Sixteen years after the fall of Communism, the West still barely understands the East. What has prevented us from getting to know the Russians as they see themselves is not just the isolationism wrought by seven decades of Communism or the machine-code complexity of the Slavic languages. What has kept the West from knowing what Russians know is the appalling filing and indexing systems beget by the Motherland’s archives.
Under Communism, whenever a-great-artiste-unknown-in-the-West died, everything they owned, wrote or photographed was thrown up into the air by the chaotic flux of Russian history – revolution, civil war, The Terror, siege, invasion, liberation and yet more terror. When it was momentarily safe enough for the artiste’s possessions to be located and packed away, whatever had survived was consumed by a state-run archive, often without attribution and frequently mislabelled. Those who worked in the great Soviet sorting houses for documents, music, photographs and movies, established in cities across the Union, were dogged apparatchiks and not historians, highly-skilled in the classification of everything but capable of identifying nothing.
Billions of acquisitions on thousands of miles of shelves represented fragments of careers: a painter’s sketches might be filed but who the painter was, was often not recorded; a dancer’s costumes would be carefully folded away in tissue paper but with no details of the character or the production was logged; a writer’s rough notes were lovingly conserved between layers of blotting paper but no one could recall his associated works. By accident and the blunt force of history Russian archives achieved one of the goals of the doctrinaire Leftists of 1917 in creating a nameless, faceless, social history of the Soviet times.
Then came the second Russian revolution. In 1989, the discombobulated archives of the Soviet Union were throttled in the economic free-fall triggered by glasnost and perestroika. According to Patricia Grimsted, of Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute, who has spent decades coming to grips with Soviet filing, the Soviet-era archives were left to run with vastly reduced funding. To raise money, many rented out parts of their buildings to banks and bars, releasing their staff for months at a time as the wages bill could not be met. By the mid-Nineties it seemed as if the paper entrails of the Russian Imperium were doomed to moulder away. So dire was the situation that on New Year’s Eve, 1996, the heads of 17 federal archives implored the Kremlin for help, writing an eleventh hour appeal to then President Boris Yeltsin: ‘We lack the most essential necessities for documentary storage, such as boxes, file folders, labels, fasteners, and even paper… We cannot guarantee the preservation of the documents that are entrusted to us.’
Nothing was offered. No help received. However, 10 years on, these enormous warehouses of Soviet circumlocution, where everything is forbidden but all things are possible, are still, somehow, open. Rooting through their stacks among the misplaced and misfiled is a new generation of Russian researchers who are daily discovering new vistas of Russia, images not seen for decades in the East and never glimpsed before in the West. Valery Katsuba, one of Russia’s rising new stars of photography, told Weekend that he found most of his historic images of Russian sportsmen and women, a selection of which are published by Weekend for the first time, in St. Petersburg’s State Film, Photo, and Audio Archives, one of the largest repositories of its kind in the world, containing more than 507,000 photographs from the period 1860 to 1996 (glass and film negatives) as well as 5,600 sounds of Leningrad life recorded between 1900 and 1960.
Although bundled together thematically, the earliest photograph is from pre-Revolutionary Russia with the last thought to have been taken in the Sixties, no original notes from the photographer or the stamp of the studio survive for any of these extraordinary and highly-stylised images of the body conscious and fitness-minded citizens and comrades in pre and post-Revolutionary times. Alexandra Golovina, the archive director, told Weekend: ‘It is sad but we are an archive without a research department and so cannot investigate the history of what Valery Katsuba has found here. Many pictures do not even carry the photographer’s name.’ Golovina said that the lack of attribution was partly by Soviet design. ‘In those days photographers were not stars. They were poorly educated and regarded as tradesmen. In the Soviet time they were very strict – no education, no degree, no biography. Photography was taken as services for the people like a hairdresser or a shoemaker.
‘A studio would send a photographer, he would take picture, make prints and the studio would then give the negatives to our archive or throw them away. Only recently in our state universities did they even start to lecture about photography.’
However, the unique style of the photographs found by Katsuba combined with some detective work by Weekend has led experts to conclude that the more contemporary images in the bundle were taken by Genrikh Magaziner, a prolific journeyman Russian sports photographer, about whom hardly anything is known, other than from 1925 to 1991 he was employed by TASS, the propagandist news agency of the Soviet Union. However, the majority of the photographs, dating from pre Revolutionary Russia to World War Two, are likely to have been produced by the studio of KK Bulla – making them an extraordinarily valuable find.
Today, Karl Bulla is regarded by Russians as one of their greatest photographers, and as the founding-father of reportage-style photography, although the sketchy biographical information available on the Bulla studio reveals that Karl Bulla was born in Germany and only moved to Russia at the age of 10. Bulla arrived in St Petersburg and is said to have developed an early passion for cameras. The city’s archives record that in 1886 Bulla was one of only a few men granted permission by the Tsarist secret police to work as a photographer wherever he wanted ‘as long as he does not make carriage and people jams’.
Within two decades Karl Bulla was doing well. He had become sufficiently wealthy to open a studio, on St Petersburg’s fashionable Nevsky Prospekt, that also employed Victor and Alexander, his two sons. Together the Bulla family shot pictures of military manoeuvres, warships putting out to sea, balloon launches. They found favour with Nicholas II, the last Russian Tsar, and the phlegmatic Rasputin, the Romanov’s spiritual advisor, and were invited to capture intimate twilight moments of Russia’s last ruling family.
In the early 1900s, the studio also began to assemble private albums for body conscious men and androgynous women, becoming absorbed by sports and fitness, a theme they would pursue throughout the lifespan of the studio. However, in 1916, as instability in Russia increased and a world war gathered pace, Karl Bulla, who had accrued the honours ‘Photographer of Ministry of Russian Imperial Court’ and ‘Photographer of His Majesty the King of Italy’, whose enterprising business now employed 12 photographers, all who were ordered to place the monogram KK Bulla on their shots, vanished. Some historians in St Petersburg have argued Bulla’s wife had died and that he fled Russia to Estonia with a new bride. However, Karl Bulla’s proximity to the Romanovs at a time when they were about to abdicate, and, crucially, the style of his photography that revelled in the excesses and moral entropy of late-Empire Russia, might also have helped motivate the photographer to run, before he fell out of favour with the forces of austerity that were about to rise.
Karl Bulla disappeared but his son Victor Bulla took to the streets. He recorded on film the rise of the Bolsheviks including a freeze frame of Tsarist forces killing unarmed protestors demanding food, shortly before Nicholas II abdicated: ‘The Shooting of Demonstrators on June 4, 1917 on Nevsky Prospekt’. The photograph would become celebrated throughout Revolutionary Russia, an image that would today sit quite comfortably beside work by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson or, in more modern times, Don McCullen.
Later, Victor Bulla also lost favour. In 1922 he had visited Germany and after the death of Lenin in January 1924, the young Bulla’s ethnic roots and his proximity to the Germans began to draw the attention of the Leningrad authorities to the work of the KK Bulla studio. In 1937, when Stalin’s terror struck Leningrad, Victor Bulla’s studio was raided by the secret police who accused him of being a spy and a moral degenerate.
Weekend traced Victor’s daughter, Valentina Kamensky, who amazingly still lives in St Petersburg. Kamensky could still recall what happened on the day of the raid. ‘The secret police charged into our apartment and pulled down everything. All the cupboards were emptied of their glass negatives. And when everything was on the floor the police with their heavy boots somehow did this devil-dance, smashing the priceless photographs taken by our family,’ she said.
The following year, on July 15, 1938, Viktor Bulla was judged a ‘People’s Enemy’ and taken in shackles aboard a windowless cargo train bound for the gulags in Maxim Gorky’s ‘land of ice and chains’, in the frozen far East of Russia, where he was to serve a 10-year sentence. Valentina Kamensky said that the family only heard about their father once more, when a letter arrived in 1944 informing them that Victor Bulla had died of cancer in an unknown prison camp.
The only reason why any of the photographs have survived is that three years before Victor was arrested, he donated 132 683 negatives to the state archives. Valentina Kamenksy said: ‘History is strange. In 1958, the tide turned. My father was rehabilitated. Stalin had died and so old scores were forgotten. But the damage was done and even now many in this city do not know about the greatness of the Bulla studio.’ And as if to demonstrate the divisiveness of the times, and the fulsome nature of the Bulla pardon, Karl Bulla’s great grandson Andrey Kamensky went on to become a KGB major. Today he is retired and still lives in St Petersburg although General Kamensky declines to talk about his ancestors.
What makes the Bulla studios’ photographs most striking, and may go some way to explaining the disappearance of Karl Bulla and the exile of Victor is the shear and unadulterated campness of many of the works: amateur and professional fitness fanatics, the musclemen and would-be Olympians, nearly-naked men posed in striking Greco-Roman tableaux. Bulla’s early work revelled in the private world of men, shots posed to appear candid of naked torsos at the bathhouse, or of undressed sportsmen being prodded by faux physicians in a drawing room. Later, as the times became more martial, the models chosen were Herculean men and Amazonian women corralled into emblems of Soviet power as if Buzby Berkeley had been asked to choreograph a socialist Spartakiad.
According to Dr Dan Healey, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Wales, Swansea, who has published an incisive study on Russia’s attitude to homosexuality, the studio of KK Bulla recorded the discrete gay culture that Tsarist Russia permitted to exist. Healey told Weekend that the Orthodox Church did not rally against sodomy and it was not until 1835 that a bar on it was extended from the armed forces to the general population. ‘Even then, it was rarely enforced,’ Healey said. ‘While the French and German police entrapped gay men using sting operations, the Russian police turned a blind eye enabling a gay culture to evolve in St Petersburg and to some extent Moscow.’ Men met partners in bathhouses or on the street, exchanging signals. For women, the only escape from society’s expectations of femininity was joining the Cheka (secret police) or army where they were permitted to wear uniforms.
A circle of writers, dancers, musicians and artists began to form around Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario behind the legendary Ballets Russes whose dancers included Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. By 1907, writers were publishing homoerotic works, including the benchmark novel Wings by Michael Kuzmin, in which an older mentor helps a troubled adolescent, Vanya, to understand his sexuality. By 1922, censorship laws had been relaxed in the Soviet Union and the ban on homosexuality had also been lifted, as to outlaw it was seen as a remnant of bourgeois prejudice, leading to attempts by gay artists to come out. Kuzmin gave a public reading at the Institute of Literature in St Petersburg, where, according to a contemporary memoir, men in the audience threw flowers on to the stage.
What the well-connected and ever-observant Bulla studio did, according to Healey, was capture these fast-changing times of ambivalence and experimentation. ‘Gay life, however, remained submerged as although the order had been made to decriminalise sodomy the cause was never championed by Party leaders. Popular prejudices prevailed,’ Healey said. He found records in Soviet archives of attempts by physicians to find a chemical root for gay desire. In one instance they transplanted the ovaries from a sheep and a pig into a 28-year-old female patient to see what effect if any it had on her sexual preferences. Unsurprisingly the experiment foundered as did political support for the nascent gay culture.
As war loomed with Germany attitudes to homosexuality reverted in the Soviet Union. After rumours of a predilection for boys among the members of Germany’s brown-shirted Sturmabteillung (Assault Division) reached Leningrad, gayness became associated with Nazism. ‘Destroy the homosexuals – Fascism will disappear,’ Gorky wrote. In 1933 Joseph Stalin announced his intention to re-criminalise sodomy. That year a solitary and unlikely voice opposed it.
British citizen Harry Whyte, a housepainter by trade and a member of the Communist Party, had moved to Moscow several years before and taken a Russian boyfriend. Whyte claimed to be employed by the English-medium Moscow News (although Dr Dan Healey could only find one cutting by-lined to him). When Whyte’s boyfriend was arrested in 1933 on sodomy charges, the Briton complained to the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, about his partner’s treatment. Initially, the secret police assured Whyte that the ban on homosexuality would only be used ‘against enemies of the state’ and that his Russian boyfriend would soon be released. However, when the law came into force in 1934 and there was still no sign of Whyte’s partner, the NKVD warned the British man not to meddle as all homosexuals were soon to be arrested.
Whyte was so incensed that he wrote to Stalin. No one challenged the General Secretary of the Party but Whyte questioned whether the new order was contradictory to the goals of socialism. His letter was released from the Presidential Archive in 1993 and across the top Stalin had written: ‘An idiot and degenerate…send to the archives’. The letter had surfaced after 60 years but there was no trace of Whyte, who disappeared soon after making his outspoken remonstrance.
By 1934, Karl Bulla had died peaceably in exile and would never see how Russian society was tempered by the new laws and culture. However, his son, Victor, was by then under arrest and about to depart on a journey to nowhere from where there would be no return.
But the Bulla family’s work is now being re-discovered and has become the inspiration for a new series of photographs. Valery Katsuba, who found the pictures in the archive, has recently finished a series reinterpreting the Bulla studios’ sports photography and it opened the Fourth International Festival of Photography, in Moscow, earlier this year. ‘These photographs are new in the West,’ Katsuba said. ‘But as we learn the true stories behind them, they become new in the East also.’
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