Abandoned USSR Cover

Book review: ‘Abandoned USSR’ by Terence Abela

Image credit: Terence Abela/Jonglez

A time-travelling artistic journey to a land of broken hopes and broken machines.

My overall impression of the latest photo album from Jonglez, the title of which could be a quote from my own autobiography (I defected from the Soviet Union in early 1990), can be summed up in just one word: ‘Stunning!’

‘Abandoned USSR’ by Terence Abela (Jonglez, £29.99, ISBN 9782361955106) elicits memories of history’s bloodiest attempt at collective happiness, a project that lasted for over 70 years before its spectacular – and fortunately fairly bloodless – collapse 30 years ago.

Yes, the USSR, with all its hopes – true and false – officially ceased to exist three decades ago on 31 December 1991, and a whole new generation now separates us from it. Memories – like any recollections, whether tragic or happy – are petering out slowly but surely, and not just in the West. In Russia itself, most younger people find it hard to remember who Lenin, the USSR’s hapless founder, was and would struggle to say what such typically Soviet abbreviations as kolkhoz (collective farm) or komsomol (communist youth organisation) once stood for.

For those like myself, however, who spent the better part of their lives in ‘the world’s first state of workers and peasants’ as the USSR strove to be known officially, memories are important as the best guarantees against its eventual rebirth, the danger of which has not disappeared completely.

To look into the future, we have to bury the past first. Bury, but not forget! This spectacular album by Terence Abela is a worthy tombstone for the grave of the former totalitarian superpower.

Let us open this coffee-table-size book at random, for it is impossible to describe in a short review even a small number of the masterly photos it contains. After a duly laconic one-page introduction that doesn’t need to be any longer, as the pictures speak very well for themselves, Abela expertly immerses the reader in the bittersweet world of Soviet debris – poignant and at times almost romantic in its aggressive naivety.

Baikonur Cosmodrome

The Baikonur Cosmodrome was established as the base of the 1950s Soviet space programme

Image credit: Terence Abela/Jonglez

An abandoned university auditorium in a small town. Battered desks. Stucco peeling from the walls. Above the rostrum, a portrait of Lenin and a poster with the words from a popular Soviet song: “We have the will and the courage to become the heroes of our time!” Instinctively, I started humming the old Soviet ear-worm to accompany the doggerel lyrics, of which there are still plenty stored in my uncomplaining memory. “Lenin is always alive, Lenin is always with you... Lenin is the echo of spring.”

“There are... the technical sites that filled millions of hearts with pride during the era of space conquest,” writes Abela in the introduction. Yes, there are plenty of those here, from a weatherbeaten statue of Yuri Gagarin at his birthplace in the Kaluga region to the Baikonur Cosmodrome and the secret nuclear-weapons testing range near Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, the so-called ‘Lemonia’, which my late father often visited in his youth, in his capacity as a junior research fellow specialising in elementary-particle physics.

A dozen or so pages are occupied by the heart-stopping pictures of Pripyat, the ‘dead city’, about 3km from Chernobyl that was hastily evacuated several days after the 1986 nuclear catastrophe and has remained in ruins since then. I visited it in 1994, and can vouch for the fact that Abela did not need to set up any of the poignant photos – from a ‘cemetery’ of used gas masks on the floor in a school to a cruelly desecrated portrait of Gorbachev inside the Energetik Palace of Culture, which also appears on the book’s cover.

A prototype of a 1970s Tesla coil, pictured in a ruined Soviet research centre

A prototype of a 1970s Tesla coil, pictured in a ruined Soviet research centre

Image credit: Terence Abela/Jonglez

Not all of the pictures, thank God, are dull and depressing. One of my favourites, testifying to Abela’s great skills as a photographer, is of a prototype of a 1970s Tesla coil used to test insulators for the protection of vehicles, aeroplanes and all kinds of electric equipment against lightning, displayed inside a research centre. There is something vaguely futuristic about it, something that signifies the hopes that didn’t come true.

'They tried... They failed...' would have been my caption for the above image. In fact, those words could probably serve as an adequate summary of the whole of this remarkable album, reviewing which is bound to be a rather futile endeavour. Simply because – and I hope you will forgive me this cliché – pictures do speak much louder than words. They certainly do on this occasion.

So do buy this book for a time-travelling artistic journey to a land of broken hopes and broken machines – a country that does not exist any longer.

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