A Fleeting Impression – Pitting Davide Monteleone’s ‘Dusha: Anima Russa’ against Dale Pesmen’s ‘Russia and Soul’
When I tell people that I have lived in Russia for a while, a recurring question is: what was it like? I usually find myself quite unable to explain. After all, how can I summarize seven months of my life in a few sentences? How can I distill my actual experience into something tangible, something comprehensible? I grasp for words and they usually fail me. It does not help that most people have preconceived notions of what life in Russia is like. And nothing I say will sway them into believing otherwise.
This is not so surprising if you consider the visual tropes of Russia that abound in the media. More often than not they consist of images of vast snow-covered landscapes, people with dark coats and fur hats waiting in queues, squalid poverty, warfare in Chechnya, grumpy soldiers and police officers, authoritarian politicians, and women giving birth. And whilst these images can be found in Russia, they are by no means the only images of Russia.
Next to this jaded imagery, Dale Pesmen’s exploration of the concept of dusha feels like a breath of fresh air. Her book Russia and Soul is by far one of the best anthropological monographs I have ever read and is unconventional for many reasons. She draws her insights from interviews, conversations, music, literature, from the first-hand and puzzling experiences of living as a foreigner in Russia, and most importantly of all, from truly participating in her informants’ lives. By not following a standard, logical and rational outline in her book, but rather by telling stories instead and then subjecting them to her analysis, Pesmen manages to convey much better than anyone else what it is like to be living in contemporary Russia.
According to Pesmen, dusha – which in Russian means soul – is an amorphous, multi-dimensional attitude to life popping up in all sorts of situations. It inspires people’s judgements, actions and reactions. Dusha mediates between life and death, between this world and ‘another’ or ‘inner’ world. It lies just beyond the border of the body. It is timeless. It regulates the experience and creation of art, music and language. It inspires hospitality, generosity, decency, honesty, nationalism, gender roles, justice, sympathy, friendship and love. It is also a resource for survival in a harsh social-cultural, political-historical and environmental climate. Dusha is vast, deep, alive, inexplicable, shifty, imperfect, intuitive, irrational and complex. It is not given, but can be improved or neglected. And most importantly for my argument here, it comes to the fore when people share time and space and form a community, at least temporarily.
Bearing this in mind, I want to take a closer look at Davide Monteleone’s photo series Dusha – Anima Russa. At first sight, it is a beautiful publication. It contains a nicely spaced sequence of dreamy, often out of focus images. The lighting is soft. The colours are generally muted, but occassionally one particular colour jumps out at you. The red blinds, the green fence, the yellow wall. The introductory text and the captions at the end of the book reveal that Monteleone has travelled extensively through Russia and other former Soviet republics, coming back time and again over a number of years. I would argue that as a result he has a much broader view of Russia than I do, since my experience is limited to one particular place at one particular point in time. Whilst Monteleone does capture some of the timelessness and otherworldliness of dusha in the way he photographs, he is also seduced by the ‘easy’ images: the photographs of the vast snow-covered landscapes, the people in queues, the fur coats and hats, the grey soviet apartment blocks and other architectural symbols of communism.
If however you take dusha as a starting point, something that almost necessitates interaction between human beings, it is intriguing that about one third of his pictures do not feature any people at all. The images that do portray people show them as lonely figures lost in a vast landscape, or they are photographed from behind. There is the picture of the woman in the park walking away from us, the couple crossing the street as seen from behind, the woman seated on a bench, dwarved by the massive apartment block behind her. We are prevented from getting to know them, to open up to them, to welcome them into our soul. Even when people do share a space and time together in the photographs, they do not form a community. This is exemplified by the picture of the women in the queue, the image of the women working in the canteen, the photo of the people waiting on what seems to be a train platform. I would argue that this is because most of the photographs are taken outdoors or in public spaces, whereas to me dusha implies a time and space shared indoors and privately, be it in kitchens, dachas or saunas. Places where people can sit and drink and talk and eat and smoke.
It is not easy to photograph in a different place, in a different culture, and do it justice. Trying to capture something as intangible as dusha is difficult in the best of times. By necessity, a photographer must rely on visual metaphors in such a situation. Nonetheless, if Monteleone tried to show dusha with these pictures, I would say he has chosen unsuitable ones. His beautiful images show that there is a Russia outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but no more than that.
Dusha – Anima Russa. Davide Monteleone. Postcart. ISBN:9788886795333
Russia and Soul. Dale Pesmen. Cornell University Press. ISBN: 0801487099