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.