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Post-Soviet Visions
Photography Dima Komarov

How the post-Soviet generation found its identity through portraiture

As a new exhibition prepares to launch, we explore a series of young photographers capturing coming-of-age in a post-Communist world

When it comes to photography, portraiture has always been one of its most sincere and revealing genres. We turn to portraiture to explore the cultural movements of the past – be it club-goers in 1980s New York or pioneers of the punk movement – but also to understand the times we live in today. New subcultures, the rise of digital technologies, and the changing perception of adulthood and sexuality all find a reflection in the faces of young people photographed all over the world. A lot of parallels come from growing up in the shared global cultural space, as well as disparities – from historical and political context. But in an increasingly global world, the question remains: are we all the same or are we still different?

For a generation which came of age in Eastern Europe in 1990s, the background was all about differences. The Cold War, the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain – its history is built entirely on notions of the opposing east and west. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, nearly three decades ago. But across a vast territory held under a Communist influence – from Latvia to Uzbekistan to Russia – does the young generation still experience the traces of the obsolete world order? This was one of the key questions at the core of the exhibition Post-Soviet Visions: image and identity in the new Eastern Europe which I co-curated with Ekow Eshun at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation.

Photographer Hassan Kurbanbaev had an idea to photograph the emerging generation of his native Uzbekistan a few months before the country’s 25th anniversary of independence. Uzbekistan is located in Central Asia and was a Soviet republic for most of 20th-century, before becoming independent in 1991. Kurbanbaev realised that during this period, a whole new generation had emerged, and for them, the Soviet Union was a distant history. His portrayal of youngsters in Tashkent is incredibly relatable yet unique – it tells a story of a place unknown to most, but one which also celebrates global connection.

In her project Bloom, Latvian photographer Ieva Raudsepa embarked on a similar quest. She documented the first generation born and raised in Latvia after the country regained its independence in the beginning of the 1990s. The locations of this identity search couldn’t have been more different than the post-Soviet stereotypes: idyllic forest landscapes, lakes and country houses on luminous summer days. Her images are rooted in Latvian visual tradition from the first half of the 20th century, and her series combines the ecstatic sensation of being young, with a strange anxiety of belonging to a certain nation or culture.

Born in 1997, St Petersburg-based Dima Komarov started his photographic career only recently, with his main subjects being his peers, doing what young people do everywhere – falling in love, dressing up for fun, sharing drinks, cigarettes and intimate moments. Komarov’s photographic work is rooted in intuition, experimentation and curiosity. And although today’s Russia is known to be a conservative and oppressive place, his community has found freedom and an all-inclusive spirit in their own world, completely separated from the mainstream.

In the Ukrainian capital, Armen Pasradanov documented the city’s tightly-knit creative community. Minimal black and white portraits capture special moments of cultural history in post-revolution Kiev, but also transcend the idea of locality. Parsadanov was inspired by imagery around the grunge renaissance in Seattle in the 90s. Just like Seattle back then, contemporary Kiev has its own myth – of a new youthful paradise in eastern Europe, where legendary raves are taking place in desolate locations. Of course, it’s partly true – but thanks to Parsadanov’s project, we can also see people behind the myth.  

The duality of the cultural myth and lived reality is also crucial to the exhibition. In the recent years, the notion of the post-Soviet aesthetics has become a brand of its own, particularly following the success of Gosha Rubchinskiy and Demna Gvasalia in fashion. Suddenly having Cyrillic letters or Soviet symbols on a t-shirt was cool, which left a lot of young people across eastern Europe with conflicting emotions. It was a chance to finally be in a spotlight – but it also felt strange to see bits of your own culture commodified and consumed as something novel and exotic.

“Suddenly having Cyrillic letters or Soviet symbols on a t-shirt was cool, which left a lot of young people across eastern Europe with conflicting emotions”

One’s background in art is always a force to be reckoned with. It could hold you back – but it could also become a foundation for reinvention. The past echoes through the new wave of youth culture and imagery from eastern Europe, and comes back in certain things we involuntarily share: in language, similar memories and settings. On the other hand, the settings end up transformed by the artistic gaze, like in Paulina Korobkiewicz’s documentation of Poland’s kitschy architecture, shops and streets during the country’s transition to capitalism, Jedrzej Franek’s romantic visions of tower blocks at sunset, or Masha Demianova’s dark kingdom on the edge of the city and wilderness, reality and dream. Included in the exhibition is also a fragment of Wake Up Nights by Max von Gumppenberg and Patrick Bienert, in which Kiev becomes a playground, an elegiac setting for tender post-rave mornings and the awakening of the whole generation.

In the end, what do we see when we look at a series of portraits from a place unknown to us? Do we see just faces, or our own cultural preconceptions – or simply dive into an undiscovered narrative? Being Russian or eastern European, British, American or Chinese means belonging to a certain myth. In the past, myths were all we had – but today thankfully we have more authentic voices and visual narratives. Let’s hope that they play a crucial role in shaping our shared future.

Post-Soviet Visions: image and identity in the new Eastern Europe runs from 23rd February – 15th of April 2018 at Calvert 22 Foundation. The exhibition is accompanied by a fashion symposium in collaboration with ICA and TrAIN, UAL, as well as a series of panel discussions on photography, fashion and architecture. Find out more and get your tickets here