Photographs of Russia by Ursula Schulz-Dornburg
by Sergey Fofanov
I. THE END OF ANTI-UTOPIA
On the photographs of the series from 1994 and 2000/01
In 1994, the development of Russia and the former Soviet republics that had become independent changed its trajectory. One of the most important events of the year was the signing of the Budapest Memorandum, a trilateral declaration by the presidents of the USA, Russia and Ukraine. It regulated the handover of the Soviet nuclear warheads stored on Ukrainian territory to Russia and also gave security guarantees for Ukraine. In the same year, Moscow launched the "Operation to Restore Constitutional Order in Chechnya", which went down in history as the First Chechen War. A year after the shelling of the Moscow White House ("House of Government"), the State Duma of the first convocation began its work there. Finally, the country’s most famous political émigré, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, returned to his homeland in 1994. Many thought our country had begun a new chapter in its history.
And 1994, of all years, was also when Ursula Schulz-Dornburg chose to travel to Russia for the first time. As it would turn out, this put her in exactly the right place at the right time.
II. Memory, remembrance, commemoration
III. "Memoryscapes", 2000 / 2001
Some of the photographs from the "Memoryscapes" series were taken in Moscow museums, as could be determined from the exhibits depicted on them. Some of the exhibitions exist in their original form to this day, while others have been substantially altered.
During the Second World War, Moscow acquired a special sacral significance as the capital of Stalin's empire. The defeat of the German armies in the Battle of Moscow in 1942, the first great success of the Soviet Union, set the course for the war. On the anniversary of the October Revolution, a military parade was held in Moscow's Red Square on 7 November 1941, from where units were sent directly to the front. In 1945, the grandiose victory parade took place on the same square. For a long time, Moscow was associated with victory and many locales in the city bear telling names: we find a square, a prospectus, a park of victory, etc. On the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1995, a Museum of Victory opened in Moscow. And in 2014, when a huge recreational park called "Patriot" was opened to the public, the latest Russian cult of war and victory achieved its true apotheosis.
Leningrad/Saint Petersburg, the city of three revolutions, is very different from Moscow. The main difference between the two metropolises is probably their relationship to war and how they remember it. While Moscow stands for triumphant victory, Petersburg continues to preserve the memory of the terrible days of the Leningrad blockade to this day.
Saint Petersburg is a land between two rivers (Mesopotamia), a city situated between the Neva and the Styx, the river of oblivion. From the moment of its foundation, the city was understood as a metaphor of death, a city "built on bones". The impression of gloom and emptiness gained by gazing at its vast squares creates a depressing sense of cosmic loneliness and eternal mourning for the past. It was here, in the foul-smelling, pale-lit streets of this sickly city where Rodion Raskolnikov conceived and committed his crimes – surely not without reason.
During the blockade (1941-1944), Leningrad was a city where death was a daily occurrence and people lived as if they had died already. Even today, tourists visiting this beautiful and sad city for the first time may feel as if Petersburg is not living, but merely imitating life. It is precisely this sense of sadness and hopelessness that is conveyed by the photographs Ursula Schulz-Dornburg took in exhibitions in Petersburg museums.
The Military Historical Museum of Artillery, Engineers and Signal Corps, Saint-Petersburg
On her forays through Saint Petersburg, Ursula Schulz-Dornburg kept unlocking new secrets of Soviet history. As is evident from the photographs she took in this exhibition, she managed to visit yet another unusual museum, this one dedicated to the business of artillery troops and pioneers. The collection is housed in one of the city's oldest fortifications, built under Tsar Peter I. Again we see only war, and nothing but war: cannons, bombs and grenades, mines, reconstructed trenches, dugouts and bunkers. In short, a complete selection of the means needed to kill people and destroy cities alongside everything needed to protect against them. What could be more absurd and grotesque than the replica of a mine set into a French book entitled “Philosophie de L'Art” (sic!) and the stuffed dog, marked for death, with an anti-tank mine strapped to its back?! Both exhibits could be mistaken for modernist works of art. A book mine as an embodiment of the explosive force of the Enlightenment – the irony is palpable! But as for the dog, this messenger of death, we see no Cerberus, the terrible guardian watching the entrance to the realm of the dead, but an unfortunate street dog, condemned to suffer the torments of hell because of a terrible, human stupidity called war.
Museum of the Defence of Leningrad.
Museum of the History of Saint Petersburg.
Exhibition "Leningrad in the Years of the Great Patriotic War"
The most important series of pictures in the "Memoryscapes" series is certainly that comprising the photographs taken in the unique exhibition on "Leningrad in the Years of the Great Patriotic War" from the Museum of the History of the City (Russian: Muzej istorij goroda). The exhibition brings together objects transferred from the former Leningrad Defence Museum, which was torn apart and closed in 1952 in a type of campaign of repression common under Stalin. The story of the legendary museum's creation and closure, as well as the fate of its founding director Lev Rakov, accurately reflect Russia's tragic history in the second half of the 20th century. This exhibition in particular found its way into Ursula Schulz-Dornburg's "Memoryscapes" series.
The talented museum director, historian and playwright Lev Rakov was born in Yakutsk in 1904, the son of a lawyer and a medical student who were living in exile because of revolutionary activities. Released after a year, the family moved to Petersburg. Shortly before the revolution in 1917, Lev Rakov went to secondary school; afterwards, from 1922, he studied at Petrograd University at the Faculty of History and Archaeology. Alongside his studies, he worked at the Russian State Museum, where he helped prepare the exhibition "War and Art". Rakov moved to the State Hermitage in 1931, immersed himself in the history of the art of war and prepared large thematic exhibitions; at the same time he gave lectures on the history of the ancient world at the Leningrad Pedagogical Institute. After gaining employment as scientific secretary at the Hermitage in 1937, Rakov was arrested the following year, at the height of the Terror, on false charges of counter-revolutionary activity and terrorism. While in solitary confinement, he wrote a cycle of poems; a suicide attempt failed. When the wave of purges in 1939 affected even the top echelons of the NKVD, the Ministry of the Interior, and its head Nikolai Yeshov was executed, Rakov, like many others, was released. And when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, he volunteered for the Leningrad auxiliary units. During the war he always stayed in the city, surviving the terrible blockade of the city of millions that lasted from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944. He took part in several attempts to break the blockade in 1942 and 1943. The scholar's greatest deed was unquestionably the exhibition he organised on "The Heroic Defence of Leningrad", which opened in the besieged city in the winter of 1943. The exhibits of this temporary show were fragments of destroyed weapons captured from the enemy and brought in from the front, as well as terrifying testimonies of the everyday life of people of Leningrad suffering under the conditions of the blockade. In August 1945, Marshal Zhukov and General Eisenhower visited the exhibition. After the war, the city’s leaders decided to turn the exhibition into a museum, of which Rakov became the director. The ceremonial opening of the new museum took place on 17 May 1946. Thanks to his extraordinary organisational talent, Lev Rakov not only managed to gather a large number of different objects in a very short time (many were brought in by residents, such as Tanya Savicheva’s famous diary), but he also put together a remarkable team. The museum’s lead artist, who devised the project to design all 37 sections of the exhibition, was Nikolai Suetin - a student of Kazimir Malevich and collaborator of El Lissitzky in putting together many international exhibitions (including the famous Pressa, Cologne 1928). Like Rakov and all the other museum staff, Suetin had remained in the city during the blockade. In its first four years, the museum had over a million visitors.
In recognition of his services, the city administration appointed Lev Rakov director of the Publichnaya, the Leningrad State Library, in 1947. He held this post alongside his function as museum director until 1949, when a new wave of Stalinist repression broke out and a special commission arrived from Moscow with the task of persecuting leading figures of Leningrad. In the course of the so-called "Leningrad Affair", many members of the city's elite were arrested and shot.
After reviewing the materials and testimonies on the museum's work, the Moscow Commission sharp criticised how the events of the war had been presented. In sum, the museum was thought to have "belittled the role of Comrade Stalin in the war and in the battle for Leningrad", and even to have attempted to "create a myth about the blockade" and "to give Leningrad a special role". The commission’s verdict led to the museum's activities being temporarily suspended in 1949. When the Defence Museum was finally completely dissolved in 1952, some of the exhibits were destroyed, while the remaining holdings were transferred to the collections of other municipal museums. The museum's staff was then absurdly accused of having prepared a terrorist attack "in the event of a visit by Comrade Stalin".
The commission also launched an investigation into the Publichnaya headed by Rakov. In the course of the investigation, it became clear that the "content of the work" of the most important departments of the library did not meet “the demands of the party in the area of ideological activity".
Lev Rakov was arrested once again, deprived of his civic rights and his property confiscated. He was sentenced to death in 1950, but shortly before his execution the sentence was reduced to 25 years in the camps. In 1951, his wife was arrested. In 1954, a year after the dictator's death, Rakov was rehabilitated and released. He returned to his wife, who had been released in 1953, and continued living in Leningrad, where he died in 1970.
The lost Museum of the Defence of Leningrad experienced its rebirth in 1989, during perestroika. The re-foundation took place on the initiative of the populace at the old location, initially in a single room of the building that was otherwise being used for military purposes. On the fiftieth anniversary of the victory in the Second World War, in 1995, the new permanent exhibition was presented - now in several rooms. After the army moved out, the historic building was restored to its former glory by 2013. On the anniversary of the lifting of the blockade, the President of the Russian Federation visited the restored museum in 2023, while the war in Ukraine was in full swing.
But despite all these efforts, the museum that Rakov and his comrades-in-arms created and that was so cynically destroyed at the whim of the bloody dictator will never return. Suetin's interior design will not be resurrected, nor will the murals by the artist Vyacheslav Pakulin; many exhibits of inestimable value, the testimonies to the terrible time of the blockade that were destroyed when the museum was devasted or ended up in other collections, will not return. Above all, however, the spirit Rakov’s unique museum had possessed cannot be reconstructed: a spirit born of the real historical tragedy of the enclosed city and the firmness of heart and spirit shown by its people. The name "Museum of Defence" was not idly chosen. For the city and its inhabitants were not defending themselves against the armies of the enemy alone, but against death itself. The city held out, regardless of hunger and extreme cold in the winter of 1941 and 1942, when temperatures dropped below 30 degrees below zero and thousands died every day. Even under these conditions, people continued to live in the city, enduring without heating, electricity or running water. It was those people who survived, those whom death appeared already to have claimed, but did not give up.
The halls are arranged like a labyrinth that draws the visitor deeper and deeper into the museum. At some point, the viewer loses all sense of direction, becoming completely absorbed by this imitation of living through the terrible days of the blockade. The cold makes itself felt – the museum is not heated in the winter season – and reinforces the authenticity of th experience. One’s soul rises from the body and begins its journey into the world beyond. At the end of this journey, at the last stop by the exit, there is a sign that reads "End of the Viewing". It says "viewing", not "tour", "route" or "exhibition". For this journey can hardly be called anything else. One has to come here oneself and see it with one’s own eyes. Below the sign, right next to the door, stands an abandoned chair – for the story is not yet over. Its eerie emptiness could well be a silent warning: All this can happen again.
Translated from Russian into German by Christian Hufen
Translated from German into English by Henry Heitmann-Gordon