This morning I got an urgent message from a friend, alerting me to the fact a funny sounding exhibition of photographs was underway at a downtown photo gallery I had never heard of.
It was true, as my friend pointed out, that the announcement for the show, an exhibition of portraits of Eastern Ukrainian pro-Russian separatist fighters (opolchentsy), taken by Petersburg photographer Mikhail Domozhilov, sounded quite dicey politically, as posted on the website of the exhibiting gallery, ARTOFFOTO.
It sounded a little less outwardly partisan when translated into English and printed on the flyers I would later find lying on a windowsill in the gallery:
“The self-proclaimed and still unrecognized state [of the] Donetsk People’s Republic appeared as a result of a civil war in Ukraine in April, 2014. The Donbass People’s Militia became the driving force of the new republic. In the year that passed after the declaration of the DPR, its militia transformed from an anarchic group of super activists [sic] divided into small groups and willing to go weaponless and die for an idea into a regular army with all its necessary attributes—[a] code [of military conduct], subdivisions [sic] and their chiefs, headquarters and machinery.
“This episode is about transition and transformation, about a shaky equilibrium between belonging to one country and to another, utopic in its essence. And also about the self-identification of the participants throughout the conflict. In several months former miners, builders, mechanics have become professional warriors, and a new, extreme reality has replaced the ordinary one. With major destruction, artillery shelling and [a] non-continuous front, these people suddenly found themselves in the middle of historical events and news reports.
“This episode includes several close-up portraits of militia members in mobile studios at military and training bases, as well as on [the] frontlines.”
(English-language flyer for the exhibition Mikhail Domozhilov, Militiaman’s Pass [Opolchenskii Bilet], ARTOFFOTO Gallery, Bolshaya Konyushennaya, 1, Saint Petersburg, January 15–February 3, 2016)
It was also true that the photographer, Mr. Domozhilov, had shown a penchant in his career for subjects that might be characterized as rightist, such as this fascinating series on the ultras for Petersburg’s Russian Premier League side, FC Zenit.
The ultras series featured virtuosic albeit historically and aesthetically coded works such as this.
On the other hand, Mr. Domozhilov’s tearsheets included portraits, just as compelling, of pro-Ukrainian fighters on the Maidan in Kyiv.
But I did not think it fair to pronounce judgement on the work on the basis of a couple of websites, so I set off into the winter wonderland that Petrograd has become in the last week to see the show for myself.