Abkhazia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh—what do they all have in common?
(I have to admit until laying my hands upon Satellites I’d have been as much in the dark as you may be right now.)
They are all tiny regions floating in the periphery of Russia or the ex-Soviet bloc countries. They all exercise a certain level of autonomy, but none are recognised as independent under international law. As the photographer himself remarks, “the break-up of the Soviet Union is far from complete.”
Bendiksen arrived in Russia from his native Norway in 1998 at the age of twenty. Expelled two years later because of an “administrative problem,” he spent the next five years exploring and documenting life in these satellite republics.
The history (as well as anecdotes and faits divers) of all six republics covered in this photographic journey are neatly summarized, each in a short two-page presentation that prefaces the successive series of images. We learn how Stalin created a self-governing Jewish state twenty years before the foundation of Israel. And how the strategic power of Transnistria (a state of less than 4000 km2) comes from its 50,000 guns and 40,000 tonnes of ammunition left by the Soviets.
I, however, plunged straight into the imagery of Satellites, paying not the slightest heed to the essays. Although a second reading with the text offered me a very different vision, my initial reaction to the book was one of desolation. Despite the gloriously saturated colours of Bendiksen’s photographs, he conveys a coldness and an emptiness in his subjects. We find ourselves plunged into a bad dream or an Orwellian dystopia that is strangely compelling.
Once acquainted with the texts we see how Bendiksen’s images mirror the ambiguity of these states, trapped between a mother-state and independence; between communism and orthodoxy; between cold war Russia and peacetime Europe. Uncertainty, vulnerability and isolation echo through the pages.
Be it the old lady returning to the skeleton of her bullet-scarred, Soviet apartment block, or the lone drinker in a bar surveyed by the watchful eyes of Marx and Lenin, daily life in these enclaves is presented as bleak and harsh.
Where we might imagine there to be solidarity there is an unsettling lack of human interaction. The absence of physical proximity, a friendly glance or even a smile renders the atmosphere inhospitable. We sense years of conflict and oppression weigh heavily on the protagonists.
A compelling work, this book sheds light on a widely forgotten chapter of Soviet history. I thoroughly enjoyed Satellites.
by Joans Bendiksen
62 four-color images
7.125” X 9.25”
Aperture, 2006 (USA)
Textuel, 2006 (France)