The author looking through family photo albums

One of the joys of fieldwork is that its every turn promises unexpected discoveries. Almost 15 years ago, I was doing dissertation fieldwork for what eventually became my book, Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow. At the heart of that project were repeated conversations with a diverse corpus of Muscovites, 33 people altogether, coming from all backgrounds and walks of life.  Our discussions touched upon a range of topics, from consumption to political views, but a constant backdrop was their sense that their lives have been unfolding in the midst of a never-ending crisis. I wanted to know more about how the experience of living in a perpetual, routinized crisis affected people’s basic notions of agency, safety and practical competence. But any notion of crisis relied on an often implicit comparison with the past. To my interlocutors, this was oftentimes the pre-perestroika past.

Family photos from the pre-perestroika era

Family photos from the pre-perestroika era. Photo courtesy Olga Shevchenko

Because our meetings were recurrent, it was not uncommon for me to end up being treated as household guest, something less than a family friend, of course, but something more than a stranger. This is how it happened that I often found myself on the couch in the living room, looking at the family pictures of that pre-perestroika past after the official part of the interview was over. Comments from my hosts about the family pictures incorporated them into the narrative of their lives under socialism, but it did not take long for me notice that the tenor of these comments often changed, as speakers oscillated between their fond general recollections of the period and the multiple discordant notes brought into the conversation by the material details in the photographs.

At the end of one such conversation, Alena, a slim woman in her late 40s, suddenly tore herself from the album with her daughter’s baby pictures and retracted her earlier remarks about the early 1980s, saying, “You know, looking at these [baby] pictures [of her older daughter], just… all of these things she is wearing, I remember how I was making them, from someone’s old coats and pants… I doubt it was such a great time. I don’t even know when was a time I would consider benign.”

The author looking through family photo albums. Photo courtesy Olga Shevchenko

Alena’s passing comment planted the seed for the project that I have been undertaking starting in 2005 in collaboration with my colleague Oksana Sarkisova, a historian from the Open Society Archives at the Central European University. With the generous help from several foundations (primarily NEH and the Wenner-Gren), we spent a good part of 2006-08 traveling around Russia, collecting family histories over their photo albums (as well as, frequently, shoe boxes, plastic bags and composite frames that contained the bulk of their domestic archives).

There were three related clusters of questions animating this project. The first considered photography itself as a medium and visual practice. We ask, how does the Soviet experience look like today through the prism of “home mode” photography? What kind of evidentiary value do domestic photographs have, and what do they testify to in the eyes of their owners?

The second cluster of questions pertained to the relationship and tensions between the forms of postsocialist collective memory available in the public arena on the one hand, and the family discourses on the other. In what capacities was the “history writ large” present in domestic archives and stories people tell their family members about the past? How much disagreement there was between domestic myths and histories, and those available in the public sphere? And how did people manage the “lack of fit” between biographical and collective memory?

The final, third cluster had a generational angle, because we wanted to understand what generational rifts existed within families in how both family and national history were interpreted. What are the main points of divergence in different generations’ visions of the past? How do they emerge and how are they navigated? In light of these questions, we chose to speak individually to different generations in the same family, and thus observe how differently they might interpret the same vernacular images, what meanings they read into them, and what emotional dynamics unfold between people and their photographs.

There is a storied tradition in the cultural studies literature of looking at family photography as deeply embedded in, and complicit with, the bourgeois ideologies of the family. The Soviet family model, both in practice and in ideology, differed markedly from the one presumed by this critique, and this difference is reflected in the family photographic archives which tend to encompass a far wider array of people, and be to a surprising extent filled by the photographs of people who are NOT family, but rather co-workers, classmates and accidental companions in holiday group travel. Visually and generically, too, Soviet-era vernacular photography is quite distinct, offering a unique opportunity to explore the peculiarities of everyday optical regimes under socialism. But if Alena’s comment is to teach us anything, it is that the images themselves are only one half of the puzzle, the other half

Bags of family photos

Bags of family photos. Photo courtesy Olga Shevchenko

being the readings that they receive from their viewers, and the uses that they are put to.

These uses and interpretations, it turns out, differ a great deal, and the narratives that the photographs give rise to are marked by internal contradictions and oscillation between different rhetorical modes, ranging from nostalgic to harshly critical, often within the frame of the same interview. These contradictions both support and reflect the mixed messages regarding the recent past in the Russian public sphere.

It is thus perhaps not an accident that photographs like Alena’s, with their innocent self-evidential appearance and taken-for-granted status as anchors of family memories, often appear in Internet forums where battles over the meaning of the Soviet past are waged. We would be wise to pay more attention to them, for these are the likely sites in which the meaning and legacy of socialism are going to be fought over, articulated and, eventually, naturalized.

Olga Shevchenko is associate professor of sociology at Williams College. She is the editor of Double Exposure: Memory and Photography (forthcoming), author of  Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow (2009), and author of numerous articles and chapters on culture, consumption, memory and photography in Russia after socialism.

Kristen Ghodsee is contributing editor of the Soyuz column in Anthropology News.

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