Moscow’s 800th birthday party in 1947: Robert Capa captures a poignant moment

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Women “celebrating” in Moscow 1947.

Slavic scholar Grisha Freidin is a child of Moscow – he and his family emigrated to the U.S. when he was teenager.  So that means he recalls the city’s 800th birthday party on September 7, 1947.  “I remember playing with the colorful commemorative insignia (few things were colorful then) and hearing my parents, probably in answer to my questions, refer to the celebrations with uncharacteristic ebullience. Clearly it was a major landmark of the post-war years in Stalin’s Russia.”

The era’s most famous war photographer, Robert Capa, was on hand to document the event with John Steinbeck – and add a little nuance to the official party line of a a people looking inexorably forward to a glorious future.  Grisha looked up Capa’s photos, and has a compelling essay over at his blog, The Noise of Time:

And yet, whatever the restrictions, this war photographer was able to convey the atmosphere of the 1947 Moscow. Indeed, many images are composed to give expression to the wrenching tension between the ordinary folks’ desire to cash in a little of that great WWII victory – to ease gently into the long-deferred private life – and the unspoken command shouting at them from every poster: “Attention! To the Glory of the Empire, March!”

Capa’s and Steinbeck’s work were serialized in The New York Herald Tribune, later published as A Russian Journal, with Photographs by Robert Capa, a book which is still in print.  I’m not sure even Steinbeck could top Grisha’s observations on the photograph above.  From his blog:

Muscovite Grisha

The woman facing the camera is wearing a thick shawl and a heavy coat, the other is in a light dress, epitomizing the two sides of the Russian “Indian summer” and, perhaps also, the desire to use hope to trump the cold reality, for “it was a brilliant cold day,” as Steinbeck noted in his Journal. Both women are young and beautiful and strikingly dignified. But their faces suggest a more complicated story. The furrowed brow, the lines around the mouth, the alarm in the eyes of the woman facing the camera – what is behind them? And what about her dancing partner? Alone in the frame in a white flowery dress, her hair beautifully arranged, but her gaze is fixed on a point in infinity and her  profile is frozen into a classical tragic mask. Her right arm, bare and vulnerable, is gracefully stretched out, and the slight curve of her back is protected by the hand of her partner, apparently, stronger and more practically dressed. The tension is palpable. Were the music to stop at that moment, one of them and perhaps both would hunch over and burst out crying. To make sure your are not imagining all of this emotional dynamite, you check their expressions and posture against the other two female couples in the background: they, too, look tentative, dispirited, and forlorn, though lacking in grace and dignity compared to the couple in the foreground. The out-of-focus smiling faces to the right of the dancers only amplify the grotesque contrast between the intended mood of the festivities and the pain of the city’s post-war life. So much sadness fills this instant captured by Capa that it can never be effaced or redeemed.

Read the rest of Grisha’s post, which includes a dicussion of Henri Cartier-Bresson‘s photos of the city a few years later, is here.

“So much sadness … can never be effaced or redeemed.”


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