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‘City of Shadows’: Soviet era’s ghostly dusk

Twenty years ago, Alexey Titarenko documented how the dissolution of the Soviet Union affected the people of St. Petersburg, Russia. The result was his photographic series titled “City of Shadows.” Below, Titarenko describes the meaning of his work.

“The idea of ‘City of Shadows’ emerged quite unexpectedly and quite naturally during the collapse [of the Soviet Union] in the fall of 1991. At that period, I continued to work on my series ‘Nomenklatura of Signs.’ I realized that I was struggling with emptiness and that my creative impulses – initially absolutely sincere – were running the risk of contemplating upon ideas no longer valid. The Soviet people, human beings deprived of their individuality by a criminal regime, began transforming from smiling and happy-looking ‘signs’ into wandering shadows. The year of 1992 was approaching…

“The northern city of St. Petersburg is known for its summer ‘white nights’ and its short, dark winter days lasting for just a few hours. In the winter of 1991-1992, one cold and gloomy day, I strolled sadly down a street, which used to be packed with people, which used to be full of joyful vibrancy and dynamism. It was poorly lit; evening was settling in. There was not a single car visible. The depressing and strange quietness was interrupted by the sounds of banging grocery store and bakery doors, stores in which the shelves were absolutely empty.

“I saw people on the verge of insanity, in confusion: unattractively dressed men and women with eyes full of sorrow and desperation, tottering on their routine dreary routes with their last ounce of strength, in search of some food which could prolong their lives and the lives of their families. They looked like shadows, undernourished and worn out. My impressions as well as my emotional state were enormously powerful and long lasting.

“I felt an intense desire to articulate these sufferings and grieving, to visualize them through my photographs, to awaken empathy and love for my native city’s inhabitants.

“More than anything, I wanted to convey my ‘people-shadows’ metaphor as accurately as possible. This metaphor became the core of both my new vision and new series. I placed my Hasselblad camera near the entrance to the Vasileostrovskaya subway station, where the shopping district was located. It was a place where time had come to a standstill. This perception of time stopped convinced me that it could also be stopped by means of a camera shutter using ‘long exposure.’ A crowd of people flowing near the subway station formed a sort of human sea, providing me with a feeling of nonreality, a phantasmagoria; these people were like shadows from the underworld
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“Now, 20 years later, the ‘City of Shadow’ images have more general meaning for me, symbolizing some aspects of contemporary Russia and others ‘post-Soviet’ countries as well as those human beings who have been constantly victimized and ruined during the course of the 20th century.”