Russia: Beyond Utopia

Foreword by Boris Fishman

The stairway is built of plain, dark wood, and the walls are an artless white, but the stained-glass window is a clamor of color and conviction. Instead of passively inviting us to gaze through, it marches toward us, steel-faced Bolsheviks clutching bayonets and brandishing rifles as they depart to conquer the world in a fury of red banners.

Like many of the photographs in Andrew Moore’s Russia: Beyond Utopia, this image from a forgotten corner of the Siberian city of Irkutsk (plate #097) bittersweetly radiates a future Soviet Communism promised and grievously failed to deliver. But the photograph is neither a dig at a discredited ideology nor an endorsement of the political system that succeeded it. Andrew has something broader in mind.

The stained-glass panel is an amalgam of Russia’s multiple selves: The medium evokes piety and worship, the timeless tonic of the Russian people; the iconography — the severely angled shock troops of the proletarian revolt — channels the Communist struggle’s martial predisposition and its cult of physical fitness; the fragmented style, known as constructivism, recalls the artistic avant-garde’s experiments in the permissive early years of the Soviet Union, before the literalist earnestness of socialist realism was anointed as the nation’s sole acceptable art form. To the eternal question of which Russia is the most authentic — the prerevolutionary monarchy? the socialist brotherhood? the emerging capitalist democracy — Andrew’s work answers, all of them.

You might receive a wholly different answer in Moscow or Vladivostok. Modern Russia cultivates amnesia. KGB archives have been pried open by the dictates of democratic disclosure, and survivors of Communist repression advertise testimonials of injustice, but there has been no state-sponsored reckoning with the Soviet past of Stalinist terror and corruption, and, more ruinously, the fantastic fraud of the Communist dream. Vladimir Putin, the current president, prefers stability to the turmoil of accountability; he has defended the Soviet period, reviving its anthem and rehabilitating its heroes. More damagingly, he is increasingly uninterested in having anyone propose doing otherwise; as Russia comes to resemble a managed, authoritarian democracy, few citizens are willing to disagree. The newly prosperous elites prefer to look ahead, and the wanting masses romanticize what remains behind. The great nation of Dostoevsky’s frantic fits of searching has closed its eyes to the truth.

How, then, to photograph a place that won’t look itself in the mirror? How to obtain a foothold from a land whose history is made of ruptures and discontinuities? Books featuring Russian imagery usually keep to one of two perspectives: Either they gush over the grandeur of the monuments and architecture without acknowledging the seamier life down below, or they fetishize that underbelly without noticing the more dignified life that contextualizes them. Either they exalt the Kremlin at night, or they evoke pity for the Siberian trucker coaxing his sputtering engine back to life with a screw picked out of a side mirror. There is an implicit politics in these photographs that signals, respectively, either an approving awe of Russia’s progress or liberal sympathy with the disenfranchised of capitalist democracy.

Andrew Moore’s images, by contrast, transcend politics. He photographs Russia’s extremes — the rich and the poor, the awesome and the pitiful — with equal curiosity and without partisanship. He does not rhapsodize over the excess and pomp of capitalist Russia, but neither does he dismiss it, its superficiality notwithstanding. In demonstrating as much interest in facades as what’s behind them, he considers modern Russia on its own terms, and the Soviet Union and the imperial Russia that preceded it on theirs. He interrogates the notion of Russia’s otherness through the layers of history — the hip-hop rehearsal studio that was once a Soviet children’ s camp that was once a noble’s estate (plate #011) — buried beneath riveting facades.

In this way, Andrew obtains a revolutionarily holistic and organic sense of a country that, for so many, derives its charm precisely from the feelings of artifice it provokes. In a sense, he frees Russia from so many of the myths with which it has been endowed, and what he finds is no less enchanting and infuriating. At a time when Russia’s government doggedly confines itself to the present, Andrew’s photographs are monuments to the nation’s other lives. They are silent witnesses testifying to a different history.

In eschewing political agenda, Andrew liberates his work to peer past Russia’s politics — an unprecedented accomplishment in a place where every aspect of life was politicized — and discover its otherworldly aesthetic. The Western eye does not settle calmly on that aesthetic. By grounding Russia’s otherness in its art and architecture, Andrew unravels some of the mystery of why.

No other artistic sensibility so cleaves to an idea at the expense of pragmatism, so elevates “what is just” above “what works”; Utilitarianism has made limited inroads in Russia, where, historically, both in private and public life, feeling has been at least as important as utility. Many stereotypes have been forged from this generalization, but there is a nut of truth to them: Pure functionalism, with expediency as its sole raison d’etre, fails to fulfill, because it leaves the soul unnourished. There is something base and dehumanizing about pure logic because it channels the mind and leaves the heart to atrophy, therefore lacking the inherent legitimacy supplied by feeling.

In its obsession with undoing the bourgeois order that elevated the few above the masses, Communism subordinated practical economic considerations to the ideology of egalitarianism. Certainly, uniform pay scales banished incentive and discouraged worker productivity;foremen received only several rubles more than ordinary workers; carpenters often pocketed more than doctors; but at least the socialist ideal was honored and the illusion of a brotherly utopia preserved.

For the same reason, Russians commute to work from metro stations so encrusted with chandeliers and marble as to seem more appropriate for sumptuous balls (plate #42). (And they are: In 1941, because the war had made aboveground celebrations by party bigwigs risky, the Mayakovskaya metro station was cleared of traffic and outfitted with banquet tables for a celebration of the 24th anniversary of the October Revolution.) The metro museums manifested Stalin’s commitment to investing architecture with ideological purpose and glorifying proletarian industry. That millions went without electricity while coffers were emptied to fund these vanities was an afterthought, if that. (Stalin was into the idea of the proletarian worker much more than he was into the workers themselves.)

But this idealism reaches farther back into Russian history than Stalin. The design of Moscow’s extravagant Yeliseyevsky food emporium, built in the last years of the nineteenth century, was concerned less with supermarket utilitarianism than with accommodating the refined taste and self-esteem of the capital’s gentry as it selected its daily bread (plate #078). The Soviets, in thrall to their idea, stripped away some of the glamour; Yeliseyevsky became Food Store No. 1, the source, for decades, of crumbly Romanian cookies, metallic Hungarian wine, and occasionally empty shelves. But these days, in keeping with the resurgent value of hierarchies, well-to-do Russians once again buy their toilet paper from a grocery store that should, by all appearances, stock Picasso and Magritte originals instead.

Andrew’s images also challenge the Western commonplace about the grayness and pallor of the former Soviet Union. His photographs simmer with primary colors. Naturally, red predominates, often in the places and objects we’d expect — the bloodshot scarlet of the Ukrainian Pavilion at the Exhibition of the People’s Economic Achievements (VDNKh) (plate #003), and that stained-glass panel in Irkutsk. But Andrew deftly shows us others — the communal home by the White Sea (plate #110) and a baby grand, appropriately labeled “Moskva,” the Russian word for Moscow (plate #092) — familiar only to the native Russian eye.

The aesthetic also feels foreign because of its relentless clash of iconoclasm and tradition, a legacy of the Soviet Union’s quick passage from the radical inclinations of the postrevolutionary years to the traditionalist stasis of the Stalin era. For instance, the experimental, constructivist flourish of the bright peach half arch leading into a St. Petersburg apartment building for tractor-factory workers (plate #084) and the futuristic, semicircular enclosure of the Red Gates metro-station entrance in Moscow (plate #049) aren’t far from the Gothic traditionalism of Moscow’s “Seven Sisters” residential skyscrapers or the VDNKh’s grandiosely neoclassical Central Pavilion, though all of these edifices were built roughly in the same period.

Sometimes ideas collide within the same structure. At the Far Eastern State Technical University, in Vladivostok, a soldier taking an exam is surrounded by walls of rickety, cheap wooden paneling near an incongruous column of classical, ponderous iron (plate #027). The VDNKh Central Pavilion, built to commemorate the advances of Communism — an intemperately radical idea — is a monument to the most ancient of classical pasts (plate #117). The spare minimalism of a New Russian home cannot do without the rococo ceiling and chandelier beloved by the elite of a previous Russia (plate #112). Among these architectural centaurs, the richest irony belongs to the constructivist Izvestiya publishing house (plate #017), the erstwhile mouthpiece of the Communist Party, which stays in the black these days by publishing women’s magazines.

Russia is, quite simply, the most conservative radical place on Earth.

If this dichotomy is dizzying for the American reader, how does it affect the Russian mind? The constant reinvention Andrew chronicles is the luxury of few in modern Russia, which is all the more painful in a land of such contrasts: the glass-factory watchman, who has remained at his post long after the factory’s closing, surviving on favors and odd jobs (plate #108); the lighthouse keeper at the abandoned missile base in the Far East whose family subsists on illegally poached shrimp (plate #111). How isolating, intimidating, and immoderate it must feel to live in a place that specializes in dimensions like those of the Ukrainian Pavilion (plate #003), the icebreaker Academician Fedorov (plate #002), and the Homeland Is Mother statue (plate #124).

Perhaps these images explain the apathy of a people that will have no more to do with politics and ideology and just wants to be left alone. Certainly, Russians wish never again to hear a politician — let alone a foreigner, especially an American — talk about which Russia is the most authentic. Most Russians are ambivalent toward Americans: They long for the quality of life common in the States, but they consider the emotionless self-interest that fosters such prosperity disgraceful and depraved. That Americans have frequently eschewed nuance in considering Russia — eternally projecting Western terms onto the nation and dividing Russians into authoritarians and democrats, with no regard for native context — has not helped their reputation.

But Andrew’s photographs have had a unanimously warm reception among the Russians who have seen them. I imagine that it was Andrew’s distance from politics that resonated most, that and his candor in measuring both Russia’s wealth and want, both its pride and shame, both its misery and beauty. Andrew Moore has captured all of this complexity in the concise poetry of an individual image. Taken together, his photographs comprise an otherworldly calculus of a profoundly troubled nation eternally uncertain of its place in the world. They perceive a Russia beyond politics and ideology and beyond the polarities that define its relationship with the West. Enclosed you will find Russia’s nuanced history of itself, as told to Andrew by its buildings and people. Russia: Beyond Utopia asks how a nation survives the epic humiliation brought on by the demise of the Communist paradise, and finds that there is much more to the story than that.

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