Socialist Worker

Soviet Times: photos of war and revolution

by Richard Searle
Issue No. 1987

First Cavalry Army on the Polish Front, September 1920 (Pic: © RIA Novosti)

First Cavalry Army on the Polish Front, September 1920 (Pic: © RIA Novosti)

This exhibition of 30 photographs from the archives of Novosti RAI, the Soviet Press Agency is a must see. It charts the history of Russia from the 1917 revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

It opens with photographs from the revolutionary period, which are free of the distortions that came with Joseph Stalin’s rise to power in the late 1920s.

One captures the fraternisation between Russian and Austrian troops in 1917, and we move from mass street meetings to the faces of ordinary soldiers from the civil war that raged across the Soviet Union following the revolution.

One brilliantly framed shot from the early 1920s shows two equally bemused peasants examining their first light bulb. Lights bulbs came to be known as “Ilyich bulbs” named after Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

There is a shift from these first photographs to later ones that are clearly influenced by Stalin’s vision. The later representation of hero workers and soldiers, are there to evoke Soviet power.

Yet at the same time the pictures from the Second World War show the visceral nature of the conflict on the Russian front.

We see troops as they go into battle, with the sheer terror of combat. One depicts distraught civilians left standing in a field of crumpled bodies.

Some of the battle shots are more remarkable as they were taken by Olga Lander, one of the few women photographers to cover the action on the front line.

The war photographs end with the famous shot of Russian soldiers flying the flag from the roof of the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building.

The Stalinist habit of manipulating photographs was still at work at this point, with the soldier who held the legs of the flag flyer originally airbrushed out so Soviet soldiers were seen as standing unsupported.

We then move on to a group of images that represent the height of Soviet power during the Cold War – masses of missiles paraded through Red Square on May Day, the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, all suited up.

The closing part of the exhibition depicts the decline of Soviet power. One image shows a helicopter clattering over the wrecked carcass of the Chernobyl nuclear power station.

We see the Berlin wall subjected to a collective hammering, and rows of Russian tanks at the wreckers yard, waiting to be turned into scrap.

The exhibition ends with a pro-democracy demonstration snaking through Moscow streets in 1990.

It leaves you wondering why this exhibition ends so abruptly, and asking how would the last 15 years of Russian history be depicted and represented.

Perhaps the neon signs, the corruption and poverty, McDonalds and Chechyna, are just too stark a juxtaposition.

Soviet Times

Imperial War Museum North, Manchester
Until 4 June
Phone 0161 836 4000 or go to

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Article information

Sat 11 Feb 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1987
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