Print Study Room: Mother Russia’s Daughters and Sons

‘Mother Russia’s Daughters and Sons: Gender in Russian History and Politics,’ a Scribner Seminar with Professor of Political Science and Director of the Gender Studies Program Kate Graney

Students in this first-year seminar spent the semester examining how both famous Russians (such as Catherine the Great and Vladimir Putin) and normal Russian citizens are shaped by understandings of femininity and masculinity, and by other important historical forces, such as ideology and great power rivalry. The class paid special attention to the influence of both spiritual and visual culture on the development of Russian political history and gender norms, and in addition to their visit to the Tang Museum, took a field trip to the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts to deepen their understanding of how images of Mary, the Mother of God, have formed and continue to influence Russian culture and society.


Students researched photographs from the Tang collection that represent three important moments in Russia’s Soviet history: the 1930s, when avant-garde artistic ventures gave way to the political, economic and artistic imperatives of Stalin’s “Revolution from Above”; the 1940s, when Soviet Russia was attempting both to celebrate its great victory in the Second World War, and to reckon with its great losses; and the 1950s and 1960s, when the Soviets found themselves in a new Cold War with the United States. Students collaborated in pairs to enrich the Tang Museum’s collection catalog by producing extended label copy for each photograph, which we are happy to share with you below.

Black and white photograph of an abstract building structure with Russian signage, possibly in a park with people walking around it.
Unrecorded artist, title unknown, 1931, gelatin silver print, 4 ⅜ x 3 ⅜ inches, The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum, 2015.1.60
Caroline Brown ’25 and Emma Weitzman ’25
During the early decades of the Soviet Era in Russia, there existed a vision for a “new society”, based on the idea of radical communalism and increased opportunities for all people, which influenced all aspects of society, including architecture. In this photo, we see a savings association for miners and sailors built according to the Constructivist architectural model, which employed unique asymmetrical tropes, as displayed here. The Soviet government urged Constructivist architects to design buildings to encourage “new Soviet people” to feel that they were part of a new, modern and prosperous society. Under Stalin’s new “industrialized” society, miners and other laborers had a particularly high status, and thus deserved innovative distinctive state institutions to serve them. The photo is a valuable example of the architectural style and social values that prevailed in the early 1930s in Soviet Russia.
Black and white photograph of three people standing amidst metal wheels in a factory-type setting.
Margaret Bourke-White, The New Tractor, Tractorstroi, Russia, 1930, gelatin silver print, 11 x 6 inches, The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum, 2018.38.165
Izzy Leonard ’25 and Emma Sellers ’25
Margaret Bourke-White was a professional American photographer whose work became famous in the US in the 1930s and 40s in publications such as Life magazine. This photo perfectly symbolizes Soviet Russia’s rapid industrialization process which took place under the leadership of Josef Stalin beginning in 1929. Russian leaders long knew they had to radically modernize the country’s industry and agriculture. But not until the rise of Josef Stalin did the national government possess both the will and means to do so rapidly and totally, if at brutal cost to the population. The woman depicted in the photo exemplifies the Stalinist-era’s call for “new Soviet women” to take up new trades and become active in the industrial labor force. They would do so in large numbers, despite the fact that Stalin’s industrialization drive never to provided women with leadership or advancement opportunities equal to those available to men.
Black and white photograph of a two-story room filled with complex technical equipment containing lots of wires and lights.
Dmitri Baltermants, Workers control the circuit room, n.d., printed in 2003, gelatin silver print, 16 x 19 ⅞, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of M. Robin Krasny in honor of Ilya Gronuist Sukman, 2020.29.44
Sydney Borak ’25 and Will Moyer Laurin ’25
This image displays a complex circuit room of unknown purpose; it is possibly a telephone exchange or massive computer mainframe. Three of the four workers portrayed in the image are women, and the central character of the picture is a woman busy at work in a lab coat. During the Soviet era, women made up a significant portion of technical engineers and scientists in Russia. The photo is likely from the late 1930s, the era of the establishment of the Soviet Creative Conference of Women Scientists. The photographer, Dmitri Baltermants, worked for numerous Soviet government-sponsored newspapers throughout the 1930s and WWII. His photography was used domestically by the Soviets to highlight the country’s status as a modern, technologically-advanced communist superpower, and was intended to be seen by both the Russian people and the rest of the world.
Black and white photograph of a man wearing military uniform holding a gun and posing with his hand on his hip, with a sculpture of a man in a suit of armor in the background.
Dmitri Baltermants, The Victor (Soviet soldier mimicking Teutonic statue), 1945, printed in 2003, gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of M. Robin Krasny in honor of Ilya Gronuist Sukman, 2020.29.39
Grace Grbach ’25 and Chanzlah Julien ’25
This photograph was taken in Berlin by Dmitri Baltermants, a Soviet photographer and self-proclaimed virtuoso of staged photography, shortly after Soviet Russia had emerged victorious in the Battle of Berlin. It conveys the theme of Soviet heroism, which is present in much of Baltermants’ work. The star-shaped medal worn by “The Victor” represents the heroism and bravery of those who served the Soviet state in the war and conveys the image of the Soviet Union as a strong, advanced, and, crucially, victorious country.
Inverse black and white photograph with large statue in foreground of muscular man holding a gun and a large statue in the background of woman yielding a sword.
Dmitri Baltermants, Mamayev’s Memorial (Victory Memorial in Stalingrad), 1969, gelatin silver print, 7 ½ x 11 ½ inches, The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum, 2020.31.216
Bridget Coyer ’25 and Molly Abramowitz ’25
Pictured here is a memorial to the famous World War Two Battle of Stalingrad called Mamayev Kurgan (The Motherland Calls), located in the Russian city of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). The foreground of the photo shows a man holding a gun; he represents the idealized, virtually superhuman, Russian worker and soldier. The female statue in the background is named Rodina-Mat and is the largest free-standing sculpture in the world. She tells the story of Soviet Russia’s pain and ultimate triumph in the Battle of Stalingrad. The many people seen gathered around her memorialize the thousands of Russian soldiers slain in the battle and buried beneath her.
Black and white photograph of athletic men and women holding positions to create a human pyramid several stories high in the center of a packed amphitheater full of people.
Lev Borodulin, Pyramid, Moscow, 1954, gelatin silver print, 15 ⅜ x 11 ¼ inches, The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum, 2018.38.23
Jamie Bostrup ’25 and Riley Machanic ’25
This photo of Soviet athletes was taken by photographer Lev Borodulin in Moscow in 1954. The Human Pyramid form was meant to symbolize the collective strength, energy and fitness of the Soviet Union after World War 2. The USSR wanted to show the world that it had survived the war without compromising its citizens’ physical fitness or teamwork standards. The oiled bodies, posed in front of a massive crowd, portrayed the ideals of Soviet citizenry, especially regarding femininity and masculinity; uniformity and symmetry is highly valued, and men and women participate equally and are displayed on equal ground in this feat.
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