With an inside perspective and a shared experience, Ukrainian photographer Pavel Borshchenko brings a contemporary outlook to the collapse of the Soviet Union and what it means to be ‘Soviet.’ Reflecting on the world around him, Borshchenko uses his platform to highlight the social issues of living in Ukraine as he works to express creative meeting in the shattered history of the Soviet world through his lens. His photographic works share both his personal experiences and inner transformations.
Growing up in the small-scale city of Sumy, he witnessed first-hand the social issues embedded in the Soviet narrative. Capturing a disguised utopia built on a monotonous past, his work offers a personal insight into Ukraine’s evolution and national identity shift. With a slowly evolving transformation and an entire generation witness to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Borshchenko is working to create hope for a better life and a transfiguration of mentality over time.
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Many of your works have been centred around the Soviet Union. Having grown up during its collapse, how do you draw from your personal experiences and channel them into your work? Has it always been your main source of inspiration?
I was born in the Soviet Union in a small town in a family of people who were, in a sense, Soviets. For me, the impression was that to be a Soviet person, you simply had no need to decide anything as others had already decided for you, right up to where to work or place of residence, this makes decisions still difficult for me. Therefore, the '90s were a difficult time when one system collapsed, and the new one did not yet exist or did not know how to live in this new one, especially on the periphery.
This collapse lasted for a long time, the factories did not close in a year or two, they were open for another 10 years, and some still exist on paper and thousands of people continue to go there to work without doing anything and having wage arrears for more than a year. I watched this whole process from the inside.
Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood and what it was like for you growing up in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union? How did your childhood experiences influence your journey into photography and your vision as a photographer? How are those experiences reflected in your work today?
As I have just said, there was no money at all, food was provided by the grandmothers, who raised the cattle themselves (we ate well), because of that I did not have any of the things that were popular in the western world, like new toys, what we had was all Soviet-made. Hence the long nostalgia for the Soviet era from a large part of the population, they did not receive any benefits from the emergence of a free market and the availability of goods, they simply could not afford them.
The same applies to the city in which, apart from a market (consisting of many lightweight tents set up on the sidewalks), nothing has changed, there was no new construction at all, and buildings that have not been completed are still not built, and not dismantled (this does not apply to housing construction). Of course, all this leaves its mark. Including excessive consumerism now, when I can afford a lot more. This is reflected in my photographic practice when I look for something rare from that time and can use it in creating an image, thereby seeking compensation in the possession of the thing now and not when it was still relevant but not available.
You originally studied computer science, what prompted the transition to pursue a career in photography? When did you first become interested in photography?
I’ve been interested in photography since my school time. I knew a local wedding photographer who worked in a photo lab and he gave me my first tips. At that time, I used my parents Soviet Zenit film camera and took the best photographs of classmates and they bought them at the cost of printing in a mini lab. I was from a small town where you could only be a wedding photographer if you wanted to be a photographer and I also loved mathematics and successfully participated in school Olympiads. Therefore, a career as a photographer was out of the question. Even now, photography is my second activity and I continue to work in the information technology field.
You studied at Ukrainian photographer Viktor Marushchenko’s School of Photography. The school uses a combination of the technique of Marushchenko, how has he been a source of inspiration for you?
In 2013, I moved to the capital, Kyiv, and I had the opportunity to somehow develop my interest in photography by going to a photo school. But I did it only in 2015. Before that, I hadn't filmed for a couple of years at all and shifted the responsibility for this to the lack of the desired camera. In fact, from this school, I began to be interested in photography more consciously and got acquainted with the history and modern context of world photography.
Maruschenko introduced photography to me as an art, and this is the most important thing. After that, I realised that in my native country you can shoot a lot of interesting things.
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Your work is primarily contemporary focused. What other contemporary artists have been a source of inspiration for you?
Here it is very difficult to see contemporary art at exhibitions, and especially contemporary photography. Therefore, the photography that is framed as a photobook form is more available to me. I am slowly collecting a small library, there are some books by Wolfgang Tillmans, Viviane Sassen, Torbjørn Rødland.
If we talk about the historical context of art on the territory of the former Soviet Union, then I am interested in the Kharkov School of Photography with its experiments with form and Moscow Conceptualism for its work with text in images.
Would you ever stray from your photographic work of the Ukraine and its history or is it now an essential part of your artistic identity?
As long as I live here, it will be an important part of my work anyway.
Your work offers a personal insight into Ukraine’s evolution and national identity shift. Why did you feel the need to capture this transformation in your home country?
My works are, first of all, about me, about my experience. If there is this transformation, then it is about my inner transformation, and then about the society of which I am a part of.
Is there a political motive behind your work? How do you use your work to challenge or highlight issues in society? Are there any other issues you would like to give visibility to?
There is a protest, but whether it can be considered political – hardly. I do not set myself any political goals like the transformation of society. This is my reflection on the world around me, of course, it can and I think emphasises problems in society, but does not solve them in any way and does not set such a goal.
Your subjects’ faces are often masked or hidden, shielding their identities, what is the creative meaning behind this decision?
Initially, I filmed my first projects only in the village in the house of my grandmothers (where I spent a lot of time in my childhood), but, over time, there was a desire to shoot in Kyiv, where I now live. It is quite a tiring drive to the village on weekends constantly, and in winter it is practically pointless since the house is not heated and it is difficult to do anything in the cold. Here the idea arose to use these fabrics, which remained in large stock, as a background for images.
Subsequently, this became the decision that completely changed the picture. The use of the background simplifies the form, depersonalises the place, the same happens with the mask: the person's face no longer takes much attention on itself, and my images are not about a specific person.
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You address the concept of ‘Soviet’ in your 2018 project, Sorrow of my days. What is ‘Soviet’ to you and how do you identify with it? How does your work identify with it?
For me, ‘Sovietness’ is a mental and behavioural category. In answer to the first question, I have already identified one of the criteria as the complexity of decision-making and responsibility. I can also highlight such qualities as the desire to simplify, the tendency to simple answers to complex questions, the creation of conflict out of nothing, the emphasis on separating factors rather than uniting.
In the series Sorrow of my days, you show the view of the Soviet from the perspective of your generation, which were born during the collapse. While you describe this moment in history as depressing, your photos feature vibrant colours and patterns, what was the creative process behind this decision?
These images are primarily about my attitude now to these Soviet things from the past. Things have not changed but perception changes and a person can do nothing about it. At that time, it was impossible to combine Soviet symbols in such a way, but now it is quite possible, this is about a rebellion, but quiet and weak, through time.
My country is going through hard times, but if you ask yourself whether it was otherwise, then it was also yes – it was. Soviet authority was in this territory for 70 years, but only the last 30 can be recorded as years of active development (post-war period). All the time before this, the city practically did not change and lived within the framework of the past that was influenced by the decline of the previous empire.
Dullness, lack of roads, dirt – this is the norm on our territory, which has not changed for centuries. Most of the fabrics that my grandmother kept were laid aside in the sixties, they are about that time, they are bright, colourful, but outside the window and on the streets, the reality was different, grey, I wanted to convey this conflict. In this, I see a huge influence of Asian culture on the Soviet cultural standard.
An entire generation witnessed this collapse alongside you. What are the emotions you want to reflect in your photographs from this experience? What message are you hoping to send to others through your work?
It will probably be hope, hope for a better life. That the time will come and the transformation of mentality will take place, it is already happening, maybe not as quickly as we would like.
Are there any projects you’re currently working on?
I can say a few things about my ongoing project Green life. Military men and policemen were very prestigious positions in the Soviet Union as part of the system and the vertical of power. Popularisation and propaganda of that professions were widely represented in children's literature.
With the collapse of the union and the subsequent weakening of the central government, these professions were gradually marginalised, the line between them and those with whom they were called to fight gradually disappeared.
Could you tell us more about it?
At some point, with the strengthening of the central government, the opposite process began, they began whitening this image, a huge number of films and series, which at first were of very high-quality, were introduced as a new round of propaganda of these professions by the state. In parallel, there was a kind of romanticism of the gangland as part of one system. I grew up with these TV shows.
The next stage in the development of the popularisation of the profession in Ukraine was Russian military aggression. In the post-Soviet space as a whole, such reasons are the return and aggravation of authoritarianism. Quarantine has shown that this process is going on all over the world and the states are monopolising the right to violence and they are less and less shy about using it.
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