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Punished for showing real-life Soviet Siberia

By Polina Nechayeva
16 July 2014

Photographers win praise for work which had them in trouble with the Communist Party and KGB.

Everything seen on the pictures should have been a moment of 'snapped reality' where people were not asked to alter their behaviour for the camera, nor to smile. Pictures: TRIVA photographers

An exhibition earlier this year in Novosibirsk was billed as a 'rare chance to get back in time for see life of Siberian people in the late USSR'. 

The photographs - some of them shown here - were taken by Siberians Vladimir Vorobyev, Vladimir Sokolayev and Alexander Trofimov who worked in the late 1970s - the era of Soviert leader Leonid Brezhnev - Novokuznetsk Metallurgy Plant. 

The trio called their group TRIVA, and while they had no written manifesto for their work, they had a definite aim: it was one that the authorities found it hard to cope with. As the photographers said, they tried to keep their cameras with them as much as they could, and took pictures not only the workers, but of various routine scenes they came across daily. 

Most of pictures they took were black and white but they agreed never to retouch pictures, nor to crop them. They did not do posed shots.

Everything seen on the pictures should be a moment of 'snapped reality' where people were not asked to alter their behaviour for the camera, nor to smile.

The photographers did not re-do the same image, nor suggest a composition for a photograph. They wanted to take life as it was in Soviet Siberia, and it was this desire that killed their trio and got both the KGB and Communist Party officials suspicious. 

look back at Soviet Siberia

Photohrapher Vladimir Vorobyev snapped a moment when a watch master got 'drunk' with gas coming inside a factory shop and went ot to get better. Kuznetsk Metallurgical Plant, Novokuznetsk, Kuzbass, Siberia, year 1980

The group has been officially registered in 1981 (though they worked together for several years before this) and managed to take part in 19 exhibitions, including even several foreign ones until in 1982 the KGB's watchmen alleged that TRIVA works 'blacken the socialist way of living'.

All three were fired from the plant and had to destroy part of their archives. 

Vladimir Sokolayev learned about photography as a child, initially from his uncle, not just taking pictures, but development and printing the film, too. 

In school, he borrowed a Zenit camera from his friend's brother. He photographed everything: preparations for exams, the final celebration of finishing school, and girls, who especially liked it. A yearbook with Vladimir's photographs, this was a farewell present for school teacher. 

look back at Soviet Siberia


look back at Soviet Siberia


look back at Soviet Siberia

‘In a bath alone’, taken in 1981 in Number Two Children’s House shows a child waiting for his turn to get dressed; on the next picture, taken in January 1981 several children and their tutors stand under quartz ultraviolet lamp ray to get ‘decontaminated’ from virus and bacteria. The last image shows amateur actor Kolya Ivanov preparing to play the role of Lenin before the commemorative performance in honour of the anniversary of Novokuznetsk Pedagogical Institute. Novokuznetsk, 30.03.1980

Working in Novokuznetsk, he again used a camera and met his two fellow photographers. 'It was a case of fate, I now realise,' Vladimir Sokolayev said.

They took many pictures of steel workers, in black and white, showing everyday work in Novokuznetsk Iron and Steel Plant. 

'Our task was taking pictures of the daily life of people around us and we did it,' he said. 

'It was so difficult in this time because the real life of Soviet people were not as you could see in other photographs. People must have been combed and shaved before the picture was taken, neatly dressed, smiling and looking happy, so that foreigners know that people in the USSR have the best life possible'.

look back at Soviet Siberia


look back at Soviet Siberia


look back at Soviet Siberia

A woman hurries to First of May demonstration with 'Happiness' poster in her arms, and several scenes of everyday life in Novokuznetsk, Kuzbass, Siberia at early 89s. Pictures: TRIVA photographers

Vladimir photographed passers-by and people who didn't know he was there.

In one picture, in Novokuznetsk bus station, a man slept peacefully under the feet of other passengers. 

look back at Soviet Siberia


look back at Soviet Siberia


look back at Soviet Siberia


look back at Soviet Siberia

Comments (8)

Peter of Australia: When one looks at old photos with descriptions of the events seen in the photos, one should note that the narrative is describing what was going on at the time, whether it was proper or not. I am sure that you are aware that UV can be used for other activities... than producing Vitamin D in the skin. For example, it is used for waste water treatment; killing unwanted micro-organisms in food processing; pasteurization of fruit; sterilizing work places, and a remedy for certain skin therapies. There are a number of articles concerning the "Disinfection by Ultraviolet Light." Surely, a learned person such as yourself, could see that in certain geographical areas and in certain times of our history, UV treatment may have been considered a source for "decontaminating" people from various viruses and or bacteria. Please do your research before you insult the literary efforts of others.
Doc, US
26/09/2014 10:22
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RE:taken in January 1981 several children and their tutors stand under quartz ultraviolet lamp ray to get ‘decontaminated’ from virus and bacteria....from virus and bacteria? what idiot wrote this?....UV lamp was for kids to get sunlight exposure ie Vitamin D....not to get rid of viruses you educated idiots!
Peter, Australia
31/08/2014 17:00
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RE:taken in January 1981 several children and their tutors stand under quartz ultraviolet lamp ray to get ‘decontaminated’ from virus and bacteria....from virus and bacteria? what idiot wrote this?....UV lamp was for kids to get sunlight exposure ie Vitamin D....not to get rid of viruses you educated idiots!
Peter, Australia
31/08/2014 16:57
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These pictures were taken near the end of the 20th century, not the beginning. They only look like the beginning because it's clear that life for these folks had not changed very much during the entire Soviet era.
Conrad, Houston, Texas, USA
31/07/2014 22:27
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I agree with most all of what Patrick in Australia has said so well...except one.... I don't remember the west almost ever living this badly in the 80's or just about any other year for that matter.Which is nothing to be taken away from the people in that place and time. If anything I think it shows their true strength and stability to overcome just about anything.
steve, ontario, canada
30/07/2014 00:20
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I'm glad to see these pictures. Most of us in the West are not sensitive enough yet to the great stamina shown by all the people in Soviet Russian times. Everybody went through their days pretty prosaically . Yet so many heroes!
I'm humbled very much when I consider their sacrifices and their strength. One of the reasons I am learning Russian to know a little better the Russian heart.
Paul Cleland, USA, NY
26/07/2014 04:18
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Patrick Travers, Well said. cheers
John , Netherlands
25/07/2014 08:39
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Wow ! amazing how people worked and survived at the beginning of the 20th Century, The same pictures could have been almost taken in any Country in that period of time;however ,I do think siberian Cities would have tested the fortitude of humanity more than anywhere else on this planet. We owe these people so much, their sweat and tears have made life so much easier for us today, Kemerovo is now a thriving bustling beautiful City and owes it all to the past workers and miners who gave so much and asked for so little.I know they(Kemerovians) do appreciate their forefathers and great grandmothers as they have a magnificent museum to all those past residents and rightly so, A great people who deserved so much more , PATRICK .
Patrick Travers, Perth Australia
24/07/2014 14:02
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