A photographic tribute to Soviet life

up:date May 9, 2022 by Jans Bock-Schroeder

Photographic records reach their full significance in historical moments. "The Soviets" has become one of Bock-Schroeder’s most important and poignant reportages.

Crowd at the All Union Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow
All Union Agricultural Exhibition, Moscow.

The WDNCh (Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy of the USSR, Moscow) was an embodiment of the Soviet Union. This miniature wonderland featured artistically designed pavilions of the individual republics with their exotic products and typical regional craftsmanship grouped together in harmony behind a main pavilion.

After his return from the Soviet Union, Peter Bock-Schroeder was asked what it was really like in that country. One question was asked particularly emphatically: What are Soviet citizens like? To this question he always gave a single answer: People are shaped by the environment in which they live. And that is especially true of the Soviet Union.

Visitors from Uzbekistan view the worker and the 'Worker and Kolkhoz Woman' Staue in Moscow
Worker and Kolkhoz Woman

Worker and Kolkhoz woman, the pair is meant to represent the eternal unity of the working class and the peasantry in the Soviet Union. During the 1937 World's Fair in Paris, a confrontation took place between the two future enemies of the Second World War, the USSR and Germany. Their monumental pavilions were directly opposite each other on the main boulevard at the Trocadéro.

Soviet Union photo tour

A group of people open a bottle of sparkling wine made from grapes grown on the famous Crimean peninsula.
Crimean peninsula

Crimean sparkling wine was first produced in 1799 on the Crimean peninsula for the Russian Tsar's court. At the Paris World Exhibition of 1900, a sparkling wine from Crimea triumphed over all the French entries to win the internationally coveted "Grand Prix de Champagne".

A look behind the Iron Curtain

Great Construction Projects of Communism
Great Construction Projects

The term Great Construction Projects of Communism (Russian: Великие стройки коммунизма) is the name given to a variety of the most ambitious construction projects that were of crucial economic relevance to the Soviet economy. These projects were commissioned and put into operation in the 1950s on the orders of Joseph Stalin.

Bock-Schroeder's journey took him through the huge space of the former Soviet republics - from the Central Asian Countries to the Transcaucasian Countries, from the Baltic States to European Russia.

In 1956, one year after the peace treaty between Russia and Germany, Peter Bock-Schroeder was the first West German photographer to be permitted to visit the former USSR for a photo reportage.

Soviet family at an outdoor market for wooden toys
Soviet family at an outdoor market for wooden toys

The background of this trip was the shooting of the movie "Russia today, We saw with our eyes" about the Soviet Union for western cinemas.

The film was approved by the Soviet authorities. It was created under the same conditions under which all Western journalists worked in the Soviet Union at that time.

In almost a year of production, they created the documentary under incredibly difficult conditions.

Worker in the Stalingrad Tractor Factory
Worker in the Stalingrad Tractor Factory

The Volgograd Tractor Plant formerly the Dzerzhinskiy Tractor Factory or the Stalingrad Tractor Plant, is a heavy equipment factory located in Volgograd.

Pictures of the Soviet Union

Bock-Schroeder was monitored at all times by a supervisor from the state authorities.

But he managed to take pictures of people in their natural environment, his pictures tell a visual story about the daily life behind the Iron Curtain.

Central Mosco Hippodrome
Central Moscow Hippodrome, Moscow

The Moscow Hippodrome, which holds 3,500 spectators, is a landmark of Moscow. In 1834, the first horse races were held on the premises.

Several times the German and the Russian film crews had threatened to cancel the production.

An Uzbek man stands at the castle wall in Bukhara
Bukhara castle wall, Uzbekistan

Bukhara was once an important trading center on the Silk Road. Today, the entire old town is designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

After months of hard fought negotiations the German production company and the Moscow Central Documentary Film Studio agreed on the version of the respective authorities and their censorship institutions, although sometimes grudgingly given.

Visitors in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Peterburg
The State Hermitage Museum, St. Peterburg

The State Hermitage Museum accommodates, besides numerous treasures, artworks that were once passionately collected by Tsarina Catherine II.

Pictures of western reporters allowed, for the first time to get a more reliable picture of the various aspects of the people, economy and culture of the Soviet people.

Kyivan woman selling homegrown food
Kyivan woman selling homegrown food

"Babushka markets" selling various home-made gastronomic products based on plants and animals were popular in Ukraine throughout the 1950s. In 1956 the collective farms were allowed to set up their own co-operative industries in the countryside.

Political upheavals in the Soviet Union led to changes in culinary habits and changes in agricultural priorities.

Fisherwoman on boat on the Ukrainian Black Sea shucking oysters
The golden age of Black Sea oysters

Up until the Bolshevik Revolution, the Ukrainian Black Sea coast was the world's largest exporter of wild oysters. In the golden age of Black Sea oysters many ended up on the tables of restaurants in Europe, where they were appreciated for their delicate and not too salty taste.

1956 was a turning point, a fateful year for many countries of Eastern Europe in addition to all other world political events, such as the Suez crisis.

It was also the year in which the last German war returnees returned from Russian captivity.

Elderly couple in Tbilisi Georgia
Couple in Tbilisi Georgia

Georgia was part of Russia and later the Soviet Union for a prolonged period of time. However, the country has managed to retain its cultural identity, including its own language and alphabet.

Soon after filming began, the usual declarations of peace and friendship on both sides failed to materialize, and filming, recording and photographing became a tenacious struggle for consistency. Most of the discussion focused on the core word objective.

Two Belarusian girls dancea
Two Belarusian girls dance

Folk dances are an integral part of the Belarusian culture and way of life, and these dances have been repeatedly mentioned in Belarusian literature.

The Soviets, who came up for all the expenses of the four western camera groups in the USSR, were granted an extensive veto, control and participation rights. All of the material had to be "tuned" with the Soviets.

Highly decorated War Heroes Russia
May Day ceremonies in Moscow's Red Square

The Moscow Victory Day Parade (Russian: Парад Победы в Москве, tr. Parad Pobedy v Moskve) is the annual military parade of the Russian Armed Forces in Moscow's Red Square on 9 May to mark the Victory Day celebrations over Nazi Germany.

Is the inadequate footwear of the mausoleum visitors of the Red Square in Moscow suitable for conveying an objective or a false impression of the state of the Russian shoe industry?

Gum Department Store
Gum Department Store, Moscow

The GUM department store in Moscow in 1956 was a luxury for privileged Russians. The beautiful building is located directly on the Red Square of the Russian capital. It houses numerous stores and is one of the most famous and well-known buildings in Russia. Together with the Red Square and the Kremlin it is part of the UNESCO World Heritage.

On the basis of the Lenin quotation, that an objective behavior includes the duty to accept the criticism of the other side, the German film people tried to persuade their Soviet opponents.

Young woman with pearl bracelet in Moscow underground train
Metro, Moscow

The first subway in Russia, the Moscow Metro excelled with the technical progress of the Soviet Union and is today one of the most frequented subway networks in the world. It is particularly famous for its extravagant and unparalleled interior architecture, which is revered as the "people's palace".

The Russian Censors defended themselfes with yet another Lenin quotations: "Objectivity is what promotes friendship between peoples."

Prayer inside Etchmiadzin Cathedral
Prayer inside Etchmiadzin Cathedral

No official action of Catholicos Vazgen I could occur outside the context of the USSR’s larger policies vis-à-vis the Cold War.

Illustrated photo reportage of the Soviet Union

Frequently, it became clear that the support from the Moscow Central Studio was more of a burden than a help. In the Caucasus republics in particular, the Moscow escorts were noticeably not welcome.

In Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, the head of the Georgian film production, each Soviet republic had its own film studio, told the film team in strong words that he would not lift a finger to support a film with the misleading title "Russia Today". "The Soviet Union is not Russia and Russia is not the Soviet Union".

Azerbaijan the oldest oil producing region in the World

Female workers on the Balakhany oil fields, Baku, Azerbaijan
Balakhany oil fields, Baku, Azerbaijan

Baku, the largest city in Azerbaijan, is located below sea level and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site . The city has natural scenic landmarks and an oil industry that dates back many centuries. In the south of the Absheron Peninsula lies Baku, a city that has traditionally been the " link " connecting Asia with Europe. Over many centuries, the trade routes of the Great Silk Road crossed Azerbaijan.

In addition, there was the eternal rivalry between the various authorities and organisations. In Baku, it took patient visits and the support of a film ministry official rushed in from Moscow to get permission to photograph the oil fields.

A local trade union committee took offence at the fact that Bock-Schroeder was photographing the idyllic shacks with laundry. The union members protested to the oil ministry and the work had to be stopped.

Baku Oil Field Backyard
Oil Fields Baku

In 1636 Adam Oleary Elshleger (1603-1671), a German diplomat and traveler, gave description of 30 Baku oil wells and remarked that some of them were gushers.

The film was to be completed with production assistance from the Russians in the Moscow Central Studio for Documentary Film, including music, photographs and text recordings.

Young woman on Sochi beach
Sochi Beauty

Sochi became a popular resort for the aristocracy already in the tsarist period. After the Revolution, Vladimir Lenin approved the resort, the Soviet ruler declared the region accessible to the proletariat.

Section three of the contract provided: "Theme of the film is the objective reporting of the USSR, the work of the Soviet people, their everyday lives, their art, recreation and other aspects of social and cultural life."

Couple at Italian Filmweek, Moscow 1956
Serge Obraztov and Silvana Pampanini

Serge Obraztov (1901-1992) who established puppertry as an art form in the Soviet Union with Italian actress Silvana Pampanini (1925 -2016) during the Italian Filmweek, Moscow 1956

Bock-Schroeder's photographs show the differences and similarities between lifestyles in the east and the west of the late 1950's.

Backyard Moscow
Backyard, Moscow

While filming a Moscow backyard, one Russian film official addressed the Film Team with a glossy paper picture book of Hamburg, which he had brought with him: "There are no backyards here either, so why do you want to film backyards in the Soviet Union? This kind of realistic reporting is an insult to the Soviet people"

Potemkin apartment
"Potemkin apartment", Moscow

The Moscow Authorities resisted all attempts to an improvised visit to any apartment.

Instead, after weeks of effort, the Central Studio arranged the filming permit for the apartment of a Moscow architect, which stood out so advantageously from the standard homes that the DCF people termed it "Potemkin apartment".

The Soviet Red Army

Commemoration of a fallen Soviet soldier
Commemoration of a fallen Soviet soldier

Approximately ten million soldiers of the Red Army were killed or died as prisoners of war. In total, at least 24 million Soviet citizens lost their lives - due to the racial mania of National Socialist Germany. The Red Army was the official name for the majority of the armed forces of the Soviet Union.

Unseen Moscow 1956

The adventures of a West-German Photographer in Russia

In spite of the close supervision Peter Bock-Schroeder managed to avoid censorship most of the time. The silent click of his Rolleiflex twin lens camera helped him to work almost unnoticed from the authorities.

On the eve of his departure for West Berlin, Bock-Schroeder sewed most of the exposed film rolls into the hem of his trench coat and brought his oeuvre from Russia to West Berlin.

After his return to West Germany, Peter Bock-Schroeder received a surprise visit from the BND (Federal Intelligence Service). The gentlemen from the intelligence service of the Federal Republic of Germany wanted to know whether Bock-Schroeder had brought home "interesting" photographic material from the Soviet Union.

Bock-Schroeder denied this, after all he was a photographer and not a spy. The reasons why Bock-Schroeder had trafficked his pictures from Russia were purely personal. He considered his work to be his property.

Until today, the pictures from the 1956 USSR expedition by Peter Bock-Schroeder have never been publicly shown in context.

Soviet nostalgia in pictures

Bock-Schroeder's work describes the Soviet daily life in all its austerity and authenticity.

He witnessed solemn religious services and processions of the Orthodox Church, photographed the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and took part in sport events and mammoth military parades.

Ensemble of the Bolshoi Theater in review of a production
Yuri Fyodorovich Fayer and Sulamith Mikhailovna Messerer

Yuri Fyodorovich Fayer was a Soviet Jewish conductor, highly notable in ballet. He was the chief ballet conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre from 1923 to 1963. Sulamith Mikhailovna Messerer, was a Russian ballerina and choreographer who laid the foundations for the classical ballet in Japan.

Bock-Schroeder photographed people, the big cities, the historic buildings and gigantic construction sites.

Construction workers working together with the men on the large construction sites
Soviet construction workers

One of the most common images of the Soviet construction industry are the beautiful and emancipated female construction workers labouring together with the men on the large construction sites. Women in the Soviet Union not only represented women's rights, they were equal to men and often held increased leadership positions.

The exceptional pictures from the former Soviet Union were shot in Moscow, Kiev, Baku, the holy city of Etchmiadzin, Tashkent, Tbilisi, Leningrad, and Tallinn, and other places in the USSR.

Peter Bock-Schroeder in Russia

Peter Bock-Schroeder was amazed by the people of the Soviet Union.

He admired their culture, their friendly nature and their hospitality.

On his tour of the Soviet Union, Bock-Schroeder covered Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and Uzbekistan.

Book Cover The Soviets by Peter Bock-Schroeder

The sequence of 89 pictures in the exclusive fine art photography volume "The Soviets" builds on contextual, thematic, compositional, and factual aspects.

The 98-page publication connects extraordinary photographs by the very first West German photojournalist permitted to work in the former USSR, following the Second World War.

A first limited edition of the publication is scheduled to be released in October 2022.

Culture builds bridges

The Soviets Photo Book | 1st Edition

"The Soviets" by Peter Bock-Schroeder will be released in a first edition of 1,000 copies in October 2022

Young Russian Cadetts
Young Cadets

Soviet pictorial art photo collection.

Female worker on the oil fiields of Baku
Oil Fileds, Baku

In September 1956, photo reporter Peter Bock-Schroeder reaches Azerbaijan on his one-year journey through the Soviet Union.

Ballet Dancers with their teacher
Young Ballerinas

The Bolshoi Ballet and the Bolshoi Opera are considered the world's most traditional and famous ballet and opera companies.

Matvey Manizer working on Lenin Statue
Matvey Manizer 1956

From 1926 Manizer was a member of the "Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia", later known as the "Association of Artists of the Revolution".

Visitors of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow
Visitors of Pushkin Museum in Moscow

The Pushkin Museum's collection spans several centuries of art history

Related Articles

The Power of Photography

Photography captures the soul of the moment

see more | read more
Why collect photographs ?

A reference guide for collectors of art photography

see more | read more
Looking at photos

The era of the great masters of photography is over

see more | read more