Author Archives: Simon Shuster

World War II Through Soviet Jewish Eyes

In 2003, a young American historian named David Shneer was conducting research in Moscow when he heard about an exhibition of photographs called Women at War. At the time, displaying photography on gallery walls was still a fairly novel concept for Russia, and the exhibit was not meant to be a blockbuster. To get inside, Shneer found that he had to ring a doorbell at a nondescript building, at which point a raspy voice came over the intercom and demanded: “Who are you? What do you want?” But the images inside astounded him.

Not only had they been taken with incredible skillarranging light and form in a way that would put to shame many of today’s war photographersbut they were from the Soviet battlefields of World War II, which made the surnames of their authors seem all the more strange. About four out of five of them, Shneer noticed, were Jewish surnames. “How is it possible,” he thought, “that a bunch of Jews, who are supposed to be oppressed by the Soviet Union, are the ones charged with photographing the war?”

As delicately as he could, Shneer put the question to one of the curators, who in typical Moscow style had a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “She looked at me like I’m an idiot and said, ‘Yes, the photographers were all Jewish.’” It turned out she was the granddaughter of one of them, Arkady Shaykhet, and their conversation that day is what led to the exhibit that opened on Nov. 16 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. Links backlinks blog comments . It has the same title as the book Shneer wrote from his researchThrough Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War and the Holocaust.

The show explores the way World War II was covered in the pages of Soviet newspapers such as Pravda, casting light on a side of the Holocaust that often gets short shrift in western history books. The genocide against the Jews, usually associated with images of Nazi death camps and gas chambers, was also perpetrated through mass shootings across Eastern Europe. Later termed the “Holocaust by Bullets,” it took more Jewish lives than the concentration camps, says Shneer, and it was documented most poignantly by the Jewish photographers of the Soviet press.

Although none of them are still alive to tell their story, Shneer spent the better part of a decade tracking down their relatives in Moscow and collecting nearly 200 works from their family archives. The prints were often no bigger than a pack of cigarettes, taken with beat-up cameras and two roles of film allotted for each battle. There are more faceless soldiers in these frames than intimate portraits of victims, and the most common theme is emptiness, at once bleak and monumental. But given their historical context, what seems most striking is the duality that runs through the lives and works of these photographers. On the one hand, these are works of Soviet propaganda, glorifying the Red Army in the tradition of socialist realism. “They needed photos of nurses doing good work on the home front, patriotic soldiers conquering territory,” says Shneer. “And their Jewishness rarely appears in that kind of material.”

But it does appear when they go off assignment to explore the Jewish ghettos in places like Ukraine and Hungary. There they found survivors living among the ruins of Europe, the yellow Stars of David on their overcoats still marking them for death. In the Budapest ghetto, the photographer Evgenii Khaldei found the corpses of his fellow Jews strewn about the floor of a gutted shop, a scrap of butcher paper covering the face of a man whose body lies in the doorway. Images like this did not appear in the mainstream Soviet press, but they were published in Eynikayt, or Unity, the Yiddish-language newspaper of the USSR. “We have this image in our heads that Jewishness was completely suppressed in the Soviet Union,” says Shneer. “But that’s really apost-war image of the country.”

Antisemitism only became part of Soviet dogma in 1948, the year that Israel was founded and Josef Stalin began his campaign against the”cosmopolitans” a Soviet byword for Jews. Many of the best Jewish photographers lost their staff positions at Pravda and other major publications that year, and phrases like “too many Jews on staff” began appearing in the official correspondence between the editors and their government censors. Some of the photographers continued working as freelancers for the propaganda press, but even after their experiences on the front, they rarely embraced their heritage. “None of these guys were buried in the Jewish cemetery,” says Shneer. “None ever tried to leave for Israel. None learned Hebrew.”

Soviet patriotism and its predilections came first, in their lives and in the work they produced. Even long after the fall of communism, when Shneer was conducting his research, the last surviving photographer from this group refused to meet with him. “He was still living in the Soviet world where meeting with a foreigner was scary.” In their style and execution, the images they captured are rooted in that world. They document the greatest triumph of the Soviet Union. But regardless of whether they are viewed on the pages of Pravda or a gallery wall, that world does not bind their relevance as monuments and works of art.


Simon Shuster is TIMEs Moscow reporter.

ThroughSoviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War and the Holocaust will be on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage from Nov. 16 2012 to April 7, 2013.

Red Thistle: The Rhythm of Life in the Caucasus

Davide Monteleone traces the genesis of his new book of photographs, Red Thistle, to 2007, when he heard about a film festival going on in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. At the time, Chechnya had been locked down for nearly a decade under a special security regime. Known as the KTO, the Russian acronym for “counter-terrorist operation,” the regime had meant years of martial law, curfews and random searches enforced by the Russian military. Not exactly the place for something like Sundance–the region’s film festival was a fluke, a rare chance for some foreigners to have a look around, and Monteleone took it. With his companion, Lucia Sgueglia, who would end up writing the text for Red Thistle, he would sneak out of the guarded hotel to explore Grozny.

“We did this until the Russian troops would catch us and take us back,” Monteleone said. “Then we would go out again.”

What he found was a region slowly restoring the rhythm of life—a weird, entrancing, pensive rhythm—after two devastating wars with Russia fought between 1994 and 2000. After the second war, the U.N. had deemed Grozny “the most destroyed city on earth,” but with billions of dollars in postwar Russian aide, the city had been rebuilt and revived. Over the next five years, Monteleone would return to Chechnya and the surrounding regions of the Caucasus Mountains as often as once a month.

“A lot of work had been done on the wars and the human rights abuses,” he said. “We wanted to study everyday life.”

In 2008, the KTO regime was lifted in Chechnya and travel there became easier, but life was still colored by Russia’s shadow and the legacy of the Soviet Union, which ruled this predominantly Muslim region for almost 70 years. So the settings of Monteleone’s photographs—from the beat-up old Zhiguli cars to the destitute apartment blocks—have a distinctly Soviet texture, a drab, heavy latticework that seems to press against the people inside it. Smiles are not common on the faces in his photos, but they seem to have a stubborn glow amid the grayness that surrounds them.

A common theme, predictably, is death, which is so insistent that it approaches a dulled ubiquity. If there is a kind of music to life in the Caucasus, mortality is its drumbeat in Monteleone’s work. In one frame, a woman in a black headscarf hurries along the sidewalk, not seeming to notice a stream of blood flowing toward her from a bull that was slaughtered in the street. There are weddings and funerals, and both seem to occasion equal measures of melancholy and warmth. At one wake in Chechnya, a group of men perform the Dhikr, an Islamic ritual which, in the local Sufi tradition, involves hours of rhythmic dancing and chanting until the men fall into a collective trance.

“You know that you’re in Russia,” says Monteleone. “But at the same time, life is structured in such a way that you feel closer to Persia or the Middle East.”

That is part of the duality of the Caucasus, which remains a world between worlds. The ongoing insurgency against Russian rule creeps in to remind you that the war goes on—a house stands demolished in one frame after Russian tanks moved in for a counter-insurgency strike—but there is also reconciliation: a group of men from one family walk down a mountain toward a mosque, where they resolve a blood feud with another family that had caused generations of strife. The overall picture is sad but not despondent, and there is resilience in almost every frame.

The unifying image of The Red Thistle comes from the opening scene in Lev Tolstoy’s novella Hadji Murat, which begins with a man trying to pluck a crimson thistle from a ditch in the Caucasus mountains. The thistle fights back, stabbing his hand with its brambles, and only gives in when he has frayed the stem and mangled the flower. “What energy and tenacity!” the man thinks. “With what determination it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life.”

Simon Shuster is TIME’s Moscow reporter.

Davide Monteleone is a photographer with the VII agency. See more of his work here. Monteleone’s latest book, Red Thistlewas recently released by Dewi Lewis publishing.

The Wrestlers of Chechnya: Photographs by Yuri Kozyrev

In 1994, when Russia invaded the breakaway region of Chechnya, Yuri Kozyrev, then a freelance photographer, captured some of the most iconic images of the ensuing war. It was too dangerous at the time to live in the Chechen capital of Grozny, which faced heavy Russian bombardment. So he and a group of other reporters (including Marie Colvin, who was killed this year while covering the siege of the Syrian city of Homs) took up residence at a kindergarten called Solnyshka (Sunshine), in the nearby town of Khasavyurt. Lying on the border between Chechnya and the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, this town of 130,000 suffered relatively little damage during the war, so journalists, as well as some of the Chechen rebels, used it as a place to rest and resupply before heading back into the war zone.

(For daily coverage of the 2012 Games, visit TIME’s Olympics blog)

In June, Kozyrev returned to Khasavyurt to photograph how the town—and its conflict—have evolved. Although heavy fighting ended with the Russian conquest of Chechnya in 2000, the war left behind an Islamist insurgency that Russia still struggles to quell. On an almost daily basis, rebels inspired by a radical sect of Sunni Islam called Salafism continue to clash with security forces in the region, costing hundreds of lives every year. In Khasavyurt, the Russian effort to counter their influence still scars the unpaved streets. In most neighborhoods, gutted homes mark the sites of “special operations,”the commando raids that use heavy artillery to flush out suspected insurgents. But the town has also been shaped by the central element of Russian soft power in the region: the development of wrestling schools. Much like soccer in the favelas of Sao Paolo and basketball in Harlem, wrestling in Khasavyurt is meant to serve as an inoculation against violence, or at least a distraction from it, by offering the local boys an outlet for their frustrations that does not involve ”going to the woods,” the Russian slang for joining the insurgency.

Every year, Moscow pumps roughly a million dollars into Khasavyurt’s five wrestling academies, which have produced an impressive crop of champions. In the past four Olympic cycles, freestyle wrestlers from Khasavyurt have brought home a total of eight gold medals, along with at least 12 world championship titles and countless trophies in national and European tournaments. At the Olympic Games in London, at least two wrestlers from Khasavyurt will compete to affirm the town’s nickname—The Foundry of Champions—which is scrawled on green signs near the central bazaar, showing the legendary Buvaysar Saytiev in the middle of a grapple.

During his visit in June, Kozyrev’s photography focused on Saytiev and his younger brother Adam, who have won four Olympic gold medals in freestyle wrestling between them. For more than a decade, the Saytiev brothers, who are ethnic Chechens, have served as somewhat reluctant poster boys for the notion of pacification through sport. Their wrestling schools have inspired thousands of young men from Khasavyurt to channel their strength into wrestling rather than rebellion, and Kozyrev spent much of his time photographing them train for the London Olympics. But away from the gyms, members of the Khasavyurt wrestling community revealed that the idea of sport as an antidote to extremism is not quite working out as planned. Some of the town’s leading athletes have started “going to the woods” in recent years, and an alarming number of them have been killed as insurgents during shootouts with police. No longer a haven from conflict, the wrestling schools of Khasavyurt, whose students are often as young as 8, have become recruiting ground for Islamists. As Kozyrev concluded after his visit: “This is a town that remains at war.”

Read more about the Chechen wrestlers of Khasavyurt on TIME.com

Simon Shuster is TIME’s Moscow reporter.

Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME and was named the 2011 Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International competition.

The Syrian Arms Race: Photographs by Yuri Kozyrev

In the last week of June, at an airfield outside Moscow, Russia laid out a smorgasbord of military hardware—including everything from tanks to anti-aircraft batteries—and invited some of the most militaristic nations in the world do some pleasant summer shopping. Meat was grilled in barbecue pits, comely models stood around in mini-skirts, ’80s music and obnoxious techno pounded through the speakers, and once a day, a choreographer from the Bolshoi Theater staged a “tank ballet” of twirling war machines that was grandiloquently titled, “Unconquerable and Legendary.”

Welcome to the deceptively titled Forum for Technologies in Machine Building, the biennial Russian arms bazaar that President Vladimir Putin inaugurated in 2010. Delegations from Iran, Bahrain, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, among many others, attended the expo this year, and spent their time ogling cruise missiles, climbing into armored jeeps and trying out the most famous—and most deadly—Russian weapon of them all: the Kalashnikov assault rifle, which is thought to hold the stomach-turning honor of having killed more people than any other weapon in the history of man.

On the afternoon of June 28, TIME followed around the delegation to the arms bazaar from Syria, who, like many of the participants, would not legally be able to buy their weapons in the West (the TIME magazine story is available to subscribers here). For the past 16 months, Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have brutally tried to crush a homegrown rebellion, which has already cost around 15,000 lives, including thousands of women and children. The U.S. and Europe have responded by banning weapons sales to Syria, and along with their allies in the Arab world, they have pushed for an international arms embargo against Assad’s government. But Russia, the world’s second largest arms dealer after the U.S., has used its veto power in the U.N. to block these sanctions. With around $4 billion in weapons contracts to fulfill for its Syrian clients, Russia has continued supplying arms to Damascus, which gets nearly all of its weapons from Russia.

It was impossible to tell what, if anything, the Syrians came to the Moscow arms bazaar to purchase. Such deals would be signed behind closed doors, and both sides declined to comment. Colonel Isam Ibrahim As’saadi, the military attache at the Syrian embassy in Moscow, chaperoned the three officials in town from Damascus, and they would only say that they came to Moscow especially to attend the fair. The items that seemed to interest them most that day were armored military vehicles, trucks equipped with roof-mounted rocket launchers and brand new Kalashnikov assault rifles. Andrei Vishnyakov, the head of marketing for Izhmash, the company that created the AK-47, spent more than an hour selling them on the virtues of the firm’s new sniper rifles and machine guns. Before handing the head of the Syrian delegation a silencer-equipped AK-104, Vishnyakov said: “This weapon is perfect for close-quarters combat, house to house.” The Syrian official then lifted the gun’s sight to his eye and pointed it across the crowded pavilion, no doubt wondering how useful it could be back home.

Simon Shuster is TIME’s Moscow reporter.

Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME and was named the 2011 Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International competition.

On the Trail with Putin: Photographs by Yuri Kozyrev

The grim factory towns of the Ural Mountains, such as the outpost of Kurgan along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, are among the only places left in Russia where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin could still count on the people’s firm support. The air tastes metallic here from the belching smokestacks, and most of the workers are massed in crumbling apartment blocks left over from the Soviet Union. But life is predictable, the average wage is enough to get by and the locals are grateful to Putin for that.

So his bid to win a third term as president—which he won on March 4—focused on places like Kurgan, which he visited on Feb. 13 to tour a provincial school. It was a safe place for a campaign stop, far away from Russia’s biggest cities, where the vibrant middle class has begun to protest by the tens of thousands to call for an end to Putin’s 12-year rule. Outside of School No. 7 in Kurgan, he was greeted by a crowd of supporters who waited for four hours in the freezing cold to have a glimpse of the man they call “our leader,” or sometimes even, “the czar.” Such towns are still home to the vast majority of the Russian population, and they were likely the ones who handed Putin a mandate to rule for six more years. The middle class will then need to wait to see much political change.

Simon Shuster is TIME’s Moscow reporter. Follow him on Twitter @shustry

Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME and was just named the 2011 Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International competition.