The colossus that is the Soviet Union never ceases to fascinate the world's great photographers. The past decade has seen volumes by France's Henri Cartier-Bresson, Switzerland's Emil Schulthess, and the National Geographic.
Now come two more pictorial surveys of the USSR and its people. They are very different in tone and perspective, but each in its way can add to the public's appreciation of a diverse and complex society.
"Russia: The Land and People of the Soviet Union" is a collection of some 150 color photos by West German photographer Dieter Blum. In nine visits to the Soviet Union since 1977 Mr. Blum traveled more than 75,000 miles, from the Ukrainian plains in the west to the frozen tundra in the northeast. The magnificent photos, many taken from a helicopter (a vantage rarely allowed), capture the sweep and grandeur of the landscape, the splendor of ancient kremlins and churches, and the beauty and character of human faces.
It does not detract from Mr. Blum's artistry and sensitivity to note that this is a portrayal which Soviet officialdom is happy to present to the world. Mr. Blum was accompanied on all his journeys by Natalya Shemiatenkova, a guide from the Soviet press agency Novosti who also has written a commentary as well as the captions to the photographs. A text by Soviet geographer Nikolai Nikolaevich Mikhailov is an added official view of Soviet history, geography, and culture -- not with too many peccadilloes and warts, as one can imagine, but nonetheless with much useful information.
"Russia: From the Inside," by Robert G. Kaiser, a former American correspondent in Moscow, and Hannah Jopling Kaiser, offers far less in aesthetic enjoyment, perhaps, but considerably more in terms of insight into Soviet life. It brings together an unusual assortment of black and white photographs, mostly by native Russians who have since emigrated to the West. Together with a perceptive text by Mr. Kaiser, a Washington Post reporter, these works provide a glimpse "behind closed doors," as the author puts it, which contrasts markedly with the usual photographs taken by Westerners on Intourist-guided trips. Here, we see the USSR through the penetrating eye of "unofficial" Soviets, who know their society best.
Such everyday scenes as a checkup at a pediatric center, a Moscow courtyard, citizens scanning a housing bulletin board, a burial, a trial in a "people's court," a mass audience listening to poet Andrei Voznesensky, worshipers in a Baptist church, soldiers ringing a soccer stadium, workers building a road, show Soviet life as it really is -- portrayed, with compassion and humor, not malice. Mr. Kaiser's commentary, for its part, is a quick and deft course in the Soviet Union, touching on such aspects as schooling, marriage, religion, village life, and the country's political system.
Comments Natalya Shemiatenkova in the Blum book: "Soviet society has given the people optimism, decisiveness, and belief in the future."
To which Mr. Kaiser could have been responding when he observes: "In every category of importance, today's Soviet capabilities seem insufficient to meet tomorrow's challenges . . . . The Soviets have great advantages to exploit -- their country's natural wealth, the patriotism and patience of their citizens, and a great national history that has always provided inspiration for a better future. But the way ahead is neither clear not direct, and a lot can go wrong."
Both volumes make for compelling viewing.