Smith Journal caught up with one of the world’s top documentary photographers, Jan Banning, about his adventures traipsing around India, Italy, Russia, Portugal and Nepal, taking photos of communist party members.
I loved the anecdote you shared in your book Red Utopia about meeting Valeri in western Russia, the guy who desperately wanted to attract young people to the cause, but who didn’t know how to turn on his computer. It’s such an evocative portrait…
I think the party members I met in general in Russia seemed to have very little idea of the world of modern youth. They seem to live in a kind of unsplendid isolation. So for example, they were complaining about not being able to attract youth, but why on earth were they not using Che Guevara as their mascot, as they do in India and Portugal and Italy? That’s the only communist hero who has sex appeal! And he’s nowhere in Russia, this guy! Good old Lenin and Stalin and Marx all feature, but they’re not exactly hip.
It was like 1917, they have these pamphlets and booklets, they’re printing like crazy, endless texts. They have manifestations in their small town with 20 or 30 people, and they’d hand out pamphlets to the youngsters.
At one point my translator asked one of them for their email, and the guy bends over and looks at the computer and starts searching for the on/off button. So my translator said to me: I don’t think this going to work. She suggested to him that when he manages to find his email address, he could text it to her. And he looks at his phone helplessly again, hands it to her and she opens it and discovers the memory is full. There are God knows how many – around 400 unread text messages, the last ones dating from mid-2016, and none of them had been read. There are these messages saying – Comrades! Tomorrow, manifestation under the Lenin statue!
And can you talk about how you were struck by the similarities between western Russia and the southern US states?
Yes, I was surprised by this association. I’ve been working quite a bit in the southern US states, I did a book Down and Out in the South which contained portraits of homeless people, and another called Law and Order about the daily realities of police, courts and the often hidden prison conditions there. I spent quite a bit of time in the state of Georgia. I saw this parallel with Russia, which was mainly brought about by a few things: neoliberalism… the privatisation of wealth, the destruction of public space, deterioration of roads. I remember driving in the South and hearing Obama on the streets saying, “We have the best infrastructure in the world” and I thought – they haven’t a clue.
And the other thing is that these countries are simply too big and the result is that people never get to see another kind of life and they cannot imagine that human life outside their own borders is possible. That is even stronger in the US than in Russia.
The people you met – what did they say about the millions of deaths that occurred under communist leaders?
The party members who denied Stalin’s practices, or those of Pol Pot or Mau, were mainly in Russia. It was much less of a topic in other countries, although in India, in Kerala, there were one or two minor parties that were also defending Stalin, and in Nepal too. There, it was mainly due to a lack of knowledge; a lot of people had no clue about what he had done; they hardly knew who he was and they were mainly focussed on their own position and their role in the recent past, meaning their role in the Maoist uprising.
When we said, “Hey, but wait a minute – there was repression right?”, they would say, “Well, every country has its problems” or “Oh it’s been hugely exaggerated” or “There were a lot of saboteurs in that period.” Which did not exactly make me fall in love with them!
And yet… your photos really show your connection with these people.
I’m not going to defend the old-fashioned communist world but that’s not the point. I can still try to understand people even if I don’t agree with them. And I started to understand them. After a while, you realise a few things. First of all, although most of these people were elderly, they weren’t old enough to have lived consciously in the worst Stalin period in the 30s. So for them, Stalin is a war hero who liberated them or their parents from Nazi oppression. I travelled throughout the western part of Russia, which is where a big part of the Second World War was fought, so for them, he was a war hero.
And secondly, I think he kind of symbolised for them a period of certainty and safety. Now that sounds ridiculous to our ears, but for them it was a symbol of the period when they knew life was safe. They could get a free education, free medical care. When they finished their education, they got a job. Now it might have been a ludicrous job, but it was an income and if you lived your life without causing any problems, you would get a pension, and you could live without any threats, with your children around you. Nothing spectacular, but you knew you’d be able to eat and have a home the next day, the next year until the end of your life.
And that was lost, so Gorbachev and Yeltsin are considered the devil because they took away that certainty in economy, health, education. And when you look at how they’re living now, I can safely say after driving 5,000 km around Russia, the roads are not great, sometimes terrible. The houses they live in are crumbling. Their pension is nothing. Their children have migrated to the cities for the lack of economic opportunities in these small towns. So for them, Stalin represents what was there in the past, this simple safety of life.
And I suppose although they lacked freedom under communism, it’s not as if they have that now, on so many fronts…
Yes, in the past they had no freedom, they couldn’t move around. Freedom of expression – they didn’t have that under communism, but freedom of expression under Putin isn’t great either. Still, it hardly matters – they have no original or revolutionary opinions because what do they read? Only Russian sources, in Russian. Of course there’s some oppositional literature, but it’ll never reach these people. So yes, they have freedom of expression because their opinions are no threat to the authorities. And anyway, if you have to choose between speaking out and eating food, most of us will choose to eat.
Then if you talk about the freedom to move around and visit other countries – they still can’t do that because they don’t have a penny to spend.
What made you embark on this trip in the first place?
I studied history, and it’s defined the way I look at the world. If you look at the 1980s when communism was really going downhill, at the same time neoliberalism was going uphill. Communism for the people there was at best tolerable and in a lot of places, it was a mess – but for us in the west, it was a blessing in disguise because it helped keep capitalism in check.
That was a major factor for me to delve into this – the surprise I felt that in a period such as now, when the gap between the poor or middle-class majority and the happy and rich few has increased so much, we would need such an ideology. Not communism or Marxism necessarily, but a kind of ideology that bridges the gap. I hope it contributes to the debate of how we are going to fight this neoliberal jungle.
You can preview Red Utopia: Communism 100 years after the Russian Revolution and watch a documentary about Jan Banning’s work.
Photographs from top: India, Russia, Nepal, Italy, Portugal. Reproduced courtesy of Jan Banning.