Wonderland: A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith, opens with the image of a woman looking out over Moscow from a window high in a hotel, her back naked to the camera. “She’s the protagonist in this story,” writes photographer Jason Eskenazi. “She morphs into different women throughout the book.” She will reappear as a ballerina, a weeping mother, a farmer’s daughter. The second image in Wonderland is the inside of a hospital room where a pigeon sits on the rail of a baby crib, the light soft through the curtains. “The bird is an omen of what is to come,” says Eseknazi of a tragic foreshadowing. With this enigmatic opening, Wonderland is born.

Maternity Hospital, Kuba, Azerbaijan 1999 © Jason Eskenazi

Eskenazi landed in Moscow for the first time in the hot, humid summer of 1991, six months before the collapse of the USSR. The photographer, who grew up in Queens, knew of Russia through art and literature and the coverage of the Cold War in the papers. Intrigued by the unfamiliar world portrayed by the media, Eskenazi began traveling to the country. “Moscow seemed the natural place to go to see for myself what was on the other side of the Red Curtain.”

Bus, Menage Square, Moscow 1993 © Jason Eskenazi

In the making of Wonderland, Eskenazi found himself, “unconsciously imitating the classic structures of fairytales,” particularly Russain fairytales. He goes on to explain that, “in most fairytales, the parent or maternal figure dies and the child is left on their own to discover the dangers of the world through maturation. I saw the collapse of the USSR in a similar way.”

Eskenazi plays with this primal storytelling structure by dividing his book into three chapters: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The first chapter plays on broad concepts of idealized communism and the dream it always is. In this chapter are trumpets, dances, drinking, sleeping out in the fields, young men shirtless exercising in a park, a horse rolling on its back high in the mountains.

Army Base, Karagandar, Kazakhstan 1998 © Jason Eskenazi

In the second chapter, the mood changes as Eskenazi pulls back the veil of communist USSR and begins to reveal another reality: a young girl stands beside the severed head of cow lying in a cart; a man wearing a Beatles shirt stands in front of four bodies dead on the ground; blood stains sheets on a surgeon’s operating room; a classroom of students wearing gas masks stand to participate in a drill.

The third chapter is the shortest and Eskenazi refrains from giving any clearcut synthesis. “It suggests that life is an accumulation, and synthesis, of all the good and bad. There are no answers, only questions.”

Civil Defence Drill, Magnitogorsk 1998 © Jason Eskenazi

First published in 2008, Wonderland became the first in a trilogy of books by Eskenazi, followed by Black Garden and Departure Lounge. The third book ends with an image of the same subject he saw in that hotel room above Moscow thirty years prior. “The book and images have always been somewhere close to consciousness. Like our younger selves, the images and people that populate this book are like old friends,” says Eskenazi, reflecting on the reprint of this classic.

Now living in Turkey, Eskenazi has turned to writing and reflection on the years he traveled the continent. “Photography has always been a way for me to enter other worlds. Without it I would have been a lesser human being. But there also comes a point when you need to download all that experience and make sense of it and reflect. Backyards are good for that.”

by Jason Eskenazi
Publisher: Red Hook Editions (2nd edition 2020)
ISBN: 978-0-9841954-0-4