The largest country in the world, Russia stands as a fierce and proud nation, extending across Northern Asia and eastern Europe, almost like a continent in itself, distinct and unique in every way.
Though general western portrayal of the nation is often biased, one cannot deny the remarkable achievements of Russia in the last 200 years. The Soviet era saw some of the most significant technological achievements of the 20th century, including the launching of the first humans into space during the space race. As it stands today, the varied geography of Russia, ranging from tundras so subtropical beaches, and rich cultural history makes it one of the most interesting places to photograph in the world.
1. Rob Hornstra – From The Sochi Project, Sochi, 2012
Dutch artist Rob Hornstra focuses his practice mainly on Russia and other surrounding ex-Soviet nations. In 2007 along with writer and filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen, Hornstra began the ambitious Sochi Project. Practicing “slow journalism” they returned repeatedly to the region of Sochi to engage with this small and complicated place that found itself in the glare of the international media spotlight in the lead up to the 2014 Olympic Games.
Horstra’s approach combines found photography with contemporary portraiture and documentary storytelling, with various chapters focussing on different pivotal topics.This series won the 1st prize in the Arts & Entertainment category at the 2012 World Press Photo Awards.
2. Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky – Loggers, Vytegra, 1909
Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky was an pioneer of colour photography in early 20th century Russia. Both a chemist and a photographer, Prokudin-Gorsky formulated a plan to “educate the schoolchildren of russia with his ‘optical colour projections’ of the vast and diverse history, culture and modernization of the empire.” Equipped with the knowledge of technological advances that had been made in colour photography, and with a special railroad-car darkroom provided by Tsar Nicholas II, Prokudin-Gorsky documented the Russian Empire from approximately 1905-1915.
His work offers a colourful portrait of a lost world – before the onset of WW1 and the Russian Revolution. It is a country of burgeoning industry, with railroads and factories leading towards modernisation, but where the customs and traditions of society are intact, a world before globalisation.
3. Thomas Dworzak – Girl with balloons. Grozny, Chechnya, 2002.
Thomas Dworzak was on the front lines photographing the first Chechnyan war when it began in 1994. Conflict had broken out between Chechnyan separatists and the Russian federal forces, who attempted to seize control over the mountainous regions of Chechnya but were set back by guerilla fighters despite their overwhelming advantages in firepower, manpower and weaponry. Though a peace treaty was signed in 1997, conflict broke out again in 1999. Several thousand people died, making both wars some of the most significant events in modern Russian history.
After the second conflict, Dworzak was present once again to record the aftermath. In this moving image we can see the devastation caused by the conflict. The young girl’s balloons are the only source of colour within the frame, she holds her hands up to her face in a gesture of what can only look like mourning. It is a surreal juxtaposition of sadness and hope, as though the girl herself signifies peace within a turbulent region.
4. Andrei Tarkovsky – Untitled polaroid, 1979-1984
“the director’s task is to recreate life, its movement, its contradictions, its dynamic and conflicts. It is his duty to reveal every iota of the truth he has seen…”
Often cited as the greatest filmmaker of all time, Russian auteur, Andrei Tarkovsky, has received the greatest accolades in the film industry. Taken between 1979-1984 in the years before his premature death, the recent unearthing of a cache of Tarkovsky’s polaroid images was an exciting discovery for both the film and photography community. In the spirit of his films, the polaroids capture nature and light in the spellbinding manner which saturates his films. These images are fragments of a visionary who could render dreams into reality, even in the click of a shutter.
5. Shepard Sherbell – The August Coup, Moscow, 1991
The 1991 August Coup was an attempt by members of the Soviet Union’s government to take control of the country from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup leaders were hard-line members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who were opposed to Gorbachev’s reform program that he had negotiated which had decentralised much of the central government’s power to the republics.
Although the coup collapsed in only two days and Gorbachev returned to government, the event destabilised the Soviet Union and is widely considered to have contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
6. Emmanuil Yevzerikhin – Children’s Khorovod (“Children’s Round Dance”), Stalingrad, Aug 23, 1942
This recognizable image of a fountain conveys the ruined aftermath of the Battle of Stalingrad by juxtaposing a joyful monument of children dancing around a crocodile and the city’s bombed-out, burning buildings in the background. On the day the photograph was taken, around 40,000 civilians lost their lives to Nazi air strikes, according to official statistics. The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest in history, with casualties of almost 2 million.
In Evzerinkhin’s apocalyptic vision, life as it was before has been turned on its head. The image, which has become a commentary of war, suggests that the only children to have survived the war are made of concrete.
7. Unknown Photographer – The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917
The Russian Revolution in 1917 dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and led to the rise of the Soviet Union. Led by grassroots community assemblies called ‘soviets’, who were mostly people form the urban industrial working classes, were led by Vladimir Lenin and his band of revolutionaries. This example of censorship and propaganda is one of the most important examples of early 20th-century “photoshopping” and sparks the re-opens the ongoing debate on the nature of truth and photography.
8. Alexsander Rodchenko – Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1924
Alexsandr Rodchenko was one of the most acclaimed photographers of Russia, who also worked as an abstract painter, sculptor, industrial designer and, as a pioneering theorist in Russian Constructivism, believed that art must serve as an agent for social change. In 1922 his focus fell on photography. This iconic shot of Russia’s revolutionary poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky was described perfectly by fellow intellectual Boris Pasternak:
“He sat on a chair as on the saddle of a motorcycle….His way of carrying himself suggested something like a decision when it has been executed and its consequences are irrevocable. This decision was his very genius…and he had devoted his whole being to incarnate it without any pity or reserve.”
9. Nicolay Bakharev – From Novokuznetsk c. 1980
Siberian born artist Nikolay Bakharev worked as a photographer for a mechanics factory in the USSR in the 1980’s but spent his leisure time documenting Russia’s disaffected youth. Fascinated by the intimate scenes of people’s daily lives, Bakharev took illicit photos in the spirit of social work. His sharp, contrasted black and white images are honest depictions of life behind closed doors.
However, within the Soviet Union, Bakharev’s snapshots would’ve been regarded as low-class pornography, as nude photography was illegal at the time. Bakharev embraced Soviet restrictions as a challenge “You’re not allowed to take photos of the unpleasant sides of life; you’re not allowed to take photos of naked bodies; daily life is not worth being pictured… A desire for the forbidden would be equal to treason.”
10. Unknown Photographer – Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin
A Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man who befriended the family of Tsar Nicholas II, the last monarch of Russia, Grigori Rasputin gained considerable influence in late imperial Russia. Born to a peasant family in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoye, he has been described as a monk or as a “strannik” (wanderer, or pilgrim), whose charisma helped him become a figure of high society.
In 1905 he met the Tsar and by late 1906, Rasputin began acting as a healer for the Tsar and his wife Alexandra’s son Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia and was Nicholas’ only heir. Seen by some Russians as a mystic, visionary, and prophet, and by others as a religious charlatan he was a divisive figure who became increasingly unpopular and was eventually assassinated by conservative noblemen when opposed his influence over Alexandra and the Tsar.
“A Russian man is remarkable for his inclination to spend the last of his savings
on different kinds of trinkets, even when his most urgent needs are not satisfied.”
– Anton Chekhov
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Russia in 10 iconic images