PRIVATE LIVES OF THE EX-SOVIETS

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THIS IS an exceptional set of photographs, so very unlike the dozens of other sets of photographs whose subject is the ex-Soviet empire. Put together in a familiar key, these collections usually show the Kremlin, Moscow and its streets, perhaps the streets and buildings of other cities: St Petersburg, Minsk or Kiev. Tanks and soldiers are followed by images of a dirt road, an old collective farm with babushkas wrapped up in thick shawls. There would have to be pictures of long queues outside shops, and empty shelves inside, a soot-covered factory, a pathetic statue of Lenin; and, sitting on a park bench, a war veteran with lots of medals on his worn jacket. The authors of these albums are eager to portray the complexity and contrasts within a country which is at once powerful and weak, which has a great army and empty shops, many universities and much ignorance. Bertien van Manen's photographs are very different. This is because the author has not followed the well-trodden path tried by hundreds of other foreigners who visit Russia. Instead, she has taken her own personal route by which she has arrived at the most inaccessible of places - the homes of ordinary people - in order to show us how millions of Russians live and sleep, what they eat, what they look like in their everyday life; in their flats, at their tables, in their beds.

Gaining entry to these dwellings is indeed very difficult, for at least two reasons. First, the inhabitants of the former empire have a deeply ingrained fear of meeting foreigners. It is rare to come across a family which has not, in the past, been persecuted for merely meeting or talking to a foreigner. During the years of communist rule, this was a political crime.

Second, despite the Russians' great warmth and hospitality, many of them are embarrassed by their poverty. One can frequently hear the same excuses: "I'd love to invite you over, but the flat is so tiny, there's hardly anywhere to sit."

Among the nightmares of everyday life are the so-called "communals" - that is, flats shared by several families. Each family occupies one room and shares the kitchen, bathroom and lavatory with the others. A real hell on earth to many, these communal flats continue to house one-third of post-Soviet society. These flats are portrayed in Bertien van Manen's photographs.

Following the 17th-century Dutch masters, Bertien van Manen reveals the culture of the country and of its people through images of their homes. We can view the interiors: the walls, the type of furniture; we can see what covers the bed, what lies on the tables. Looking through these pictures we are confronted with the still life of sovietism observed with a sensitive eye. A poignant picture of destitution in all its sad and depressing omnipresence emerges out of these photographs. The poverty is not just material, manifest in low-grade furniture, clothing, crockery on tables and sideboards. This scarcity is accompanied by poor taste and the noticeable rule of kitsch. Much has been written about the link between totalitarianism and kitsch. Bertien van Manen illustrates this relationship powerfully and explicitly. Not only does the regime impose the canons of kitsch; the regime's victims, the ordinary people, seem to be infected by kitsch - the only familiar and available form of aesthetics.

In these cluttered, dark and simple interiors live people who rarely smile, who lack confidence, satisfaction and optimism. Their facial expressions, their way of life and their dress-sense match perfectly the atmosphere created by these flats, and add up to a convincing image of the culture of Homo Sovieticus.

Through her excellent photographs and her inquiring and humanistic temperament, and with powerful artistic expression, Bertien van Manen shows what historians, writers, sociologists and political scientists argue, that there exist at least two Russias. There is the official, imperial and external Russia, known to us from newspaper headlines; and the one within, the hidden, poor Russia of the anonymous, ordinary people of whose existence Bertien van Manen's moving and revealing pictures tell. !

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