Why post-Soviet is more than just an aesthetic

Russian photographer Egor Rogalev believes life for the first generation living outside Soviet rule goes beyond Brutalist tower blocks and Lenin monuments

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Egor Rogalev’s Synchronicity
Photography Egor Rogalev

In the recent years, we’ve seen a rise of interest in post-Soviet aesthetics in the west. From Gosha Rubchinskiy and his Moscow skate boys to provincial Lithuanian discotheques and Kiev raves – it has an air of irresistible rough coolness. The catch is always the clash of Soviet past and modernity, yet actually living in the post-Soviet world involves much more than a background of tower blocks and stumbling upon an occasional Lenin monument. Growing up as part of one of the first post-Soviet generations means facing the deeper struggles of understanding who we are. Russian photographer Egor Rogalev tried to document this process in his project Synchronicity.

At the start of the project, Rogalev was interested in tracing similarities in the lives of his peers in different post-Soviet countries, and also exploring his own sense of belonging. With relatives in Ukraine and Poland and lots of friends in Ukraine’s capital Kiev, he’s always felt a strong connection to the country. “I took most of the photographs for this project in Kiev”, he remembers. “But I also used a small number of the photographs that were made in other parts of the Soviet area like Minsk and Moscow because I felt that they do relate to the same issues, (and) have the strong sensation of the invisible catastrophes in them”. 

The process of decommunisation – dismantling the legacies and erasing the symbols of the communist state, which started in Ukraine after the revolution – has quickly become one of the central ideas of the project. “I am focusing on the experience of adolescence in the time of decommunisation which is the policy of the Ukrainian government aimed to erase the traces of the communist past”, Rogalev says. “This policy is broadly discussed in Ukraine now and is strongly doubted and opposed by Ukrainian art-community. On the other hand, decommunisation is accompanied by the formal and populist use of the Soviet aesthetics in Russia and Belarus. I think that both types of handling the past are actually the different variations of the same process – artificial creation of the national identities based on the historical revisionism. With this project I use Soviet modernist architecture and monumental art to synchronise memories of the Cold war and Soviet Union’s collapse with the misgivings of the recent dramatic events in Ukraine.”

Apart from raising crucial political and historical questions, Synchronicity has a deep emotional impact. Rogalev captured the grandeur of monumental structures built for utopian ideals, dreamy landscapes of housing estates, random moments which uncontrollably trigger memories. But the central element, of course, is the portraits of young people from his generation; self-absorbed, lost, happy, in love, all who live within these settings. The connections in the project are intuitive and the narrative not linear, it shows unmistakably that it’s filtered through personal experience.

“What I really tried to avoid is exoticising and creating of the picture that western media wants to see. I tried to examine post-Socialist eastern Europe is not some picturesque exotic area but as a quintessential fragment of the larger pattern –  the modernity that is marked by a sensation of the invisible catastrophe” – Egor Rogalev

The term for the project’s title was borrowed from Carl Jung’s psychoanalysis where it’s used to describe the parallel events that don’t have logical or casual connections but still are connected as the parts of the larger pattern. The idea of a larger pattern is key for the concept – it’s not just about growing up in certain settings or in the shadow of a collapsed political regime, but about the more complex idea of modernity we all exist within. “What I really tried to avoid is exoticising and creating of the picture that western media wants to see. I tried to examine post-Socialist eastern Europe is not some picturesque exotic area but as a quintessential fragment of the larger pattern –  the modernity that is marked by a sensation of the invisible catastrophe”, Rogalev says. “So it’s my attempt to understand and depict the modernity from the part of the world that I belong to. I would say that my own perception of the Soviet modernist architecture is both critical and nostalgic. The catastrophic and apocalyptic features of the modernism – where utopia so easily turns to dystopia – are pretty obvious to me.”

So does the idea of post-Soviet still makes sense for the young people? “I think our world is becoming so globalised that soon young people in all the countries won’t differ from each other that much. But for post-Soviet countries, of course, we share the same traumas, and we are still involved in the same collapse. It’s just the governments that have chosen the different ineffective ways to deal with those things”.

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