Soviet Ghosts by Rebecca Litchfield (2014, Carpet Bombing Culture) is a photo book, a history book, a book about urban exploration, and a book about the ghosts of history. It captures the small-scale apocalypses happening all around us: buildings falling into decay, the forgotten decadence of an artful mosaic, the remnants left behind by nuclear disaster. It is ruin porn with conscience, an attempt to capture decomposing histories that will otherwise be forgotten.
While traveling through the remains of the Soviet empire, Litchfield was interrogated by soldiers convinced she was a spy, but otherwise able to explore the ruins of a very recent past unharmed. I was disappointed in how many of the East German sites were repeats featured in every urban exploration photo project ever, but otherwise in love with her photos. The empty bathtub in a room whose swollen wood floor has begun to buckle, the hallway whose paint hangs wetly from the ceiling like fungus, the empty cells of a strangely SFFinal prison.
I hadn’t expected as much text as the book contained and was happy to find it historically rather than romantically focused. The context Litchfield provides gives the photos far more resonance than they could carry alone and propels them outside of the dubious areas of “dark tourism” and “ruin porn” and allows them to become significant historical documents with an immense emotional charge.
Particularly as I paged through the section featuring Chernobyl, I found myself inspired to return to the post-apocalyptic novels of the Cold War and to continue to examine the intersections of those fictions and the historical record. Non-fiction, it seems, is the perfect cure for post-apocalyptic genre fatigue, and in the new year I look forward to accompanying more of my apocalyptic reading with histories to keep the context fresh and my interest piqued.
“Alison Landsberg coined the term “prosthetic memory,” hinting metaphorically at the way the past might be grafted onto subsequent generations. For Landsberg, it is a position possibility, a means to create empathy for, and a productive attachment to the past, to prevent the stories from being lost, the ghosts from fading away.”
Seven out of seven sevens.