Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The Eleventh Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film

The 2018 Ukrainian film festival, held at Trinity College, Cambridge, on the evenings of 9 and 10 November, was unusual in not having Dr Rory Finin at the helm as he had begun a two-year sabbatical shortly before.  The festival programme, however, was up to the usual standard and mixed fiction and non-fiction, humour and the very serious.  It was introduced on the Friday night by Dr Olenka Pevny, Rory’s replacement as director of the Cambridge Ukrainian Studies department.

The first film, shown on Friday evening, was Invisible Battalion: The Stories of Our Women at War (2017), directed by Iryna Tsilyk, Alina Gorlova and Svitlana Lischynska.  There have been shorts focusing on women in the conflict in the east of the country, but this documentary is being promoted as ‘the first full-length film about the Ukrainian women’s participation in the war with Russia.’  It focuses on six women who had, or still were at the time of filming, participated in the war in Donbass, showing how they are playing an active and vital role.

At the start of the conflict in 2014 the Ukrainian government was woefully underprepared, and the armed forces had been run down on the assumption that the country would not have to confront external aggression.  Volunteers filled the gap until the Kiev government could gear itself up to make a response, and many of these were women who considered they had as much right to defend their country from external aggression as the men, and should be treated on equal terms.  Unfortunately they found themselves discriminated against and fighting two wars: one against the Russian-backed separatists, and the Ukrainian authorities for recognition of their sacrifices.  That struggle is part of a broader effort to achieve gender equality.

There was no conscription and severely limited opportunities for women within the regular army when the war began, so they had to join the volunteer forces instead.  In that capacity they were not listed as combatants because they were not regulars. Consequently they have largely had to rely on ad-hoc help from the population rather than official sources.  As they receive little support from the Ukrainian government, the Ukrainian Women’s Fund and UN Women devised the Invisible Battalion project.  This is designed to highlight, among legislators and the public, the roles being played by women both in the front line and in support, study the effects of war on women combatants, and improve conditions during and after their period of service.  The film is part of that campaign.

The six interviewees fulfill, or fulfilled, a variety of functions in the war effort.  Each segment is fairly brief, but gives a feeling for their day-to-day lives.  There is no commentary and the stories are left to speak for themselves.  Text information is provided on the participants’ civilian lives, and they come from all walks of life; what they did or do in the war, undertaking jobs as varied as medic, sniper, administrative support and trainer; the places they served; and their awards (which are often numerous).  Some have been directly involved since 2014 and tiredness is etched on their faces.

Participation takes its toll.  Emotions have to be repressed; as one interviewee says, she cannot cry despite the terrible things she has witnessed.  PTSD is a significant theme of the film.  A woman recounts how since she came back she has become alienated from her family.  There have been a number of suicides among female veterans and difficulties reintegrating into civil society after having been changed by the war.  Unfortunately there is little assistance for those in that situation, and such intervention programmes as there are usually not state-sponsored.  There are other effects of the war: one woman says she and her husband are desperate to start a family, but how can they at the present time?  Not all sacrifices are obvious to the outsider.

An element of the campaign was the presence after the screening of some of those women involved in the conflict, and they conducted a Q&A session.  In a wide-ranging discussion they said that part of the fight they are waging is to have all positions in the military open to women, and to ensure that promotion opportunities are equal.  At present women suffer discrimination as promotion for them tends to occur mainly in non-combat roles and the only female general is in the intelligence service.  The situation is improving though, with more front-line roles opening up for women, but progress is slow.  They also noted the asymmetry between the support Russia gives the separatists and the outside aid Ukraine has received to deal with a threat which affects a large number of countries in the west, and in 2014 the Russians had had much more experience of conflict in a variety of countries than had the Ukrainians.

Naturally the speakers were optimistic about the eventual outcome of the war, but only that morning I had listened to a report on the BBC World Service about elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, and the reporter pessimistically considered that the longer the conflict lasted, the more difficult it would be for Ukraine to regain its lost territories.  Even if Ukraine does succeed, it looks like being an arduous slog.  Whatever the result, the impact will be long-lasting on the country’s civil society.  It was telling that one speaker noted her belief that Ukrainian citizens now trust central government less, and tend to rely on each other.  She said that the war has shown the people to each other.

After watching the film and listening to the speakers it seems remarkable that the government has not given more recognition to these women, who are fighting just as hard as the men, and not integrated them into the regular armed services.  One clue is perhaps in the response from one of the women at the Q&A when asked if the women were paid the same as the men.  She replied that while in the regular army pay rates for men and women doing the same job are the same as far as she could tell, the women volunteers are not paid at all.  Considering how many volunteers there are fighting alongside the regular troops, the government is being subsidised by all those women who give their time – and sometimes their blood – on behalf of the state.  They deserve better.  The obvious conclusion is that the Kiev government needs to develop a covenant that sets out its obligations to its armed forces, men and women, regular and volunteer.

Saturday’s films were a documentary and a fiction film, Slovo House (2017) and Between Two Hares (1961) respectively.  Slovo means ‘word’, and Slovo House (Budynok 'Slovo'), directed by Taras Tomenko, examines a remarkable period in Ukrainian literature when an entire apartment block was occupied by writers of the finest calibre in what was then the Ukrainian capital Kharkiv (before its relocation to Kiev in 1934).  Construction of the block commenced in 1927 and the film suggests it was a response to inflammatory remarks made by Maxim Gorky, who refused to allow his novel Mother to be translated into Ukrainian on the grounds that it was not a language but merely a dialect of Russian.  This naturally offended Ukrainian sensibilities, and as living conditions in the city were generally poor, the Slovo House was built to house its writers with Stalin’s blessing as recompense; Stalin had stated that Ukrainian was indeed a separate language as part of the policy of Ukrainianisation.  The block was constructed in the shape of an elongated letter C, which is the first letter of cлово (slovo), and residents began moving into the relatively luxurious apartments in 1929.

Having all your intellectuals in one basket made it a cauldron for a creative ferment, assisted by communal dining, and much of the film is a flat-by-flat profile of the residents, showing what remarkable personalities they were.  It also allowed easy surveillance by the authorities of these potential subversives.  After a creative flowering in the 1920s the Ukrainianisation policy was reversed in the 1930s as repression increased and dissenting voices were silenced in the purges.  The Holodomor signalled further efforts to subjugate Ukrainians, and the writers were accused of nationalism and even terrorism.  Gradually they were arrested by the NKVD and executed in a ‘cleansing campaign’, an effort that accelerated after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934.  By their end, the purges had touched almost two-thirds of the flats in the Slovo House.

The building is still standing, though looking rather dishevelled these days, and its story was told through a mixture of archive film to evoke the period of the Slovo House’s heyday (including some well-known – perhaps too well known – shots from Man with a Movie Camera) and contemporary footage, mostly drone shots which lovingly caress the building and its location.  A final section lists the inhabitants, a roll call of Ukraine’s intelligentsia, crushed by Stalinism.  Slovo House won the Golden Dziga for best documentary at the 2018 Ukrainian Film Academy Awards, and it is a worthy winner for bringing to wider attention an assault on Ukrainian identity that went hand-in-hand with the starvation being inflicted on the country by the regime in Moscow.

There was a technical hitch which delayed the start of the final film so sadly the audience for Between Two Hares (Za dvoma zaytsiamy), directed by Viktor Ivanov, was quite small, though the wine provided was adequate compensation for the wait.  Made during the Khrushchev period, ‘Ukrainian screwball comedy’ is probably not a phrase which is used very often, but this was a very funny film when non-Soviet audiences might have expected output at that time to be on the dour side.  The title comes from a Ukrainian saying that if you try to chase two hares you won’t get either, which was something of a spoiler.

The film concerns the misadventures of Svirid Golokhvasty, a dapper young barber in early twentieth-century Kiev who is on the brink of bankruptcy because of his profligate ways.  His solution is to marry for money.  One likely prospect is Pronya, the spoilt and exceedingly plain daughter of a pair of wealthy but peasant shopkeepers, whom he courts in the guise of being well-off.  Meanwhile he falls in love with Galina, the beautiful daughter of a poor woman who sells apples, but who wisely does not reciprocate his affection.

Caught by her harridan mother paying attention to Galina, he finds himself betrothed even though there will be no dowry.  What he does not realise is that the two mothers are sisters, so it can only be a matter of time before his duplicitous behaviour is exposed.  Galina as it happens is in love with the blacksmith and cannot abide Golokhvasty’s dandyish ways; Pronya on the contrary finds him attractive thanks to his sharp dressing and elevated (if often nonsensical) speech, and feels that he is of the right social status.  So, not aware of the true state of affairs, Pronya agrees to marry him.

Matters come to a head when he and Pronya are about to plight their troth at the cathedral.  He is recognised by some of the participants from the ‘engagement’ party at the poor relatives’ shack and they rush off to alert Galina’s mother.  As the happy couple process up the steps the poor sister denounces the groom for the cad he is, and Pronya berates him for humiliating her.  He vainly denies he had entered into an engagement with someone else but naturally the wedding is off and he and his cronies are thrown unceremoniously down the steps by the crowd.  Picking himself up he musters his dignity, and he and his friends retreat from the scene.

The film holds up very well and is an entertaining well-integrated mix of madcap comedy and social satire (complete with sexy nun).  Watching this version is a fairly new experience because we were told that the original Ukrainian soundtrack was only rediscovered five years ago.  On completion the film was dubbed into Russian and received wide distribution in the Soviet Union in that state.  In 2013 the Ukrainian soundtrack was found in a regional archive and the film restored to its original condition.  While there is great affection for the film in both Ukraine and Russia, there is something symbolic in recovering a Ukrainian film that had had its identity usurped by Russia.  After the serious films preceding it, it was a pleasantly escapist conclusion to the festival.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Day for Night: Landscapes of Walter Benjamin

Recently I flâneured over to the Peltz Gallery at Birkbeck’s School of Arts in Gordon Square, London, to see an exhibition of photographs and two films related to Walter Benjamin (one of which was not running during my visit).  It is designed to be a celebration of his influence plus a sombre memorial to him in the form of a focus on landscapes known to him, particularly his final walk.

Benjamin’s story begins in Berlin, where he was born in 1892, and finishes in Catalonia, where he died.  He left Paris in May 1940 hoping to emigrate to the United States via Portugal, but committed suicide at Portbou in September 1940 when threatened with deportation back to France; an action that would have put him in the hands of the German occupiers, a group of individuals not noted for their kindness to Jewish intellectuals.

Alas for someone whose creativity has been so significant, Day for Night is a small show with small ideas.  The heart of it is a series of photographs of people holding either a large portrait of Benjamin – titled ‘Essential passage’; or placards with quotations from his best-known essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (or as it is also more clunkily known, ’The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’) – titled ‘More than a Sign’.

The placards themselves were included in the exhibition, in what was horribly termed ‘selfie corner’.  Visitors were invited to take said selfies while holding them, to be posted on Instagram.  The fragments were rendered meaningless by being ripped out of context (‘Authority of the object’, ‘Instead of being’, ‘Mode of existence’ etc.), and you don’t have to be a member of the Frankfurt School to suspect that Benjamin would not have been impressed by this particular act of mechanical (in more than one sense) reproduction.  The large portrait held up or carried around was even worse.  By evoking the portraits of dictators carried in processions it suggests a cult of Benjamin.

Screen grab, ‘More than a Sign (film)’

Literalness is taken even further in a set of photographs showing light effects, called ‘Luminosities’, referencing Benjamin’s Illuminations.  A further set, ‘Day for Night’, photographed in Portbou, uses the film technique in which scenes shot during the day mimic night-time by underexposing the image.  The curators make the rather obvious point that day and night can interpenetrate, as Benjamin found in Naples, day unravelling what the night has woven.  The link to Benjamin here is tenuous.

As if inspiration has failed entirely, the exhibition opens out to consider the issue of migration into Europe, equating it to Benjamin’s flight from the Nazis.  A rather nice group of photographs is titled ‘Life in the Shadows’ (hinting at L’Armée des Ombres?).  The caption reads: ‘This series of images focuses on a group of Senegalese migrants and their adopted home of present-day Port de la Selva, a town 14 kilometres from the place of Benjamin’s death.  The camera captures their figures in ambiguous, quasi-ritualistic poses in the empty streets of the off-season.’

Despite the persecution of Christians, and the usual problems women and gays tend to have in a Muslim-majority country, Senegal is not equivalent to Nazi-controlled Europe.  These are more likely to be economic migrants, as the gallery’s publicity concedes, and the comparison to Benjamin’s flight feels inappropriate.  The exhibition concludes with a film, ‘More than a Sign (film)’, tracing that final walk over the Pyrenees, covering 20km from southern France to Portbou.   Unfortunately it involves carrying the portrait of Benjamin, and becomes preposterous (fortunately we are spared the entire 20km).

The idea to celebrate Benjamin’s life and work was praiseworthy, but in practice the results presented here are rather dim.  We may hope for more substantial commemorations in 2020.  Day for Night: Landscapes of Walter Benjamin runs from 21 September to 27 October and is curated by Diego Ferrari and Jean McNeil.  A small book, edited by the curators, accompanies the event.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Ron Pearson’s Yellowstone Supervolcano Experiment


I am hoping to undertake an experiment based on an idea by the late Ron Pearson, for which I welcome responses.  This will only take a few moments, so I hope readers will participate.  Details are given below.

Recently I reread an article by Pearson in the Winter 2015 issue of the Society for Psychical Research's magazine Paranormal Review (PR) in which he invites readers to guess when the Yellowstone supervolcano in Wyoming, United States, will experience its next ‘super eruption’.  The last occurred some 650,000 years ago and research has indicated that such events happen every 600-700,000 years.  Pearson proposed an experiment based on the notion of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ to try to predict the year of the next large-scale eruption.

Harnessing the wisdom of crowds

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations (2004), James Surowiecki argues that aggregating data results in much more accurate information than any single individual would be able to provide.  The classic example is Sir Francis Galton finding that the average of the guesses by a crowd at a county fair trying to estimate the weight of an ox once it was butchered was extremely accurate, even though many of the individual guesses were wildly off.  The crucial point is that the guesses should be made independently to ensure guessers are not influenced by others, as that would skew the results.  Pearson wanted to see if the same principle could be applied to the Yellowstone supervolano.

Carrying out Ron Pearson’s idea

Pearson wrote a similar article to his one in PR, requesting predictions of the year of the next Yellowstone eruption, for the Internationalist Survivalist Society (ISS) website, in which he said he would publish the results in Psychic News in a few weeks’ time.  The article is not dated but probably preceded the one in PR as respondents were required to write in, and it is likely few people did so.  Unfortunately it sounds as if the experiment as described in PR also came to nothing as there were problems with the website set up to collect data, and it is no longer operational.

Pearson died last year, and in honour of his memory I thought it would be nice to resurrect the idea and see if it is possible to get enough responses to arrive at a possible year for the eruption of the volcano.  Clearly this is of a different order to guessing the weight of a dead ox or the number of jellybeans in a jar as there is a precognitive aspect to it.  That is what makes it an interesting project, one which can be carried out with little effort by participants.

In his ISS article, Pearson included a form to record responses amplifying the year supplied, presumably to see, after the eruption, which method proved most successful (assuming enough data points).  I’ve adapted the items because the originals as set out are confusing.


Please give a year for the next ‘super eruption’ of the Yellowstone caldera.  In addition, please note which of the following applies:

* I just made a guess on my own.

* I meditated and arrived at the date.

* I used remote viewing.

* I pendulum-dowsed a map at 1110W 440N.

* The year came to me as the result of a dream.

* I am a medium.

* I am a healer.

* I used another method (state method).

Number of responses required

Pearson was relaxed about the number of responses he considered necessary to give the experiment validity – in the ISS article he says 100, in the PR article he increases it to 200.  I’d like to go for the latter as a minimum, but really with something like this, the sky, or the inevitability of running out of people willing to take a moment to send in a guess, is the limit.  Galton had 787 guesses for his ox, which seems a little ambitious, but then who knows how many he might have obtained had he been working in the age of social media.

Assessing the result

Obviously another limiting factor is the volcano erupting, but I am hopeful the data will be collected before that event.  I am aware the conclusion of the experiment is possibly some way off.  Pearson thought it could be a model for a kind of psychic early warning system; unfortunately we will only know how good it is if/when the volcano actually erupts and we, or our descendants, can see how close we got.  I shall publish the averaged date once sufficient numbers are in, assuming they reach critical mass as it were.

Send predictions to me at tom.ruffles[at]yahoo.co.uk.  Only one attempt per person please, and I repeat guesses must be private and not made after discussion with anybody else.

The data protection bit: I shall delete all email addresses as soon as I have recorded the guess, and promise not to use information received for any purpose other than this experiment.  Individuals will not be identified.


Pearson, Ron. ‘Crowds and Catastrophes: Can the Wisdom of Crowds Predict When the Yellowstone Supervolcano Will Erupt? A New Experiment Aims to Find Out’, Paranormal Review, issue 73, Winter 2015, pp. 22-23.

Pearson, Ron. ‘An Extraordinary Psychic Experiment’, The International Survivalist Society, n.d.

Surowiecki,  James. The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, Doubleday, 2004.

Revised 28 August 2018

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Why I have left the Labour Party

I have been a member of the Labour Party since 1983, and I’ve stuck with it even when I disagreed with its policies (I still miss Clause IV).  Admittedly while Tony Blair was Prime Minister I refused to vote, on the grounds I could not endorse someone I considered a war criminal, but I was not tempted to leave the Party.  Now, however, I have lost patience and today resigned my membership.  This dissatisfaction has been brewing for some time and has a number of strands, all converging on Jeremy Corbyn.

He has been a disaster electorally; the last General Election was hailed as some kind of victory despite not gaining a majority, but the victory comprised a relief that Labour’s showing wasn’t a disaster, a poor reason to celebrate.  At this writing Labour is still behind the Conservatives in the opinion polls, which bearing in mind the chaos reigning in the Tory Party is in itself some kind of achievement.  This is largely due to the perception nationally of Corbyn as a potentially disastrous Prime Minister, a perception I think is justified.  He is unelectable unless the Conservatives rip themselves apart to such an extent he is able to sneak into Downing Street by default as the least worst candidate, which if it were to happen would not be a vote of confidence in his abilities.

However, as the Blair example shows, leaders come and go but the Party, one likes to think, will be there forever.  So rolling my eyes at Corbyn’s unfitness for high office would not in itself be enough to make me resign.  The breaking point has come with the controversy over anti-Semitism.  Clearly there are anti-Semitic elements within Labour, whether or not it is falsely dressed up as anti-Zionism, and the way in which these are being dealt with has been inept and leads me to question the sincerity behind what little is being done.  Several incidents have brought me to this pass.

I was concerned when Corbyn had to apologise over having questioned the removal of Kalen Ockerman’s anti-Semitic mural painted on a wall near Brick Lane.  Corbyn had initially defended his concern about its removal on grounds of free speech (though the Jewish Chronicle noted his hypocrisy as he also attended a rally against the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoons).  However, as Baroness Julia Neuberger said, and which should have been obvious to Corbyn, if you can’t see a problem with the painting you lack sensitivity to what constitutes anti-Semitism.

On the other side of the coin, Corbyn has referred to Hamas and Hizbollah as ‘friends’.  Agreed that does not make him an anti-Semite himself (though Margaret Hodge, who happens to be Jewish, seems to believe he is), but he is happy to be their bedfellows.  As further evidence of Labour’s ambivalence on the subject, the Chakrabarti enquiry two years ago hardly cleared the air, and feet shuffling rather than action followed its report.  The Livingstone affair was a long-running embarrassment brought to an end only by his resignation.

Still, I hoped the situation would resolve itself.  When the Board of Deputies of British Jews criticised the Party and organised a protest against it, they were accused of being largely Conservative in their make-up and not having Labour’s best interests at heart.  It was possible the issue was being used as a convenient means to attack Labour by those whose political affiliations lay elsewhere, or even by those within the Party wishing to undermine Corbyn.

There is probably an element of opportunism in the attacks on Labour certainly, though if this is in part a ploy by the Tories to divert attention from their difficulties it isn’t being terribly successful.  Yet when it comes down to it, the anti-Semitism isn’t being made up, and if I were a Jewish member, I think I would have quit in disgust some time ago; after all, who wants to be seen as a kapo, as one Jewish member of the Party was called?  For me, it has taken a little longer to reach that decision.

Now, despite a valiant rearguard action by the PLP (though even that I have seen dismissed as simply an attempt to undermine Corbyn), a code of conduct on anti-Semitism was adopted by the NEC minus some of the key elements contained in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.  The Campaign against Antisemitism accuses Labour, in so doing, of dictating to Jews what they may call anti-Semitic (gentilesplaining as the Campaign memorably calls it).

To suggest that somehow the International Definition precludes criticism of the Israeli government’s actions is a red herring and is incorrect.  The full International Definition of Antisemitism has been widely adopted, including by the UK government and large numbers of local councils, putting the NEC out of step and leading to the suspicion of ulterior motives.  There may be legal challenges to the code and further consultation with Jewish groups, but the fact this should be necessary suggests a lack of coherence and an unwillingness to take an unambiguous stand on what is acceptable within the Labour Party.

That Corbyn has had such a tin ear on anti-Semitism for so long is exasperating, and his lack of vigour – apart from occasional anti-racist platitudes – leads to the suspicion he is concerned to appeal to a constituency he values more than the Jewish one.  As a result I do not feel I want to continue to belong to an organisation unable to tackle the issue with decisiveness.  While this is not the only subject which has left me disenchanted with Labour, it is the final one, so after 35 years I decided to quit.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

‘Post-Soviet Visions’ at Calvert 22 – How Useful is ‘post-Soviet’?

Last week I caught the tail-end of a photography exhibition at the Calvert 22 Foundation’s gallery in London devoted to Post-Soviet Visions: Image and Identity in the New Eastern Europe, curated by Ekow Eshun and Anastasiia Fedorova.  The accompanying leaflet and booklet describe it as ‘A group show of photography from the New East’, and the text accurately talks about the display ‘exploring new visual representations of lifestyle and landscape in Eastern Europe’ by younger artists ‘a quarter century after the end of Communism’.

In the show were 14 photographers (two working collaboratively) from Azerbaijan, Georgia (x2), Germany (x2), Latvia, Poland (x3), Russia (x3), Ukraine (the introduction in the booklet states Ukraine, though the gallery caption diplomatically refers only to ‘Crimea’, where the photographer lives), and Uzbekistan – the last an honorary addition to Eastern Europe.  The pair working together hail from Munich, which doesn’t sound like the New East, or the Old East for that matter.  These geographical confusions proved to be significant.

I enjoyed the exhibition greatly but found myself, as an outsider, questioning the emphasis on post-Soviet, and the bracketing together of photographers who come from widely differing backgrounds.  The press release confidently declares that the show ‘takes place at a time when the term “post-Soviet” has become a byword for bold, innovative creativity in cultural fields from high fashion to film,’ and the booklet tells us ‘In recent years, the rise of the so-called post-Soviet aesthetic has turned a historical term into a trendy buzz word.’  I do not mean to criticise the curators who are to be applauded for promoting this impressive work to a British audience in an energetic way, but I have to take issue with the use of ‘post-Soviet’.

It may be a handy label for curators, but it does not help artists trying to break free of the constraints of the past, even if they are happy to deal with certain aspects of that past, such as its architecture.  Using post-Soviet as a catch-all links photographers who are mainly joined by accidents of geography and the shared history of their forebears, but whose futures will increasingly diverge.  As that happens, this emphasis on the past will become increasingly unhelpful.  After all, these are young photographers who will probably have only vague memories, or perhaps no memories at all, of the Soviet era.

The use of the alternative expression ‘New East’, which Calvert 22 defines as ‘Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia’, also strikes me as problematic.  Apart from possible confusion with the established Near/Middle/Far East trichotomy, it too lumps countries widely separated geographically and culturally.  It is still defining the ‘new’ east against the ‘old’, i.e. the ex-Soviet bloc, though it has to be better than post-Soviet, with a more positive ring to it.

The curators themselves note how technology is erasing the old borders as the world becomes increasingly interconnected (four of the 14 photographers work in a different country to the one they were born in).  The present is certainly affected by the past history, as can be seen in many of the photographs in the exhibition, but these are photographers who in various ways want to get away from it, not be defined by it.

As the leaflet concludes, ‘Instead of old binaries of East vs West, socialist vs capitalist, their images capture a generation shaped by issues that are personal rather than political; by questions of sexuality, gender and style.’  It also refers to ‘new identities emerging across the region.’  The probing of issues of sexuality, gender and style may have reasonably common roots in the past as their home countries were constituents of the USSR, though they had their differences even then, but enough time has elapsed to diminish the Soviet Union’s relevance and allow the foregrounding of more contemporary concerns.

To illustrate this point, Turkina Faso is a Russian-born but London-based photographer, a background which says much about the international perspectives of young artists today.  She participated in the panel discussion to launch the exhibition and gave a brief interview to the website Russian Art + Culture.  In her interview she stated ‘I am not a post-Soviet photographer – this is just a tag that people put on me.’  Quite.  I wonder how many of the others represented in the exhibition would say that the label is irrelevant to their practice and merely a marketing tool.

She was not able, or willing, to define what post-Soviet meant in this context, even though she was specifically asked; the closest she could get was to suggest that for her, ‘Soviet photography is associated with something worn out and awkward’, and all she wanted to do was take photographs and be recognised for that.   She ended with a plea not to be pigeonholed and categorised, which surely undermines the use of the term Post-Soviet.

In a factual sense, to describe those countries which made up the Soviet Union and its satellites as post-Soviet is relevant, but when it comes to the cultures of those countries as they forge their own identities, it is hard to see how it is helpful.  As Anastasiia Fedorova says in her introductory essay in the exhibition booklet, ‘Former East, New East, Former West, Post-Soviet – none of these terms offer (sic) a liberation from the Cold War narrative’.

Why use them then?  Like the Soviet Union itself, such phrases may have had their day.  Perhaps it is time to focus on the countries the individuals come from, not what bound them at an increasingly remote point in the past.  I enjoyed the photographs, which were well selected, but grouping them according to the criterion that they were post-Soviet added nothing to them.