We were shown into Afanasy Petrov's hallway by an effeminate young man who seemed to have found sanctuary as the painter's assistant from a hostile world outside. As I removed my boots I noticed the heavy locks and hinges on the iron security door that has become a standard fitting. Nothing I had seen in Russia prepared me for the bizarre spectacle to be found in the main room: dozens of cooing, simpering, giggling pharaohs, in primary colours and gilt framed, were stacked from the floor to the ceiling. These laughing tyrants of the New Kingdom were painted with a precision that might have convinced were it not for their foolish grins.
A diminutive and fragile old man rose to greet us. Our interpreter whispered that Afanasy Petrov was almost deaf and therefore given to monologues that might last an hour or more. He pulled his seat to within a few feet and launched at volume into an account of his life.
Born on the last day of the old century into an aristocratic family,
Afanasy Petrov was eight years old when he first saw images at school of
ancient Egypt and was filled with a supernatural feeling that he had lived
there in another lifetime. His family were protective of their sensitive
son but he lost them and everything they owned during the Civil War. He
survived by doing odd jobs and eventually gained employment as an illustrator
at the Darwin Museum in Moscow but in 1935 he was purged as an 'enemy of
the people' and sent to one of the many forced labour camps extracting minerals
from the Ural Mountains. Somehow he lived through it and in 1956 was released
with others as a result of Khrushchev's 'secret' speech to the Twentieth
Party Congress in which he denounced Stalin. Petrov stayed in the area and
quietly resumed his researches into the Lords of the Nile and their empire
of slaves. He proudly showed us his source material which consisted of a
few well thumbed volumes including one from the British Museum. But the
punch line was yet to come. From inside his cupboard he brought what looked
to be a double portrait; on the left was the head of Rameses II taken from
the alabaster statue in the Turin Museum, and on the right a young man.
Both faces stared impassively towards the camera. The image was hand tinted
and there were clear signs that it had been retouched to produce a greater
likeness between the two men. 'This was me as a young man, you can see can't
you' he insistently pointed at the pharaoh, 'it's one and the same person'.
There was silence.
Seeing an opportunity to change the subject, I asked him what he thought of Kasimir Malevich's work. 'He wasn't an artist at all, just a thug, him and the rest of them ripping up history and destroying the past, they were a gang of vandals' he pronounced angrily. 'You know that he said we should be more worried about a screw with a broken thread than the destruction of the church of Vasilii the Blessed, that's the kind of man he was'. Outside night had fallen but it was still possible to make out the green domes of the Solikomsk church complex as we began our journey south towards the city of Perm. Gogol wrote that Russia has two problems, fools and roads; the latter remain. The driver of our bus - a twenty-seater welded onto an army chassis - was ex-military but even he had problems with the mud and craters that threw us from side to side and made sleep impossible. Spirits were high, however, as the vodka and tinned meat were handed around and the author Stanislav Kern regaled us with mournful songs and tales of Pasternak and Mandelstam and mining disasters. He told us of a family who had recently bought a lion cub which they kept in their high rise flat. The neighbours had complained of the smell but the family were enjoying the notoriety and TV coverage. Last week it was reported that the young beast had scalped the grandmother.
Around midnight Vladislav Tzibrikov came over and sat next to me and asked what was happening with photography in the West. I tried to explain the specious arguments around straight and digital photography, but the suspicion that there wasn't an photographer with an Apple Macintosh east of Moscow did little to fuel my conviction. Straight photography had made one of the most remarkable comebacks since Lazarus and ironically just at the point when its commercial obsolescence looked a certainty. The old claims of a privileged relationship with reality were being evoked for photography at the same time as digital processes were convincingly being used to fake all manner of images . The one position seemed driven by a nostalgia for the empirical certainties of the past whilst the other falsely concluded that nothing in future could be considered real. Digital imaging had manacled straight photography in quotation marks whilst itself lacking any essence other than the ability to imitate and interrelate existing forms. In this sense it seemed less suited to exploring the future - a role often claimed for it - than the past. The two processes were being presented in opposition rather as Soviet art historians used to present Constable and Turner as 'sworn enemies' in a conflict between the supposed realist and the fantasist. Malevich, when under pressure from the AKhRR realists,had commented that all artists claim to be dealing with reality and all use artifice to do so.
I could smell the sulphurous fumes of Berezniki before seeing the red glow of its furnaces. A chemical town built by prisoners in the '30s, the factories had reached such a state of dereliction that it was difficult to say whether they were functioning or deserted. One sign of life was the emission of poisons which seep and slop and pour across the landscape and into the rivers. The previous day we had visited the 'White Sea' which consists of a number of lakes into which the factories pump toxins creating a dead and strangely beautiful landscape of steaming jade and ultramarine waters. 'The dreams of a fool have come true' muttered Vladislav. Much as I admired my companion's fearlessness when roaming these areas in pursuit of images I could not bring myself to look into the iron bath they discovered by the railway track, full of dead, tortured animals.
The forest and road seemed endless. It was maybe the beauty and vastness of the terrain that had fooled those early Soviet geologists and planners into thinking that nature would forgive them their worst efforts. As dawn broke, the first flurry of winter snow fell.
Approaching the town of Kungor, Vladislav, who's home town it is, pointed out with obvious pleasure the officers club that had been turned into an 'over-thirties' dating agency and the new enterprise supermarket that was never open. 'The only thing that's permanent around here is "temporary"', he said. We pulled off the road in front of a splendid nineteenth century merchant's house, the home of the photographer Iakov Grigoriev.
A tall, handsome man in his early sixties, he came down the steps to greet us with a broad smile and an iron handshake whilst his two alsatian guard dogs barked excitedly around our legs. The interior was unlike anywhere I had visited before in this country. Sure, I had seen the way the nouveau riche furnished their apartments with poor quality Western goods, keeping the empty boxes on top of their wardrobes and photographing each other with their cars and commodities, but this was different. Grigoriev's rooms were decked out with antiques; a small collection of figurines from the Imperial Porcelain Factory, fine carpets from Turkistan, a walnut table supporting a malachite and ormolu urn and even an English grandfather clock produced by a James Thristle of Nether Stowey. It was quite extraordinary.
After black tea, eggs, salad and wild strawberry jam, it was the photographer's turn to tell his story. He pulled down a book from the shelves. 'This was my first, I shot it in Rome in just five days. It was 1957, I was twenty five and on an official visit with some friends.' He handed it to me with pride. Grainy black and white photographs of the streets of the Imperial City; tourists at the Trevi Fountain, troubadours in Piazza Navona, vulnerable kids looking into shop windows, nuns, paparazzi hanging out on the Via Veneto, the Flea Market and everywhere young guys in hand stitched suits, Lambrettas and Vespas, women in pencil skirts and tight fitting tops leaning against bars, smoking, laughing. Of its kind it was OK, but I was more interested in how its author had come to be considered a 'trusted citizen'. The book was published in Moscow and Milan and established the pattern of his subsequent career.
Iakov Grigoriev was basically a travel photographer, but his special status had allowed him to take photographs across the U.S.S.R. and sell his material to western publishers hungry for images from behind the iron curtain. He had the market pretty much sown up for thirty years and his 'discretion' was such that conflict with the censor was never an issue. The Urals provided him with a good staging-post for his travels, and Moscow could be reached by plane in a few hours. He spoke three European languages and had friends in many of its capitals, but it was his contacts in New York of which he was most proud.
The collapse of the Soviet Union seemed overnight to finish his career as borders opened and Westerners were given unprecedented access to even the remotest areas. But rather than declining, his fortunes had multiplied tenfold. He had invested some of his money in a joint holding company involved in 'mineral exports' and with a business associate had put the rest into photographic processing laboratories franchised by an American manufacturer. In no time he had become a wealthy man, with time on his hands. But he wasn't yet entirely happy, and yearned for the status conferred by being considered an artist. Through his old contacts he was already negotiating a retrospective with a number of Western galleries. 'You know, there is a lot of nostalgia around for the days of the Cold War when you knew who your enemies were', he confided.
As we walked down the steps towards the bus he put his arm around my shoulder in a firm and manly embrace and told me a joke: Yeltsin and Clinton were sitting drinking. Yeltsin asked Clinton 'Bill, on what money are we drinking?' Clinton took him over to the window and said 'Boris, you see that bridge, it was supposed to cost $100,000 but we built it for $98,000, so we are drinking the difference'. They drank on and eventually Clinton turned to Yeltsin and asked 'Boris, on what money are we drinking?' Yeltsin led Clinton over to another window and said 'Bill, you see that bridge?' 'But Boris, there is no bridge', came the reply. 'That's the money that we are drinking on!' roared Yeltsin.
John Goto Oxford 1994