A Union Reframed: Sovinformbiuro, Postwar Soviet Photography, and Visual Orders in Soviet Central Asia

By Nunan, Timothy | Kritika, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

A Union Reframed: Sovinformbiuro, Postwar Soviet Photography, and Visual Orders in Soviet Central Asia


Nunan, Timothy, Kritika


When Soviet photographer Evgenii Khaldei photographed Red Army soldiers raising the USSR's flag over the Reichstag on 2 May 1945, he captured not only the arrival of Moscow as a global superpower but also the importance that photojournalism would assume in fashioning the image of the Soviet Union in the world. No longer a pariah but rather the liberator of Europe and a superpower, Moscow faced new challenges in how to present itself. Fashioning the image of a Soviet homeland demanded choices at once aesthetic and political. Presenting an image of the Soviet Union that accented its anti-capitalism and opposition to European imperialism was crucial. Yet other countries were busily remaking their institutions and visual self-presentation too. Journalistic outlets in the United States presented an "American century," while European empires busily reinvented themselves as commonwealths or federations. (1) As the terms of comparison with the West were shifting, Moscow needed to reinvent its own visual brand. It had to remind the world what relevance its own policies of ethnofederal republics and citizenship for all--rather than a distinction between metropolitan citizens and colonial subjects--held for the rest of the world. Nor was this merely a repackaging race for its own sake. With communist parties in Eastern Europe struggling for power, communist parties in Western Europe on the upswing, and all of Europe mired in economic depression, Moscow faced both challenges and opportunities. Soviet photographers and journalists had to supply audiences with visual documents not only of socialist prosperity but also of the Soviet alternative to racial democracy and colonial empire.

As Soviet embassies around the world dispatched negatives to communist, socialist, and trade-union papers, the Soviet Union seized on Central Asia to show the enlightened side of Soviet policy. Here former tsarist colonies and protectorates had been transformed into nominally autonomous ethnofederal republics. Already during the interwar period, the five republics carved out of Central Asia had attracted sympathy from European or American socialists, who contrasted them, naively, to American cotton plantations and to British or French aerial bombardments in Mandate Iraq or Syria. Soviet Central Asia, it would seem, gave the lie to Western imperialists' claims to represent "civilization." (2) And during a brief postwar moment, the Soviet federal model gained admirers among not just the anti-imperialist Left but also European imperial administrators as well as colonial intellectuals seeking a nonimperial formula for federative polities. (3) The Soviet vision of politics was, in short, attractive in the postwar years. It needed only photographers to shoot it, state outlets and Soviet embassies to package it, and newspapers to print and sell it to European and colonial observers.

While the study of imperial visual culture has long occupied the attention of scholars of the British and French empires, studies of the visual ordering of the Soviet periphery remain limited. (4) Scholarship on Soviet photography focuses primarily on Russia and the prewar period. (5) Some studies of tsarist colonial photography have shifted the focus toward Eurasia, but the Soviet period in general, and the postwar period in particular, remains poorly understood. (6) Studying the visual culture of the Soviet peripheries would not only contribute to an emerging "visual turn" in the study of the late Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, but also--at least as specifically concerns Central Asia--offer a new entry point to debates about the relationship of the Soviet experience to empire. (7) As Adeeb Khalid has urged, we need to move beyond comparisons of the Soviet experience to an ideal type of what empire--or its visual culture-looks like. (8) As noted above, any use of empire as an analytical concept must be grounded in the postwar reality of empires seeking to reform themselves through federative solutions--indeed, often with the Soviet Union as a reference point in mind. …

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