Wed, 15 Jul 2020

Photo review: Soviet propaganda, tamed with time

21 Feb 2020, 23:49 GMT+10

How does propaganda age?

For the photos of the Soviet Information Bureau, not bad.

In the years after World War II, Moscow's spin masters sent photographers across the country to document daily life as the Communist Party wanted it to look. The prints - silver gelatin, black and white - were distributed in the West through a Toronto office as free press handouts, often with English captions.

In Central Asia, the photographers found a part of the country physically untouched by the war, where mega construction projects were rapidly transforming a rural life, bringing industry, education and bumper crops on collective farms.

The photos shown here are among very few of the region available from these years - part of a much larger collection recently digitized by Harvard's Fung Library and the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

And the subjects send a mix of messages: from touting Soviet successes in modernization projects like hospitals, factories and rural education to condemning retrograde resistance to Moscow's leadership: "The development of relationships in Uzbekistan meets with considerable problems as a result of the tenacious hold that ancient customs have on the people," reads the caption to a photo of men in turbans drinking tea - exotic props in a global class war.

Despite the orchestration (at times comical), something sweet and sincere has outlasted the pictures' original purpose: a violin teacher's tender pride, a student's focus, a farmer's earnest regard for a prized wool. Much of it is hard to dismiss 70-some years later.

The hard edge to the message has dulled over the decades. But today the images, full of relative prosperity, can be bittersweet, too - knowing, as we do, that the grand project falls apart two generations hence and poverty wells up across Central Asia.

"Large flocks of karakul sheep graze on the steppes of Uzbekistan. Two thirds of the Soviet Union's supply of karakul skins comes from Uzbekistan. Shown here is the foreman of the Bukhara karakul dressing establishment supervising the spreading out of skins for drying in the sun. Photo by I. Yusupov."

(1946-1949. Fung Library SIB_5507)

"Uzbekistan: Land of White Gold. Photographer: S. Friedland."

(1946-1949. Fung Library SIB_5508)

"Until 1945 Uzbekistan had to import all of its machinery from other parts of Russia, but in that year the first iron and steel mill was completed, which now produces raw material for cotton machinery and for the huge agricultural machine works now being built. This is the first steel mill in all of Central Asia, either in Russia or outside its borders. This photo shows steel smelting in open hearth furnaces at the Uzbek Iron and Steel Plant."

(1945-1949. Fung Library SIB_4752)

"On the cotton plantations of Uzbekistan. Collective farmers of Ferghana visit the Kzyl-Uzbekistan Collective Farm near Tashkent and inspect the fields of the farm which they have entered into a bumper crop contest. Photo: M. Penson." [Max Penson, who died in Tashkent in 1959, continues to be recognized at home and abroad for his documentary work.]

(1938-1951. Fung Library SIB_1951)

"The Stalin Collective Farm in Tajikistan. A lesson in their native tongue and literature at the collective farm school. It's interesting to listen to the teacher telling the legend of the Tajik hero Pekhlevau!.. His mighty voice was heard all through the mountains when he called: "He who is not afraid of labour - follow me, and I will show you the treasures hidden in these mountains!" Photo by I. Petkov."

(1945-1952. Fung Library SIB_4946)

"Women of the Mountains. Geography class at the Frunze Pedagogical School. In the foreground - second year student Sakish Dzhusopova. Photo by M. Savin."

(1947-1949. Fung Library SIB_5700)

"Ashkhabad State Music School. Similar to many other schools and institutions in the Soviet Union, the Turkmen State Music School in Ashkhabad is a normal school where, besides musical education, the children study general subjects equal to a secondary school program. Photo: The young musicians Tamila Berdyeva, Tamara Bedrosova and Nellie Muradova having a lesson in ensemble playing conducted by docent M. L. Shifris, director of the school. Photo by M. Trakhman."

(1938-1951. Fung Library SIB_0382)

"Women of the mountains. Fatima Kadirbayeva, deputy chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Kirghiz SSR. Photo by N. Kuleshov."

(1947-1949. Fung Library SIB_5694)

"Tashkent, Uzbekistan - Shamsroi Khasanova, one of the first women painters of Uzbekistan, who holds the position of director of the State Art Museum in Tashkent, is shown here in her studio."

(1938-1951. Fung Library SIB_2081)

"The textile industry has developed on a large scale in Uzbekistan. Textile mills have been built in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, during the years of Soviet rule. The Tashkent textile worker shown here is Khadicha Salikhadzhayeva, who has been awarded the Order of Lenin. Photo by M. Penson.

(1946-1949. Fung Library SIB_5505)

"The development of relationships in Uzbekistan meets with considerable problems as a result of the tenacious hold that ancient customs have on the people. In this photo of a meeting between a collective farm leader and the cotton growers, these complications are [well] illustrated. The food is still of the past; the clothing of the bearded farmers is the traditional costumes of the country; and the agricultural leader still retains his headgear, the tibiteika, as a compromise with the past. But he has shaved his beard, thus breaking the traditions of Islam."

(1945-1949. Fung Library SIB_4753)

"Young trainees in the telegraph operators' class at the Communications Trade School, in Alma-Ata, capital of the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan."

(1938-1951. Fung Library SIB_4215)

"Large droves of horses, owned by collective farms, pasture in the mountains of the Tajik Soviet Republic. The Tajiks are first-class riders, take good care of their horses."

(1940-1948. Fung Library SIB_0184)

"Industrial Construction in the Steppes of Kazakhstan. Geologists and engineers arrive in a remote part of the Kazakh steppes to choose a site for the construction of still another industrial enterprise in Kazakhstan. Photo: G. Zelma and S. Friedlyand."

(1938-1951. Fung Library SIB_2288)

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