After Empire I: The Soviet Ruin

PENTAX Image
The cupola of a Soviet missile silo at Plokštinė, Lithuania
From Wikimedia

Anyone who spends considerable time looking at photographs will know that certain tired topics appear again and again, often with the photographer’s blissful ignorance, or indifference. While it’s tempting just to complain about these tropes and vainly hope that some of those who are tempted to repeat them will take notice, I think it’s also interesting to try to understand the allure of these things, to ask what magnetism it is that they possess which is able to cause people to return to them again and again.

Ruins are a particular strong example of this, a truism for art more generally as well as photography individually and something I’ve mulled before on this blog. Within photography though one ruin type holds a particularly strong grip on our imagination, and these are the ruins of the Soviet Union. The abandoned or decayed industrial, political and military structures of the USSR, an empire which once covered twenty million square kilometres of the earth’s surface. From the desolate automated lighthouses strung along the Arctic coast to the radioactive ruins of Ukraine’s Chernobyl or Kazakhstan’s Polygon. Photographers, both amateur and professional, return again and again to these places, and we as viewers in turn look again and again at these photographs, as if the next set will somehow explain something more of these enigmas than did the last.

Leaving aside the specific qualities of ruins that many people find attractive, as picturesque visions, or temporal paradoxes, I have lately been wondering what is the specific allure of these Soviet remains, as opposed to those of any other demised civilisation or polity. In a very obvious sense I suppose it is that these ruins give us a frightening yardstick by which to see how quickly our own efforts as a civilisation might come to merge with the earth and eventually disappear. A ruin of a great temple or an ancient castle might be a memnto mori that gives us some sense of the awful briefness of the things we make in this world, but our temporal closeness to the remains of the Soviet Union gives them an altogether more overwhelming sense of our own demise.

But there is something more, in some sense I suspect in the west we find these images particularly fascinating because they reveal the inner workings of something which was once opaque, and reveal the decrepitude of an empire which was once so greatly feared. Some of my German friends have remarked to me on the strangeness of the British obsession with watching Second World War films, an endless fixture on television channels at all times of the year and even during seasons that would seem to be antithetical to conflict, like Christmas. Our fascination, I have suggested to them in return, perhaps stems from the fact it was a relatively morally unambiguous war against a dark and oppressive power, but maybe more importantly a war which we still can’t quite believe we won. We want to relive our victory again and again because in some very fundamental way that victory perplexes and eludes us.

In some senses I think something similar is at work here, we cannot fully grasp that we would have won out against a Soviet Empire which seemed to powerful, so monolithic, and above all so dark and opaque. This confusion is not least compounded by the fact the long anticipated violent reckoning between the two sides in the Cold War never came. Poring over these ruins as we do again and again is like a fruitless post-mortem which we have continued for the best quarter of a century without satisfactory conclusion. It is an aimless anatomy lesson which we maybe hope will posthumously reveal our enemy’s Achilles heel and lead to some final insight into our victory. If recent events in Russia and Ukraine indicate anything thought it is that perhaps this demise was a feint and the corpse is not as cold as it once seemed. The fingers appear to be twitching, and these ruins may yet return to life.