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Return to Isolation

The fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989 had a profound effect on me and was the impetus that drove me down the path of a career in photojournalism. In that defining historical moment, I realised that the world as I had always known it was radically changing and would never be the same. The road of my career has been a long and winding one, long enough that the repetitive cycles of history are now being revealed between my first attempt at a photo reportage and my most recent work.

Following decades of Cold War isolation and embargo, Soviet economies were crumbling and inflation was rampant, making the cost of essential commodities and daily life untenable for the majority of citizens of the Soviet Union. In an attempt to revive the Soviet economic system, Mikhail Gorbachev's Glasnost and Perestroika reform policies allowed Western brands and businesses such as McDonald's and Lancome - businesses that are now closing their operations - to begin operating in Russia.

Many Russians flocked to the novelty of the Western brands, but few could actually afford to purchase Western commodities, spending most of their time waiting in bread lines and searching for inexpensive food items in street markets. The Soviet Union had reached a tipping point and the tentative reforms only opened a flood gate of popular desire for change, freedom and democracy.

Following an initial all-Soviet coal miners strike in July 1989, in early March 1991 miners in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine conducted a large-scale work stoppage. However, this time they boldly demanded Gorbachev's resignation, the dismantling of the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet, and the transfer of mines and their assets to respective republican governments, recognising that demands for wage increases or better working conditions would only be wiped out by inflation and meaningless without systemic change.

I was intrigued that this working-class movement was fighting to free itself from the Soviet system, an ideology conceived, at least in principle, to defend the working classes. In early April of that year I travelled by train from Helsinki to Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), through Moscow to Donetsk, Ukraine, returning through Minsk, Belarus. The goal of my trip was to photograph the coal miner's strike and daily life. However, it was also a journey to discover life behind the 'iron curtain,' a whole part of the world that had been by and large inaccessible my entire life.

In the final months of the collapsing Soviet Union I wandered the streets of Leningrad, Moscow, Donetsk and Minsk photographing the grim quotidian existence of this other world and the excitement of change that was in the air among the people I met. At the end of that year, Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly, by a margin of 90%, for independence, effectively putting an end to all hopes that the Soviet Union could remain intact.

Thirty-one years later, I returned to Ukraine to document Russia's invasion of the country. Although the origins of this conflict are complex and the logic of Vladimir Putin's strategy remains open to much conjecture, Putin is a product of the Cold War and it is no secret that he has long harboured the desire to re-establish a kind of Russian empire among the former Soviet states with himself as a Tsar-like leader to counter what he perceives as an encroaching threat by NATO and Western democracies.

In some ways, the origins of this conflict, in part, began with the Donbas coal miner's strike and the break-up of the Soviet Union. Regardless of the outcome of Russia's war on Ukraine, Vladimir Putin's colossal miscalculation will make him an international pariah and will once again isolate Russia from the rest of the world under crippling economic sanctions, much like the Russia of 1991.

JB Russell, 2022
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