The Dissident Photographers of Ukraine
Besieged by the Russian invasion, the city of Kharkiv has a long history of artistic experimentation—and in the Soviet era, photographers upheld a counterculture tradition.
Oleg Maliovany, Fresco, 1973–74
“From an artistic standpoint, Ukraine has fought the system inherited from the Soviet past, and the battle has been won,” the photographer Evgeniy Pavlov says recently over Zoom. “Censorship no longer exists and artists can do what they wish, including criticizing politics without being persecuted. But today, Russia seems to want to turn back the clock, and Ukrainians are well aware of what they are fighting against, because they have been there before. And they don’t want to turn back.” Pavlov, who is seventy-seven years old, now lives in Graz, Austria, where he has sought refuge. He left Kharkiv in February on the third day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when he saw a missile fall several yards from his car. He was able to bring a few personal effects with him and a handful of vintage prints from his archive.
In the early 1970s, Pavlov and Jury Rupin founded the Vremia Group in Kharkiv, the second-largest Ukrainian city, now besieged by Russian troops. A collective of nonconformist photographers that included the acclaimed photographer Boris Mikhailov, the Vremia group is considered the original core of the Kharkiv School of Photography (KSOP), and it is now well known throughout the world. (Other members include Anatoliy Makiyenko, Oleg Maliovany, Oleksandr Sitnichenko, Oleksandr Suprun, and the late Gennadiy Tubalev.) Apart from Rupin, who died in Vilnius, Lithuania in 2008, these artists are still alive. In 2019, they had a large retrospective at the PinchukArtCentre in Kyiv. The following year, their works entered the permanent collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, when the institution acquired one hundred and thirty images from private Ukrainian collectors.
The origins of the Vremia Group go back to a photography club in Kharkiv, where the members got to know each other and realized they had a shared artistic calling, one contrary to the direction imposed by the Soviet regime. “I never thought of myself as an anti-Soviet dissident. I only felt the need to express myself in a sincere and honest way,” Pavlov explains. “But this was enough to make me an underground artist. When they asked me why I was creating images so far removed from the official aesthetic, which was tied to Socialist Realism, I responded that the regime imposed a saccharine view of man, but man is not just sugar. I wanted to show something different—aspects of life that everyone had before their eyes, but which were being ignored by official art.”
In Russian, vremia, or vremya, means “time.” It is an innocuous term, but one that was interpreted within the underground context as contemporary, a dangerous word at that time. “As our symbol, we adopted the owl, a nocturnal animal, opposed to the winged Pegasus used by Soviet propaganda,” Pavlov says. In Diary of a Photographer, Rupin’s autobiographical novel published in the 2000s, he writes: “During our discussions, we devised our concept of photography as an art form and developed certain theories about the way in which images had to interact with those who view them. One of these was the ‘theory of stroke.’ The work had to act on the viewer instantly, like an unexpected blow.”
In 1972, Pavlov participated in a clandestine countercultural gathering that was part of a hippie movement inspired by contemporaneous Western trends, and he suggested that it would be interesting to create an image of a naked man in water, playing an accordion. The young people instead found a violin. This marked the genesis of a series that went down in history as The Violin, in which the instrument appears in almost all the shots. The images might be considered documentation of the first “happening” in Soviet history. The vitality of the naked body immersed in nature resembles something that Ryan McGinley might have made, but forty years earlier, and in a radically different context. The effect of the work was explosive. In the Soviet Union, pornography was a criminal offense, and the legal definition was so vague that any photographer who shot nude photos could be accused of obscenity. The series of photographs was smuggled out of the country and published in the Polish magazine Fotografia in 1973.
The Vremia Group was able to organize a single exhibition in 1983 that remained open for only two hours. “We were at the Kharkiv House of Scientists,” Pavlov tells me. “The KGB headquarters were across the street. When the manager saw the works, she ran into her office to denounce us, and we immediately took down the show.” When I ask why it was worth it to oppose the regime with art, Pavlov responds, “Political life was toxic and was poisoning us. I felt a need from within, to contribute to what truth could demonstrate: we were slaves, but we wanted to be able to communicate the fullness of life, the fullness of our being.” Observing his country being bombed by Vladimir Putin’s army in recent weeks, Pavlov made a melancholic remark. “Today, in Russia, the propaganda machine has gotten going again. Imperialist rhetoric has reappeared, nearby countries are considered colonies, and the human has gone back to being irrelevant.”
Today, the artists of the three generations of the Kharkiv School of Photography share the uncertain fate of the Ukrainian people.
Taking refuge with Pavlov in Austria is his wife, Tatjana Pavlova, a photography historian who oversees the Contemporary Art Department at the Kharkiv State Academy of Design and Arts. She is considered the theorist of the Kharkiv School of Photography and wrote the entry on Ukraine for the monumental six-volume encyclopedia The History of European Photography, published published between 2010 and 2016 by the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava, Slovakia. The city of Kharkiv has a long history of experimentation in the arts, and its school of photography can be considered the apex of this tradition. It was in Kharkiv that the first Soviet skyscraper was built, in 1928: the Derzhprom, a masterpiece of Constructivism. Before the Stalinist purges, the city was a center of avant-garde debate, and the magazine Nova Generatsiya (New Generation), published by the Futurist poet Mykhail Semenko, printed Kazimir Malevich’s principle theoretical texts when the Kyiv-born painter had already fallen into disgrace with the regime.
For Pavlova, when people in the West speak of the “Russian avant-garde,” they don’t consider that many of the protagonists of that movement were Ukrainians. “In addition to Malevich, Aleksandra Ėkster, David and Volodymyr Burljuk are also from our country,” Pavlova explains. “Vasyl Yermylov and Boris Kosarev were born in Kharkiv and worked there, teaching at the Academy of Design and Fine Arts.” One of their students was Volodymyr Grygorov, who, years later, taught some of the leading figures in the Vremia Group. “The lesson of the avant-garde at the beginning of the [twentieth] century was imbibed by these photographers,” Pavlova says. Another characteristic of the Kharkiv School of Photography derives from the city’s geographic location, a few minutes by car from the border with Russia, which also corresponds to a cultural position of straddling two different sensibilities in artistic expression. “In Russia we see a more conceptual approach, well expressed in the performing arts and in installations,” Pavlova continues. “The Ukrainian approach, instead, tends more to achieve an expressionist visual richness, with strong contrasts and saturated colors. In the images of photographers from various generations of the KSOP, both these tensions coexist.”
The Kharkiv School could be described in three generations. The first is the Vremia Group, which worked from the late 1970s to the late 1980s. The second generation falls into the years before perestroika, up to the 1990s. The third generation emerges in the 2000s with the Shilo Group (shilo means “awl”), formed in 2010, and the Boba Group, which came together in 2012 (Boba references Boris Mikhailov’s nickname). According to Oleksandra Osadcha, the curator of the Museum of Kharkiv School of Photography, the school’s main characteristic is a focus on the idea of community. “The daily association among artists, who sometimes are friends who vacation together with their families, is a constant in the three generations. It is a phenomenon that, in other parts of the Soviet Union, in Moscow, Leningrad, or Kyiv, did not occur in this manner.” There are stylistic and aesthetic constants as well, like “the use of solarization, ‘photo-sandwiches,’ collages,” Osadcha notes. “These are techniques that come from the past, but which were discussed in interminable small talk, over coffee, when they would show each other cardboard displays, kartonchiki, with each of their works.”
The Museum of Kharkiv School of Photography was founded in 2018, through the initiative of Sergiy Lebedynskyy, a member of the Shilo Group, and is sponsored by the engineering firm Manometer Factory. “Part of our collection was already safe in Germany before the beginning of the war, but most of it has been evacuated recently,” Osadcha, who has been displaced to Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, explains. “But at the moment we are busy helping photographers who have remained in Kharkiv, salvaging the archives of artists from various generations.” She tells me of the work of Veronika Skliarova, director of the Kharkiv cultural event Parade Fest, who is working out of Poland to coordinate the evacuation of archives of artists from the city, and of Rodion Prokhorenko, the owner of Kharkiv’s last remaining analog photography lab, who, among others, has remained in the city, moving from studio to studio to secure archives and move them west to Lviv. Today, the artists of the three generations of the Kharkiv School of Photography share the uncertain fate of the Ukrainian people. They do not know if they will ever be able to return to their homes, and they do not know if there will be space for their art in the Ukraine of the future.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore. Read more about how the photography community is responding to the war in Ukraine.