Through Glasnost and Perestroika, reforms ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev, the media—both foreign and domestic— was granted far more access than ever before to Soviet society. In light of his major commission from an established media outlet, Kitajima found the perfect salve for his concerns about undertaking such a monumental endeavor. Having been granted unparalleled access to people and places usually off-limits to regular citizens, USSR 1991 can be regarded as the final photographic archive and overview of Soviet life. Throughout the process, Kitajima’s camera was omnivorous, digesting society as he saw it. KGB mandarins sit cheek by jowl with pop singers, artists alongside activists, peasants next to politicians.
While Kitajima’s is often known for its high contrast black and white photography, USSR 1991 differs greatly as it was photographed with the now defunct Kodacrome slide film, and offers a stunning, painterly account of his travels. Kitajima’s artfulness is ever present—this is not formulaic documentarian photography, or front line correspondence from a hard-boiled photojournalist. Here there are hard shadows from flash bulbs and a vivid technicolor applied to a part of the world that was often perceived as dark, grey and grim. While there are de-rigeur ruins of industry, giant colorless stacks whose purpose is never clear from afar, they sit in stark contrast to vivid blue skies. Peasants in multicolor prints gaze to the distance, religious activists swathe their faces in bright red scarfs. It’s not all grim here either: fashion models pose in bikinis, teenagers sunbathe, and actors mug for the camera. USSR 1991 can, in some ways, be seen as an antecedent to August Sander’s People of the 20th Century (Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts). Here, Kitajima also captures a nation (or in this case, nations) and its people in a time of upheaval, all the while maintaining a level of open objectivity. With its images of protestors, dissidents, and obstructionists, hindsight reveals that USSR 1991 is an engrossing and encompassing portrait an empire unraveling at the seams.