Best of Russia: going the right way?

The annual Best of Russia photography exhibition has opened in Moscow’s Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art. Reviewing the past five years of images, Jeremy Noble was struck by how explicitly the photographic eye reflects a country in the throes of radical change. 

The Best of Russia annual photography exhibition has just opened at Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art, in Moscow (http://thebestofrussia.ru/). This is the fifth such exhibition, and for the past five years the catalogue has been published as a coffee-table album, with photographs of all of the winning entries. 

Photography as an art form in Russia is not new – Prokhudin-Gorsky and Rodchenko are two masters that come to mind – but during the Soviet period it was almost invisible. The phenomenal success of the Best of Russia project is testament to the renewed popularity of making photographs.

Best of Russia is a nationwide project open to all photographers, young and old, amateur and professional. There are five categories: Nature, Architecture, Style, People, and Events. The photographs are of a very high quality, displaying a supreme technical proficiency, and, for that reason alone the exhibition is worth visiting. These are beautiful photographic images shot through with love, amazement, cynicism, amusement, patriotism, anger, devotion, pain, helplessness….

What is most interesting perhaps about this project is the way in which it presents a picture of Russia that many Russians themselves do not know or recognise, and, for certain, very few foreigners. In 2008, when the first Best of Russia exhibition opened, there were queues around the block; without exaggeration, the reaction to these images of Russia was one of wide-eyed wonderment ‘is this all our Russia, these images of polar bears, walruses, volcanoes, luminous landscapes, cowboys, film stars, engineering marvels, pretty girls, ballet thighs, detritus, decay and men behaving badly?’  Yes it is.


[Best of Russia/Winzavod. All rights reserved]

Here is a vision of Russia, ravishing and ravaged, that by turns reinforces and subverts many of the notions that we – Russians and foreigners alike – might hold about this vast country. 

Nature: welcome to the motherland

In the photographs of Nature it is the vastness, the multiplicity and the magnificent natural beauty that register on the retina. There is no common denominator, for here is fairytale Russia, the fields and lakes described by Tolstoy and Sholokhov, and post-Soviet industrial landscapes. Some of these photographs are so atmospheric they should be used by the Tourist Board of Russia (if they had one…), and put up in all consulates while we wait in line for our visas. They are made in such glorious technicolour that one almost expects Julie Christie and Omar Sharif to appear on the horizon; that is, I expect, the romantic reaction of a foreigner; not, however, the feeling induced in a Russian. What do I mean? If there is one photo that, for me, says more than any other about the Nature category, it is the one simply titled, ‘Ours.’ Here is a forested river valley, unspoiled, bucolic; when set against the despoliation seen in other photos, it projects an idealised postcard vision of Russia; yes, of course, but that is to ignore something else – the extremely possessive national pride contained in that word ‘ours.’ To understand in some way this visceral attachment to the Motherland is to come closer to an understanding of what it means to be Russian.


[Best of Russia/Winzavod. All rights reserved]

It is in the nature of photographs about nature to look for beauty, be it a stormy sea, the grassy steppe, or a misty arcadia; the animals that inhabit these Russian landscapes – a proud deer, a solitary brown bear; a howling wolf – are all at home here; and the few humans that we see – cowboys on the steppe – are running wild and free.

Architecture: close your eyes

Photographs of buildings exhibit a different instinct; in the Architecture category there is much beauty, but the photographic eye is more critical, perhaps because there is more to criticise. Conjure up in your mind the many different images of Russian buildings – dacha, Romanov palace, Stalinist skyscraper, Moscow underground, Brezhnev apartment block, Orthodox cathedral – and they are all here. What we see is an iconography of Russia’s historic and contemporary built environment; there are many iconic buildings here, and many that one wishes had never been built.


[Best of Russia/Winzavod. All rights reserved]

Photograph a building, and you can look at it firstly in purely architectural terms – Baroque, Classical, Art Deco, Constructivist, Socialist Realism, New Russian…; and then, more subjectively, how successfully or otherwise it inhabits the surrounding landscape. The almost universal instinct of these Russian photographers is to drain these built landscapes of all their colour, leaving only the residue of black and white; they are aiming for stylised beauty, symmetry and contrast, even when focused on belching smokestacks. However, their black and white steel, concrete, stucco, brick and glass (much of it in St Petersburg and Moscow) is not a neutral, dispassionate choice, for the result is a variously hard-edged, ruined, polluted, uplifting, brutalist, crumbling, geometric and otherworldly architecture. Saturated colour is a rarity, and when it does appear, has the effect of making buildings seem more, not less, unreal – a snow-covered monastery, a city of the dead, modern-day Anadyr.

Style: slick and strictly straight

Russian fashion and advertising photographers had to come from a long way behind to catch up with Western glossy magazine layouts, and in the Style category we can see how quickly they caught up. Moscow and St Petersburg dominate because this is a commercial sector, and these two cities are where the money lies. The images are slick and chic; I do not think that one can look at these photographs, however, and identify a particular Russian aesthetic; the moneyed look of hard and nubile bodies projecting sex, boredom, insouciance and forced gaiety is international; only the props are noticeably Russian; and the wry humour, with its literary echoes of Krylov and Gogol; and the short-lived satire of the Stray Dog Café. One senses that here Russian photographers are still searching for a style of identity, still influenced by past masters – Hoyningen-Huene, Helmut Newton, David Bailey, Richard Avedon – and unable to get away from the long shadow of the likes of Steven Klein, Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz.


[Best of Russia/Winzavod. All rights reserved]

Moreover, except for those half-naked ballet dancers, this is a very straight and curiously unadventurous aesthetic – no male nudity (in other categories there is only a naked bodybuilder and a shivering conscript), no shades of George Platt Lynes, Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber…. Recent anti-gay legislation suggests that this will remain the straightforward case – no Robert Mapplethorpe, more fast cars and slow-burning women…

People: don’t get too close

What do we learn about the Russian people in the People category? Well, there are lots of old people living wretched lives in the back of beyond; gastarbeiter have a hard time of it; Russia’s many ethnic peoples dress up in bright clothes, and then look aimless; strange, but there are no New Russians – no oligarchs, no people with money – and apparently nobody, although they number in the millions, living modern busy lives in the big city. This is an outdated vision of today’s Russia; time wise these photographs seem to capture more a generation of lost souls – the ones whom Perestroika passed by – than the ambitious Russians of 2013. The potential for portrait photography to probe beneath the face staring at the camera is rarely glimpsed; only the timeless existence of those living on the land brings us closer to the deeper truth of how (some) Russians live. Russian photographers taking aim at their fellow citizens seem to prefer mawkish sentiments: saccharine children, babushka, puppy dogs’ tails…. On this evidence, either Russians do not want to, or do not know how to look at themselves; soft focus outnumbers the close-up. Just occasionally, however, there is an arresting image that reminds us of other statistics: I can still remember, in 2008, the looks of horror and fascination when people stood in front of a black and white photograph by Serge Golovach of an HIV+ mother holding her HIV- baby; brave in every respect. Recent events make very poignant the Dickensian pallor and penetrating gaze of the orphan boy in ‘Away from the Children’s Home;’ if only Russians could adopt the same sympathetic view in real life.

What do Russians – what do we – make of that photo titled ‘The Wise Man’? In the original Russian, he is called ‘Мудрец’ (Mudrets); this loaded word could also be translated as ‘The Sage,’ or ‘The Thinker.’ The man himself, as seen by a Russian, is an instantly recognisable type: he is a muzhik, a regular guy, an open-necked one of us. The gaze is intelligent, piercing; it is a listening face, not unattractive. Whoever he is, he is quite a ubiquitous presence, appearing several times every year, sometimes as an active strong man, at other times exuding power, dressed in a very nice suit (bespoke Kiton, if I’m not mistaken). We know what we think; let us not hazard a guess at what Russians really think about him; the wise man never tells.


[Best of Russia/Winzavod. All rights reserved]

What’s in a name? The titles of all these photographs have been chosen by the photographers themselves, and how revealing they are. Which brings us to the photograph of Dmitry Medvedev at the wheel of his SUV, titled ‘Am I going the right way?’ This shot provoked a number of caustic comments by Russians on the Best of Russia website; among them, ‘Time to change the name of the exhibition,’ and, ‘This is what is meant by the phrase “access to the body”’ – a reference to the age-old need for ambitious Russians to be close to the Tsar. Are we, the foreigners, surprised at this spitting image? Don't we think that the cult of personality is so all-seeing and all-powerful that there is no opportunity in Russia for political mockery? Think again.

Events: reflecting on a new country

If one regards the ‘Best of Russia' exhibition as an encyclopaedic and 360 degree image of contemporary Russia, then something very unexpected has been happening these past five years, as we can see most of all in the Events category. Sofia Trotsenko, President of Winzavod Foundation, has noticed the change, and in her introduction to this year’s exhibition album, writes how the photos have become more ‘socially-engaged.’ She talks about how, ‘In 2008, we started the project in one Russia, and now we can see that the photos are of another country.’ What does she mean? What is this ‘new’ Russia? 

In 2008, in the Events section, I counted one political photograph, twelve of the military, three of the Orthodox Church, one of Dmitry Medvedev, and one of Vladimir Putin; in 2012 I count eighteen political photographs, five of the military (an increasingly discredited institution), three of the Orthodox Church (an increasingly powerful institution), none of Dmitry Medvedev, and three of Vladimir Putin. Those eighteen images pull no punches: anti-government demonstrators returning home late afternoon (an image that could have come straight out of Eisenstein); OMON officers manhandling a demonstrator during the ‘Million March;’ a mass anti-government meeting in Moscow; Gennady Gudkov alone in the Duma, on the day he was ousted from his post; a toy tank pushed by political activists; a police officer arresting a ‘pink pig’ on Red Square; a ‘polar bear’ driven off in a police car (cuddly toys make easy targets); a man who was on his way to a date, pushed into a police car; a demonstration in support of Pussy Riot; a power salute by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova; a bare-breasted protest at ‘Putin’s Theft’ (of the presidency); Greens protesting against the killing of polar bears. Even art is political: there is a photograph of the ‘Motherland’ exhibition in Perm that was closed before it even opened… wow! We had less political activity in London….

This is democratic art at its most disturbing; surprised? How about this: Best of Russia is also very much an Establishment project – a mix of well-heeled philanthropy, commercial sponsorship and state funding (the Ministry of Culture has provided support); and in 2010 Medvedev not only wrote the introduction to the exhibition album, he opened the exhibition. One might say that this is state-sponsored culture, but, looking at the Events category, it can also be seen as state-sponsored cultural activism. 

Curiouser and curiouser. … How to explain such a paradox? Is this nationwide, uncensored project, a ploy by the Machiavellian Russian Government to allow freedom where it will do no harm, in an exhibition hall? Or might it be a society growing up and flexing its muscles? How does one measure this growing activism? Do Russians look at these events – the ones that actually happened on the street, and were then caught on camera – in the same way as foreigners, that is the inevitable growing pains of a population pushing for more democracy? How can we know? We are outsiders, not Russians. In any case, when the cauldron is bubbling, who knows what will appear on high table? All we can say, for certain, is that, in bringing Russia so sharply into focus, Best of Russia only seems to defy our force-fed prejudices; it is an eye-opener.

About the author

Jeremy Noble is a writer, educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He has lived in St Petersburg and Moscow for many years. 

jeremynoble.com