Those Soviets, They’re NOT Different From Us

It’s hard to believe, but in 1977, the United States government tapped Nathan Farb, a left-leaning, hippie, Jewish artist to represent America on a public relations visit to the Soviet Union.

Let that sink set for a minute.

During the Carter administration, the U.S. Information Company organized a traveling picture taking exhibition, aptly titled “Picture taking USA,” that toured the Eastern Bloc, like the Soviet Union. It was component of a multi-year work by the U.S. government to present positive portrayals of the united states – behind enemy lines, believe it or not – that makes it that very much stranger that an individual like Mr. Farb could have been chosen as a cultural ambassador.

“I think your viewpoint of how different I was from, tell you, a jazz musician on the highway for U.S.I.A. is just a little overstated,” Mr. Farb deadpanned. “The environment was clamoring for American music and jazz. Plus they sent every great musician around the world, multiple moments. Does the world wish American cars? Not necessarily. The environment wants American culture. And it really was that way after that.”

A selection of pictures from the resulting job, “The Russians,” is on exhibit at the Wende Museum in Culver Metropolis, Calif., as part of its mission to give attention to the Cold Battle. His project depicts residents of Novosibirsk, a Siberian town closer to Kazakhstan and Mongolia than it really is to Western European countries. (He known as it “the rough equivalent of Cleveland.”) He was included on the six-week trip after he had done a similar tour in Romania, and then begged to end up being included on the Soviet trip. The desire to visit the Soviet Union was personal for Mr. Farb, since he grew up in Lake Placid, N.Y., and was acutely alert to capitalism’s huge differences in wealth and course.


“I became an 11- or 12-year-good old Communist, you might say,” he said. “I grew up in a village where there was enormous wealth, and tremendous poverty. It was painful, because I went to school with kids who did not have socks to put on of their galoshes in the wintertime.

“I think that’s where my early fascination in Marx and Lenin came up as a boy.”

During the job, Mr. Farb setup a mobile studio to photograph the locals as a demonstration of the technology. And he offered his topics a Polaroid picture as a memento of the experience. Little did they know, even so, that there was another, secret, picture. In what feels as though something out of a John le Carré novel, Mr. Farb was loading his 4×5 camera with Polaroid Type 55 film, which developed both a positive and a negative image.

“I felt I was gaming both the U.S. State Department officials, and I was gaming the Russians,” he said. ‘Nobody really comprehended what I was carrying out with the Polaroids. That I experienced a negative, and that I would be able to bring these things back.”

He sent the negatives back again with his personal mail, through the diplomatic pouches available to him.

As for the photos, they depict a community that is much less foreign than we might imagine. The fashion represents ’70s design, with jean jackets and paisley prints. According to Mr. Farb, most of the ladies made their own clothes, and had occasional usage of magazines from the exterior world, so they became a member of the funky fresh vogue craze, like farmers hitting Studio 54.

There was as well a unique aspect to the city, given its remote location.

“Every morning I’d go down to my studio, and there will be these women cleaning up,” he said. “Plus they would sing the most hauntingly beautiful music. On the next or third day, I thought, ‘Of training, I’m not in European countries, and I’m not in Asia. I’m someplace in between.’”

The truth was that Mr. Farb experienced a minder, an associate of the Communist Party, to monitor him. Fortunately, he could get yourself a photograph of the complete party cadre, incorporating his minder and, yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds.


The photography shows five dour, serious-searching men, including one who’s a dead ringer for Werner Herzog. Mr. Farb noted that possibly these representatives of Lenin and Stalin experienced fashioned themselves in a Western design, with one practically resembling Cary Grant, and another Charles de Gaulle.

There’s a healthy dose of the sudden in these photographs, from a distance of 40 years, including a female with a pronounced mustache, who was seemingly the mistress of 1 of the get together chiefs, or the large older female with the top scarf who’s rocking a serious group of metal teeth.

As the humor and political relevance might make “The Russians” appear of the moment, to Mr. Farb, the pictures are actually designed to humanize our fellow person.

Frankly, he became mental when describing how it sensed to have a modern-day audience, on line and on the wall structure, interact with his subjects, many of whom have passed away in the intervening years. When asked what his biggest desire is, when people consider the photographs, he simply replied: “I want them to love these people.”

Jonathan Blaustein is an artist and writer located in New Mexico. He contributes regularly to the blog page A Photo Editor.

Follow @nytimesphoto on Twitter. You can also find Lens on Facebook and Instagram.

Read more on: