The military is an institution in which people (usually young males) are isolated from the rest of society for a defined period of time, given uniforms to strip them of individual identity, are subjected to arbitrary rules and discipline, and exposed to a cult of violence. This process is designed to produce people who will do what they’re told, when they’re told. They will ultimately kill on command. That, at least, is the rationale for all the training. However, once you start looking at the military in this way, then it starts to resemble a quasi-religious institution that imposes a new set of values and ideas upon individuals (through peer-pressure and strict conformity within a rigid hierarchy) in order to produce almost unquestioning obedience.
Many countries still use conscription. A product of late-eighteenth century European ideas about having large armies for national defence (particularly in response to the turmoil unleashed by the French Revolution) it has waned in effectiveness with technology. Some countries still have it, but for most of those drafted it is merely a rite of passage that has to be endured. Certainly, very few actually expect to put the test and end up in the trenches somewhere (in Western Europe anyway). Russia is one of those countries that still relies upon conscription to produce a large army, which it uses to enhance its power and prestige as a world power. It also performs the task of nation-building insofar as it is a way of inspiring patriotism towards the artificial, constructed entities that we are supposed to feel loyal towards.
However, for the individual suddenly thrust into such an organisation, it can be a traumatic experience to say the least. The Russian military also has a reputation for strict discipline, bullying, violence and the brutalising of recruits, leading to numerous instances of suicide. This is usually tolerated within such institutions (to a degree) as a necessary process of toughening up their raw recruits and a way of inculcating the aggressive culture of violence required by the army. However, the psychological trauma and carnage this can wreak on a personal level is incalculable.
Like The Myth of the Airborne Warrior I reviewed some time ago, this book is a personal narrative of the photographer’s experience as a soldier for a year (hence the title). Using a smuggled 35mm camera (a Smena 8m – the Russian army forbids cameras), Aksakov documents his life in the army in order to produce a visual record of his experiences. Here, we see the visual journal of an individual struggling to come to terms with this enforced institutional incarceration. Enhanced by the flat Russian light and the erratic camera, in tandem with the personal text, this book produces an intimate depiction of alienation and loneliness (but not despair). Despite the superficial camaraderie and the group activities imposed by military life, both the photographer and his fellow recruits are perpetually isolated from one another. They have all been cast adrift in a bleak psychological no-man’s land for their year of military service.
Using the snapshot aesthetic (imposed in part due to the Smena) the resulting book is a visual narrative of his year long ordeal of self-isolation that reflects the chaos and emotional turmoil of his own sudden powerlessness. Other uniformed figures appear in his photographs but they remain anonymous. Although they are presumably fellow recruits like him (with their own insecurities and anxieties) they remain distant, serving to enhance the mood of loneliness that pervades the book. In spite of the scenes of barrack life, the distance between the photographer and those around him is never quite bridged. They are all living lives of quiet desperation, hidden behind the masks of their uniforms and the macho bravado expected of them.
These remote, distant figures inhabit the desolate spaces of military architecture or a bleak, featureless tundra where nature itself mirrors the sense of isolation felt by Aksakov. His repeated photographs of stunted nature can be read as a metaphor for his true position, allowing us to glimpse behind the outward conformity imposed by military discipline. Like the landscape, the soldier/photographer has been reduced by the state to an anonymous, featureless resource it has decided to consume in the name of national greatness. Defined by his lowly status in this institutional machine, photography becomes a way of escaping the pressures inflicted upon Aksakov during this enforced stay in purgatory (he describes the camera as his friend). Like the book itself (a wonderfully designed publication by Akina Books) these images reassert his individuality, showing that in spite of the best efforts of the military machine to create standardised, obedient soldiers out of those who fall into their clutches, they have failed. While we may outwardly conform and modify our behaviour according to what is expected of us in a given situation, it is never a true guide to inner character. To borrow a term from Foucault, where there is power, there is resistance (however small).