Homo Sovieticus

USSR - 1989 - CCCP

H 0 M 0  S 0 V I E T I C U S 

At a school in Moscow I have permission to take pictures. And each time I walk into a classroom, accompanied by the guide and the director, boys and girls leap out of their seats to greet us. The benevolent discipline, the teaching methods, the entire atmosphere take me back to my own elementary school class in Flanders during the sixties. We had Christ, King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola on the wall, they have Marx, Lenin and Gorbachev.

An anecdote from Carl De Keyzer in this book. 

Using the terms Glasnost and Perestroika Michael Gorbachev rings in a new era for his extensive country at the end of 1987. Unknown reforms will have to steer the country towards a more western-oriented society.

It means that every speech and statement from Gorbachev is front-page news in the West Even the Soviet. Union itself is often in the news. The severe censorship of previous years seems to have given way to an unprecedented openness. Western journalists are allowed to visit Armenia for example after the heavy earthquakes in 1988. The official Russian press even reports on the huge national demonstrations and plots in Georgia, Armenia and the Baltic States.

But how is the 'Homo Sovieticus' faring in the meantime? The Belgian photographer Cart de Keyzer visits the Soviet Union twelve times in the space of a year (August '88 to August W9). De Keyzer does not allow himself to be enticed into casual photography. He travels in areas and finds himself in situations where any trace of change is barely noticeable. In the choices he makes and in his well-considered photography he manages to capture an atmosphere which perhaps will soon really belong to the past.


Text from “Homo Sovieticus”

Irkutsk - Chabarovsk, August 1989.

The new Trans-Siberian train. The romance of the old train has bee, replaced by eroticism. 'Emanuelle'on the video, twice every evening. Western soft porno and films like 'Rambo' have conquered Russia The small film houses are gold mines More often than not the films are illegal cassettes that have been smuggled into the country like tbe jeans and nylons of former eras. On the news I hear that steps are being taken to stop the illegal import of hard porno. With the easing of border formalities, and a black market which is flourishing as never before, it seems a hopeless task.

S A C H A 

The performance by Alissa, one of Russia's top rock bands, is sold out. Punks are seated primly side by side with old women and their grandchildren. Dancing and picture taking are forbidden, a fact proclaimed on signs carried by soldiers. For a while everyone just sits there, absorbing the throb of hard rock and the perestroika-glasnost slogans. Until it becomes clear that two podium attendants will not be enough to keep the audience in their seats. All around me people are dancing.

Sacha, officially the only photographer here, realizes that he can't keep me from working. And his interest in my C-60 Metz flash soon gets the better of his resentment. He wants to do business.

On the beach, where he has a set consisting of a plastic palm tree, he offers me a thousand rubles. The following day he tries a bid of three Natasha’s, young prostitutes. I refuse. Sacha changes his tactics. He opts for long-term amiability, and dogs my footsteps. When I make a date with the Natasha’s for a group photo, my camera gives out on me...

But I get to see plenty of Natasha’s. Sacha takes me to a mafia place somewhere in the woods. Food, orchestra and atmosphere are decidedly high-class. The money apparently comes from smuggling Western goods. I start downing vodkas with some Bulgarians.

At the head of long tables the godfathers are surrounded by their Natasha’s. Or are they their daughters? In any case, all the women are seated at the other end of the table. When I attempt to photograph one of the godfathers and his entourage, I am greeted with a flood of Cyrillic indignation. The man then hurls a portion of that oh, so scarce commodity, good food, in my direction, and then sends his sons after me. I flee into the woods. My pursuers catch up with me, and judging by their faces, they would like nothing better than to murder me on the spot. I shout them down, with the aid of English words I didn't even know I knew. Luckily one of my Bulgarian friends comes to my aid. The sons of the fathers beat a retreat. The Bulgarians and I drown our emotions in vodka. Vodka. Vodka. The next day there remains only a vague recollection.


Bratsk, Siberia, August 1989.

Here the Cold War is still in full swing. As I take pictures of children playing in the courtyard of a tall apartment building, a window is suddenly thrown open and a woman's voice shouts 'Propaganda'.All this is apparently a full-scale alert. Windows are opening all over. I am stoned with icy Siberian stares. I am the political equivalent of a child molestor, the anti- Communist who has come to corrupt their children. Thy scuttle back indoors. In spite of all the warnings, they’d almost fallen into the trap. In the restaurant. The same woman. She freezes. In no time everyone in the place knows that I am 'the spy'.


It is hot in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. In the distance, beyond the Turkish border, lies Mount Ararat. Symbolic watchtower of Armenian unity. Its peak is snowcrowned, like the Fujiyama.

There is a lull in the rioting which for the past two days has kept us from entering the city. The city is dead. Nothing is happening. During a dip in the river I meet Vartan. He tells me that a mass meeting of some 200,000 people is planned for that evening. Without press coverage. A week ago the New York Times and a European paper were given official permission to attend, but that time nothing happened. Vartan begs me to take pictures, and to see that they get published -

We make a date to meet at seven o'clock that evening at the statue of Lenin. Murmuring the magic word 'correspondent', he pilots me up to the podium. As the only foreign photographer, I look out over a crowd of at least a hundred thousand Armenians. With clenched fists they call down imprecations upon Moscow.

I go on working until midnight. The exhilaration of historic photography is stronger than the fear of arrest or the confiscation of my films. But the fear is there, and Vartan is watchful. Before the end of the gathering he takes me back to the hotel, via a circuitous route.

That feeling of nervous agitation will stay with me until I leave. A week later, back in Belgium, I watch the television pictures showing tanks rolling into Yerevan. The city is again closed to press and photographers.



Leningrad, September 1989.

My host serves potatoes, and peppers - all the stores had to offer. On television we watch a documentary about the culinary abundance of the most prestigious Italian department stores.

Later I see a live broadcast of the first Sotheby sale ever held in the Soviet Union, and an exiting American basketball game, dubbed in Russian down to the last commercial After which the screen reverts to the daily fare of endless fields of flowers and interminable political debates.


The hotel room of a Western tourist is off limits for Soviet citizens. And yet 0I and Tina, brother and sister, accept my invitation. As black marketeers in Western clothing, they are well acquainted with the loopholes of the law. That's how they finance their studies, English and French. Languages are an asset in their line of work. They also use their linguistic talents to express their boundless admiration for my new shoes. Their compliments shame me into presenting them with the shoes, much against my will. Am I helping them in their hour of need, or merely contributing to their supply of goods in demand? As they leave the hotel, someone notices that they are not Western tourists. The floor lady immediately notifies the KGB, and suddenly my guests have disappeared.

The next day at 0l and Tina's. In the corridor we must not speak English. The walls of the delapidated building pick up more than just Russian. Behind a heavily reinforced door lies a sparsely furnished two-room flat. There is a shelf with Western bric-a-brac and a piano. Tina is a singer.

0l and Tina were thrown out by their parents and are living in the flat illegally. They pay a hundred rubles a month to the woman who sub-lets to them. Illegal, but not unusual. They have a student grant of sixty rubles, and have to earn the rest on the street.

The official rent for a two-room flat is fifteen rubles, including heating and electricity.



Vilnius, Lithuania, March 1989.

Near the theatre hangs an enormous flag with a drawing of a naked woman and the name 'Venus' The first exhibition of nude photography I've ever seen in the Soviet Union. By Russian standards the work is quite provocative. A number of older men in uniform and a few perceptibly randy middle-aged men. Some people go to the theatre just for the sandwiches and drinks during intermission - at least this time tbey've come for the works themselves, however questionable their artistic merits. I spy on the peeping Toms, but decide against photographing them.


Moscow. Irina is an hour late and visibly nervous. She is to take me to the hippodrome in her car. She doesn't seem to know exactly where it is, and through my icy window I see the same square pass by for the third time. She gets more and more upset, and ends up by backing into a pole. Now completely flustered, she drives off. Leaving behind the damaged bumper, which is worth a fortune in Moscow. After a half-hour search, we find the hippodrome, and a half hour later the director. I am welcome to take photographs, but there are no races today. Irina is mortified. Snow falls on the empty racetrack.

Tbilisi, Georgia. Larra is extremely. friendly, but she is powerless to prevent almost everything from going wrong. A lady who tips the scale at one hundred kilos is given a room on the seventeenth floor, and the lift is out of order. Larra endures the gulf of outrage which my fellow travellers pour out over her. Trying desperately to maintain her composure, she steers a middle course between good will and helplessness. For three long hours she succeeds in ducking the most difficult and embarassing questions. It is an exercise in sophism, and Laura's answers are creative in the extreme. The other guides are frankly impertinent.

Baku, Azerbaydzhan. Henrietta comes from White Russia, the only republic which has not yet revolted against Moscow. She considers all non-whites 'bêtes sauvages', including Armenians and Azerbaydzhanis. And yet, after dinner at an Intourist restaurant, she drags a drunken Azerbaydzhani back to the hotel . He asks if we have any contraceptives. which he says he needs to call a taxi in the hotel.


Leningrad, June 1989.

A visit to some painters and sculptors. They work under miserable conditions, but don't complain. Most of them don't even have a studio. This is better than nothing. Anyone who still cherishes the romantic Western image of the artist in his musty attic room will gain inspiration here, plus the odd bedbug. The best thing that can happen to a Soviet artist is to be officially recognized This entitles you to a regular though frugal stipend, and you are then left to get on with it. Sergei has just received his artist's card. Champagne is in order.


September 1988. Hospitality is second nature to an Armenian. A family celebration is going on outside under the olive trees, and when they see the meagre lunch we have brought with us, they ask us to join them. Their abundance is literally forced down our throats. Another family tries to lure us away with promises of larger portions and tastier fare. They vie with each other for our favours. Upon our return to the first group, we are overwhelmed by proposals and offers of adoption. The next day I receive a telephone call and an invitation from someone I photographed by chance. I accept. But first I have another appointment which I must not miss: a barbecue in the village of the composers. The vodka is so plentiful that when I arrive at the home of Susanna, the hostess whom I have yet to meet, I am three hours late and very drunk. The entire family is on hand for the occasion and the table is festive.

After the bacchanale which I have just been through it is impossible to swallow a single morsel. For two hours, the family sits and stares at me. I am deeply ashamed of the Western world in its entirety. They escort me out and, with great warmth, wave me on my way. And when I finally leave, Suzanna comes to the airport to see me off, bearing roses and an expensive book with illustrations in colour. And a tear on her cheek. What did I do to deserve this?

July 1989. A family that has been living in campers since the earthquake overwhelms us with hospitality. They've lost their homes but not their dignity. The chickens are slaughtered. The entire family and all friends sit at the table. I've been given enough fresh greens to compensate for the lack of vitamins due to eating nothing but hotelfood. This time I don't disgrace the family.


Moscow, April 1989.
A building surrounded by scaffolding. Apparently in immediate danger of
collapse. Soldiers are to-ing and fro-ing. On the ground the highest-ranking officers
shout orders. Discipline and action. Back and fortb. A Russian pyramid - quite
photogenic. I take two shots and feel a hand on my shoulder. An MP. Stop. An officer
with one star gets out of a black Volga. Who am I, what am I doing here, and hand over
the film. I am steadfastly deaf and dumb. He's not getting my film. A two-star
appears. Stern and resolute. But thy can't read my press card. Confusion. Despera-
tion. At their wit's end, thy summon a three-star, supercilious and sceptical A
soldier who speaks English saves the day. My name and hotel in Russian letters get me
off. The building with the scaffolding around it belongs to the KGB.


The car factory at ZyI, where such items as the six-door limousines of the party top are manufactured, employs hundreds of thousands of workers. All the children are given a Christmas party. In shifts. All that week the children arrive for their treat, twice a day, three thousand at a time. When this party-in-shifts is over, the parents come to collect their offspring, waiting in anticipation on the other side of a long white rope. As fathers and mothers point, uniformed ladies reunite parents and children.

At a school in Moscow I have permission to take pictures. And each time I walk into a classroom, accompanied by the guide and the director, boys and girls leap out of their seats to greet us. The benevolent discipline, the teaching methods, the entire atmosphere take me back to my own elementary school class in Flanders during the sixties. We had Christ, King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola -on the wall, they have Marx, Lenin and Gorbachev.

Detski Mir, the world of children.--,A palace of toys for the youngest Muscovites. During my first visit at the end of 1986, I was not allowed to take photographs. My most vivid and lasting impression is of literally thousands of mothers, waiting in line.

July 1989, a second visit. At least five hundred people, half of them adults, are staring blissfully at a huge wooden moon spouting toy soldiers. A clock. The spectacle lasts ten minutes, and all that time the parents stand there, in mass fascination and awe.

I am touched by the sentimental force of what we would dismiss as an outdated mechanical device. And disconcerted. It speaks of a poignant lack of diversion of any kind.


Tbilisi, Georgia, july 1989.

At a sidewalk cafe with a group of Georgians I tell them that I’m a journalist and
that in April I saw the TV pictures of the pacifist demonstration. During the
demonstration twenty people, including women and children, were hacked to death
with shovels by soldiers who had just returned from Afghanistan
The men misunderstand me, and think that I had something to do with having these
scenes televised They all rise, shower me with expressions of gratitude and break into
their national anthem. I am a hero, and there is nothing I can do or say to set things
straight It is impossible to escape the punishing drinking bout which then follows.


I buy a ticket for a local soccer game. After a half-hour of watching a parade of soldiers and trimly attired young women, I gradually come to the conclusion that whatever is scheduled for this afternoon, it is not soccer. What I am watching proves to be a commemoration of the victory over the Germans. The loudspeakers crank out anti-fascist slogans. Constant vigilance is exhorted. A colonel coerces his audience into applauding by announcing that the enemy has been defeated. Young stormtroopers demonstrate their prowess by attacking each other with bajonets.

Despite the violent heroics of the spectacle, the audience might be made up of the same people who make a family outing of hard rock concerts. Any form of amusement is seized upon, even if it tends to perpetuate a sense of impending war.

Victory Day, or what the Russians refer to as 'the commemoration of the victory over the fascists at the end of the second Great Patriotic War'.

Near the Bolshoi Theatre a group of people are singing patriotic songs. The conductor won't be content until the entire crowd is singing along. Impromptu dances are executed.

An aura of respectful solemnity surrounds the old campaigners. Some of them are weighed down by their medals and ribbons. An honoured heroine of the patriotic war has been positioned on a bench, where she is guarded by two soldiers, like a living relic. Old men and women honour her with flowers and reverent curtseys.

After more than forty years, there are still grandmothers and widows carrying photographs of missing husbands and sons, in the hope that someone may recognize them.



Moscow, May 1989.

A group of French photographers. Every three weeks tbey're off to another of the Russian cities which are twinned with French towns Thy each have a black Volga at their disposal, with a chauffeur and a guide. For a few days I travel in their wake and share their privileges, which means free transport, the better restaurants and a hotel with a well-nigh aristocratic charm. One of these photographers is Josef Koudelka. After the Prague spring and the photographs he took then, he disappeared from Czechoslovakia He is back behind the iron curtain again for the first time His Prague photographs will probablv be exhibited shortly in Moscow A milestone But this may be only glasnost-type publicity, intended for Western eyes and ears

1 9 4 6 - 1 9 8 9 

A small town in the middle of the desert of Uzbekistan. Moscow's policy of urbanization has not yet reached this outpost. No high-rise buildings for lower-income families, no housing blocks piled on top of one another. Old houses, small streets and alleyways. In Tashkent the streets were exceptionally, even excessively wide. According to our guide, this facilitated military transport, and offered the enemy no cover. I am astounded. Is this propaganda? Paranoia? The answer comes out of the mouths of babes: a small boy looking for chewing gum subjects me to a kind of body search. He gives me a Nazi salute and then mows me down with a machine gun. His friend imitates the sound of airplanes and then bombs me, inquiring whether I am planning to raze Urgench to the ground. In 1946 their own parents were young children, or had yet to be born.

May the first. National holiday. Annual fair. After the traditional parade the portraits of Marx and Lenin are quickly laid aside, as people turn to shashlik and the business of getting drunk. In Moscow, they go by the book, and the official parade is carefully orchestrated. Here, the May First parade is more like a provincial pilgrimage. An outworn image is part of that pilgrimage, and the deeply religious Russian soul dons the mask of Marxism. But it has lost its charm. In the large cities in particular religion is on its last legs, and communism, the 'great common ideal', is also on the way out. No one pays any attention to the slogans, and the million faces of Lenin are only tolerated.


Tashkent, Uzbekistan, April 1989.

Our hotel is like a blowup of some kind of electrical component. It is an architectural style of which the Russians are greatly enamoured As a tribute to progress, M5 have conceived an architectural counterpart for every electrical component thy could think of The Soviet Union is now filled with magnified versions of dilapidated transistors, diodes and resistors The on6i thing that's missing is a chip modelled to scale. The Belgian Atomium would not be out of place here.


The baths of Tbilisi are legendary. The city was built around them. Until recently women were only allowed in on Tuesdays, but now they are welcome any day of the week.

The baths are underground, and a stairway leads down to the dressing rooms. After a soapy shower I am turned over to -a masseur. Each and every pore is liberated. The next treatment also features a superabundance of soap, followed by another shower.

A guard tries to keep me from taking pictures, but I lie and tell him that the director has given his permission. The masseurs are intrigued by the whole procedure, and let the bathers pose for me. A few of the older ones seem to find their position somewhat humiliating. But everyone is naked, including the photographer.

I spend a whole day in the baths, camera and flash at the ready.

Sandunov Banja in Moscow. The sauna dates from before the revolution. A baroque house with faintly English touches in the dressing rooms. Beautiful marble benches and murals. A chiropodist and a hairdresser. Chic. Only the bar is Soviet Russian: a few beer crates on the parquet floor and a commercial cash register. The sauna itself is a delight. There are statues of angels in the children's pool, and the cold bath is set in the semi-ruins of a Roman temple. I dive into the water from between two mouldy pillars.

The elderly caretaker seems not to notice when I produce my camera, and even strikes up a conversation. But as soon as I prepare to press the button he is adamant: photo nyet. The paintings and the paneling are no problem, but no naked comrades. Nyet.


Moscow, December 1988.

'Don Juan', my tenth opera in Russia. A telephone call to the director and a few half-truths,get mebackstage The whole machinery of and scenery is operated by hand Little old men stand in the wings, ready to pull up the ropes Babushkas bring in tea in great silver samovars., The ancient prop man guides me past photographs of old divas, to the attic where the old sets are kept.

The audience consists exclusive6v of tourists After the performance the singers give their-flowers back to the babushka and hurry off home. Don Juan is a civil servant.


Pol is the conscience of Russian Rock. He's written a three-volume encyclopedia about it, and he's a personal friend of all the biggest names. His one-room flat is a private museum devoted to Elvis and The Beatles. It is crammed with photos, posters, record-sleeves, magazines, original pieces of clothing and relics of John Lennon. Even one of the five gold records which The Beatles received for Revolver.

There are other visitors: one of the singers from 'Zoopark', the drummer from 'Aquarium' and two American tourists to whom everything is 'fantastic' and 'marvelous'. Bruce Springsteen is only one of their famous compatriots who regularly drop by before or after a Leningrad concert.

Pontificus, a half-witted street musician, also lays claim to international notoriety. He has talked to so many tourists and exchanged so many addresses that he considers himself something of a cosmopolitan. His permanent post is a bridge (Ponti ... ), his regular companion a rubber plant ( ... ficus), and his favoured instrument a kind of multiple-choice combination of flute, trumpet and drums.

Pontificus is the last occupant of a ramshackle neighbourhood destined to be demolished. The authorities have not yet succeeded in evicting him, no doubt due to his international
connections. The captain who steadfastly refuses to leave his sinking ship pours champagne and demonstrates his prowess as a quick-change artist, appearing as I a mandarin, a monk and a purveyor of black magic. Each of these costumes is good for a complete monologue, full of lucid nonsense. The masses of photographs I take of him make me a more than worthy spectator.



Leningrad, June 1989.

A heat wave and white nights. During the day it's 35 degrees centigrade, and at
night the sun sets for only a few hours. The fountains and beaches on the Neva are crowded with sun- worshippers in bathing suits. Some of them sunbathe standing up. Due to lack of space or force of habit? Who knows? In front of the famous wall where Henri Cartier-Bresson once photographed people in long coats, sun-bathers are intent on catching each and every ray. Bodybuilders pull themselves up on the bent bars of the former prison. The 'walrusses', people who swim through ice floes in the dead of winter ~ lie there, languid bv soaking up the sun.


I have two days for an illegal visit to the area hit by the earthquake. A man whose house in Leninakan was completely destroyed and who is now living with his family in my hotel, puts me on a bus to Spitak, 90 kilometres from here. There are no checks along the way. Most of my fellow passengers went to Yerevan to buy groceries. At the sight of the first collapsed building and the first camps, the whole bus falls silent, even though the disaster happened some time ago, and many of them travel this route almost every day. Spitak has been razed to the ground. Most of the debris has still not been cleared away

I take pictures of some soldiers who are cleaning up the remains of an enormous building. After a while more soldiers appear from all directions to lend a hand. My camera seems to have had something to do with this. But the newcomers offer little more than moral support. Most people will have to do their own rebuilding, relying mainly on the help of relatives. And, they tell me, without assistance from the government.

Near a hut where compensation money is being paid out, an officer snaps at me. No photographs: 'massage'. A rather bizarre pretext for banning me, and a slap in the face for the old people standing in line outside, some of them in tears.

I am the only foreign photographer here. The media have steamrolled over Spitak and left again. The novelty has worn off. But everyone is friendly. They are grateful for the foreign aid, and ask me to share their food and drink. That's when the more emotional stories start to surface.


Sochi, August 1989.

This is the Nice of the Black Sea. But without a past. The city is fake, a kind of
film set, with an air of forced conviviality. The clothes of the young people are a shade
too emphaticallv Western There is a sanatorium, or holiday centre, for the workers'
elite and the well connected The hotel with its private beach is reserved for party
bosses and rich tourists The people on the more popular beach regard us with an air
of indifference. They know what a Soviet citizen has to do to get here, and thy don't
think it's worth it.

A N A T 0 L Y 

Chabarovsk, a city on the Amur, which forms the natural border with China. The scene of many a historic incident. As recently as ten years ago the Chinese used to come to the river bank, where they dropped their pants and displayed their behinds to the Soviets. Who in turn had a huge portrait of Mao brought to their side of the river, which they used as a mirror to reflect the bare bottoms of the Chinese.

Now a drunken Russian clochard is swimming in the river, fully clothed. I take a few shots, and then I feel a hand on the back of my neck. A second, smiling clochard offers me a canteen.
Vodka, naturally. He fills my glass to the brim but I manage to pour half of it behind some stones.
Anatoly and his drinking companion are sleeping While I move off a bit to take a few more pictures, I se the two are suddenly arrested and taken away. The next I run into Anatoly again. He offers me an ice cream. He is sober and has just had a shave, and he is wearing his best suit. His passport is deposited safely in his breast pocket. Although he has been beaten up they seem to have done a good job of patching him up. He seems quite resigned. The worst thing is that his timepiece did not survive the drunken swim.

But even this loss cannot keep Anatoly down for long. He begins to laugh, a big laugh, and hugs me as if we have been friends for years. He embarks on a tirade against Gorbachev and perestroika. Nothing ever changes, it's all bla-bla-bla. He doesn't believe a word of it.

And he disappears again, in search of vodka.