Valeriy Reshetnyak led a double life during the Soviet era. Officially, he was an engineer in Kyiv. But in his spare time, he photographed ordinary people in the Soviet Union.
"None of my coworkers knew what I was doing. It was a kind of dissent,” says Reshetnyak.
He knew that his photos would not be printed or exhibited anywhere while the Soviet system was firmly in place.
“I naively thought that one day people would look at my photos and reflect on their lives, but I was wrong," Reshetnyak says.
Reshetnyak’s work wasn’t published until perestroika in the late 1980s when strict Soviet censorship of media and the arts began to loosen.
His photos have since been exhibited in Kyiv, Moscow, Denmark, and the United States. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Reshetnyak made photography his full-time job by shooting commercial assignments and teaching students.
In a recent interview with RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, Reshetnyak recalled the stories behind some of his best photographs shot between 1977 and 1990.
"A village teacher returning home from school in the Sumy Oblast. I also went to school like this. There were no streetlights, so we used a flashlight to find our way in the dark. But there weren’t always batteries, so sometimes we would have to strike a match, then shelter it from the wind with our sleeves. This road still looks the same today; there aren’t enough people in the village to justify an upgrade.”
“On the left is the 'elite' passenger transport. Only the head of the collective farm or local Communist Party 'princes' could ride in such sledges. Ordinary people were only allowed to use the sleds at critical moments like carrying a patient to the hospital. In winter, there was no other transport except sledges. Most of the roads were covered in ice and snow. On the right is a woman with canisters full of kerosene on an old sled. She had gone to the store to buy fuel for her kerosene lamps.”
“Donbas. When we entered this huge factory, suddenly this figure emerged out of nowhere in a gray quilted jacket and tarpaulin boots. It gave me the feeling that the factory was operated by slaves.”
"Children were constantly prepared for war -- this was the basis of Soviet ideological education. There were very few ordinary toys, but a lot of military ones. If you look closely, in addition to the machine gun on the left, you can also see a toy armored personnel carrier."
“‘Bread is king,’ they said in the Soviet Union. All of the people in this photo apparently survived the famine of 1932-33. During the Soviet era, the Holodomor was spoken about only among one’s closest companions. My father and a colleague told me how they were almost killed and eaten by a local cannibal.”
“This is an ordinary cart that carried all kinds of loads. When it was used for bread they just threw a tarpaulin down and dumped loaves into it, however dirty the cart was. But at that time, nobody cared.”
“In the mid-1960s, the peasants almost stopped baking bread. In this village, the local bakery was also shut down. So bread was brought in from elsewhere. The truck delivered to a shop on a paved road, then the bread was loaded onto a cart with horses, or in the winter on a sleigh, to be taken to other shops scattered around the village where the truck couldn’t reach."
“A father with his two sons and wife. The lives of village women were harsher than that of men. Both the responsibilities of the household, and for the work in the fields, lay on the women’s shoulders.”
“The last inhabitants of a ‘liquidated’ village in Belarus. Sometimes the Soviet authorities relocated the inhabitants of villages deemed no longer worth maintaining. This family did not want to leave their ‘unpromising’ village. They wanted to die where they were born.”
"Occasionally, guests came to visit the Belarusian villager (right) in his forsaken home. For example, this childhood friend brought him cheap but powerful Soviet wine. The taste was awful. But it went straight to your head."
“The children in the village wanted to escape to the city as soon as possible. They saw the battered hands of their parents, and they already knew what hard work was. But by 1974, it was almost impossible to leave the village because the peasants were not given travel passes. It was like slavery. Even to go to the city on business, you had to get a special pass. So it was necessary to know the right people who could pull some strings just for the children to get a travel pass. Everyone who managed to escape from the village mostly ended up in dormitories.”
“Dormitory No. 5 in Kyiv. Most of the workers came from villages and didn’t have their own housing. Soviet organizations built cheap housing for them: A long corridor, rooms with four to six beds in each, one shared kitchen, and a toilet on every floor. There’s only one shower -- on the ground floor or in the basement. Although this housing was temporary, most people during perestroika didn’t have time to get public apartments and had no choice but to live in dormitories for the long-term.”
“The little boy in this photo is now all grown up and still lives in this same dormitory room along with his wife and a child. His mother and sister live next door. The soup-eating father left the family for another woman.”
“Locals waiting outside a government office in Lviv for a ‘reception’ with local officials. These people arrived long before the scheduled time in the hope they could catch the ear of someone who could help with their problems. But even with such patience, most people left the meetings empty-handed.”
“In the U.S.S.R., most products for ordinary citizens were in short supply. To get your hands on scarce items, you had to know the right people. But miracles happened before public holidays. The rarest products were sold from the ‘back door’ of shops. Scuffles often broke out in the long queues when some clever fellow tried to cut the line.”
“Late perestroika. The Kyiv Fashion House hosted a fashion show for a single American ‘businessman’ -- the balding man in the center. They put themselves at his service and opened every door for him. But it later emerged that the American was just some ‘philosopher’ and former hippie.”
More photos by Valeriy Reshetnyak can be found here.