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How the Invasion of Ukraine Resurrected a Photographer’s 26-Year Time Lag to the Collapse of the Soviet Union | Photography

AAs renewed tensions between Ukraine and Russia began to stir at the end of last year, Sydney photographer Dean Sewell began to look back on the year he spent living in the newly dismantled USSR more than a quarter of a century earlier.

The multi-award-winning photographer knew he owned dozens of black-and-white films he shot in and around Moscow in the mid-1990s, but he never had the chance to develop them.

Multiple rental locations and less-than-ideal archive storage measures meant Sewell knew that even if he could find the long-lost footage among the hundreds of storage boxes, there was a good chance the film was corrupt after all these years.

A complex of Russian Orthodox churches south of Moscow, the location of a Sewell shot Orthodox wedding. Photography: Dean Sewell

“Dean’s Russian Rolls have become something of a tradition over the years,” said friend and fellow photographer, Canadian David Maurice Smith.

“He referenced it sometimes, but I think there was this fear that even if he found out where they were, the movie would probably be cooked.”

There was also a matter of cost involved. As a freelance photographer, there was no customer to cover the cost of manual film development.

When Russian airstrikes began on Kyiv and Donetsk in late February, Sewell located the boxes containing 25 rolls of film that had remained untouched for 26 years.

On the day that international media reported that refugees fleeing Ukraine had reached one million, Sewell began developing the film in the kitchen of fellow photographer Sean Davey. Incredibly, the rolls of film showed virtually no signs of deterioration.

“I was looking at pictures that I didn’t even remember taking…it was like diving into the depths of your brain,” Sewell says.

“It was an incredible experience, which brought me back to my life a quarter of a century ago.”

Dean Sewell and Sean Davey develop the Russian images.

Sewell, a two-time World Press Photo award winner for his work on the aftermath of the tsunami in Aceh, the Australian bushfires and East Timor – and co-founder of the Australian photography collective Oculi – recalls their first impressions upon arriving in Russia in 1996 as “like walking through a Dostoyevsky novel”. It was a financially crippled country but with cautious optimism about the promise of a nascent democracy. The young Sydney photographer faced a bleak Moscow with its many shuttered storefronts, but he was invigorated by the camaraderie of colleagues and new friends as they navigated their way through an unprecedented era of relative media freedom.

Here are some of the images he brought back to life, 26 years after walking the streets of the Russian capital and capturing the daily life of Muscovites.

Communist party supporters rally in the streets of Moscow for Gennady Zyuganov, ahead of the 1996 Russian elections
Communist party supporters gather in the streets of Moscow for Gennady Zyuganov, ahead of the 1996 Russian elections. Photography: Dean Sewell

Street scenes in Moscow

The fall of the Iron Curtain opened up a huge, previously untapped consumer market. In 1990, McDonald’s opened its first outlet in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, with nearly 40,000 people lining up to sample the epitome of mass Western consumerism. Originally, the distinctive Soviet flag consisting of a yellow hammer and sickle on a red background sat at the base of McDonald’s golden arches logo.

An elderly woman walks past a McDonald's restaurant in central Moscow
An elderly woman walks past a McDonald’s restaurant in central Moscow. McDonald’s came to Russia in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Photography: Dean Sewell

Multinational tobacco companies moved into the Russian market and billboard images of the Marlboro man were ubiquitous on the streets of Moscow nearly 20 years before Putin channeled the uber-macho icon with his chest-riding equestrian pursuits naked.

Among Sewell’s favorite photographs captured in the run-up to the first democratic election in post-Soviet Russia in 1996, depicts a tall corflute bearing Lenin’s image held aloft during a crowded party street rally communist, with billboards advertising Marlboro cigarettes and Claudia Schiffer spray Revlon cosmetics in the background.

A pre-election rally on the streets of Moscow juxtaposes an iconic Russian poster of Vladimir Lenin with the Marlboro man and Claudia Schiffer
A pre-election rally on the streets of Moscow juxtaposes an iconic Russian poster of Vladimir Lenin with the Marlboro man and Claudia Schiffer. Photography: Dean Sewell

The pernicious infiltration of Western culture was a key theme on the platform of the Communist Party, led by Gennady Zyuganov, during the election campaign. Russia’s emerging oligarch class and foreign billionaire investors were scared enough to bankroll independent candidate Boris Yeltsin, who, despite widespread and credible allegations of electoral fraud, became the first democratically elected president of the Russian Federation.

Russian military personnel on their general tour of a Moscow metro station during a winter snowfall
Russian servicemen during their general rounds of a Moscow metro station during a winter snowfall. Photography: Dean Sewell

In another street scene, an ice cream cart can be seen to the left of the image: a device common to many Moscow street corners. Russians are one of the biggest consumers of ice cream in the world – in winter they eat it thinking it raises body temperature – and in Soviet times the production of Stakanchik (the gold standard of ice cream Russian) was state-controlled to ensure that only pure, natural ingredients were used. In winter, when temperatures drop below -30 degrees, carts can be fitted with heated cabinets to prevent product from freezing.

Red Square

Muscovites and tourists have been drawn to Moscow’s most famous square for centuries. In this image, the historic buildings of St. Basil, the Kremlin, Lenin’s Mausoleum and the high-end department store GUM look down on young people who indulge in the recently imported fashion of rollerblading. One carries the relatively new tricolor of the new Russian Federation.

Young Russians go rollerblading in Red Square
Young Russians rollerblade at one of the weekend’s regular state-sponsored street festivals, held behind St. Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square. Photography: Dean Sewell

Sewell captured the closing of Red Square during preparations for the May 6 Victory Day Parade: the annual spectacle of Russian military might celebrating Germany’s surrender to the Red Army at the end of the Second World War.

Moscow Ballet

Russia’s most valuable 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 status of the art form as a primary ambassador, reflecting the cultural superiority of the USSR to the outside world.

Russian ballerinas waiting backstage
In the mid-1990s, Russian ballet was in crisis. Dean Sewell went backstage. Photography: Dean Sewell

In the mid-1990s, Russian ballet was in crisis. At home, businesses have been hampered by both artistic and financial crises; the Kirov was involved in an international corruption scandal; and there were fears of infiltration by the local mafia and an emerging oligarchy demanding favors and bribes. In 1995, Bolshoi Ballet dancers went on strike and a performance was canceled 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 left Russia for more lucrative internships abroad.

Ballerinas backstage at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovitch-Danchenko Theater
Sewell was granted backstage access to the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater. Photography: Dean Sewell

Sewell was denied access to the Bolshoi, but managed to gain backstage access to the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater. The Moscow company, founded during World War II, was emerging from its own five-year crisis in 1996 when Sewell snapped these images. An earlier fire had destroyed much of the company’s property, and the theater had been closed for months. Protest quits and strikes kept the theater in the dark for part of 1991.

Orthodox wedding

Sewell was granted unlimited access to a young couple’s nuptials in the city of Rostov, 200 km south of Moscow.

A couple prepare to embark on their Russian Orthodox wedding ritual at the Rostov Kremlin
A couple prepare to embark on their Russian Orthodox wedding ritual at the Rostov Kremlin. Photography: Dean Sewell

“When I arrived in Moscow in 1996, I felt like I had entered a time warp. The cars, the fashion, the way the women put on makeup, it all felt like 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 knowing exactly what time you are.”

The couple’s style of dress, the dimly lit church, the solemnity of the ceremony – which lasted several hours (at one point the bride fainted) – gave the photographer the impression of having stepped back in time.

“Looking at the photos now, they have a Josef Koudelka aesthetic about them, like the photos he took in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s – yet here I was shooting this in the 1990s.”

Late afternoon light casts a long shadow over one of the thousands of sculptures of military, political and socialist realism that adorn the streets of Moscow
Late afternoon light casts a long shadow over one of the thousands of sculptures of military, political and socialist realism that adorn the streets of Moscow. Photography: Dean Sewell

The monuments of Moscow

The Russian passion for gargantuan socialist realist monuments was at its peak during the Soviet era, and there are approximately 6,000 statues of Lenin left in the Russian Federation today. When the USSR was dissolved in 1991, a condition for the withdrawal of troops from the newly independent nation states was the continued preservation of Red Army monuments. But not all of them are universally loved by people.

Statue of Peter the Great
The statue of Peter the Great is 98 meters high. Photography: Dean Sewell

In 1996, Sewell captured the construction of one of the most unpopular works of public art in the city’s history. At 98 meters tall, the statue of Peter the Great, with a shambolic armada beneath his feet, soars as tall as a 30-story building and has been savagely pilloried since its unveiling in 1997. It regularly features on the list of the 10 ugliest monuments in the world. and continues to baffle critics, who wonder why a city that Peter the Great apparently hated so much that he moved his court to St. Petersburg would honor his legacy with the eighth tallest monument in the world.