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17 November 2018

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Soviet Ghosts

By Rebecca Litchfield ($39.95)

There is something strangely attractive about ruin and decay. It is tantalizing to imagine empty, crumbling spaces as they once may have been, to be reminded in a very graphic way that all things pass to dust, that even empires fall.

This engrossing, oversized photo book is a journey through decayed institutions and structures left behind by the Soviet empire. As one of the contributing writers notes, “the decay shown in this work is caught in a limbo of temporalities, a Purgatory of discredited ideology; too obsolete to be of use, yet not quite old enough to be historical.”

It is difficult to describe the power in these photos. A doll and a gas mask propped on a chair in Pripyat, the town Chernobyl depopulated; a majestic monument to Soviet-Bulgarian friendship, snow-strewn and windblown above the clouds; a hospital room in a Russian sanitorium, with black mold crawling up the walls; a deserted Pioneer camp and its stacks of limp mattresses, sprinkled with fall leaves. Absent from the images are any signs of people. We must use our imaginations to see the able bodies who once manned a satellite monitoring station, who once cared for the sick in a hospital, who once did time in an Estonian prison.

Needless to say, Litchfield photographed these places in 15 countries at some personal risk, being arrested for trespass more than once. The resulting collection was well worth the effort and worth the time and attention of anyone with more than a passing interest in the Soviet world as it once was.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Nov/Dec 2014