As renewed tensions between Ukraine and Russia began to stir late last year, Sydney photographer Dean Sewell began to recall the year he spent living in the newly dismantled USSR more than a quarter of a century earlier.
The multiple international award-winning photographer knew he had dozens of rolls of black and white film he had shot in and around Moscow in the mid-1990s, but he had never had the chance to develop them.
Multiple rental locations and less than ideal archival storage measures meant Sewell knew even if he could find the long-lost footage among the hundreds of storage boxes, chances were the film would be corrupted after all these years.
“Dean’s Russia rolls had become something like lore over the years,” said friend and fellow photographer, Canadian David Maurice Smith.
“He would occasionally refer to them, but I think there was this fear that even if he did figure out where they were, the film would probably be cooked.”
There was also an issue of the cost involved. As a freelance photographer, there was no client to cover the cost of manually developing the film.
As Russian airstrikes began on Kyiv and Donetsk in late February, Sewell located the boxes containing 25 rolls of film that had laid untouched for 26 years.
On the day international media reported that refugees fleeing Ukraine had reached the figure of one million, Sewell began developing the film in the kitchen of fellow photographer Sean Davey. Incredibly, the film rolls showed virtually no signs of deterioration.
“I was looking at pictures I couldn’t even remember taking … it was like reaching into the deep recesses of your brain,” Sewell says.
“It was an amazing experience, taking me back to my life quarter of a century earlier.”
Sewell, a two-time winner of the World Press Photo awards for his work on the tsunami aftermath in Aceh, Australian bushfires and East Timor – and a co-founder of the Australian photographers’ collective Oculi – recalls his first impressions upon arriving in Russia in 1996, as “like walking through a Dostoevsky novel”. It was a country financially crippled but with a guarded optimism about the promise of a fledgling democracy. The young Sydney photographer was confronted by a bleak Moscow with its many shuttered shopfronts, yet he was invigorated by the camaraderie of colleagues and new friends navigating their way in an unprecedented era of comparative media freedom.
Here are some of the images he resurrected, 26 years after walking the streets of Russia’s capital and capturing the everyday lives of Muscovites.
Moscow street scenes
The fall of the iron curtain opened up an enormous and previously untapped consumer market. In 1990 McDonald’s opened its first outlet in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, with almost 40,000 people reportedly queueing for a quintessential taste of mass western consumerism. Originally, the distinctive Soviet flag of yellow hammer and sickle on red sat at the base of McDonald’s golden arches logo.
Tobacco multinationals moved into the Russian market, and billboard images of the Marlboro man were ubiquitous on Moscow’s streets almost 20 years before Putin famously channelled the uber-macho icon with his bare-chested equestrian pursuits.
Among Sewell’s favourite photographs captured in the lead-up to the first democratic election in post-Soviet Russia in 1996, depicts a large corflute bearing the image of Lenin held aloft at a crowded Communist party street rally, with billboards advertising Marlboro cigarettes and Claudia Schiffer spruiking Revlon cosmetics in the background.
The pernicious infiltration of western culture was a key platform issue for the Communist party, led by Gennady Zyuganov, during the election campaign. Russia’s emerging oligarch class and billionaire overseas investors were spooked enough by it to bankroll independent candidate Boris Yeltsin, who, notwithstanding widespread and credible allegations of electoral fraud, became the Russian Federation’s first democratically elected president.
In another street scene, an ice-cream cart can be seen in the image’s left: a common fixture on many Moscow street corners. Russians are one of the world’s largest consumers of ice-cream – in winter they eat it in the belief it increases body temperature – and in the Soviet era, the production of Stakanchik (the benchmark standard of Russian ice-cream) was quality controlled by the state to ensure only pure and natural ingredients were used. In winter when temperatures have been known to drop below -30 degrees, the carts can be fitted with warming cabinets to prevent the product from freezing solid.
Muscovites and tourists alike have been drawn to Moscow’s most famous square for centuries. In this image, the historic buildings of St Basil’s, the Kremlin, Lenin’s Mausoleum and the high-end GUM department store look down upon young people indulging in the recently imported fad of rollerblading. One carries the relatively novel tricolour flag of the new Russian Federation.
Sewell captured the closing off of Red Square in preparations of the 6 May Victory Day parade: the annual spectacle showcasing Russia’s military might celebrating Germany’s capitulation to the Red Army at the end of the second world war.
Russia’s most treasured cultural export was hit hard after the collapse of the communist regime. Soviet-era budgets for state-run ballet companies had been generous, reflecting the artform’s status as a prime ambassador, reflecting the cultural superiority of the USSR to the outside world.
By the mid-1990s, Russian ballet was in crisis. At home, companies were hobbled by artistic as well as financial crises; the Kirov was embroiled in an international bribery scandal; and there were fears of infiltration by local mafia, and an emerging oligarchy demanding favours and bribes. In 1995, dancers at the Bolshoi Ballet went on strike, and a performance was cancelled for the first time in the company’s 219-year history. President Yeltsin had to be called in to settle the dispute. Many dancers and choreographers were leaving Russia for more lucrative placements abroad.
Sewell was denied access to the Bolshoi, but managed to secure backstage access to the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre. The Moscow company, founded during the second world war, was emerging from its own five-year crisis in 1996 when Sewell took these images. An earlier fire had destroyed much of the company’s property, and the theatre was closed for months. Protest resignations and strike action kept the theatre dark for parts of 1991.
Sewell was granted unfettered access to a young couple’s nuptials, in the city of Rostov, 200km south of Moscow.
“When I arrived in Moscow in ‘96 it felt as if I had entered a time warp. The cars, the fashions, the way women wore make up, everything looked like it was from the 1970s,” he says.
Sewell’s documentation of an Orthodox wedding in the Rostov Kremlin church captured what he calls “the confusing aesthetic of not quite knowing what time you are in”.
The couple’s style of dress, the dimly lit church, the solemnity of the ceremony – which lasted for several hours (at one point the bride fainted) – made the photographer feel he had stepped back in time.
“Looking at the pictures now, they have a Josef Koudelka aesthetic about them, like the pictures he took in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s – yet here I was shooting this in the 1990s.”
A Russian passion for gargantuan socialist-realist monuments was at its height during the Soviet era, and there remains an estimated 6,000 statues of Lenin in the Russian Federation today. When the USSR was dissolved in 1991, a condition of troop withdrawal from newly independent nation states was the continued preservation of Red Army monuments. But not all are universally beloved by people.
In 1996 Sewell captured the construction of one of the most unpopular public art works in the city’s history. At 98 metres high, the statue of Peter the Great, complete with shambolic armada underfoot, stands as high as a 30-storey building and has been wildly pilloried since its unveiling in 1997. It regularly makes it on the world’s 10 most ugly monuments lists and continues to bemuse critics, who wonder why a city Peter the Great apparently loathed so much he relocated his court to St Petersburg would honour his legacy with the world’s eighth tallest monument.