The Ukrainian photographer Pavel Mirny has lived in Russia for years. When Russia attacked Ukraine, he weighed his options. Instead of leaving the aggressor’s country, he decided to stay, and to document how the Russian public experiences and handles this situation — which may not even be referred to as a «war». Mirny deliberately chose to use a toy camera. He prints his photos on thermal paper. Well-known to many as the medium of retail receipts, Mirny uses these unusual tools to illustrate the cost of war: Hundreds of thousands of lives. Truth. Trust. Security. The past. The future. And so much more.
Photographs — Pavel Mirny – 18.09.2023
It is the late summer of 2023. Time flies at a rapid speed. And it seems to me that people over here have long since forgotten how to engage in critical analysis, to compare facts, and to draw lessons from our common history.
The war on Ukraine that broke out on February 24th, 2022, is in its second year. I remember well how it all started: On February 23rd, I became an eyewitness, watching Russian soldiers load tanks and howitzers onto train tracks. That very evening, I called my family in Ukraine for the last time during peace. The next day, the war was a reality. I don’t care if they call it a «special operation» over here.
I first heard the news early in the morning, while I was on the train. I woke up to Russian men excitedly discussing in the neighbouring section how soon they would be able to go for a swim in the Black Sea on the Odessa shore. I’m sure that they, like many people manipulated by Russian propaganda, were certain of an instant victory.
«I first heard the news early in the morning, while I was on the train. I woke up to Russian men excitedly discussing in the neighbouring section how soon they would be able to go for a swim in the Black Sea on the Odessa shore.» — Pavel Mirny
After I returned to my apartment in Moscow, I started calling all my friends who had stayed in Ukraine, offering any help I could. Some of them were done with me. Others thought of me as an enemy and a traitor. And I don't blame them. I am Ukrainian, but I have lived in Moscow for a decade. It is a strange feeling, not being considered a Ukrainian because you no longer live there, but also not being Russian because of your Ukrainian citizenship and background. You live like in limbo, between two worlds. At the same time, I suddenly found myself in the land of the aggressor who is attacking my home country.
During the first few months of the war, I was in complete shock. All I could think of was my family and friends being under fire. I tried to understand how this could all have happened. After all, no rational person would have expected the bombings of Ukrainian cities to become a reality.
First, I thought I would leave Russia and run away as far as possible, as most of my friends did. But once I got over the initial shock, I made up my mind and decided to stay. I had the idea of capturing this horrible moment of history and of keeping a record of what is happening over here. In this situation of confusion and uncertainty, I thought it was important to keep doing what I usually do. For me, as a photographer, that meant trying to capture a series of events in images in any way I can.
Since the beginning of the war, a maddening tension lingers in the Moscow air. An air of anxiety, dissonance, and uncertainty. Immediately after the invasion, the authorities started to police everything, even language. The words «war» and «peace» have disappeared from people’s vocabulary since then.
The system of power here is so strict that anyone protesting the war is arrested. Even something as seemingly simple as holding up a sign on the street with the eight asterisks *** ***** (“NO WAR”) is considered a criminal offence. But it is unlikely that you will see these protests on TV or read about them in the newspapers. Most of the journalists who wrote the truth about the war and the terror are gone.
As a result, people have stopped saying these basic words out loud. They try to hide their pain and anxiety behind a variety of euphemisms. Only rarely, in conversations in safe «kitchens» like in old Soviet times, people are a less careful. And sometimes, when I walk down a busy street and see «NO WAR» written on the wall, I realize I’m not alone.
Like in any country, there are good and bad, indifferent and sympathetic people here. But having lived in Russia long enough, I can see how much people have changed. It's stunning how, and how well, propaganda works. As it turns out, even some of my acquaintances have started using the words that are constantly repeated on TV: «Where have you been for the past eight years?» Or: «If we had not attacked them, they would have attacked us first,» and so on.
The height of absurdity was the annual Victory Day celebration in Moscow on May 9th, 2022. The main goal of the propaganda I saw there was, in my opinion, to combine the perception of the past with the present in ordinary people’s minds. And I believe that this manipulation worked in many cases.
The government likens the Nazism and fascism of the Great Patriotic War to the fight against Nazism and fascism in Ukraine today. The Russian authorities keep repeating World War II Nazi rhetoric. I had a feeling that in the fateful year of 2022, the war that ended 77 years ago and the one that started in February blended together to become the same event, forming one single memory field.
«I had a feeling that in the fateful year of 2022, the war that ended 77 years ago and the one that started in February blended together to become the same event, forming one single memory field.» — Pavel Mirny
It was particularly surreal that the city was plastered with flags and posters with WWII photos. During the «Immortal Regiment», a famous march commemorating the victory over the Nazis, people traditionally carry and hold up photos of their relatives who fought in the Great Patriotic War. The march has since been turned into another propaganda tool, through the display of the pictures of soldiers who died in Ukraine.
I watched the military parade on the Red Square that day with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and anger. It became absolutely clear that we were watching history being rewritten and twisted to correspond to modern events. And today, at a time when so many of my friends say that Putin stole their future, I can say with absolute certainty that he has now stolen our past as well.
The mobilization was announced in Russia on September 21st, 2022. I think it came as a complete surprise to many, even though I think of it as a logical sequence. I remember that day, and people’s faces, well: I drove through the centre of Moscow and saw how people finally realized what was going on. So many were deeply lost in their thoughts, waiting at bus stops or while they were on their way somewhere, using public transportation.
Women on their phones were speculating what would happen to their husbands and sons. At the same time, huge numbers of men, including those with families, started to leave the country in any way possible. Traffic jams lined long stretches of the borders. There, you could meet people of all walks of life: teachers, musicians, plumbers, managers, IT experts, and many others who did not want to go to war and support the current regime.
A driver who once took me to one of these borders told me that people have no say in going to war – especially in one of the Caucasus regions with the highest rate of fallen soldiers. His friend, a military helicopter pilot had seen action many times before. The driver remembered his friend’s eyes; how they were filled with horror after his first tour as he told him how they collected the dead soldiers’ bodies on their way back and then just piled the wounded soldiers on top. When they arrived at the base, the helicopter was literally bleeding.
You can’t trust anyone anymore these days. At this point, I always make sure to sit in the corner of a café to be sure nobody is spying on me behind my back, listening to my conversations, or watching my phone. You become entirely paranoid, little by little. But my guess is that that’s exactly what the government, in any way it can, wants to make those feel like who still try to resist.
«You become entirely paranoid, little by little. But my guess is that that’s exactly what the government, in any way it can, wants to make those feel like who still try to resist.» — Pavel Mirny
The biggest everyday trap are loans, offered across the country. The advertisements promise you to get approved for a loan in under fifteen minutes. But as soon as you sign, you’re on the hook: It’s impossible to leave the country if you have even a tiny balance. But because of the poverty rate and a labour shortage, people need to find that money, especially if their family lives in an apartment that they once bought with a loan. Some people have started paying off their loans with a new one. And that’s where they hit a dead end. It is yet another government tool to control the nation and force people onto the battlefield.
To me, what happens every day is so terrible that you need to be sympathetic even with those Russians who leave the country. After all, active non-participation in the war, leaving everything behind, including your home, also takes at least some courage. But don’t get me wrong: It does not even begin to compare to the courage demonstrated by the Ukrainian people every day.
And as for me? I’ll stay put for now. I don't know for how long. And I have no illusions that my photos will make any difference at all. But for now, being here, documenting what's going on, and capturing society’s state of mind in this particular moment seems worthwhile to me.
I hope that my photos allow access to anti-war graffiti and messages to all those who don’t find this critical information in the streets of their cities. I hope my work will help everyone in Russia who opposes the war understand that they are not alone. But the most important thing I need to say is that this monstrous war must end right now.
For this project, I deliberately chose a digital toy camera with poor resolution. I have no intention to create technically perfect pictures. I’m interested in documenting the reality that surrounds me. A toy camera as my tool of choice also allows me to put a spotlight on the experiences of children in this war: My images reflect a tradition of systematic involvement of future citizens in a militarist agenda from an early age.
I print all photographs on special thermal paper; the type of paper we all receive at checkout with any purchase. There is a lot of symbolism here: «Receipt tape» is a perfect metaphor for the colossal war budgets and the financial losses that war causes. But the truly indescribable loss and costs are the lives of hundreds of thousands of people dying in this war. The loss of peace, truth, trust, safety, and innocence, of past and future.
The printed images will slowly fade, just like our memory of this war one day probably will. But great pain will remain for generations.
This story is published under pseudonym for security reasons.
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