• Olga Bubich

Galina Moskaleva and Vladimir Shakhlevich: a series of photographs Madhouse (Durdom), 1991–1992


An essay by on a controversial series of photographs/document Madhouse (Durdom), taken by Galina Moskaleva and Vladimir Shakhlevich in a historical turning point: the period of liquidation of the USSR and proclamation of independent Belarus. By means of creating a collage, the artists compare the image and energy of the rally in Minsk on November 7, 1991 with children-patients in the mental house in Novinki.

© A double-page spread with works from the Madhouse series. "New wave. Belarusian photography of 1990s" album from pARTisan Collection series, 2014

Madhouse of the 1990s – the paradoxes of "new thinking"

"God forbid you live in an era of change"


The cultural phenomenon of the will undoubtedly be in the center of many research on Belarusian identity in an extremely meaningful for the country period of time – the Perestroika – late 1980s – early 1990s. The name itself was introduced by the Finnish critic Hannu Eerikainen after he got acquainted with collections of photographs by Minsk authors created in the troubled times of the Perestroika. Today it’s hard to identify the common tone of the mood in those times. Some speak about joy and endless energy, optimism and hope caused by Mikhail Gorbachev’s appeals for the ′new thinking′, others recall anxiety, fear of unknown, which was associated with the possibility of appearing of irreplaceable yawning emptiness on the ruins of a former unshakable power, the stronghold of peace and stability. The works of Belarusian photographers, who were talented and thinking young people, were sincere and truthful witnesses of the deepest paradox of the epoch, who united in the late 1990s on the bases of a number of photo studios for students and creative groups, among which we can mention the studio of the photo club , the groups , , , .

The informal creative union Provintsiya in Minsk mainly consisting of students was one of the most dynamic and experimental platforms. According to the members, Valeriy himself introduced young photographs to the spectrum of all possible artistic tools, which allowed them to strengthen conceptual ideas of photographs visually. The series created by Provintsiya alumni at that time, according to the opinion of the art-critic , raised Belarus to a decent level in the world’s art in 1990s.

Photo of the exposition of the personal exhibition of Galina Moskaleva and Vladimir Shakhlevich Personal History of Photographs, Museum of the History of Photography, St. Petersburg, 2006

Young photographers from Minsk took part in a European Project (Helsinki–Stockholm–Odense, 1988–1989), (Copenhagen, 1990). A big exhibition in Moscow Cinema Center (1991) was a significant event for Belarusian photography, after which the American Project (1991) became possible. After that the exhibition and the seminar organized by The Gallery of Contemporary Art, Sacred Heart University (Fairfield, CT, USA) in 1994 and the gallery Akus in Eastern Connecticut State University (Willimantic, CT, USA), the exhibitions (Sopot, Poland), (ifa-Galerie, Berlin, Germany) followed. The authors, whose works were constantly included in exhibitions by western curators, were , , , and .

When 10 years had passed since the Chernobyl disaster, Galina Moskaleva and Sergey Kozhemyakin, Vladimir Shakhlevich and Igor Savchenko created a big project , which was curated by the director of Goethe Institute – . This project was presented at several European photo biennials in Saint-Petersburg (1996), Bratislava (1997), Rotterdam (2000), where there were also publications about the project and the group from Belarus in catalogs.

Galina points out that even decades after interest to Belarusian photography of 1990s hasn’t lessened. In 2008, when the authors were already living in different places, they were still found and invited to take part in group exhibitions in Fries Museum (the Netherlands) has become one of such projects.

Thanks to significant exhibitions abroad, some important books were published, among which it is obligatorily to highlight (Toisinnakijat) by the Finnish researchers Т. Еskola & Н. Ееrikajnen (1989) and , published by the gallery Walker, Ursitti & McGinnis (1991), where Belarusian photography was emphasized.

The works by photographers from Minsk are now parts of collections abroad. The biggest one consists of several tens of works and is kept in the Museum of Photography in Odense (Denmark), as well as in the photographic department of the Royal Library in Copenhagen.

Having caused such fuss in Europe, the phenomenon of Minsk school of creative photography nevertheless to a bigger extent was left unnoticed and underappreciated in Belarus, which seems astounding and truly unexplainable. A catalogue of the works by the representatives of this movement was published on the motherland for the first time in an album included in the series only in 2014, 30 years after they had festively marched through galleries of modern art all over the world. Moreover, the initiative was not taken by the authorities, but by persons from the world of art: Belarusian artist has become the author of the project on the creation of encyclopedic visual alphabet.

Acquisition of personal memory happens with a part of traumatism: while looking at glassy pages with black-and-white pictures you feel like at a meeting with a psychologist. You recognize the inside of ordinary ′almost-not-soviet-anymore′ people’s lives, but you are surprised at the same time. The sight, like a not-oiled cogwheel, immediately clings and becomes stuck in uncomfortable, colored by hand collages of Galiva Moskaleva and Vladimir Shkhlevich with a frightening name , which drop out of today’s images of the last years of the USSR. There are two worlds in the works, divided in two sectors, two universes, which merge in a paradoxical alloy: street rally in 1991 and the portraits of patients of the mental house in Novinki.

Rally on the occasion of November 7, 1991 was held in the Belarusian capital in one of the central park – Gorky Park, which is now a quiet place. Young couples and families with small children take fancy to stroll there. The photographs were taken two weeks before the USSR break-up by Vladimir Shakhlevich, who looks back on that day as a period of time, which fixed expectations of cardinal changes.

″Year 1991… That was the year, when the power changed, when the form of ownership changed. People, who had grown up and been brought up in one system, had to, conditionally, transform themselves, change the way of thinking from collective to individual. It was extremely difficult, almost impossible. Through catharsis, incomprehension, not accepting the reality. Many people ′went mad′; they were in a ′border state′. The search of enemies started… ′Judas Rules′ was written on the placards they were carrying″.

© Vladimir Shakhlevich, rally in Minsk, November 7, 1991

The second co-author of the series points Galina Moskaleva out that the Perestroika time with the slogans about the ′new thinking′ was manageable for few citizens of the country that was breaking up: ″Many people who couldn’t cope with the new thinking just went mad. These were elderly people mainly, who didn’t have enough strength to refuse to the values of the past″.

The motif of insanity, which was visually fixated on the faces of those who came to the rally, unexpectedly seemed accordant to the pictures of mentally ill patients to the photographers. Galina Moskaleva would visit the mental house by order of Belarusian Television and Radio Broadcasting Company to shoot patients in a year.

Galina Moskaleva recalls: ″While working in a studio, I saw and felt the similarity of these two series of photographs. I was startled by actions of ill children, who were called exuberant in the mental house. Those miserable children felt constant fury, anger and hatred and rushed on the imaginary. While I was looking at the pictures, I remembered that I had already seen all those movements, that hatred, anger and aggression, but in the real world, during the rally. Then I began to group photographs according to movements, expressions, gestures, and that was the way the collages were created. Vladimir noticed the same and painted them. The series was completed″.

© Galina Moskaleva and Vladimir Shakhlevich, all the pictures from Madhouse series, 1991-1992

This way the idea of a joint series, which was completed of two photo series not connected to each other, appeared as a reaction to an unexpected illumination. Restless, distorted by unconscious emotions and fears faces of the patients from the mental hospital, which Galina and Vladimir visited not once, have become that powerful symbol, which has turned out to be able to convey the substance of the mood of the whole nation right before the Perestroika. Vladimir Shakhlevich comments: ″The patients of the mental house are like children, who live in their own world and are not able to blend in the present-day society, who stand on the other side of the reality, and the rally of indignant people, who were trying to get through to the new power to tell them something of importance to themselves. It turned out that both had the same eye expressions, the same reaction″.

However, in the context when people, most of whose lives was spent in the USSR, felt fear and despair of the imminent changes, the younger generation was full of energy. Recalling the late 1980s – the early 1990s Galina Moskaleva first of all associates this time with youth, love, joy of creativity. It is well-known that in 1987–1988 serious corrections were introduced to the ideological priorities by Michael Gorbachev. The leader of the USSR offered the world a so-called ′new political mindset′, which implied the refusal to ideological confrontation of the bipolar world, peaceful mediation of international conflicts, as well as wide economic and political cooperation without ideological constraints. Naturally, youth met such changes with optimism.

The Soviet regime bulged at the seams. We wanted to see freedom and democracy in front of us. Young artist perceived changes with a huge interest, not fear. There was nothing to be afraid of, in fact, as Michael Gorbachev himself called upon the ′new thinking′!″ – tells Galina Moskaleva.

© Galina Moskaleva, Informal People series (1989)

Visual documentation of this side of the epoch one can also find in another series of a photographer from Minsk by an ironic, but a very precise name (1989). It is well-known that in the USSR time dress-code played a big role in broadcasting the cultural identity of a Soviet citizen of any age. It is not an exaggeration to point out that uniform appeared in a life of a person at a very early age. School uniform consisted of black-and-white aprons; suits were for boys; pioneer’s ties. Entering a university didn’t mean freedom of expression by means of appearance. For example, there’s a well-known story told by a teacher from Minsk State Linguistic University, who recalled how the Dean of one of the faculties came to lectures to control use of make up by young female students. The faces of those of them, who applied lipstick, were washed by force, and those young students were put to shame.

The epoch of changes and destruction of the Soviet regime opened doors of their own wardrobes for the youth. Opposing to the obsolete uniform, clothes, makeup and hairstyle were viewed as the most powerful marker of self-expression. Galina Moskaleva fixates precisely this socio-cultural phenomenon in her Informal People series. The series includes a number of colored portraits of the first informal youth, artist and poets – the creative elite that appeared in the streets of Minsk during the first years of the Perestroika. While looking at the pictures of young men and ladies who are dressed defiantly, one starts to understand the mood, about which Galina Moskaleva is telling. It seems that youth in hunger for freedom were striving to stand out from the crowd of proper Soviet comrades by everything in their appearance. There is invariably a motif of purposeful disharmony, contradiction, willingness to go beyond the borders of the image of ′formal′ in clothes, hairstyles, accessories, which is a stereotype imposed from without. If a lady wears earrings, they will obligatorily be from different pairs. If we talk about hairstyles, they are either carelessly arranged hair, or crew cuts even among women with an elegant Indian curl in the middle of a forehead. The sight catches accessories: the spot on a chest where there should traditionally be a Komsomol badge is occupied by a tender cloth heart in the same photograph, where there are decorative stars, which have lost their usual reference and which neighbor pacific pendant in another picture. They all come across as peculiar ′punctums′ of Bart. Everything screams about simplicity, freedom, willingness to disagree with habitual, provocation.

© Vladimir Shakhlevich and Galina Moskaleva, 1989

It is interesting that judging by its form the Informal People series looks like a reporting shooting. The youth in the pictures is captured in natural surroundings: dancing, smoke breaks, talks. Nevertheless uniting the pictures in a series with an ironic tag of an actual and the only subcultural group of that time and further color post-processing of the frames leads the pictures beyond the meaning of a document. It seems that even a photograph in the ′time of changes′ ceases to be a merely dry (black-and-white) fixation of the reality.  It becomes an art-object, where both pictures themselves and the authors become colored. Galina recalls with a smile, describing one of the photographs from the family archive: ″The picture, in which Vladimir’s face is colored, was taken in our studio. It’s because we colored everything at that time, ourselves as well!″.

One more immediate active participant of Minsk school of creative photography, the founder of the Belarusian Climate art-group tells the magazine in an interview: ″One should never leave such a thing as the strife for freedom out of account! At the end of 1980s, the whole world was young! Everything turned upside down! You lived 17 years in ′sovok′ and then in no time find yourself in ultimate freedom and feel its influence in full measure! […] From poverty we came to more severe poverty, when everything ended. There was no butter, sausage, vodka, cigarettes. But we were free! We enjoyed it and got addicted to it like to a drug, which not only intoxicated us, but also made us mutate″.

However, the ′new thinking′ of Gorbachev, while changed international relations to the better and lowered tension in the world, coincided with economic crisis in the USSR, which was caused by a number of miscalculations of the Soviet government. The new political thinking benefited most probably the West, the authority of the USSR in the world lowered significantly. Subsequently it became one of the reasons for the breakup of the great Soviet state.

Inspiration caused by changes and joyful confidence in participation in the coming new world are to some extent can be marked out as prerequisites, which caused such an acute reaction of Galina Moskaleva to a head-on collision with the hyperbolized reality of the mental house, where she took pictures. Uncontrollable emotions of mentally ill people as if displayed the inside to her having demonstrated a different perception of an actual historic period, when not joy, but pain was the prevailing feeling.

″I was amazed by one child in the mental house, who looked like he was 8 months old, but who actually was 30. He had been suffering all the time, but when he saw a camera, he burst out laughing, and it turned out that he had big yellow teeth. Another boy was screaming, attempting to fight, teach and was pointing with his finger all the time. Watching their anger and hatred, which are truly terrible feelings, I felt pain″, – Galina recalls the first shooting in the hospital.

© Galina Moskaleva and Vladimir Shakhlevich, some of the pictures taken in 1992 in Novinki

The issue which visual approaches will allow to convey the discrepancy of the transitional period more precisely was resolved by the photographer Vladimir Shakhlevich, who was in charge of the technical side of the Madhouse series. While calling Galina the think tank, Vladimir describes the reasons and the conceptual particulars, which became the basis for the final presentation of the project in the way it exists now. The photographer thinks that the approach of collage in particular to the biggest extent allowed the authors to convey the sense of the whole series, because the conceptual substance (conceptual ′kitchen′) of this technique itself allows to compare two realities, which made Soviet people hostages in the late 1990s.

"We compare two realities or ′irrealities′ in the Madhouse series, which correspond with each other by gestures, glances, reactions, and these two halves become identical to each other. The lower ′normal′ image by touching the higher ′abnormal′ image along the middle border of a sheet as if transmits its energy. Upward movement occurs″, – Vladimir tells.

© Galina Moskaleva and Vladimir Shakhlevich, the first personal exhibition in Minsk at Trade Union House, 1992

While speaking of the formal side of the work on the series, the photographer specifies that the collages themselves were created in a dark room with the help of a magnifier, i.e. two negatives were directly exposed on photographic paper. By means of this, they managed to end up with single images, not fabricated ones. Vladimir Shakhlevich describes the approach realized in the Madhouse series as labor-intensive technique, as a result by the trial-and-error method good imprints were chosen. ″In the upshot, each imprint is single and unique. It is impossible to reproduce it in printing″, – the photographer sums up.

It is important to note that the representatives of Minsk school of creative photography have resorted to the method of collage not once. Conceptual combination of several images can be seen in the series of Belarusian photographers such as by (1987), by Galina Moskaleva (1991–1992, 1993), by Sergey Kozhemyakin (1992), by Vladimir Shakhlevich (1996). However, the semantic capacity of the method cardinally differed from the messages implied in photomontage in the works of their predecessors.

It’s well-known that first collages appeared in the middle of the 19th century in the works of the Englishmen – David Hill, Robert Adamson and Oscar Gustave Rejlander. But it gained special popularity in the USSR. Soviet avant-garde artist Gustav Klutsis called it ′a new method of propaganda art′. The popularity of the collage was constantly growing, turning it into the most wide-spread form of artistic expression of Soviet constructivists Aleksander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Sergei Senkin and the other members of their circle.

Artists of the beginning of the century were attracted to the photomontage technique because of its political and agitation potential, freedom for visual solutions and the intensity of the influence on a viewer. However, in the series of Minsk creative photography school reasons for turning to the collage may differ. The fragmented and mosaic structure of a picture is strikingly absurd and often ominously chaotic. Images shown to a viewer repel and frighten with unexpected metaphors, which were suggested for reflection by the authors.

In one of Vladimir Shakhlevich’s collages from the Echo of silence series, dedicated to the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster (Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station), the portrait of a sick child is combined with a fragment of the Orthodox icon. Visual patches, which were the result of the combination of two images, balance the status between a radiation-expoded child and the Christ’s child. They both seem to be innocent victims equally affected. The child’s huge uncomprehending eyes repeat reproach and fear in the eyes of the Mother of God. After examining the collage, there remains a powerful feeling of paradox, the irreality of two suddenly similar worlds, the absence of the possibility to give a clear definition of what is going on. Thus, the usage of the technique popular in the Soviet times by the photographers of the 1990s on the one hand, shows graphic succession, on the other hand, demonstrates the redefining of conceptual possibilities of montage, turning it to the tool remaining in the same cultural discourse but working in a new and different way.

© Vladimir Shakhlevich, colleges from the Echo of silence series, 1996

In addition to the photomontage, of the Madhouse series there is external red color; the flags in the hands of protesters are painted over with red color. The symbolism of the technique is obvious: we looking at the photos 30 years later and the photographers themselves traditionally associated red with the bygone Soviet era. Vladimir Shakhlevich, the author of the technique, tried to trigger a strong psychological effect, which was another reason for its usage. ″Red color conveys the fear of emotional experiences increasing one’s breathing and heart rates″, – he remarked.

As we can see, the Madhouse series is significant for the understanding and assessment of the visual heritage of Belarusian photography the late 1980s – the early 1990s. The authors, who at that time were young photo experimenters, managed not only to capture the crucial events unfolding around them, but also to convey deep emotions, experiences and concerns, the paradox between the thirst for the freedom and the fear of total loss of the coordinates. In order to realize their idea, the authors worked with a powerful metaphor of a mental asylum, which attained frightening dimensions. It covered the outlines of the whole country with madness and aggression directed to nowhere.

Galina Moskaleva and Vladimir Shakhlevich went beyond the traditional photo presentation: the usage of a collage and conceptual coloring allowed to rank the photographers among contemporary artists, and the Madhouse series itself with a contemporary art object, an art document and the marker of ′the era of paradoxes′.

Work’s resume:

by and .


Period of creation:
1991–1992. The lower parts of the collages were taken by Vladimir Shakhlevich on November 7, 1991 in Minsk; the upper fragments, which are depicting mentally ill children, were taken by the creators in 1991–1992 in the mental house in Novinki (Minsk). The series was completed in 1992.

a series of photo collages. The collage: a colored (acryl) exposure of two negatives on photographic paper. Each imprint is single.

Quantity of pictures in the series:

23×30 cm each.

Present location of the work:
one full exemplar is located in the National Foundation for Contemporary Art FNAC (Paris), the others – in private collections.

Key exhibition:
personal exhibition Personal story of photos, Museum of Photographic History, Saint-Petersburg, 2006;
(work documentation shown), Arsenal Gallery in Bialystok (Poland).

Key publications:
magazine, issues 2–3, 2004;
The album New wave. Belarusian photography of 1990s from the series pARTisan Collection, 2014.



  • Olga Bubich
  • Karina Shlykova
  • Вера Багальянц
  • Artur Klinov
  • Igor Korzun
  • Vadim Kachan
  • Inna Reut
  • Valeriy Lobko
  • Vladimir Parfenok
  • Sergey Kozhemyakin
  • Igor Savchenko
  • Galina Moskaleva
  • Vladimir Shakhlevich
  • Belarusian Climate
  • META
  • Province
  • Moskaleva & Shakhlevich
  • Panorama
  • Minsk (photo club)
  • pARTisan
  • pARTisan Collection