Field-site photos – what makes a factory? (And what makes an ethnography of postsocialist deindustrialisation?)

I start this blog towards the very end of the very research project it was supposed to support and disseminate – a book-length ethnographic treatment of everyday postsocialism: small town life in a Russian blue-collar community which I call ‘Izluchino’. The book is ‘safely’ (fingers crossed) in production now and I’ll be writing some more entries about it shortly. However, the process of negotiating with the publisher on the manuscript raised some interesting issues. So this is as good a time as any to start the blog.

I always imagined publishing a monograph on my town full of images – how naïve! With my present publisher we agreed on six half-tones. But recently I realised that some of my images taken in 2009 were quite low quality – the publisher requires 300dpi. So in the end I asked some of the people in my research to go back and take photos of places in the research again. They went straight out and took the photos: a wonderful example of the sometimes overlooked positive stereotype of Russians and work: if you want something done in a hurry – ask a Russian. Russian storming of deadlines – avral – is also in the book! On the one hand this was a pity as the new photos of course didn’t really capture the moments of the research. On the other, they allowed me to see visible changes over the five years the research. The next few entries will discuss the photographic recording of research and some musings on the pictures that made it, and didn’t make it into the book.

The first, and most important image, arguably, is the building where a key informant called Galina works. She’s one of the old guard – the aristocracy of labour that clings on in the town. They worked their way up to positions like foreman and brigade leader in the factories. There’s a whole chapter largely devoted to Galina, who is in her 60s now but still working. Here’s the photo of her factory in 2015 – I call it Polymer. They make pipes for the gas industry here. The factory has been in dire straits for over 15 years, but just hangs on.

Polymer_website

My friend Alyona Kudriavsteva took the photo of the factory last week (changes are some double-glazing added, not really visible in this shot, but the wall where the roofing tar had dripped down still hasn’t been cleaned in five years). By the way, ‘Filtr’ is not the firm where Galina works. Her shop shares the building.

Why this photo – well obviously there is the conveying of the drabness, the enclosuring of space by the factory – it’s a stereotypically dour and functional Soviet building. higgledy-piggledy put up in 1971 (see the brick work even tells you this – the Soviet obsession with jubilees and facticity)- possibly using some prisoner labour. Then there’s the hammer and sickle ‘device’ – deviz in Russian, from the same Latin root for ‘desire’, means ‘slogan’. The ‘intention’ of the Soviet slogan is to express and embody ‘Glory to labour’. A very common slogan that I saw out of my flat window every day when I first lived in Russia in 1995. Why is that important? Well, despite the cynicism with which the communists treatment of the working class was understood to mean anything but ‘glory’ by actual workers, Galina is a great example of someone that continues to live that slogan. For her life is work, and dignity is accessible through work, regardless of circumstances, and regardless of one’s working environment. Here is Galina in 2009 with one of her daughters.

Galina_Website

In actual fact, the factory is a relatively nice working environment – the brick-glass windows provide plenty of natural light while keeping the cold out. Galina and others really looked after it – especially the trees in the yard and the cacti on the windowsills (I wrote an article recently that starts from the premise of cacti as connecting people to memories of the socialist period). It was very interesting when a trade union organiser at one of the purpose-built shiny new German car factories in Kaluga city complained that in terms of working environment these Soviet factories were far superior. But that’s another story.

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