Der Staat Ohne Arbeitslose (The Land Without Unemployment) – Ernst Glaeser, F.C. Weiskopf, Alfred Kurella

Photography was an important tool in the consolidation of the Soviet state in the two decades following its establishment. Not only was it a vital tool for the dissemination of propaganda amongst a population that had low literacy levels, it also had the added cachet of being modern, which was something the Soviets keenly promoted to emphasise the contrast between their new egalitarian regime and the backward feudalism of the Tsar. Modernity was synonymous with progress and it was hailed as being the solution for all ills. The equation was simple; everything modern was good (factories, steel production, cars, industrial farming, power plants, aircraft, photography, movies) while everything old was bad (kulaks, exploitation, small farms, illiteracy, peasants, landlords, private property, imperial titles). The new modern USSR was also supposed to usher in the creation of a new ‘Soviet man’ who was destined to inhabit this centrally planned utopia of the future.

This book ostensibly purports to show the great strides made by the Soviet Union during the first three years of the Five-Year plan (1928-1933) during which the collectivisation of agriculture and a drive for industrialisation was supposed to make the country a world power and prove that communism was a viable economic system. The central idea behind this was to make farming more efficient and produce a surplus of food which could then be used to subsidise industrial development, regarded as a true measure of progress and power by Stalin. Having lots of food available meant that wages could be kept low and a lot of people could be freed up to work in factories rather than tilling the land. Industrial development, particularly heavy industry and steel, was seen as the only way for the Soviet Union to become a modern world power as well as build a true communist society. That was the theory; in practice it proved to be a catastrophe.

However we have to look at this book in the context of the time. Communism appeared to offer a serious alternative to capitalism during the 1930s, a time when European and American society was undergoing a deep systemic crisis thanks to the financial meltdown of the Great Depression. Mass unemployment, particularly amongst working class populations, in these countries reached dangerously high levels with the consequent increase in poverty and the ever present threat of social breakdown. Into this mix the Soviets step in with their propaganda which appears to show a working alternative to capitalism in which everybody has a fulfilling job and a decent standard of living because this society is supposedly fair and equal as there is now no exploitation by greedy bosses anymore. Obviously this only works if the flow of information about conditions in the USSR is tightly controlled to stop anything emerging that might tarnish the rose-tinted view being presented abroad. But for many impoverished and desperate unemployed people in Europe and America Soviet propaganda presented a very seductive vision of an alternative system that appeared to offer a real solution to the plight of poverty and destitution that faced so many during that dark decade.

Even the title of this book, The Land Without Unemployment, is ideologically loaded; here the Soviet Union is presented as a land of happiness where harmony reigns and conflict has been abolished. However, as we now know, this was far from the truth. Fear, terror, violence and brutality on a scale that is hard to imagine today was all pervasive.This book dates from the early years of Stalinism when Soviet society had yet to feel the full force of his reign of terror. Everyday life became a nightmare; as the state owned everything it meant that everybody was a public employee so if you were late for work then you could be charged with treason (attempting to wreck the economy and undermine the revolution) and sent to a concentration camp or even shot by the secret police. Denunciations and the threat of violence were everywhere. Soviet society during the 1930s was a nightmare.

Although it has been translated into a number of different languages (French, English and Norwegian are three others I know of – there are probably more) the book appears to have been produced primarily for a German audience; it appears to be an attempt to convince German workers that a better future could be theirs under communism. This has a particular resonance thanks to the life and death struggle between the Nazis and the communists for power in Weimar Germany which was to have profound results. It’s interesting to see what happened to the three authors who contributed to the book when the Nazis took power; Kurella and Weiskopf remained true believers and fled Germany (Kurella became a middling government official in East Germany while Weiskopf ended up as a Czech ambassador and head of the East German writers association after the war). Glaeser’s story appears to be a bit more complicated. He too left Germany after the Nazi takeover and fled to Czechoslovakia but he seems to have engineered a compromise with the new regime and he returned to Germany in 1939 and began to write pro-Nazi propaganda material for German military newspapers and publications during the war. Principles can be very inconvenient at times.

All the great names of Soviet photography in the 30s make an appearance in the book which  consists of a procession of (uncredited) images divided up into chapters depicting the successes made in developing the Soviet Union; oil, coal, industry, agriculture, education, the military, literacy and the modernisation of Central Asia. The sequencing is, to my mind, rather haphazard with images being stuffed into pages with little thought as to how they work together. It’s rather hit and miss; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But overall, the sheer number of smiling proletarian workers, collective farms and factories on these pages convey very effectively the message that the USSR is a happy place to live. However, in terms of 1930s Soviet propaganda design the book is quite restrained; apart from the cover (which may have been the work of John Heartfield) there are no attempts at montage and the images are, for the most part straightforward and unambiguous. (It should be pointed out that this book was printed by a German publisher rather than an official Soviet state agency so that may have influenced the design.) A few constructivist images do make it into the book but these are swamped by the sheer volume of the straight pictures which diminishes their visual power and effect. In many ways the layout and design of this book is quite similar to L’Italia Fascista in Cammino, another 1930s photobook which was meant to whitewash the excesses of another coercive system and delude gullible foreigners.

Women are heavily represented in the images, in depictions of factories, fields and everyday life. Although relatively unremarkable by today’s standards, female participation in areas traditionally regarded as male-dominated occupations was trumpeted by the regime as evidence of true equality in contrast to the grudging granting of votes to women by most of Europe and the US in the early part of the 20th century. The Soviets were also keen to rebut some of the anti-communist propaganda being bandied about which said that sexual relations had also been collectivised, assisted by the fact that on-demand abortion was legal until 1936 in Russia, something that was not going to go down well in conservative societies abroad where traditional family values were held dear. Feminine beauty is also emphasised in a number of the images as another charge made against the Soviet regime was that it produced ugly, brutalised women by forcing them to work in heavy labour (an image of a swimmer is even captioned: “Communism is not a menace to Beauty”).

It appears that this publication is playing it very safe. Interestingly, Stalin himself doesn’t make an appearance in the book (Lenin also only makes a brief appearance through a handwritten note and a statue), which by the standards of the time, is astounding. All of this would indicate to me that the publishers wanted to produce something that would reach as wide an audience as possible and that there would be nothing in the book that could be used to criticise the central message of happiness-through-communism. Although the Stalin cult was all pervasive at home it appeared to be permissible to tone it down for a foreign audience and instead focus on the happy contented lives of ordinary people being led under his benovlent reign.

The overall narrative produced by these images is very simple; life is much better under communism than capitalism. This core message is hammered home to the viewer through the sheer brute force of an overwhelming number of images designed to prevent any alternative reading of this book. It is remarkably effective in doing this.

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Remnants of the Recent Past – Pip Erken

The abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s meant that suddenly a number of new, supposedly independent, states emerged blinking into a changed world. While ostensibly free to plough their own furrows, these former satellite states are still shackled by the legacy of more than 70 years of centralised planning where local realities were ignored in the decisions made in distant Moscow.

Ukraine, with its agriculture and heavy industry, was a key component in this centralised economic system and was heavily dependent on energy inputs from other parts of the former Soviet Union in order to keep the production rolling. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of those times can be found in Chernobyl, whose crumbling concrete sarcophagus still lurks ominously in northern Ukraine, continuing to invisibly poison the environment and devastate countless lives.

Unlike other newly independent states in the post-Soviet zone, Ukraine has had a long and proud national tradition which has helped to bind the country into a largely cohesive entity (unlike its neighbour Belarus which is effectively a Russian satrap). Preoccupied with dealing with the economic and social trauma of the break-up, Russia was in no position to assert much influence over its new neighbours allowing many to build ties with former Western enemies, such as Nato, a strategy which was designed to prevent future Russian interference.  While many of the former post-Soviet countries are regarded as being distinctly different, Russia considers both Belarus and Ukraine as Slavic brothers who most assuredly fall within their zone of influence.

Looking hopefully to the West while the weight of the past pulls them to the East, the ties that bind this new nation together are being slowly unravelled by competing powers. Politically, economically and socially Ukraine is defined by this struggle. In this conflict, energy, the vital motive force behind a society, becomes a weapon. The pipelines that were laid in Soviet times are crucial conduits of gas and oil that are key to keeping Ukraine working and the Russians have been more than happy to threaten that they would turn off the tap if they didn’t get their way. Additionally, as much of the natural gas that flows from Russia to Europe runs through Ukraine, an additional layer of pressure is added to any events that might jeopardise the EU economy.

Erken’s photographs are a portrait of a country struggling to come to terms with its new and uncertain place in the world. His images produce an account that ties together the varying strands of this invisible geopolitical tug of war and  its impact upon both ordinary individuals and Ukrainian society.  Moving seamlessly between scenes of industry, apartment blocks, coal mines, power stations, desolate landscapes, and everyday people sleeping and drinking, Erken creates a narrative that is refreshingly broad and ambitious in its scope.

The landscape in these images is bleak and heavily polluted; this is a country where the environment has been ravaged by man for decades. Interestingly, the few images of lush greenery and the bright red berries that appear in the book are pictures from the deserted and heavily contaminated zone around Chernobyl.  The promise of the future has been tainted by the legacy of the past.

As a book object this is a wonderfully produced example of what can be done through self publishing. It comes complete with cardboard sleeve which has a small black and white image of a Soviet era dam under construction on the front. Sliding the soft cover book out, there are a number of translucent pages before you get to the book proper. The sequencing and the narrative flow of the images works well, while the deliberate use of different sized pages prevents it from becoming yet another oppressive survey of despair. Despair is most assuredly evident in this work but it is the quiet scream of mute anger and individual powerlessness rather than the shrill cry of the outsiders fleeting outrage that pervades the pages of this book.

Erken’s work is an examination of the human impact of this posturing, portraying an uncertain nation, shackled by history, trapped between their aspirations and the inescapable influence of their larger neighbour who is determined to reassert control.  Unlike other photographic projects documenting the Soviet legacy this is not just another study of rust and squalor; the clichéd gnomic semi-naked alcoholics of Boris Mikhailov are absent here.  Erken’s images are subtle and, in my opinion, all the more effective because of it.

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.

The White Sea Canal – (edited by Maxim Gorky)

Built between 1931 and 1933, the White Sea Canal was the prototypical construction project using forced labour pioneered by the Stalinist regime. It has been estimated that over 100,000 prisoners died during the construction of a ship canal designed to allow ships a more direct access to the Baltic Sea rather than having to go around Scandinavia. The construction of the canal was carried out by the OGPU secret police (precursors to the KGB) who brutally supervised the unfortunates who were sacrificed in vain to build a canal that ultimately proved to be useless (it was too shallow for the large cargo ships it was supposed to transport.)

This book was published in 1935 by Bodley Head in England (there is also a US edition called Belomor) and written by a committee of writers led by Maxim Gorky who do a masterful job of twisting what was in reality a horrendously brutal and viscous regime where thousands of people were mercilessly worked to death in order to construct a narrative that is breathtaking in its cynicism. Within the pages of the book we meet a number of inmates who are presented as either criminals or political opponents who opposed Stalin’s murderous rule. By labouring on the canal they all finally come to understand the error of their former ways and find salvation and redemption through participating in this collective endeavour. Within this grotesquely surreal narrative the Gulag guards are transformed from sadistic, brutalised butchers of Stalinist terror into benevolent, even paternalistic  father-confessor figures, whose only goal is to ‘reforge’ the unfortunate inmates so that they can become happy workers. At the end of the book there’s even a happy ending as the arch-psychopath himself, Stalin, pays a visit and sees what a great job everybody has done in building this pointless canal. This is Orwell’s world come to life.

Accompanying the 340 page text are 25 photographs which range from portraits of influential individuals (camp commandants, Yagoda head of the OGPU, Stalin etc.) to depictions of the construction and images of individuals plucked from the mass of inmates who are held up as successful examples of those who found redemption through labour.

Like the text, individual photographers are uncredited and many of the images are straightforward record photographs (some very heavily retouched) but there are 2 made by Rodchenko that stand out.  Rodchenko’s experimental avant-garde style which had been tolerated in the decade after the Russian revolution was coming under increasing criticism as Stalin ascended to power.  Socialist-Realism was the only game in town by the 1930s and those who tried to do anything different risked joining the ever increasing numbers that disappeared into Gulag. In an effort to curry favour, Rodchenko visited the canal site and produced photographs which appeared in the infamous issue of USSR in Construction (two of which, Shock-Workers and Music Speeds the Men on the Sluice appear in the book.)

The 1930’s were the high point of the documentary book and this is a Stalinist attempt to legitimate murder and slave labour in the eyes of a foreign audience. Although this is not really a photo-book, for a horrifying example of how totalitarian regimes cynically twist reality, obliterate history and destroy the individual, look no further.

Interstingly, the Russian language version of this book was banned a few years later in 1937 when Yagoda, the head of the OGPU photographed here, was himself imprisoned and brutally executed on Stalin’s orders. Ironically, possession of this book, with the disgraced Yagoda’s picture in it, was a crime that would send you to the Gulag to experience the realities of the brutal life glossily described within this publication.