I took ten trips to the Soviet Union between 1988 and 1992. I guess that’s not totally accurate. On Christmas Day, 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved into it’s various states and the place I visited was once again called Russia. I don’t think it was ever anything else to me. My grandparents were all Slavic, coming from Russia, The Ukraine, and Lithuania. They all arrived in the United States before Lenin and communism. They were Russian.
The goal of my first visit was to work with the Kirov Ballet and to find the flourishing underground bodybuilding movement, hopefully photographing these athletes for the American bodybuilding magazines. Through my friend and travel partner on this first trip, Johanna Bronnell, both of these missions were accomplished. Johanna’s best friend in Leningrad, Alexandre Trohatchev, seemed to know everyone in the city and through him I met so many wonderful people including artists, dancers, and scientists. During the rest of my trips over the four years, I would stay as a guest in his apartment near the center of the city.
I walked everywhere and soon my favorite subject matter became the people in the streets. I ate, traveled, and shopped like a Russian, learning as much as possible to get by as needed. I waited in line for bread and bought splotchy green oranges imported from Cuba at the local farmers market. I drank Kvas from tanks on the street, drinking from the same slightly rinsed reused glasses as everyone else in line. I bought dumplings and ice cream out of carts from little old ladies wearing babushkas. I bought gifts for my friends back in the States at the Russian department stores and at my favorite consignment shops far from the city center. I learned what it was like to be worn down by the difficulty of performing the simplest chores; except I knew I’d always be returning home to The United States of America.
After several trips I knew my way around Leningrad and people in the stores began to recognize me. People there often thought I was Russian and on several occasions I realized people in the street thought I was with the KGB. I guess it was the camera. The most interesting time was when I walked into the only church in Leningrad that had reopened for religious purposes. A baptism was underway so I kept my distance while shooting and used my quietest camera, a Leica. It wasn’t quiet enough. The Father looked up at me and stopped the baptism. I was so embarrassed. He walked over to me and began to ask a lot of questions; most of which I didn’t understand. My Russian was not very good. I did understand that he thought I was with the KGB and was photographing what was still an illegal service. They were all scared. I explained I was an American photojournalist and after that everything changed. The Father brought me over to the baptism and gave me access to the service so I could record the event. The parents of the child were so excited I was there. Unfortunately I didn’t get their address so I could never send pictures. I think I was too nervous and excited to ask. I didn’t make that mistake again when I photographed the special moments I observed.
The USSR under Gorbachev was slowly opening up but the KGB and police were still dreaded. The rules could change at any moment and people were afraid. During the first trips, my Russian friends were careful not to be seen with me in the streets when we were close to the center of the city or near any of the tourist hotels. I was told the KGB were always watching. As an American, it was something that was hard for me to understand, but as a child of the 1960s, I was aware of the fear police and soldiers could instill in the populace.
I began to shoot in the streets whenever I wasn’t working at the Kirov. I wandered everywhere and fortunately only had a few run-ins with the local mafias. One time in a Georgian farmers market, far from the city’s center, the leader of a small mafia group wanted my camera. He offered to buy it for something like 5 rubles! I’m not sure if he knew I was an American but that’s probably the reason he let me go. It’s too bad I was threatened at that market. They had great vegetables but for once in my life I was smart and decided not to linger.
When people in the street realized I was safe they opened up. They posed naturally for my portraits. The warmth of the people in the streets came through. What I loved most was the reality of the Russian people. Walking the streets of any major city in America, the people have become so generic and “finished.” Perfect haircuts, shaved bodies, nail polish from one of those salons that have popped up on every street, and obvious hours building those abs at the gym. No one is real anymore. Everyone begins to look the same. In Russia they still look like real people. No facelifts. They do their own nails, cook their own food; food that didn’t come already prepared in a package. The people in Russia reminded me of the America that existed in the early to middle part of the 20th century. A time when families still at dinner together, played board games and sat by their TV or radio listening to the news. Friends getting together to watch Steve Allen on the tonight show. Friends and family enjoying time spent together in their own homes.
Walking through the streets of Leningrad and Moscow, people reminded me of my own family. Sasha (Alexandre Trohatchev) reminds me of my favorite uncle. Old ladies in the street, my mother’s mother. Maybe I did pass a relative on occasion. One family story has it that my grandfather’s brother (on my dad’s side) was a general in the Russian army during WWII. The family wasn’t allowed to contact him because of Stalin’s authoritarian rule. He would have been purged and sent to Siberia.
The people I met in the streets treated me like family. I was invited to dinner in their homes. One wedding couple I photographed by the Neva River invited me to their wedding at a nearby hotel and I was made an honored guest. I still have the bottle of vodka they gave me sitting in my freezer. I know some of this had to do with the fact I was an American. I represented an unknown freedom they could not completely understand. I came from a country where they thought everyone was rich, “Driving Mercedes.” They were right about one thing. In America we do have endless, bountiful food. Something we waste as if it was free and truly endless.
What the Russians didn’t realize is they had something most of America had lost. The ability to enjoy life no matter what the odds. To take the time to appreciate the things one has and more important, share those things with friends and family. They do understand how to enjoy time. At the end of each trip when I was ready to head to the airport, Sasha would make me sit for a minute before leaving. I think he told me it was a Russian tradition. You shouldn’t rush out the door when you’re ready to leave on a trip. It’s a good tradition and something I’ve tried to hold on to for many years. I hope almost 25 years later the Russian people have also held on to the important things in life.