Picks and Pans Review: The Russian Century
In this photographic history of Russia's 20th century, Brian Moynahan, a historian and former European editor of the London Sunday Times, tells us that under Communism even the elements could be a state secret: No weather reports were published in Soviet newspapers until the late 1970s. So it goes without saying that photographs, with all of their potential for contradicting the official version of things, were under strict party control.
And when the walls of the old system finally crumbled in the early 1990s, hundreds of pictures came tumbling out like escaped prisoners. Photo researchers Annabel Merullo and Sarah Jackson, who gathered the images for this book, drew much of their material from Soviet archives and photo' collections that had never been opened before to Russians, much less to Westerners.
The photographs, all of them black-and-white, give Russian history, already a story of endless turmoil, an even deeper dimension of bleakness, whether it's in scenes of starvation during the revolution to black-market thuggery in Boris Yeltsin's post-Communist Moscow. Moynahan's accompanying history paints a too rosy picture of Russian life before the revolution and takes a tabloid pleasure in emphasizing brutalities like those during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik takeover, when agents of the Cheka, a precursor of the KGB, rolled their anti-Soviet victims in nail-encrusted barrels.
The photographs, too, are prone to zoom in on the frozen corpse or the hanged man, while in other places humdrum group shots of party officials are hyped with purplish prose captions. It's unnecessary. This book's most unnerving vision of Russia is its least melodramatic: a serene-looking Stalin crosses a street with ordinary Russians, his white tunic gleaming—the monster at ease among his victims. (Random House, $45)