A fascinating exercise in Ostalgie.
Photographic books about individual towns seem a specifically European thing. I have a fine collection of various titles from across Europe, all combining scenes of picturesque buildings, attractive scenery and happy, smiling locals. Depending on the country of origin, these often include a level of propaganda, either subtle or sometimes not so. But this is a particularly interesting example of the genre.
Mogilev is a city in what is now the independent state of Belarus (Byelorussia). However, this book at first appears to be pure Soviet propaganda, with photographs captioned “Mogilev chemical industry workers’ Palace of Culture and Engineering”, “Folk choir of the V. Kuibyshev synthetic fibre factory” and “USSR State Prize winner, merited machine-builder of the Republic, delegate to the 27th CPSU Congress, lathe operator Valentin Shakhnov and his daughter”. So far, nothing unexpected here.
Then, more than three-quarters of the way through, suddenly we get photographs from the City Day Parade, and all is not quite as it seems. Some of the participants look less than impressed. Western branded clothing logos begin to creep into the pictures. Then you check back to the date of publication – 1989. We are looking here at a view of ordinary life in the Soviet Union on the verge of complete upheaval.
Are the people in these photographs any better off now, under a so-called “free” system? I recall visiting the former East Germany some five years after re-unification. You would come across the occasional person with an air of utter bewilderment about them; having spent nearly forty years working for one system, they had had it all swept away from under their feet; and worse, been lectured to that everything they’d believed in and worked for in that time was false, and worthless. The ordinary Soviet citizens in this book’s photographs still have that to go through, but in Gorbachev’s USSR, the winds of change were blowing. We now know that the Soviet state had its excesses, and exercised them to the full; yet the average citizen was as unlikely to fall foul of them as the average British citizen is of our system’s crimes and corruptions. An old Soviet joke went “Under capitalism, man exploits his fellow man. Under Communism, it’s the other way around.”
But most of the institutions illustrated in this book will have gone. The factories will have been privatised (assuming they still even exist). Many of the state institutions, such as the ‘Scarlet Sails’ teenagers’ club, the “Our Home” co-operative or the Vocational Training Centre No.14, will have disappeared. And where now the Folk choir of the V. Kuibyshev synthetic fibre factory? Once the only alternate reality available to us, the Communist Bloc has vanished, and with it a range of different solutions to problems we all face even now. There are always alternatives; this book shows us some that we are in danger of forgetting.