Bezhin Lug, 2004-2005
NOTES ON THE WAY
I chose for the history of my project just a few episodes of Russian culture. The common denominator of the three works is their striving to understand the world of the Russian peasant.
The first is Ivan Turgenev´s "Notes of a Hunter," specifically the story, "Bezhin Meadow." The second is Sergei Eisenstein´s film version of "Bezhin Meadow," which Stalin banned and physically destroyed. The third is Vladimir Sorokin´s Turgenev-like novel, "Novel."
Each was created during a transitional period of great social conflict, and each is concerned with man´s life on and with the earth.
For Ivan Turgenev, the time was the mid-19th century, a time when Turgenev, who considered the liberation of the peasants a matter of the highest importance politically and historically, gave the world his hopeful, somewhat romantic stories of Russian peasants. The nature of his native land was, for the writer, indissolubly bound up with those who were living on the land.
For me the element of traveling, the journey, strolling is important (in Turgenev, this element is provided by the hunting) when the most unexpected encounter may occur and give you a single moment perhaps, a word that, in fact, stands for a whole story, a life.
Sergei Eisenshtein shot his film at the height of the Stalin collectivization drive, the creation of collective farms with the accompanying dekulakization of the countryside. This is a special theme for us "Soviet Russians."
Almost half a century later, Vladimir Sorokin (a literary, postmodern, pessimist) rejects the very possibility of a new birth or even a rebuilding of the peasant world, of a new countryside. He was working on the novel at the very point of transition from the USSR to the post-Communist system, at the edge of "perestroika."
A sad forecast.
The question of the fate of the Russian peasant (the eternal question of the "fate of Russia") remains unanswered.
Turgenev searches for it in the rooted link of peasant and nature. Eisenshtein sees the alienation of man from the soil as the great problem. With Sorokin, there is no further to go. Peasant life and "Russian" life generally is being swallowed, physically and spiritually, by the writer´s consciously created virtual (and terribly real) world of inescapable evil and disappearing into it without hope of return.
Turgenev´s "Bezhin Meadow" tells of a lost hunter (the theme of "wandering," "losing the way," "deception") who finds himself in the midst of some peasant children as night falls.
In this "magical" meadow, the romantic world of a Russian countryside in harmony with nature, a simple existence with all its attendant naivete of belief and trust, comes alive for him.
Turgenev finds charm in the special relationship of the peasants to the land, their sensitivity to the world around them. Gradually, landscape, the landscape of the Russian farm, an almost mystical landscape, takes over the story. This is very important to me.
Eisenshtein relates to the "Turgenevian" understanding of nature in his distinctively visual style and in the particularities of landscape. But the new time gives a quite different meaning to the traditional images. . . . Using the stock terms of the Old and New Testaments, the director speaks openly of the extermination of the Russian peasantry in the collective farms, almost openly (this is Eisenshtein´s ongoing "cat-and-mouse" game with Stalin) making obvious his desire to render the spiritual death of the Soviet peasantry as a prophetic symbol of the time. Something remains of that time in people and stirs me to pity.
The film made me realize, too, that Turgenev´s "Bezhin Meadow" is a common noun standing for the Russian countryside and its fate and perhaps for the entire nation.
Life today in the post-Soviet countryside goes on in a context of complex social, political and economic change. The new "Russian" (both ethnic and state) reality finds itself up against the already hardened psychological rudiments of Soviet collective farm life, the generational tug toward and nostalgia for what we may call the "Soviet patriarchal system."
Yet elements of the ancient, genuine patriarchy are visible in this, elements of the system that, to Turgenev, was the basis of man´s wholeness and of the naturalness of his way of life.
And, too, as the collectivist mentality crumbles with lightning speed, older individualistic tendencies arise again.
The countryside´s eternal generational problem, the problem of "fathers and children," is again acute. The younger generation has opted for the city.
This is a separate topic.
The unrehearsed quality of how I behaved in the villages (turning up unexpectedly on a village street, requesting permission to take a picture, asking to enter someone´s home) and the resulting unpredictable reactions was a way of getting at something important. Such was the pragmatic psychology of wanderer with the camera...
Sometimes, of course, the subject would clam up, refuse to be "exposed" by the lens.
The basis of my work is always-to make the inner makeup of my models (I cringe at the use of the word) visible. Plus-their way of life, the object-world of their daily lives.
During one of my trips, I came to understand something important for this project. Neither the Orlov Province described by Turgenev in "Notes of a Hunter" nor the other provincial corners of the country have really changed, despite the thousands of differences (geographic, ethnic, social-cultural) among them.
The conditions under which the Russian countryside now lives are the reflection of an ailing economy and the shifting of the center of gravity of reform away from the villages. But they are not destroying, only delaying and slowing, the realization of the peasant´s bottomless inner potential, his eternal reserves of spiritual possibility.
It is these eternal reserves and the peasant´s almost genetic love of the land that makes it possible for them to live. They have not lost faith or patience.
The villages that I visited are not far from the capital-Khludnevo on the far reaches of Kaluga Province (a village that has a story worth telling), villages in the lands of ancient Novgorod and Smolensk. Almost never were there complaints or laments about the collective, Communist past or anger at what was now taking place.
I was consistently met with authentic hospitality, warmth and openness. There was none of the bias or caution that I had anticipated, and I was often invited into homes. I heard the latest village rumors and the stories of my hosts´ and their neighbors´ lives. Often my stay went on for hours, with endless cups of tea consumed over story after story.
In the villages of Novgorod and Smolensk, these were chiefly stories about the war. Almost no matter what the age of those with whom I talked, the war 1940-45 was a part of their everyday consciousness. There can be no doubt that the experience of the war still influences the lives lived here. The tales and experiences of the older generation are part of the weave of present-day reality, and my turning up simply triggered just another ordinary look back.
Hearing that I was a photographer, Senior Warrant Officer Sinitsky of the Novgorod village of Bronnitsy, a war veteran, an old marine, instantly donned his parade jacket with its battle insignia.
Nina Avdeyeva of the village of Navolok near Novgorod said hello and immediately began telling how as a 17-year-old girl she had driven cattle from Germany back to her collective farm.
It was never my intention to produce one more version of "the decline of the Russian countryside." I have no desire to produce more photographic documentation in the interests of the archives and local history. Nor have I ever had the grand ambition of finding my own answer to the questions that disturbed Turgenev or Eisenshtein. (Those questions probably will be with us long after the peasantry of Rus has disappeared.)
I simply wanted to make familiar and individually recognizable the faces of the people who have lived for generations in a special, often tragic dimension of the history and time of my country.
I sought for at least a glimmer of human hope, honor and dignity.
It was my good fortune to read it in their eyes and to hear in the words of the people whom I met along my way the lingering echo of their fate.
The Russia That We Have Not Lost
Nastya Khoroshilova is part of a phenomenon that critics have aptly called the "post-diaspora," artists educated and first established abroad who feel themselves organic parts of the international scene but who do not consider themselves emigrants. At the same time, they do not see themselves as citizens of the world (cosmopolites) and do not feel their identification as Russians to be a burden. Indeed, they use their creative work to construct that Russian identity. This is something quite different from the choice between life as an émigré and life as part of an inferior caste that inevitably faced intellectuals in the last century.
The post-diaspora is expressed in Nastya Khoroshilova´s acute personalism. For her, as for all the members of this unacknowledged fraternity, used as they are to moving, to migrations, to the absence of roots, their main point of support is-the self. That is why in her early work her subject matter has been what she knows, what she has experienced personally. Her first photographic series were about the worlds of the dormitory and boarding school, of the life that made this kind of standard interior livable; thus, they told us about what she knew from her "years on the move." For her art is a form of self-analysis, a taking stock of her personal experience of society. This is not the usual approach of the traditional Russian artist, with its messianic understanding of its role and its tendency to speak for social groups or in the name of some "metaphysical" authority.
"Bezhin Meadow," like most of Khoroshilova´s recent work, is made in Russia. They are the fruit of deliberately undertaken trips, research expeditions, as it were. And this is natural. The unsettled nature of the artist´s relationship with Russia has made her want to see for herself the country with which she so wants to identify. At the same time, her angle of vision on Russian life is absolutely devoid of the prejudices or presumptions that might be expected of a foreigner or a rootless Russian. She is neither the one nor the other and thus remains untrammeled by the clichés of advertising or cultural stereotypes, by nostalgic sentimentality or a fixed critical negativity. She does not weep for a "Russia that we have lost," nor is she seeking to find in the periphery Russia´s moral fundamentals. She neither sees the "ugliness of neglect" nor searches out signs of a "new life." In exploring Russia´s remote villages, she has no fixed expectations about what she will find: she simply wants to see-to see and record.
Free of ideology and strongly colored emotional reasons for what she is doing, Khoroshilova cultivates in her work a cool objectivism. While her work contains not a hint of the expose, it is equally free of self-sufficient aestheticism. Similarly, just as there is no poeticizing of the seen in her work, there are no signs of disappointment or dislike. Her pictures are microanalyses of the social and psychological relations of the individual and his world; she shows us personalities embedded in particular object-spatial settings, what sociologists call the "habitus." The content of her statement is no more and no less than what is shown on the photographic print.
So we mustn´t look for a story or hidden symbolism in her work. If her film shows a rusty bus stop shelter, it is merely showing us an unpainted shelter. If the picture is of a well-tended village library, what has been recorded is its existence, nothing more. Similarly, the plastic and compositional elements of her photographs are nothing more than the optimal way to present a fact. The artist sets her camera in front of the object, gainsaying more striking angles and compositional invention. Her lighting is clear and even, void of all highs and lows, romantic tinkering, contrasts.
Characteristically, her subjects are not "caught unawares" but are posed before the lens. Moreover, the poses are devoid of any kind of imposed drama; they remain true to the habitus, to the realm of the everyday that is being recorded. This repetition from image to image of the same kind of quiet scene is not a formal device, as it were, but a constitutive element of the young photographer´s ethic. Every picture is not just an art event but is also the human happenings that have gone into it-the meeting, the talking that has won the model´s trust in the artist. "Bezhin Meadow" is not merely a story of what has been seen but testimony as well that what has been seen is a fact of the photographer´s personal experience. Khoroshilova´s determination to be objective impels her to reveal her own participation in the recorded fact, just as the professional ethic of the sociologist demands that he reveal the methods he uses in his research: the objectivity of the social fact described can be accepted only if the subjectivity of the researcher is clear.
In the work of Nastya Khoroshilova, there is an unhurried quality, an attention to detail, a determination not to jump to conclusions. But this is hardly the modesty of a young artist. Rather it is a reflection of her determination to absorb and understand in every detail the phenomenon that has opened itself to her-this piece of reality. And her determination is quite right: for this bit of reality is unique and unprecedented. This is how the post-ideological generation is uncovering for itself that which had been concealed by the rhetoric of power, on the one hand, and the counterculture, on the other. That is, by ideology in all its forms.