemicals, calls for better education etc. Nevertheless, from the first year after the journal was reestablished, amateur reader responses indicate broad dissatisfaction with the resources available to amateurs not only outside of Moscow, but in the capital city as well. The first complaint letter, written by Moscow amateurs V. Kulik and M. Borido voices a number of concerns, particularly the number of photography developing laboratories in Moscow, of which, at the time, there were six.[1] They complain about the length of time it takes laboratories to develop photographs (in late summer and early autumn it could take up to 3 weeks for photographs to be developed), the processing equipment available at the facilities, and the training of technicians. They expect that the upcoming 6th World Festival of Youth and Students will completely overload the labs. The authors state a that there was a disregard for amateur photographers, and more crucially a disregard for the most basic needs for all those involved in handicrafts:

“In the interests of tens of thousands of Moscow-based amateur photographers (and not only those in Moscow), the work of the existing laboratories should be improved. They must be provided with high quality chemicals and paper. It is necessary that these laboratories reduce the time it takes to complete orders and improve their services for amateur photographers.”[2]

This letter reveals a few clues as to the background and motivation of its authors. First, Kulik and Borido are apparently not very proficient amateurs as they are concerned about how lab technicians are developing photographs: were they skilled enough to develop their own images it is unlikely that they would have encountered the poor service at the three photography labs they mention in their letter. Second, they reference designs for a Moscow Central Photographic Factory, which would centralize “the separate workshops and laboratories” across the city and improve the overall quality of development facilities. To my knowledge, this plan never materialized, but it indicates a desire for further collaboration and consolidation of amateur photography. Finally, they draw attention to the World Festival of Youth and Students, and specifically that they were concerned about how foreigners would perceive the Soviet Union based on the lack of photo finishing services.

Another brief example from the same issue of the journal was written by V. Polikanov, resident of L’vov. His antipathy was specifically aimed at the director of the regional House of Folk Art, T. Poroshina, who was promoted to the position in 1955. She was refusing the L’vov photo club, which was founded in 1954, access to meeting and exhibition space which was granted by the previous director “Comrade” Volkov. She considered the activities of the club to be illegal because “the charter on the Houses of Folk Art said nothing about photography.”[3] The club appealed to the regional Department of Culture for help, but the department deferred to the director’s decision, stating that the photography club should be based at a local Palace of Culture, even though, according to Polikanov, this institution did not exist in L’vov.[4] As a result, the club was liquidated. Polikanov lamented the negative impact this had on the community because the club had significantly improved the skill of local amateurs who in turn became correspondents for the regional press and whose images had been included in All-Union magazines.

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 3.17.15 PM.png

Poroshina’s literal interpretation of the charter appears as an example of stereotypical Soviet bureaucratic ineptitude. There may be a number of reasons why she denied the club access to the House of Folk Art: she may be a stickler for the rules, she may have had disagreements with the previous director and therefore chose to reverse his decisions. Perhaps members of the photography club were particularly unruly or loud; the possibilities of her motivations are endless. Nevertheless, Polikonov (and thousands of other amateur photographers) trusted the editors of Sovetskoe foto enough to write them about this disagreement and expected them to intervene on the club’s behalf.

For amateur photographers, letters to Sovetskoe foto’s editorial collective reveal the ubiquity of criticism directed at local institutions and the perceived deficiencies of the current system. In publishing these letters, the editors knowingly disseminated and solicited this information from readers.

[1]Kulik and Borido mention three laboratories in particular, one at Metrostroevskaya Ul. 6 (now Ostozhenka Ul.), the second at Arbat 41, and the third in the Tagansky District.

[2] V. Kulik and M. Borido, “Luchshe udovletvoriat’ zaprosy fotoliubitelei,” Sovetskoe foto no. 6 (1957): 75.

[3] V. Polikanov, “Vozobnovit’ rabotu L’vovskogo fotokluba,” Sovetskoe foto no. 6 (1957): 76-77.

[4]  The Hotkevich Palace of Culture was completed in 1934, it is unclear why Polikanov did not attempt to move club activities to this location.

Sites of Violence: Moscow’s Monument to Kalashnikov

Screen Shot 2017-09-24 at 4.01.46 PM.png
Moscow’s Kalashnikov Monument

I tend to shy away from publicly asserting my opinions about contemporary Russian politics and policies generally, because I am an outsider, albeit one whose ideas and opinions are informed by personal and professional interests. My lack of involvement is not indicative of my particular views, but rather a recognition that my participation could carry very significant professional consequences. This week’s blog, in contrast to previous posts, is about how memories of the Soviet past are shaped and represented by memorial statues, not only geographically, but also by recent political and cultural events. While not explicitly about photography, the number of locals and tourists photographing these memorials certainly plays a role in how the Soviet Union is perceived and how the current regime is representing the Soviet past. In writing this post, I am attempting to abstain from propagating my personal views, but rather presenting how recent events relate to that which the current regime chooses to memorialize.

Screen Shot 2017-09-24 at 4.00.47 PM.png
Business Center behind Kalashnikov Memorial

At Tuesday’s unveiling of the Kalashnikov monument in the Tverskoi District of Moscow, an area previously characterized by memorials and museums dedicated to Russian and Soviet literary giants Pushkin, Bulgakov, and Mayakovsky, there was not a particularly large crowd. Located in front of what I consider to be a neo-Stalinist business center (inspired by Stalinist or Socialist Classicism), the monument is actually two memorials. The first is a 26-foot statute of Kalashnikov cradling an AK-47. The second, is a depiction of St. George slaying the dragon, a common subject of Russian orthodox iconography, with bas-relief assault rifles. This second monument has been somewhat embarrassing, and on Friday, the city was compelled to remove a portion of the relief because it was revealed that it depicted not an AK-47, but a Sturmgewehr 44, a weapon used by Nazi soldiers at the end of World War II and created by German arms designer Hugo Schmeisser. The sculptor of the Kalashnikov monument, Salavat Shcherbakov, has admitted that the mistake was essentially the poor result of a google search but, as one of my friends noted, it is almost a Freudian slip given that there is some speculation whether it was Schmeisser, not Kalashnkov, who actually designed the AK-47. In 1945 Schmeisser was one of 16 German weapons designers “evacuated” by the Red Army and forced to work at the Izhevsk Machine Building Plant where Kalashnikov developed the AK-47 in 1946. Schmeisser was allowed to return to Germany only in 1952 and died the following year.

Screen Shot 2017-09-24 at 4.01.09 PM.png
Original Monument with Sturmgewehr 44
Screen Shot 2017-09-24 at 4.59.26 PM.png
Monument with Sturmgewehr 44 removed

Shcherbokov was already a controversial figure before mislabeled images on the internet led him astray. He was also the artist behind the divisive 55-foot statue of Vladimir the Great that stands just outside the Kremlin. This statue was originally meant to stand at the top of Sparrow Hills, with Prince Vladimir’s back to Moscow State University, towering over the city from one of the highest vantage points in the metropolis – reminiscent of the positioning of the Art Deco Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. The presence of Prince Vladimir in Moscow, however, deepened Russia’s already fractious relationship with Ukraine: Vladimir ruled Kievan Rus from Kiev, not Moscow, from 980 to 1015 and was descended from Prince Rurik who established himself in Novgorod in 862. Critics of the statue see this as a sort of cultural appropriation of non-Russian heritage, which is part of a larger pan-Slavic project that hierarchically situates Russians as a first among equals, similar to Russian’s status within the Soviet Union (in truth, Prince Vladimir and the entire Rurik dynasty were neither Russian nor Ukrainian, but Vikings who settled in Rus, a geographical area that is split between contemporary Russia and Ukraine). Vladimir, for opponents of the statue’s presence in Moscow, belongs in Kiev and to Ukrainian history.

Screen Shot 2017-09-24 at 4.17.36 PM.png
Photograph of Vladimir the Great by Natalia Kolesnikova, AFP

Salavat Shcherbakov has admitted that the inclusion of the AK-47 in Kalashnikov’s hands is meant as an identifier: people may not know to whom the memorial is dedicated in the absence of the automatic weapon. This may be true. But Soviet era monuments in the Tverskoi District do not incorporate such clues to identify their heroes: Neither the Mayakovsky statue nor the original Pushkin statue, erected in 1956 and repositioned in 1937 respectively, and both a short walk away from Kalashnikov’s monument, use books, papers, pens, quills etc. to demonstrate how these men contributed to Russian history and culture (though Pushkin is universally recognizable among Russians). Shcherbakov said that his design was representative of “the eternal struggle between good and evil,” describing the AK-47 as a “weapon for good.”

Screen Shot 2017-09-24 at 4.20.27 PM.png
Puskin Statue on Pushkin Square, Photograph from the Moscow Times

The use of an object of violence to recognize Kalashnikov’s place in Russian history is interesting. First, Kalashnikov himself had a fraught relationship with his creation, at times saying that he was unashamed of the mass destruction it was capable of, at others questioning how he, as an Orthodox Christian, could have produced such an invention. Second, and in contrast to Shcherbakov’s “weapon for good” assertion, Russian journalist Oleg Kashin revealed to reporters from DW that “In today’s Russia it has become entirely normal to speak of war not as a tragedy but rather as good advertising for Russian arms.” As portrayed by the statue, the AK-47 is not an object of destruction, but instead cradled as if it is the child of its the creator, not an object that, at its very core, is destructive. It is represented as a source of pride.

The 35 million-ruble ($538,000) Kalashnikov monument was inaugurated by the Minister of Culture, the Moscow Mayor, and Father Konstantin of the Russian Orthodox Church. This is of course indicative of the closeness between the Orthodox Church and the current Russian government, which is not particularly revealing. Nevertheless, that representatives of the church would agree to bless the statue, given its content, outwardly seems to condone the use of firearms. While Russian gun control laws are relatively strict, supporting an object of violence is unsurprising given recent legal developments, which impact women and minorities. There are a growing number of vocal and dangerous far-right nationalists which have been allowed to thrive and promote similar views as the Alt-right in the United States. In 2014, the Russian bill “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for the Denial of Traditional Family Values,” or what has been called the “Gay Propaganda Law,” was unanimously approved by the State Duma. Not only does this law discriminate against the LGBTQ community, but the law is vague enough that simply providing information about STD protection to a minor could be interpreted as a federal crime. It also further stigmatizes the already marginalized group of AIDS victims and AIDS prevention workers. In February of this year, Putin signed into law a bill that decriminalized first offenses of domestic violence that do not result in serious injuries that require hospital treatment. These laws and nationalist groups promote violence – and the decision to erect a statue in the center of the capital city to Kalashnikov, whether deliberately or coincidentally, further contributes to its normalization.

Historically, the public squares of the Tverskoi District have been sites of protest but also sites of violence. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Mayakovsky and Pushkin squares were the gathering places of unofficial poets and political dissidents, but also the site of their subjugation and arrest. In June, Navalny’s peaceful anti-corruption protest in Moscow resulted in the arrest of over 700 activists, including Navalny himself, and the protest was surrounded by armed authorities whose very presence was harassing and intimidating. Though serious violence was, on the whole, avoided, the potential for violence was palpable and the tension was tangible. The following week the whole event was repeated in a second wave of protests. From now on, if and when protesters are confronted by armed police and OMON officers as they demonstrate in the Tvereskoi District, they will also be under the watchful eye of Kalashnikov and his invention.

Kalashnikov himself did not live in Moscow, as some critics of the statue have been quick to point out. But the overwhelming response from Muscovites, at least those willing to talk to reporters, has been that of approval. Similarly, what is surprising is the number of young and middle-aged citizens who support the statue and are willing to share their varying ideas about what it represents. All of this is to say that, in honoring this aspect of the Soviet past, the Russian government has memorialized, accepted, and normalized this specter of violence. Purportedly, every fifth firearm in the world is a Kalashnikov and in honoring and glorifying its invention, the Russian government is not only tolerating but promoting the violent ends for which the weapon was created.

Regulating Photography Clubs and The Lithuanian SSR Society of Art Photography

The regulation of amateur photographic images in the Soviet Union was a perpetual concern for photography critics. The issue of amateur expertise was a central source of apprehension: small clubs were usually geographically distant from major cities, which meant that access to the necessary supplies were less frequent (it was not cameras that were in short supply, but rather paper and chemicals). Though, that which was available was not always desirable and played a role in stylistic and creative choices. For instance, Aleksandras Macijauskas admitted that the “unusual angles, diagonal perspective, and the grotesque-looking faces” of his subjects were because used an extra wide-angle lens.[1]  There were no other lenses available for him to purchase. More problematic for critics at the time, however, was that small groups lacked guidance, both technically and aesthetically. On their own, small clubs would be harmless, if misguided: but often small clubs would provide illustrations for the local press, pamphlets and factory wall newspapers. It was the dissemination of these unregulated (or poorly regulated) images that plagued critics and the editors at Sovetskoe foto.

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 12.27.46 PM.png
Aleksandras Macijauskas, In the Market, 1972

This was less of a problem for larger clubs, but club leadership remained a concern. In most clubs, a board elected by the members of the group adopted a charter that defined the shape of club life and outlined the “rights” of the participants (rules for club exhibitions, rules for the future election of board members, etc.). Clubs held periodic meetings, usually once weekly or twice monthly, in which members discussed images and participated in practical exercises. These meetings culminated in an annual or bi-annual exhibitions. Many clubs defined their exhibitions as a sort of “propaganda photography,” which provided an “aesthetic education” for an uneducated audience.[2] If a club was mismanaged, or allowed for “slipshod snapshots” to be included in club exhibitions, this incorrect propaganda would spread to other club members, the audience of the exhibition, etc. Similarly, in gathering like-minded individuals, large clubs had the potential to breed deviation from standard aesthetic conventions set by Sovetskoe foto and official photography publications. These fears were justifiable. For example: The art collective Vremia (Time) was founded by Kharkiv photo club members Jury Rupin and Evgeny Pavlov in 1971 and included Boris Mikhailov, Oleg Malevany, Gennady Tubalev, Aleksandr Suprun, Aleksandr Sitnichenko and Anatoly Makienko. Gunārs Binde and Jānis Gleizds, members of the Riga photo club produced experimental images that, at the time, would have been considered pornographic. Their descent, if you will, into experimental, unofficial and Sots art, was a direct result of their participation in amateur clubs.  Thus, the lack of official regulatory structures across the whole of the Soviet Union allowed for that which was most undesirable: the circulation of either deliberately or unintentionally anti-Soviet photographs.

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 1.04.39 PM.png
Boris Mikhailov, from the series Superimpositions, 1960-1970
Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 1.16.11 PM.png
Preparing for the exhibition Amber Lands in Šiauliai. Aleksandras Macijauskas, 1971

In Lithuania, the only republic to organize a photography union outside of the Journalists’ Union, the LSSR Society of Art Photography, or FMD, was founded by professional photojournalists and amateur photographers in October 1969. This regulatory organization developed as a response to the unique political situation in Soviet Lithuania, in part due to Antanas Sniečkus’ cautious promotion of national culture. Yet, this organization in and of itself was quite different from what many critics desired because it removed photography from its own independent categorization (by 1969 the general consensus amongst photography theorists was that photography occupied its own classification outside both art and photojournalism) and instead placed it under the ostensible control of bureaucratic institutions that “viewed art photography as merely a genre of photojournalism.”[3] And yet, on the surface, this model proved remarkably effective at resolving the complications voiced by critics. The FMD “was the only institution in Soviet Lithuania that specialized in the production and distribution of photography, as well as photographic education” and its “activity encompassed the creative work of professional and amateur photographers.”[4] Professional members of the Society received benefits much like members of other artistic unions, including a stipend that allowed them to independently fund their work without commissions or contracts. Each photograph that “was to be made public” was first reviewed by the Art Council of the FMD before any further evaluation was considered by censors, journal editors, and so forth.[5]

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 1.28.07 PM.png
Announcement of the Lithuanian SSR Exhibition of Amateur Photographers, 1977


[1] Vytautas Michelkevicius, “The Lithuanian SSR Society of Art photography (1969-1989): An Image Production Network,” Vilnius: Vilnius Academy of Arts Press, 2011, 111.

[2] . V. Stigneev, Fototvorchestvo Rossii: Istoriia, razviti i sovremennoe sostoianie fotoliubitel’stva, Moskva: “Planeta,” 40.

[3] Vytautas Michelkevicius, “The Lithuanian SSR Society of Art photography (1969-1989), 117.

[4] Ibid, 97.

[5] Ibid, 101.

Gunārs Binde and the Rīga Photo Club

The Photography Club “Rīga” was formed in 1962 by photographer Vilnis Folkmanis and a number of other photographers in the city. Prominent members included Gunārs Binde, Jānis Gleizds, Leonīds Tugaļevs, Vilhelms Mihailovskis, Valdis Brauns and Egons Spuris. Over the years, approximately 400 people from Rīga participated in the club in some way or another and organized exhibitions both in Latvia and abroad through their photo studio. In the mid-1970s, the club was awarded its first international grand prize at an exhibition in France, and the studio received at least one prize every year afterwards, either in the USSR, or in various exhibitions abroad. In the late 1980s the Rīga photography club also arranged lectures at local universities. Unsurprisingly, the majority of lectures were devoted to compulsory Marxist-Leninist aesthetics, but, according to one publication, the “students generally had a strong general knowledge of photography techniques and history.”[1]

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 2.48.51 PM.png
Gunārs Binde, The Beginning, 1967

Interestingly, archival sources indicate that organized amateur photography in Latvia began in 1957 as part of a directive from the USSR Ministry of Culture in Moscow, which stipulated that Latvian photographers should participate in an All-Union Exhibition dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution.[2] To participate in the All-Union Exhibition, each republic was required to hold their own local exhibition and the most “successful” photographs would then be submitted to the All-Union exhibition. The exhibition was held at the Latvian SSR Museum of Latvian and Russian Art (now the Latvian National Museum of Art) in Rīga and while not much is known about the participants, records show that the exhibition included 256 photographs.

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 2.01.34 PM.png
Gunārs Binde, Jealousy, 1965

Despite the top-down initiative which led to the establishment of photography clubs across Latvia (and the Soviet republics generally), my research indicates that many clubs were self-regulating and did not have strong ties to either central or local cultural authorities. The sheer number of clubs, as well as the varying skill levels of club participants, geographical location, and the size of the club meant that access to education, but also censorship, was uneven at best (fueling anxiety from photojournalists and photography critics, as I have discussed previously). By 1968 there were photo studios and clubs at the Palace of Culture of the State Electro-Technical Factory, the Tram and Trolleybus Administration, the Electro-Mechanical Technical College, the College of Building, the ‘17 June’ Factory, the Technical College of Cultural and Education Workers, the Liquor and Vodka Factory, the Musical Instruments Factory, the Club of Trading Workers, the Train Carriage Factory, and the Main Board of Pharmacies, to mention a few.[3]

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 1.59.51 PM.png
Gunārs Binde, Motherland, Oaks, 1957

Rīga, however, stood out due to its size and reputation for being “avant-garde” among Soviet photography clubs. This notoriety was largely due to Gunārs Binde’s work, which, in 1965, received the gold medal at the XXIX Salón Internacional de Arte Fotográfico in Argentina and was reprinted in countless journals in Latvia and across Eastern Europe. In many ways, Binde’s experimental photography is not a typical representation of the Rīga photo club in general, nor of photography in the Soviet Union as a whole, which plausibly is the reason why the club gained its “avant-garde” reputation. If one were to consider Soviet photography of the 1950s and 1960s as firmly oriented in a Modernist paradigm (which I would argue, was the case for many Soviet photographers and certainly the style promoted in the journal Sovetskoe foto), Binde’s images from the 1960s look more like a transition between, or rather, amalgamation of, Western Modernism and the developing Postmodernist Conceptualist and Sots-Art movements. This makes his notoriety within the contemporary Soviet context more puzzling, as Soviet non-conformist art was not recognized as “art” among cultural authorities. Perhaps, however, photography’s amorphous official categorization as a medium which was decidedly “not art” may have played a role in the success of Binde’s photographs.

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 2.03.38 PM.png
Gunārs Binde, Botticelli 71, 1970

[1] “Mākslas fotogrāfija,” Baltic Forums, vol. 2, (1985), p. 97.

[2] Order No. 467 issued by the Minister of Culture of the Latvian SSR Jānis Ostrovs on 29 May 1957. The State Archives of Latvia, 678. f., 2. apr.,160. l., 1.

[3] The State Archives of Latvia, 1583. f., 3. apr., 22. l., 15., 19., 23., 35., 42., 53., 72., 73., 112.

Aleksandr Saakov

Aleksandr Saakov (1937-2007) was from Tbilisi, Georgia and began working as a photographer in 1965 for the newspaper Georgian Youth (მოლოდიოჟ გრუზიი). He studied at the Tbilisi Institute of Foreign Languages and played drums in the institute’s vocal-instrumental ensemble, though a hand injury prevented him from pursuing a musical career. Instead he turned to photography as a creative outlet, and he came to be one of the most celebrated Georgian photographers of the late Soviet period. He worked for APN and TASS as a correspondent in Georgia, and his early work was featured in the Georgian newspaper Young Communist (ახალგაზრდა კომუნისტი) and the Georgian language edition of the All-Union newspaper Kommunist. His work was featured in numerous other Union-wide newspapers including Pravda, Komsomolskaia Pravda and Sovetskaia kul’tura, many illustrated journals (Sovetskii soyuz, Ogonek, Sovetskoe foto and Zhurnalist) and international magazines (Soviet Life, Life magazine, the German publication Quick, and Paris Match).

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 10.16.59 AM.png
Khevsurs, 1979

Saakov was an incredibly talented and prolific photojournalist and portrait photographer, which was noted by Soviet photography critics relatively early in his career. He was initially hired as a sports photographer where his images, contrary to most sports images at the time, captured the immense energy and complex emotions of the athletes he photographed. In 1967 his photograph of French actor Jean Vilar in the Jvari monastery was awarded the gold medal at the All-Union photography exhibition dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Soviet power. He submitted this image independently – his name was not selected for the list of approved submissions from photographers of the Journalists’ Union of Georgia. He was completely shocked when he read in Pravda that his image was awarded the medal. When he called the editorial office to confirm if he had won, the editor sternly (and rather comically) re-plied: “There are no mistakes in Pravda!”

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 10.17.19 AM.png
Tiresome Moments, 1966

Over the course of his career, Saakov’s work was awarded 120 medals and prizes from various republican, All-Union, and international photography exhibitions. In 1970, 1972 and 1974 his photographs were included in the annual album “100 Best Photographs of Europe.” Despite his early career as a sports photojournalist, Saakov preferred portrait, cityscape and landscape photography.

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 10.17.33 AM.png
From the Series Tbilisi Motives

Saakov’s photographs are part of Museum holdings and private collections in Georgia, Russia, USA, France, Germany, Argentina, and Israel. In the last two decades of his life he left photojournalism and worked as a freelance photographer. Like many Soviet photographers, he was partial to black-and-white photography, turning to color photographs in the 1990s. Throughout his career, despite further opportunities elsewhere, Saakov preferred to stay in Georgia. As he explained in one interview, he found it more interesting and rewarding to explore the nuances of his home. “A person should always be interested in the life and culture of his native city, country. I do not need to follow a subject, for example, like Nepal. Whatever I photograph there will only a be a “tourist’s” view… [Tbilisi] is enough at my age. Let the others go to Nepal …”

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 10.17.51 AM.png
Portrait of painter Lado Gudiashvili, 1978

Galina San’ko

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 3.52.06 PM.png
Teliatnitsa (Calf), 1955

Galina Zakharovna San’ko (also known as Galina Sankova or Galina Sankowa) was one of a handful of women photojournalists active in the Soviet Union, and one of even fewer Soviet women photojournalists who photographed the Second World War. She began working as a professional photojournalist in the 1930s, taking part in expeditions to the Arctic and the Far East.

During the war, she worked for “Front Ilustration” (Frontovaia Illustratratsiia) and photographed combat in Latvia, the battles of Kursk, Moscow, Stalingrad, the war against Japan on the Pacific front and the Nuremburg trials. She also trained as a nurse and supply truck driver: some sources indicate that she often postponed her responsibilities as a wartime correspondent to help bandage the wounded.  She was seriously injured twice during the war and was awarded the Order of the Red Star for her service as a photojournalist.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 3.51.23 PM.png
Eto ne dolzhno povtorit’sia (This should not happen again), 1941-1943

San’ko is perhaps best known for her photograph “Prisoners of Fascism,” depicting Russian children at a Finnish run transfer camp in Petrozavodsk. The image, which she captured in late June 1944, depicts young children stoically staring into the camera below a sign written in Finnish and Russian: Transfer camp. Entry to the camp and socializing through the fence are forbidden, violators will be shot. This image, however, was not published until 1966, when it appeared in the illustrated journal Ogoyek. Yet, the image depicting the liberation of the transfer camp was banned in the 1940s. Editors questioned why the Soviet children were not joyfully celebrating their release: “Where is their belief in victory? Where is the hatred of the invaders?” This attitude was indicative of the constraints placed on wartime photojournalists. As I have explained in previous posts, the desired wartime narrative the Soviet government and military was of victory over fascism, and images of genocide, grief and atrocity were, for all intents and purposes, unpublishable.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 3.50.22 PM.png
Yzkhniki fashizma (Prisoners of Fascism), 28-31 June 1944

20 years later, San’ko found one of the children from “Prisoners of Fascism” when she was on assignment in Petrozavodsk and photographed the now mother of two and member of the faculty of biology at the local university in “Twenty Years Later.”

When “Prisoners of Fascism” first appeared in Ogonek the photograph was not a part of a story, and was accompanied only by small text that included the title of the image and a short description explaining that the image was snapped twenty years before. That same year the image and “Twenty Years Later” received gold medals at the “Interpressphoto-66” exhibition in Moscow. It also received the grand prize at a Parisian exhibition in 1968.

After the war, she worked primarily for Ogonek. She died in Moscow in 1981. Her personal archive has been lost; magazine archives, museums and personal collections hold her remaining images.

Trouble in (a Worker’s) Paradise – Nudity and Eroticism in Soviet Photography

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 6.37.40 PM.png
Aleksandr Grinberg, Untitled, c. 1920s

Though illegal, in the late Soviet period, some amateur and semi-professional photographers pursued nude and erotic photography. This is not to imply that nude images were not available during the Stalinist period. The State Library’s Soviet era Erotica collection contains some 12,000 items from around the world, but contains few individual photographs and the majority of the collection was imported.[1] But the expansion of underground networks, the expansion of the second economy, and black market connections, coupled with the accessibility of cameras, certainly allowed for further exploration of erotic and pornographic photographs produced within the Soviet Union or smuggled in from abroad.

While the 19th century ushered in the development of erotic literature in Russia, the sexualized body in Russian and Soviet photography as a genre was never fully developed before the revolutions of 1917, nor after Stalin’s consolidation of power in 1928. Though the 1920s witnessed some experimentation with nudity and photography, as a result of the general liberalization of sexual politics, for the most part photographers of the period were disinterested in nudity as it had little to do with the revolutionary agenda of their work. Furthermore, as Eliot Borenstein noted, “pornography was at best a theoretical concept, the sort of thing found only in the decadent West, or, in a throwback to the previous century, a charge leveled at writers who broke with the accepted standards of decorum in terms of content and lexicon. Either there was no pornography at all, or the lack of an approved place for photography meant that any text with strong sexual content could be seen as phornographic.”[2] While members of the nomenklatura maintained access to pornography from abroad, it was illegal to possess or produce erotic images and literature and there was no distinction between artistic and mass-marketed erotica.[3]


Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 6.38.04 PM.png
Rimantas Dichavicius, Untitled,  c. 1970s.

For some scholars, nude or semi-nude bodies that appear in photographs, paintings and sculpture are bereft of all sensuality. According to Alexander Borovsky, the lack of sexuality of nudes and nakedness in Soviet art lies in “the existence of a particular Soviet ‘optics,’ or way of viewing things, derived from the prohibitions against individuality that permeated every aspect of Soviet life and culture.” In totalitarian art, the body, although possessing all the qualities of idealized corporeality, was utterly bereft of individuality.” [4] If Soviet “optics” accounted for the incorporeal nature of nudes in art in the late 1920s and 1930s, then the state was responsible for further de-sensualizing Socialist Realist art.[5] Even after Stalin’s death, nudity remained a contentious issue in all Soviet arts, and most, if any at all appeared in paintings rather than photographs. But amateur photography in the USSR especially in postwar times, was actively channeled to… areas of intimate life…Thus, the Soviet authorities unknowingly stimulated erotic photography.”[6] Some have described erotic “photography in the private sphere as ordinarily unartistic. But life under Soviet postwar socialism was so centered on cheap self-expression – gardening, knitting, poetry writing, and photography – that even among personal anonymous photographs of the Soviet era one comes across impressive artifacts focused on exalted symbols of the private: sex, eroticism, friendship, intimacy.” [7] The emergence of nudity in amateur and unofficial photography became a means not only of exploration of intimate private spaces, but tacit subversion of official culture. Nevertheless, in postwar photography, as in other media, Soviet erotica appears tame in comparison to Western pornographic literature, images, and films. This is perhaps unsurprising considering that the sexual revolutions that occurred across Europe and the United States in the 1960s did not penetrate the iron curtain until the 1980s-1990s. The majority was also oriented towards heterosexual men, and Sergei Merkurov’s 1931 “Erotic ABC” contains multiple images that do not conform to female heterosexuality but are oriented towards a male audience.

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 5.27.56 PM.png
Sergei Merkurov, Erotic ABC, 1931


Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 6.37.55 PM.png
Ain Kimber, Saturday at Summer Camp, 1962

Nevertheless, on occasion the journal Sovetskoe foto published nude photographs, but only in very specific contexts. Banya (sauna) and travel photographs represented the exception to the general rule against nude photography. Republican amateur photographers were also more comfortable shooting nude photographs. A short article about the Tallinn photography club included two nude photographs, one of pioneer youths bathing, though this image was not viewed as sexualized by editors. Instead the photograph of girls bathing was presented as a slice of life.

In working with images that were reproducible, and yet not frequently reproduced, unofficial photographers explored areas of visual culture which official photographers had been unable to investigate for decades. Yet by the mid-1960s, and certainly by the 1970s, professional, amateur and unofficial photographers were increasingly willing to explore the nude female form, despite the potential legal implications of their images.

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 6.38.26 PM.png
Victor Akhlomov , In Front of the Mirror, 1971

[1] Joy Neumeyer, in collaboration with The Moscow Times and The Guardian published an article about the collection in 2014:

[2] Eliot Borenstien, Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture, (Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY, 2007), 58.

[4]Alexander Borovsky, “Closer to the Body.” Beyond Memory: Soviet Non-conformist Photography and Photo-related Works of Art, ed. Diane Neumaier (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 80.

[5] Ibid, 80.

[6] Ekatrina Degot, “The Copy is the Crime: Unofficial Art and the Appropriation of Official Photography.” Beyond Memory: Soviet Non-conformist Photography and Photo-related Works of Art, 113.

[7] Ibid, 113.

Maks Al’pert, the Fotomaster

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 5.11.19 PM.png
Okuchka svekly, (Beetroot), 1941
Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 4.57.55 PM.png
Iosif Stalin (Portrait of Joseph Stalin), c. 1930s

Maks Vladimirovich Al’pert was born in Simferopol in 1899. He first worked as an assistant in a dress shop before becoming an assistant for a local photographer. He was called up for military duty in the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) in 1918. After demobilization, Al’pert began his career as a photojournalist at the Moscow based Rabochaia gazeta. Later in his career, he was employed by the agency Soyuzfoto, as a photographer and photography editor at the newspaper Pravda, the journal SSSR na stroike (USSR in Construction), the Russian news agency TASS and the Press Agency Novosti (APN). Between 1931 and 1932 he was a member of the Russian Association of Proletarian Photographers (ROPF), a group whose work emphasized the importance of the photograph as a document, as a means of capturing reality. The ROPF formed in opposition to the photography association Oktiabr (October), led by Aleksandr Rodchenko, whose modernist work supported photography as a versatile medium that could surpass its documentary processes to produce new ways of seeing and viewing the world. The ROPF, led by Leonid Mezhericher, Arkadii Shaikhet, Semyon Friedland (Mikhail Koltsov’s cousin) and Maks Al’pert and favored “straightforward, supposedly unmanipulated reportage” but also had aesthetic aspirations.[1] Ostensibly both Oktiabr and the ROPF were dissolved in the mid-1930s.

Working as a wartime correspondent during WWII, his images were known for their emotional impact. For his service during the war he was awarded the Order of the Red Star (1943), the Order of the Patriotic War (1945) and the Order of the Red Banner of Labor.

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 5.11.33 PM.png
Kombat (Combat), June – August 1942

After the war, Al’pert returned to industrial themes, but also focused on other subjects including portraits. He authored several pamphlets, books and albums, and was an enthusiastic advocate for elevating the standards of photojournalism and portrait photography. In particular, he encouraged photographers to approach portrait photography as a visual chronicle – more as photojournalists than classical studio portraits. His philosophy towards photography, shaped by his days as a member of the ROPF, remained: purely formal methods employed by photographers were antithetical to Soviet press photography, as were artificially enhanced or altered images. Yet, it is unclear exactly where Al’pert drew the line when it came to editing images (which is, of course, a means of manipulating the photograph in a way that ‘artificially’ alters the image), both in his own images and as an editor.

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 5.10.59 PM.png
Katushki (Coils), 1951

Al’pert is perhaps best known for his photo essays (he completed around 50 photo essay projects as a professional photojournalist) – or a series of pictures united by a theme or event. In many images Al’pert juxtaposes large figures in the foreground of his photographs, the background composed of imposing industrial scenery. Characteristic of Al’pert’s photographs are unique shooting angles from above or below, and images that confront the viewer’s sense of perspective, such as his 1961 image of the construction of the Bukhara-Ural gas pipeline. Throughout his career, Al’pert authored numerous texts and pamphlets on photojournalism. In 1966 he received the title Honored Worker of Culture of the RSFSR. He received multiple prizes at photography exhibitions in the Soviet Union and abroad, and was on the selection committee of numerous Soviet photography exhibitions. For his contributions to photojournalism, Al’pert was widely regarded as a master of Soviet photography, or fotomaster.

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 5.09.58 PM.png
Untitled submission to the World Press Photo competition, 1974 (2nd prize)

The next Sovetskoe foto blog post will discuss nudity and eroticism in Soviet photography.

[1] Leah Bendavid-Val, Propaganda and Dreams; photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US, (Zurich; Edition Stemmle, 1999), 37.