Into the Russian Darkness

Under the headline “Misery, thy name is Russia,” reports on an art exhibit at the Alice Austen House Museum in Staten Island, New York (follow the link on the artist’s name to view the full body of work):

Purges and pogroms, famine and war, Lenin and Stalin. Misery, thy name is Russia.

There’s an ironic upside, naturally. Bad luck and trouble are a far better wellspring for playwrights, novelists, composers and photographers than good fortune and happy times.

In “Russian Archive,” contemporary photographer Donald Weber locates Soviet junctures where the awful past flails at the present.

The Canadian-born, 36-year-old Weber, an ex-architect (working for Rem Koolhas in the Netherlands, no less), lives in Russia part of the time. He is attracted to topics with backstory.

He’s shot the illegal squatter resettlement of Chernobyl, site of a huge nuclear accident in 1986, and the brutal, colorful underworld of Russian criminals and prostitutes.

Weber is alert for drama without bathos, for juxtapositions that are heartbreaking in their intensity. Children in grim circumstances, looking like children still. How do you explain such a thing?

An almost humorous section depicts contemporary Moscow, where nouveau riche behavior is apparently rampant. In one funny, unflattering shot, a blond, coifed, smiling woman is enjoying something — her prosperity perhaps — wreathed in cigarette smoke.

Selected by in-house curator Paul Moakley, “Russian Archive” is separated into categories (like “In The Underworld,” “In Heaven” and “Siberia”) with faint spidery texts hand-penciled right onto the walls.

It’s as if a prisoner recorded his hopeless thoughts, except that it’s often information or Stalinist statistics: How many young medical students were executed here, how many villagers there.


Cheerfulness, light, life are in short supply, but not entirely absent from “Russian Archive.” But, fortunately, there’s bravado, pride and single-mindedness, much of it located in the criminal section, “In The Underworld.”

Here, zeks (ex-cons) aim their superficially ugly, threatening selves right at the lens, looking childlike. The body ink, floods of it, can only be earned/applied behind bars. It’s “The Threepenny Opera” in Cyrillic without the music, lights or makeup.

The photographer was privy to private time: Steam-room sessions and a drink party in a grubby, badly lit kitchen. In one shot, a victim or enemy is on the floor, his head covered in a scarf. Someone’s jammed a silver pistol against his temple.

The women of this social strata, prostitutes mostly, are a hard-looking lot, too, although there’s pride in their faces and even some warmth.

Weber is good at eliciting complications and layers. Many of the photographs have the nervous immediacy of images caught quickly and dangerously. Nan Goldin’s 1980s chronicle of East Village semi-thugs, drag queens, club kids and AIDS casualties comes to mind.

The most disturbing photos of all are the most distant. Weber has tracked down the killing fields of the Gulag, when Stalin had millions of Russians, “undesirables” and ethnic minorities, imprisoned in work camps.

(Ironically, the gulag system was good for the country since it led to the discovery of all kinds of valuable resources — minerals, timber, water power. It’s one of the bitter revelations in the wall text.)

Using natural light, he’s photographed the grown-over groves where hundreds perished and the meadows in which they were flung into mass graves.

In one photo, the field, which is covered with long grass, is almost corrugated. All you can wonder — horror-struck — is: Are there bodies under the sod? Layered and rising, are they what makes the surface roll the way it does?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s