We Are Building Capitalism! Moscow in Transition 1992-1997 by Robert Stephenson

When you’re an avid reader and a bookworm, there are times when you stumble across a book you just *know* is going to be perfect for you. I’ve had a few of those in my lifetime, and I came across one recently which couldn’t have been a better fit. My love for Russia and its literature and history is well-known; and I’ve done all manner of wittering away about iconoclasm and the like recently on the Ramblings. So when the lovely Glagoslav offered me a review copy of a new book which looked at the changes which took place in the landscape of Moscow after the end of Communism, it was a no-brainer that I’d want to read it, wasn’t it? 😀

The title of “We Are Building Capitalism!” riffs on the kind of slogans bandied about in the early days of the Soviet Union, and there’s plenty of irony at work here. Robert Stephenson was at the time a UK civil servant who was shipped to Moscow in 1992 after the collapse of Communism, sent as a consultant and then leading a number of projects. He spent five years living and working in Russia’s capital city and during that time he indulged his passion for photography. In doing so, he created a wonderful record of the changes taking place in the city, and this book is a stunning account of those times.

Moscow in the early 1990s was not an easy place in which to live; there were shortages of everything, the economy was changing, and the transition from communism to capitalist was painful. Salaries had been cut, people had lost their jobs and were struggling to survive; and there was the constant presence of pop-up outdoor markets where people tried to sell goods (or their possessions) to make ends meet. The economic uncertainty was matched with political uncertainty, as the new regime struggled to maintain some kind of stability and the oligarchs started to creep in.

Stephenson’s book brilliantly captures those times, and the book is divided into chapters which focus on a particular element – the destruction of old monuments, for example. or the changing face of the shops and markets, the gradual arrival of Western influence (Coke or Macdonalds, anyone?) and the altered skyline of the city. “We Are Building…” is a large softcover book, roughly A4 landscape, and this means that the photographs have the space to be given the prominence they deserve. And they *are* truly atmospheric – from the people in the streets, the old shop front signage, a deserted Patriarch’s Ponds in the winter, to my beloved Mayakovsky silhouetted on the cover against a symbol of modernity, these photographs bring Moscow at that time vividly to life.

Each section of the book has commentary by Stephenson on what will follow, and as I read through and gazed at his photos, I felt a mixture of fascination but also sadness. So much of old Moscow (and it’s a city which *has* been rebuilt a number of times) has been wiped out to be replaced with modern, Western architecture that I couldn’t help but feel sorry that I never got to see it back then. Unfortunately, much of Soviet architecture is not taken seriously (despite the best efforts of commentators like Owen Hatherley to convince people otherwise); and I remember reading that when Vladimir Bortko was filming his 2005 version of “The Master and Margarita”, he actually had to go to St. Peterburg to find the right buildings to shoot with, as there was so little left in Moscow that looked right for the period of the book. I know things have to change and I guess the people that had to live in them might feel differently, but I think we need to be careful about sweeping changes and wiping out the physical past so drastically, as there’s a danger of losing a connection with our heritage.

“We Are Building…” turned out to be just as good (if not better!) than I had expected. Stephenson is a knowledgeable and entertaining commentator and his photographs are wonderful windows into the past. The book touches lightly on the subject of iconoclasm, as there are any number of statues of Lenin, Stalin et al that were pulled down or damaged or destroyed (luckily Mayakovsky seems to have survived); interestingly, many have been restored and resettled in the Muzeon Park of Arts. Which potentially sets off another chain of argument in that although these statues represent people who had become hated, they *were* the result of somebody’s artistic endeavours, so should we regard them as a work of art or just a piece of propaganda to be destroyed? *

But I digress (as usual….!). Stephenson’s book is a wonderful thing, a stunning collection of images recording a time of change which is now long gone; and if you have any interest in Moscow, its history and its landscape this is most definitely the book for you. Stephenson resists all the way through doing comparison shots until the very end, when he shares two shots along the Garden Ring taken twenty years apart. The change is stunning (and not in a good way, in my view); so we’re very lucky to have this collection of images to record the past.

(Review copy kindly provided by Glagoslav, for which many thanks!)

*****

* As an aside, the whole question of how to treat art in public spaces and whether it should actually be treated as art or propaganda is a knotty one which has vexed all manner of commentators. In fact, it was the subject of a film “Doubled Youth” by the Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevičius, which looked at the removal of Soviet era sculptures from the Green Bridge in Vilnius. For anyone interested, there is a fascinating discussion about the film from a session at Newcastle’s Baltic Gallery (including, amongst others, Professor Richard Clay) which you can watch here. It’s a complex issue…