Scouts' honour; the broader picture

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The Independent Culture
FOR THE participants in the photograph, it probably felt like a moment of Soviet pride. Children crouch over a miniature cannon in the bottom left-hand corner; a drummer-boy stands alert in the centre; teenagers stand proudly upright in their identical shirts and shorts, awaiting the patriotic call to arms. This group of Pioneers - the Soviet version of Boy Scouts - are taking part in a defence drill near Leningrad in 1937. The gas masks are intended to demonstrate that the Great Soviet Motherland is ready to repel an invasion. The message is clear: brave Russia is ready to fight.

Except that, when the Nazis invaded a few years later, Russia was not ready at all. Moscow and Berlin had concluded a peace pact in 1939, and Stalin's generals were taken by surprise when Hitler's tanks rolled across the border in the "treacherous attack" of June 1941.

The fate of these bemasked Pioneers is likely to have been grim. Some were no doubt stranded in Leningrad during its three-year starvation siege; others may have been among the millions of Russians who died fighting the invaders. Others probably survived to this day. For them, the savage surrealism of the Soviet era may remain in the memory as a version of normality. This photograph was taken at the height of the Stalinist terror. But millions of Soviet children grew up in the Thirties in the certain knowledge that their government was utterly, eternally right. They look back to this period before the Great Patriotic War (as the 1941-45 war is always known) as a golden age. Elderly Russians speak wistfully of a time when moral and political certainties were more clearcut.

From today's perspective, it is difficult to tell whether this photograph - published in a remarkable new book, Propaganda & Dreams, assembling images from the Thirties from both the Soviet Union and the United States - contains hidden irony. What good would these gas masks have done? There is a thin line between propaganda and mockery. All we know is that the photographer, Viktor Bulla, was not beloved by the authorities. Just months after taking this photograph, he was executed. His exact crime is unclear. There are too many possibilities; independent thought was itself a capital offence during those times. Leah Bendavid-Val, who compiled the Propaganda & Dreams album, speculates: "Maybe he recorded too much."

'Leah Bendavid-Val: Propaganda & Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US' is published by Edition Stemmle and distributed by Art Books International, price pounds 39.95