Smolny Beyond Borders

A Liberal Arts Initiative

Political History of Documentary Photography in Russia


Course Schedule:

5 weeks (February 19 – March 21); Monday/Thursday 2:30pm – 3:50pm Berlin (UTC + 2)

Professor: Denis Skopin
Semester: Spring 2024
Subject: HIST
Course Level: 100
Number of Bard Credits: 1
Course Title: Political History of Documentary Photography in Russia
Max Enrollment: 22
Schedule: 5 weeks (February 19 – March 21); Monday/Thursday 2:30pm – 3:50pm Berlin (UTC + 2)
Distribution Area: no
Cross-Listing(s): no
Language of Instruction: English

As soon as documentary photography appeared in Russia, it began to play an important role in the government’s colonization campaigns. It was also used by the Tsarist police for card indexes which listed public transgressors and political adversaries of the state. Later, in Stalin’s era, photography was determined the official political discourse aimed at disseminating propaganda. These facts support the argument of John Tagg, presented in Disciplinary Frame, that the very birth of photography in the early 19th century was made possible by the emergence of a disciplinary society obsessed with the idea of control. Contrariwise, they illustrate the idea of Ariella Azoulay that photographs may be able to resist appropriation and manipulation through their visual documentary quality, thereby giving us access to the core of truth. Or could it be that photography itself shapes the course of history, constructing historical events and making them visible in the public sphere? Recognizing the validity of these questions and theoretical approaches, this course will question photography’s affiliation with power and discuss various frameworks for addressing the phenomena’s complexity. While exploring photographic records documenting various aspects of political life in Russia from the second half of the nineteenth century to the present day, it will aim to rely on historical photographs and scholarly texts as a way of (re)interpreting Russian history – from the momentous events that shaped the course of Russian history over the last century and a half to the smaller political episodes and marginal societal practices. Great attention will be paid to such phenomena as the political censorship of photographs in Stalin’s Russia, their falsification, and the editing of photographs of the “enemies of the people” by friends and family members.