Friday, 24 June 2016

History of Russia in Photographs

Vladimir Semin: Sparrow Hills, Moscow, 1 May 1994

The Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, has announced a website devoted to the History of Russia in Photographs, launched appropriately on 12 June, Russia’s national day.  Covering the period 1860 to 2000, it currently has almost 80,000 images, with more added daily.  The aim, according to Olga Sviblovo, the museum's director, is to bring together as many photographs as possible in a ‘visual Wikipedia’ of Russian history, or as the site itself puts it, the ‘life of the country in all its manifestations’.   To date it combines holdings from more than forty archives, museums, private collections, and the state archives.  Many of the photographs have never been published before.  As well as the project drawing from established sources, individuals can post images they own which were taken before 2000.  The resulting website will encourage research and discussion, provide a valuable educational resource, and act as a beacon for further donations of historical material.

It is possible to search chronologically or by name or keyword.  An understanding of Russian (or an online translator) is necessary to be able to read the captions but is not necessary to examine the photographs themselves as the timeline can be manipulated by means of cursors defining start and end dates.  Registered users can leave comments, and create their own ‘exhibitions’.  The former should help to expand the bald descriptions of many entries which at present cry out for elaboration.

Browsing the website shows what astonishing changes have occurred in Russia in the period it covers.  The earliest photographs were taken when serfdom still existed, and the display tracks the changes from Tsardom, the First World War, the 1917 revolution, the Communist regime in its various forms, the Great Patriotic War, Cold War, Glasnost, to the fall of the USSR.  It is a lot of history and a very big country.  In that context, 80,000 images suddenly seems a small number, but once it really gets going there is scope for the site to reflect the country – its people, places and events – in all its facets.

At the moment certain gaps are apparent.  To take an example, putting Afghanistan (or rather Афганистан) in the search box brings up only five images, all from 1980 and by a single individual.  Thousands more relating to the Russian presence in Afghanistan must be lurking in Russian government files.  One would think it odd not to see any from Vietnam on a website devoted to the History of the United States in Photographs.  Admittedly there is a tagging issue at the moment; many of the most recent photographs, from 1999, are of Russian forces in presumably Chechnya, but these are not identified as such.  What is on the website is also governed by what has survived.  Only nine images are tagged with Trotsky’s name, hardly surprising taking into account how he was airbrushed by Stalin, and it may be necessary to source material suppressed within Russia from external archives to provide comprehensive coverage.

Another notable gap is indicated by the presence of only one photograph by Boris Mikhailov, of two men sitting in a kitchen dating from 1983.  Mikhailov has produced a large documentary body, as I know because an extensive selection was shown at the Photographers’ Gallery in London in the 2014 exhibition Primrose:Early Colour Photography in Russia.  Some of these works are challenging, but represent a legitimate view of the USSR.  It cannot be said that the Multimedia Art Museum is unaware of Mikhailov because Primrose was put together in conjunction with them, and the curator was Olga Sviblova.  There may be copyright issues of course, but many of Mikhailov’s pictures have been legitimately published online, so it should not be difficult to obtain his permission to add them to the History of Russia in Photographs database.

It is early days, and I am sure that many of the omissions will be filled in in time, though I wonder if there are criteria for inclusion which have not been made public.  It is worth bearing in mind that support has been provided by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, the Moscow Department of Culture, the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications, and Yandex, a Russian multinational which operates the most widely-used search engine in the country.  Official support may have come with strings.  Sviblovo’s announcement contained the declaration: ‘We began thinking of such a portal in 1999 because we understood how important it would be to create a photographic history for future generations.  You cannot build the future without knowing your past.’  Let’s hope the aim is to provide a representative, not a selective, view of the past.  It would be a pity if ideological influences were allowed to affect the content.

Such concerns notwithstanding, the website is a marvellous achievement, which raises the obvious question for someone browsing it in the UK: why are we not doing something similar?  The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is an obvious body to initiate a project like this, with its existing collection soon to be complemented by some 400,000 objects which are going to be transferred to its custody from the National Media Museum in Bradford.  The V&A has stated that it plans to increase opportunities to see its extensive photography holdings, both physically and digitally, but the sceptic in me suspects that digital access will not be on the scale of the History of Russia in Photographs.  The V&A’s curators could do worse than look at the Moscow initiative for inspiration when planning their own offering.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

On the trail of Mikhail Bulgakov

Leaflet from Museum M A Bulgakov

On a recent trip to Moscow my wife and I visited Mikhail Bulgakov’s flat, located in a quiet courtyard at 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya ulitsa, which has been turned into a museum to honour his achievements.  Like many others I became a fan of Bulgakov’s as a result of reading his classic novel The Master and Margarita, and I was keen to pay homage and see for myself places associated with the writer and his books.

Before we went up to the flat we called at a rival attraction just inside the courtyard entrance.  The grandly named Museum-Theatre Bulgakov House also contains a small Bulgakov museum which is free to enter.  Display cases exhibit photographs, documents and artefacts, plus a large collection of international editions of his books which demonstrate his enduring popularity.  The weirdest exhibit has to be a large model of a tram with the head of Berlioz, a character from the Master and Margarita who has an unfortunate encounter with some spilled sunflower oil and is decapitated when he falls across a rail.
Tram, Berlioz at bottom left

There is an old-fashioned ambience and it is am enjoyable venue for a cup of tea, though it is probably very crowded on theatre nights.  There seems to be a fascination with poor Berlioz because you can buy jars of various sizes each with a picture of a face in some liquid, mimicking a preserved head.  I was tempted to get one but didn’t think it would survive the journey, assuming it managed to negotiate airport security.  Outside the entrance is an attractive statue of Koroviev and Behemoth standing guard.  It was a pleasant visit, but little of the information provided was in English.
Koroviev and Behemoth in the courtyard

Bulgakov’s actual flat is at the top of a block without a lift, so a climb is necessary to reach it.  Once there, it is very different in tone to the Bulgakov House’s faded grandeur.  Apartment 50, the communal flat where he and his first wife lived from 1921-4, is now a fully-fledged curated museum (The Museum M. A. Bulgakov).  The flat becomes the temporary home of the devilish Woland and his retinue in The Master and Margarita, and amusingly the Bulgakov House Museum sign on the street corner by the courtyard entrance is numbered 302-bis, the fictional number Bulgakov gave to the block.
The sign for the Bulgakov House Museum, 302-bis

Recognised by the Moscow City Department of Culture, the museum is dedicated to expounding Bulgakov’s life.  While the stairwell leading to the flat is clean it is heavily graffitied with writing and paintings relating to and inspired by Bulgakov’s work.  These predate the establishment of the museum and have presumably been left intact for ‘atmosphere’, but they give the stairs a scruffy look.  Once at the top of the building it is a pleasure to find that the flat itself has been completely renovated and is welcoming and cheerful.
A sample of the graffiti

Unfortunately we again found that the non-Russian information was limited, yet I was happy simply to be able to examine the exhibits and soak up the atmosphere.  The staff were friendly and there was a lively feel that one does not associate with normally staid authors’ museums.  It was fairly busy, and a group was lectured, sadly in Russian, for a considerable time in the bric-a-brac filled kitchen.  Whereas the unofficial museum near the courtyard entrance has a static display, the flat has changing exhibitions.  There is quite a lot crammed in the limited space, though there is room for further acquisitions.  I thought the museum well worth the small entrance fee.
In the Bulgakov Museum, naturally in a suitable T-shirt

One could tell that the intent behind the enterprise is serious because the single information panel in English was headed with a quote by Michel Foucault, taken from his Les Mots et les Choses, the English-language title of which the curators have used as the label to describe their current efforts to bring order to the miscellaneous nature of the collection, identify gaps, and relate the holdings to Bulgakov’s life – ‘Words and things: Unveiling a Collection’.  It is to be hoped that this project will include translations of information, and so allow non-Russian speakers to learn more about this remarkable writer.

To complete our Bulgakov tribute we visited nearby Patriarch’s Ponds (actually a shady garden dominated by a single rectangular lake).  I like to think I sat on a bench in much the same spot Berlioz and Ponyrev were sitting when Woland appeared before them.  There were couples and families lounging around, and it felt a calm oasis in the busy city.  I was disappointed to learn that a tram line never ran close to here but it was pleasant to be in the place that that Bulgakov used to such great effect in the opening of his novel.  Unfortunately the grass had been reseeded and covered in plastic to protect it so we didn’t see it at its best.  We were there in the afternoon as well, on a sunny day, and to get the full Bulgakov effect we should have gone when dusk was falling, shadows lengthening, and the air full of the promise of night-time mystery.  Who knows, we might even have met Woland, come back to see how Moscow had altered in his absence.
Patriarch's Ponds, though only one remains

There are a number of fine museums in Moscow dedicated to authors, even if we did find that their limited opening hours meant it was hard to fit them all in when there was so much else to do.  We managed to visit the superb Art Nouveau Gorky house-museum, which deserves to be better known, and the Chekhov museum, which also contains a small theatre added to the original home.  Sadly, despite our best efforts, we could not get to either the Gogol or Dostoyevsky houses.  Perhaps next time we’ll manage it.  There is also a Bulgakov Museum in Kiev (his birthplace), so that has gone on my wish list as well.

Plaque commemorating Bulgakov in the street