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The last days of an empire...,
This review is from: A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union (Hardcover)
It was more than 20 years ago when 100 photographers, 50 from the West, 50 from the then "Eastern bloc" were permitted to capture the everyday life of an empire that in a very few years would no longer exist. The day chosen was May 15, 1987, certainly judicious in terms of the time of year, when much of the country, though not all, as the pictures clearly showed, has finally shed its blankets of snow. "One day in the life of..." is a highly successful format, which seems to capture the essence of a particular country, in its time and place. The project was conceived, and executed by Rick Smolan. Although he does not mention any restrictions placed on the photographers- and I'm sure there must have been some, including taking pictures of the vast military installations- they seemed to have had unprecedented freedom, no doubt part of the "glasnost" era, Gorbachev's efforts at opening up a very closed society, in an unsuccessful effort to save it. He is in one of the photographs.
Portraits of Lenin in the background abound, and smiles on the people are rare. All the photographs have a fine technical quality to them, and the selections seems to be quite representative. Numerous ones were taken in places that are now a country separate from Russia. Particularly arresting is the one taken in the Ferghana Valley of what is now Kirghizstan, where a 61-year old man holds a white goshawk, used in hunting, while seated on a horse, with a backdrop of white birch trees. Likewise, there is an impressive farm landscape, with the black earth, and the birch trees with their early lime-green leaves, in an area near the Chinese border. Along with pastoral beauty, demonstrators advocating various social issues, from Jewish emigration, stopping alcohol production, to peace demonstrators are shown. The range of the 12-time zones of the empire is shown captured by the vivaciousness of showgirls in a Vilnius nightclub to the Eskimo children skipping stones on the Bering Straits. The continuing power of religion in this officially atheist country is captured in the grim, bearded countenances of Orthodox bishops, through a woman enveloped in black, who would appear to be Muslim but is actually a sister in the Orthodox faith. There are also very real Muslims praying in Samarkand, and a Jew praying in Tbilisi, Georgia. Collages of men and woman also punctuate the book, the most arresting are the survivors of the "Great Patriotic War" as the Soviet Union's fight against Germany during World War II was known. Each is bedecked, and quite proud of his/her medals.
My family and I were able to drive through the Soviet Union for 30 days only a bit more than three years after these photos were taken. The selection of these for the book looks most authentic to us, compared with our own experience. We had no idea how soon the empire would be dissolved, and most likely neither did these photographers.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on April 30, 2009)