The 20th-century history of the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan has remained largely hidden for decades behind a curtain of silence drawn by the rulers of the former Soviet Union. But soon after it joined the Soviet Union in 1924, Uzbekistan was held up by Stalin as a leader in the rapid transition from feudalism to socialism that he wished to impose on his entire vast empire.">
The 20th-century history of the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan has remained largely hidden for decades behind a curtain of silence drawn by the rulers of the former Soviet Union. But soon after it joined the Soviet Union in 1924, Uzbekistan was held up by Stalin as a leader in the rapid transition from feudalism to socialism that he wished to impose on his entire vast empire.
Many of the miraculous transformations claimed by Stalin were grotesquely out of touch with reality, and those targets that were reached cost a great deal in brutalised lives. There were successes, however, and these were ruthlessly documented and visually polished before being widely distributed across the Soviet Union to encourage other ethnic groups to follow suit. But on the ground, witnessing the changes from within, was Max Penson, a young teacher turned photographer, who took tens of thousands of photographs for the newspaper Pravda Vostoka (Truth of the East) during his employment there between 1926 and 1949.
His archive of some 50,000 pictures is like an epic novel in photographic form. It is a comprehensive and visually brilliant history of the political and social tidal wave that swept over Central Asia in the first half of that century. It has only recently been unearthed by his daughter and son-in-law from the remains of a building in Tashkent that had been destroyed by an earthquake. Now some of his prints are to be shown at an exhibition at Somerset House.
Many of his pictures carry a strong feel of propaganda. Workers always look happy and dignified. Meetings at collective farms look calm and efficient, and the giant dam-building and canal-digging projects all look suitably awe-inspiring. The reality was often different. In the ruined Soviet villages of the 1930s a tractor was as rare as a decent meal. Peasant lives were brutish and short, eked out in the squalor of fly-ridden hovels.[an error occurred while processing this directive]
However, Penson’s archive turns out to be fascinatingly uneven. The images of farms and factories, of lines of peasants marching happily to dig canals, accord with the style of Socialist Realism designed to meet the propagandist needs of the editors at Pravda and the Soviet Tass news agency.
But there are flashes of exhilarating experimentation with Modernism too, which tend to eclipse the more pedestrian pictures. His On the Construction Site for the Liagan Canal, taken in 1942, depicts a man in the foreground holding up a horn, while masses of workers are seen in mute profile lined up on the hillside beyond. It could have been taken by Sebastião Salgado.
Olga Sviblova, the director of the Moscow House of Photography museum, is curating the London show. “It is an absolutely incredible archive. And the prints are beautiful. He made large-size prints at home every day — we don’t know why because he didn’t need them for his newspaper. But his work reflected the developments in Moscow photography, even though he may not have seen much of this. His work records a very important period for Uzbekistan and for the Soviet Union.”
By the 1940s, in the growing climate of paranoia, hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens of different ethnic origins were being deported or arrested and executed as enemies of the people. Even possessing negatives of targeted people was dangerous, so Penson made bonfires every night and burnt hundreds of negatives. Eventually he fell from official favour himself, accused of succumbing to the influence of Western aesthetics.
He died in 1959, impoverished and depressed, but the work that he left is a photographic treasure trove, a unique record of his times that reaches out across the decades.
Max Penson: The Soviet Modernisation of Uzbekistan 1920-1930s is at the Gilbert Collection, Somerset House, WC2 (020-7845 4600), from tomorrow, and is part of Russian ACT (www.russianact.co.uk)
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