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The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life

Ukrainian photographer Oleksandr Ranchukov, who died last year, primarily made a name for himself shooting architecture, and his pictures of buildings and urban spaces have appeared in several academic publications. But he also liked to take his camera out onto the streets of his native Kyiv and other cities to pursue his own gritty brand of street photography.

As he took many of these photos in the 1980s, his bleak black-and-white images provide a record of life in the latter days of the Soviet Union that stands in stark contrast to that which was portrayed in the official propaganda of that era.


In a recent essay on his work, fellow photographer and art critic Oleksandr Lyapin said Ranchukov primarily saw himself as a chronicler of his times and hoped his images would “complement the story of the sad end of the U.S.S.R., the dull streets of the city showing its decay…”

The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life
The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life

According to photographer and critic Oleksandr Lyapin, Ranchukov wanted to capture for younger generations “the faces of Soviet people — in a way very different from how they are presented on posters.”

The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life

People at a stall in Kyiv drink kvass, a fermented beverage made from bread, which is still a popular summer drink in many former Soviet republics.

“Ranchukov was a street photographer, but he had almost no interest in the aesthetics of street photography,” Lyapin said. Instead, he simply “painted the picture of Soviet everyday life — dull and inexpressive, even dead: identical gray streets, unsightly clothes, street vendors, puddles, and dirt.”

The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life
The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life

Many of Ranchukov’s photographs capture aspects of Kyiv life that have since disappeared forever, such as this cobbler’s kiosk in Zhytniy Market, which was once a familiar sight to generations.

The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life

A woman in a Kyiv alleyway walks past a poster proclaiming, “Glory to the Communist Party!”

Needless to say, conditions for street photography were not ideal in the somewhat paranoid milieu of the U.S.S.R., which is probably why Ranchukov relied mainly on the Soviet-era Kiev 4 camera for most of his city shots. According to Lyapin, this “quiet but very accurate” device meant that Ranchukov was often able to photograph people without being noticed, thus ensuring a natural, realistic depiction of Soviet streets.

The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life
The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life

In addition to capturing what one critic has called the “gloomy dignity” of Soviet life, Ranchukov was also on hand to record the dramatic changes that occurred on the streets of Kyiv as the Soviet system rapidly collapsed. Indeed, his shots showing the advent of capitalism in his native city rank among his most striking images.

The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life

Curious residents inspect an American automobile on the streets of Kyiv.

The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life
The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life

A man in Kyiv reacts as people line up outside a shop selling American jeans.

Not surprisingly, for most of his career, there wasn’t much official appetite for Ranchukov’s warts-and-all approach to street photography and it wasn’t until the latter days of perestroika that he and other like-minded photographers were allowed to exhibit their depictions of city streets.

Nonetheless, even in such relatively relaxed times, these photographs’ unflinching look at Soviet life caused consternation among the authorities, and one of their first exhibitions in Kyiv was shut down after just one day by scandalized KGB and Communist Party apparatchiks.

The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life

Oleksandr Ranchukov (1943-2019)

Although these images didn’t go down well with Soviet bureaucrats, they obviously struck a chord with ordinary Kyiv residents, and crowds of people lined up to see them when the exhibition reopened at another location sometime later.

One of those who visited the Ranchukov exhibition in 1989 was a Canadian exchange student named Chrystia Freeland, who later became a prominent journalist and politician and is now her country’s deputy prime minister.

Describing Ranchukov as a “brilliant and prolific documentary photographer,” Freeland was instrumental in getting his images and those of some of his peers to the editors of The Independent newspaper in London, who “were hugely impressed by his work, and promptly published it.”

The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life

People form a line to buy herring in Kyiv.

“I was deeply moved by his ability to reveal the reality of life in Ukraine — the country’s people, places, and streets,” she told RFE/RL in an e-mail. “In capturing a key moment in Ukrainian history, often at personal risk, Oleksandr laid the groundwork for future Ukrainian photographers and artists to bring their work to the world stage. “

The Kyiv photographer who captured the ‘gloomy dignity’ of Soviet life

Unlike his architecture photography, Oleksandr Ranchukov’s portraits of Soviet street life have never been published in book form. You can view other Ranchukov images and find out more about his life and work here.

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.

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