Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 10, 2019

We Are Building Capitalism, Moscow in Transition, 1992-1997, by Robert Stephenson

This is a wonderful book — I visited Russia in 2012 and I loved seeing this photographic survey of Moscow in its early post-Soviet phase.   The question is, does the book work for people who’ve never been to Russia?  I think it would.  I think anyone interested in history would find this book fascinating because it records the impact of a cataclysmic shift in geopolitics and the world economy, on ordinary people.

This is the blurb:

Robert Stephenson’s book focuses on Moscow following the collapse of the USSR and provides a unique pictorial view of daily life in Russia’s capital city during the turbulent early years of transition to market capitalism. Original photographs and supporting narrative by the author, who lived in the city throughout the time, show how the old Soviet capital and its inhabitants adapted to a new capitalist reality as Russia opened its doors wide to new influences, ideas and possibilities.

This was a time of promise and protest, revolution and reaction, with Moscow at the centre of the changes. While Soviet monuments, cars and domestic appliances were abandoned and thrown on the rubbish heap, a new consumer society gradually asserted itself. New ideologies and beliefs challenged and clashed with previous orthodoxies. At the same time resistance to reform and western influence was also emerging, and new certainties were sought in the return of old, pre-Soviet symbols and values.

The book portrays the country’s capital in the epoch-making period between the fall of communism and the establishment of the modern Russian state and provides a new and intriguing source of original material for all scholars and general readers interested in modern Russian history and culture.

First things first: the book is the right size and format.  There are 210 A4 landscape pages, the majority of which are full page colour photos. The book consists of twelve coherent chapters, starting with a succinct summary of the political events that were a catalyst for it all, and then moving on to chapters exploring different aspects of the transition.  The chapter called ‘The Shadow of the Past’, for example, has photos of statues ripped from their plinths after the 1991 coup: Kruschev and Stalin ignominiously on their sides.  More poignant is the photo of a temporary memorial on the site where workers found human remains buried in lime in a ditch, near the former home of Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s head of secret police.

Chapter 3 ‘Inflation, Speculation and Accumulation’ includes Stephenson’s observations of the unplanned change and how it affected ordinary people.

In the hyperinflation that followed the removal of price controls and the floating of the rouble at the beginning of 1992, millions found that bank balances built painstakingly over many years were instantly reduced to nothing, and wages (if paid at all) were impossible to live on.

When in late January 1992, President Yeltsin issues a new decree lifting all restrictions on trade, many people took to the streets to try to sell whatever wares they could put together.  Grandmothers joined with children and others to crowd the pavement and sell anything from underwear, kitchenware and ornaments to toys and produce from the dacha.  (p. 39)

The photo depicting this pathetic line of sellers stretching beyond the page is vivid and so too is the scene in GUM, almost entirely empty of customers in 1992.  (GUM when I visited in 2012 was an expensive department store crowded with shoppers toting luxury brands.  Imagine DJs with just half a dozen customers, and you get the idea.)  Another photo, from 1993, shows how quickly the vultures descended: there’s a massive ad for a new casino and gaming centre.

Remember the protests in favour of a return to Soviet times?  In the chapter Reform and Resistance, there are photos of anti-capitalist demonstrators, and another one of police on the streets, presumably to keep things under control.  But, interestingly, they’re not armed, they look more like very young bus conductors than riot police…

I was fascinated to see chapter called Religious Resurgence.  By the time we visited almost a decade later, we were able to see numerous churches and cathedrals restored to their pre-Soviet glory.  Notable among these was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, literally blown up by Stalin in 1931, and rebuilt from the ground up over five years.  Stephenson’s photo shows it under construction in 1995. There are also gorgeous pictures of Hare Krishna adherents, rugged up so as to be unrecognisable in the brutal Russian winter, and looking like their joyful colourful selves in summer.

Stephenson also confirms the theme of post-Soviet Russians aping Western culture, as in a Russian novel I recently read, The Hemingway Game by Evgeny Grishkovets.

As people began to acquire disposable income, and access to goods and services widened. consumerism flourished.  The impact on domestic industries, however, was disastrous.  Commodities made in the Soviet Union or supplied form eastern Bloc countries rapidly became outmoded and were discarded wholesale, while anything from (or at least sold as from) the West was seen as automatically higher in quality, with the level of quality usually measured by the price.

[…]

Everything Soviet made, from light switches and doors to domestic appliances, was to be thrown out and replaced by foreign-made equivalents.  (p.93)

(I hope by now they’ve got over the illusion that our built-for-obsolescence products are better.)

This is an excellent book, full of vivid insights capturing a moment in time of great significance.  You can see some of the photos on Stephenson’s website, but they really need to be seen in conjunction with his sensitive observations rather than with the assumptions that many of us have absorbed from triumphalist western media reports.

I hope someone, somewhere, had the foresight to photograph Vietnam and China in their transition to a modern economy…

Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings liked it too!

Update 15/8/19 By brilliant coincidence, SBS On Demand is screening a doco called Back in the Soviet Bloc, hosted by a young women who was born in the USSR but migrated to here in Australia when she was 12.  She goes back to see what it’s ‘really like’.  So far I’ve seen the episodes on St Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev in Ukraine.  What stands out for me is the way people say they like freedom, but freedom comes with problems.  Coming from a society where there was no rich and poor, they are clearly troubled by the gulf between the social classes that has emerged.

Author and photographer: Robert Stephenson
Title: We are Building Capitalism, Moscow in Transition, 1992-1997
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2019, 210 pages
ISBN: 9781912894024
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications

Available direct from Glagoslav

 

See also the review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Fishpond: We Are Building Capitalism!: Moscow in Transition 1992-1997


Responses

  1. That’s interesting that you find a place for books when pictorial records are more conventionally accessed these days via documentaries. You’d think a big picture book would work better on a computer, but I suppose there’d be no money in that.

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    • I think this one is nice to add to my travel books collection, and the other thing is, while it’s true that a picture’s worth 1000 words, most of the commentary we hear in a doco goes in one ear and out the other (and research proves it). Whereas what I’ve read in the brief intro to each chapter will stay in my memory!.

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  2. It’s a marvellous book, isn’t it, and I do agree that the commentary is just right to complement the images. It really made an impact on me, and I’m someone who’s never visited Russia. Thanks for the link! :D

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    • You’ve read so much more Russian Lit than I have, but this one kept making me think of Doctor Zhivago, which was so vivid about the transformation of Russian life at the other end of the process. I kept thinking of his portraits of families forced together into homes that had formerly been homes for one family and now housed 6 or 8, and so on. Contemporary authors writing about Soviet Times do it well, but Pasternak had lived through the anxiety and confusion and sense of the world being turned upside-down and I think that made his writing more authentic even though he was so constrained by censorship.

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      • Dr Zhivago is probably a good comparison, actually. The book is so much better than the film (and I love the film because it first got me interested in Russia and the Revolution!). It really does capture the changes taking place and as you say, having lived through his first hand knowledge came to the fore.

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        • LOL I saw Dr Z on my first ever date, oh dear, he was such a sad specimen of a man, and he ruined the film by talking about his dental problems all night long…

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  3. I haven’t been to Russia but I’d love to.
    There might not be a huge market for these kinds of books but I have been known to add them to my shelf, particularly when they’re about places I’ve been.

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    • Russia was just about the best place I’ve ever been to. Everything was so unlike what I was expecting, but in a good way:)

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  4. […] We Are Building Capitalism, Moscow in Transition, 1992-1997, by Robert Stephenson […]

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