A prophecy shared between two people doesn’t hold much weight, but on an unassuming Sunday morning about six months ago, my sister and I discussed the impending Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yesterday, President Zelenskyy of Ukraine and President Putin discussed the terms of a ceasefire for the war that has begun in Ukraine. No ceasefire has been signed; the war continues.
I woke up to two notifications last Tuesday.
- Russia has invaded Ukraine
- My short story has been rejected
The Russian invasion of Ukraine eclipsed the news of my short story by an order of magnitude so great, I felt shameful for feeling sorry for myself. The normal hit of dopamine from my morning coffee fell flat on its face in the shadow of the invasion. I tried to distract myself from the somber morning by scrolling the internet, but it was impossible to escape the onslaught of coverage about the conflict in Ukraine. I decided to go to the library to escape for a bit.
At the end of January, I requested that the library purchase a few Bukowski books. I walked through the double doors, nodded to the security guard, and headed for the B’s. I thought Bukowski’s raw takes on humanity would fit the tone of the morning. The library has Post Office and Hollywood, both of which I have read. On either side of the two slim volumes was Bull, an author I have never read, and Burroughs, an author I read in high school. Neither, I thought, would be a fitting read for the morning. So, I made my way to the V’s. Vonnegut’s work would be a poignant critique of war and satisfy me as much as, if not more than, Bukowski. in the Santa Fe Public Library, Vonnegut fairs better than Bukowski with a total of three books: Deadeye Dick, God Bless you Mr. Rosewater, and Galapagos. I have read all three.
I wonder who all the books on the shelves are by and who they are for. The library may be too close to its own problems to realize that its decline into a glorified daycare is the result of its poor investments. Or perhaps I have the taste of a child.
I grab an anthology of Updike’s short stories and read the inside cover. I don’t know Updike’s style, voice, tone, or works, but he is listed as one of the greats. It says so right on the inside cover. At a certain point, all an author needs is someone to validate his greatness. To hell with actually reading the books—If someone validated Putin’s greatness, he might have said, “to hell with invading Ukraine”, but the West couldn’t spare the words. Now Putin is proving himself on his own terms.
With Updike under my arm, I start towards the front desk, but I don’t make it. I hesitate, take a few indirect steps in the direction of the checkout desk, avert my gaze from the curious eyes of the librarian, and stumble off into the reference section. The librarian, an elderly woman with low bifocals and a sweater vest embroidered with colorful yarn, says nothing. I realize, last minute, that I am headed back into the somber morning too quickly. I delay reentry into reality by weaving through the reference section.
In my head, I feel that I am acting strange, but really I am no more remarkable than the unsheltered people who check their blood glucose in the young adult section of the library. The librarian isn’t concerned with my stumbling; she isn’t concerned with book theft or customer service. She only hopes that everything remains calm so she can avoid cleaning up a mess in the bathroom or disabling the fire alarm from a child absentmindedly leaning on the emergency exit. The librarian sits on her stool and tries to savor the still moments, which seem to be diminishing with each passing day. The librarian’s tolerance of decay is a feeling shared by the U.S. government in light of COVID-19. The world is moving too fast and everyone needs a break.
My conspicuous segue from the front desk leads me to the magazines. I am angry at the magazines for their curated content and tone, so I breeze past and force the memory of my most recent rejection to the depths of my subconscious. I hope the wound of rejection scars over soon.
Further down the aisles of the south side of the library are the non-fiction books; books that I seldom browse because I get my fill of reality every single day. I am desperate for a distraction from the day’s troubles, however, so I snake the non-fiction aisles in hopes of finding something mind blowing.
By chance, I stumble upon Henri Cartier-Bresson’s About Russia; I am unable to escape the conflict. The book is a collection of photographs bound in Buckram and glossy around the edge of its cover from age and use. The pages of the book are yellowed and all of the photos, which if you are familiar with Cartier-Bresson you may already be privy to, are in black and white. The pages crack as I open the volume. The photos, windows into the past, provide a context for the psyche of the Soviet people. I snap the book shut and decide to report on the conflict myself.
At checkout, the indifferent librarian takes her time to register my presence, guarding herself against the possibility that a stray thought might whisk me away again.
“I’d like to check these out,” I say.
She stares at me down the bridge of her nose.
“Of course,” She says.
At home, the heat of the radiator makes me sweat. I peel off my jacket and drop it, along with Updike and Cariter-Bresson, on the couch. The cat, snoozing on the adjacent cushion of the couch, leaps to the floor. Spooked, I am guessing, not by the physical books, but by the weight of the ideas I have dropped beside him. The cat, unaware of any invasion except that of his personal space, watches me from behind the couch as I make lunch.
I am out of mustard and my sandwich is dry, but not as dry as the preface to Cartier-Bresson’s book. The book’s introductory pages state the limitations of photography and indirectly defend Cartier-Bresson’s work from critique as a result. It is slick writing. For an artist whose vision is purported to be limitless in spite of the limitations of photography, the sentiment of the preamble is weak. It suggests that Cartier-Bresson, preoccupied with the aesthetics of photography, was confused by the context of his work. It would have been better to admit confusion. The admission would not affect the photos.
About Russia is organized according to the different geographic locations within the Soviet Union. The work does not attempt to answer, “Why?”, it is simply a book of vacation journalism. Although the designation sounds derogatory, it is not intended to be. It is simply the genre of the book once it has been stripped of the esoteric laurels which adorn much of fine art.
About Russia begins in Leningrad, formerly Petrograd, and presently known as Saint Petersburg. In Cartier-Bresson’s photos, it is clear that the polyonymous cultural center of Russia is under transition. A huge cutout of Lenin dominates a public square where a father walks with his daughter. Rows of uniformed men occupy squares where fashionistas model the latest Western clothing for photographers. There is a conspicuous cultural power play at work in Leningrad, but there is no violence. It is a theme that characterizes, at least to a minor degree, all of the Soviet Union. There is a sense that the culture of the state and the culture of the people are separate. A few men, oblivious to Cartier-Bresson and his Leica, stroll along the beach. There would be no sense of cultural upheaval without the larger than life presence of Lenin a few pages before.
Cartier-Bresson’s work captures the still, calm, and reflective quality of a cultural center that cannot reconcile its artistic history with its communist future. Nothing characterizes the liminal space the Soviet city occupies better than the confused expressions of its children. The world is new to the children. They are unsure of what they are looking at. The children are on the precipice of an unknown future. Like the children of Ukraine and Russia presently, the confusion of the children in Cartier-Bresson’s work make us consider whether or not we, the adults, have any idea what we are doing.
The photos of Moscow, the Union’s capital, have a hawkish character. The culture of the state is stronger in the capital than it was in Leningrad. The people of Moscow, as grave as the architecture of communism, accept unquestioningly the plans of the Union’s visionaries. There is a sense that the people, long out of touch with the government, have resigned themselves to the ambitions of politicians and generals. Still, as before in Leningrad, life goes on. Babies are born. Children grow up and parents grow old. Babushkas watch matriculating university girls with starry eyed wonder. There is a sense that perhaps the Union’s promise of paradise will be delivered on. There is hope for the future.
But first it must be built. The common men of Moscow, with constitutions hardened by years of back-breaking labor, raise their families from the destitution of peasantry into the destitution of collectivization. The men level their ancestral lands, creating a uniform field from which the masses can collectively suffer while dignitaries sit and drink themselves silly.
Far from the vice of alcohol, babushkas gather, doubled over by age, to pray to a God that has ignored their plight for centuries. Their faith in God, challenged by the political experiments of the Soviet Union which have led to famine, exile, and murder, remains unbroken. These women, wizened by age, answer to a higher power. Still, despite the grave character of Moscow, the Muscovites find happiness in the rubble of their broken hopes.
Weddings take place. The bride and groom marry, for love or stability, each in their uniform: the man in his fatigues, the woman in her dress. Their union is one which captures the political narrative of the Soviet Union: the harmonious marriage of a people and the state.
Couples less committed to the future of the Soviet Union skip the uniforms and stroll through their drab communist flats in fashionable western clothes. They are people who abide by the system of Soviet Russia for want of a peaceful life.
As in any revolutionary state, disillusioned men find their voices in instruments and sit in a park ready to share their message with anyone who will listen. Older men, aged from the tragedies of war, endure the monotony of industrialization for the sake of their families, silently hoping for a better future. Away from the city and the future, there are summer fields where young families picnic amongst tall grasses; there is a sense in these photos that the family, even in its smallest iteration, will weather the storm of communism.
Cartier-Bresson’s Leica pays a pittance to the Baltic countries. A mere eight photos of an already condensed 146 represent the culture of the Baltic countries in About Russia. The Baltic countries current military posturing says even better what Cartier-Bresson’s absence of documentation states: the Baltic Countries are independent. Cartier-Bresson’s photos of the Baltic countries capture states that are proud of their history and inform of us of the current state of fears that the countries share in the face of the threat of being subjected to a future which is not unlike the recent past.
The Caucasus region occupies the southwest of the Soviet Union. The region is home to the Greater Caucasus Mountain range: a natural border between the east and west. The photos of the Caucasus region capture the ideological split present amongst the generations who call the region home. Adults, old and middle-aged alike, accept the role of the Union in their homeland. Their resignation stands in stark contrast to the protests of young professionals dissatisfied with the Soviet Union. Then there are the children of the Caucasus region. Their world is as small as the alleyway in which they gather to play tag.
There are the pastoralists and the machinists, advances of modern medicine and the familiar decay of old age. Pleasure and refinement. Work and play. Pacifism and activism. Of all of the regions in the Soviet Union, Cariter-Bresson’s work captures the impression that the Caucasus have a strong understanding of where they are in the world and where they want to be.
Finally, there is Central Asia. A place so different from the rest of the Soviet Union, that there is nowhere to put it in About Russia but the end. Central Asia is undercover in its own country, silently practicing their centuries old culture while nodding yes to the powers that be. To the people of Central Asia, the presence of the Soviet Union is felt, but it does not define their future. The faces of the people in Central Asia illustrate the universal human emotions of confusion, frustration, joy, and acceptance more honestly than any other group in the book. Perhaps the honesty of their emotion has something to do with their distance, geographically and culturally, from Moscow.
The last photo in About Russia is of a shepherd and his son. The shepherd stares into the camera while laying in front of his sheep. The father looks dubious that there is anything to be captured. Life is the same as it has always been.
I close the book, set it down on the coffee table, and stretch. I can’t verbalize what I have learned from About Russia, but I intuitively understand the human element captured in Cartier-Bresson’s photos.
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