Evacuation of wounded soldiers transported by dogs. Seelow Heights, Germany. April 1945
When World War II Soviet photos are concerned, most of us probably think about Yevgeny Khaldei’s iconic photos, even if we do not remember the name of the photographer, as since 1948, when he was set aside, his photos have been published without name again and over again. The people of Moscow on the street listening to the announcement of the war, the reindeer with the (retouched) bombers flying over it, the soldier (with two watches on his arms) pinning the victory flag on the Reichstag, the Russian soldier girls steering traffic with a smile in the ruined road junctions provided with Cyrillic road signs, the Jewish couple with yellow star on the Budapest street, the German trophies on the Moscow parade in June 1945.
Sure, many professionals and amateurs shot photos in the war, on both sides of the front. The pictures, however, after losing their actuality, were mostly forgotten. Only in recent decades they come again to light from bequests en masse, and cast an unexpected new light on the history which has been frozen in iconic images in the collective memory. We have already written about such examples from German and Hungarian photographers. And, a few days ago, a similar bequest came to light in the former Soviet Union, where, we could have been thought, all war relics have already become public property.
The Ukrainian photographer Arthur Bondar has spent years by documenting the Ukrainian and Russian generation of veterans. He has known all war photo albums and publications. This is why he was surprised when, this August, the bequest of a professional war photojournalist, Valery Faminsky was offered him for sale via Facebook. Bondar had never heard about Fominsky.
“Looking through the negatives, I realized what a unique history I hold in my hands, a history no one has seen before. Most well-known Soviet war photos were made for propaganda, for praising the victories of the Red Army, and they were often staged. Faminsky’s photos show the price of the war measured in victims, and the lives of ordinary people on both sides of the front.”
The family requested a high price for the carefully cataloged collection. Previously they tried to sell it to public collections, but they could only take it over for free: in Russia there is no state budget to enrich public museums. Fortunately, Bondar just had enough money from last year’s highly successful Тени звезды Полынь (Wormwood Star’s Shadow), his photo album on Chernobyl. “I immediately began to scan the negatives”, he writes in his article of the day before yesterday, “and the more pictures I scanned, the higher I appreciated this unique witness of our history.”
Valery Faminsky dictated his two-page biography to his children shortly before his death. He was born in 1914 in Moscow. Both of his parents fought in the Red Army from 1918 until the end of the war. He worked in a photo studio from teenager’s age, then he became the photographer of the Red Army’s Military Medical Museum in Moscow. In 1941 he was sent to the Belarusian front to document the hospital care of the wounded soldiers. Then he traveled over the Crimea, Poland and Germany, and finally Berlin. The pictures so far scanned by Arthur Bondar also mainly display hospitals and wounded soldiers. But not only them. Also escaping German families, exhausted prisoners of war, destroyed cities, civilians struggling for everyday survival. Untold suffering and sufferers on both sides, without any pathos and propaganda.
Bondar was somewhat mistaken. Faminsky is not completely unknown. Seven of his photos seem to have been already published, because they can be found on the site Военный альбом (War album), dedicated to the photos of WWII, and three of them are even identical with those already scanned by Bondar. But only the three dozen of pictures hitherto published by him show, how different was the picture he conveyed about the war, “the boys” and the enemy from what the age expected, and this explains why we do not know more pictures from him. We hope that, from the courtesy of Arthur Bondar, we can learn more of them.