Piatiletka – Michael Farbman & Margaret Bourke White

Piatiletka Farbman Bourke-White

The five year plan, or Piatiletka, instituted by Stalin in 1928 was his grandiose vision of transforming the Soviet Union from a backward, agricultural subsistence economy into a thriving industrial powerhouse that would rival the West. Huge resources were devoted to building up heavy industry, in many cases almost from nothing, in order to show how successful Communism was under Stalin’s leadership. However, in order to create this massive industry, Stalin needed cheap food for the people who were now going to work in the factories and the collectivisation campaign was launched. Collectivisation was designed to get rid of all the small individual farms and create massive State owned, monster farms which it was assumed would be more efficient and produce more food. (The reality was very different.) As can be imagined this traumatic upheaval in the way an entire society was organised cost a lot of people their lives, as well as laying the ground for a horrendous genocidal famine in Ukraine during 1932-33(the Holodomor) which killed millions.

Piatiletka Farbman Bourke-White

Published in New York in 1931, this book is an outside attempt to analyse the five year plan from abroad. Obviously the Soviet authorities were keen to gloss over the negatives that were already beginning to appear in their grand plan and bedazzle gullible outsiders with meaningless statistics about total steel production and increases in productivity which were supposed to prove that everything was rosy.  This copy was an ex-library book that had been rebound in hardcover that I got cheap off the internet and its not exactly a page-turner. German and French editions were also published.

Piatiletka Farbman Bourke-White

The only real interest in this book for me is that this is the first appearance of Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs which would later be published in 1931 as Eyes on Russia. Unfortunately Farbman’s book only reproduces four of these ‘camera studies’ so it hardly provides much of a showcase for Bourke-White’s work. Bourke-White was obviously kept on a tight leash and all the photographs are images that show how progressive the Soviet Union was becoming. Industry features in all the pictures; even the farm landscape has a tractor shown in it.

Piatiletka Farbman Bourke-White

All this tightly controlled propaganda was designed to convince outsiders that under Stalin’s guidance, medieval Russia had been turned into a modern industrial country overnight. This message was all the more effective because this coincided with the 1930s depression and mass unemplyment in the West, making the Soviet alternative appear all the more appealing. With a reputation for her industrial work, Bourke-White would have been a perfect choice for the Soviets; her main interest would have been on factories and industry and not the backward state of the countryside or the negative aspects they wanted to sweep under the carpet. Bourke-White was unlikely to rock the boat. At this stage, she was also an ambitious young woman trying to further her career so she certainly would not have done anything to jeopardise her access to Soviet industry and would have probably been quite happy to conform to the propaganda narrative being presented to her.

Piatiletka Farbman Bourke-White

This coincidence of interests between the outside photographer (who was presented as documenting the truth) and the needs of a state propaganda machine produced a series of images which were ‘marketed’ as showing the truth behind claims of Soviet progress when in reality Bourke-White’s photographs were carefully controlled fictions of a Stalinist fantasy world that was built upon unimaginable cruelty and fear.

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