Return to the Russian Cultural Centre, Afghanistan – A Personal Reflection.
This is piece I wrote in August or September 2012, after returning to the Russian Cultural Centre for what I thought would be the last time. Rumours of its demolition had circulated for years, then suddenly intensified. I had to go back to say ‘goodbye’. I wrote this text for my own catharsis; what a half-decade had preceded them! During the shooting of Russians and Royals, Afghan Heroin Not for Export, A Tree Falls I had been accompanied by the words of a wonderful author, Sebastian Faulks and took pleasure from weaving in the titles of his two most epic novels. They belong here, because they had been with me there.
“Today I returned to the Russian Cultural Centre more than two years after completing a long-term photo documentary project there. Originally built to showcase Soviet cultural excellence during their 1979-1989 occupation, theatrical performances and art exhibitions were only its beginning. Since then it has become one of the city’s most potent symbols of change.
The same qualities that made it a much lauded example of ‘industrial design’ – soaring concrete and steel – made it a near perfect modern day fortress, as the country dissolved into civil war during the nineties. Badly damaged, but still standing (when much of Kabul was not), the complex entered its third life following the 2001 US invasion. Ironically – and this building defines the concept – it took several years of intensive western sponsored poppy eradication policy for this identity to emerge.
By 2005, hundreds of Afghan addicts and homeless men inhabited the complex, seeking refuge in subterranean passageways and lightless rooms. The sheer malevolence of the place ensured that few outsiders were willing to venture inside and, faced with such a large number of addicts, even the police were reluctant to interfere. Squalid, disease ridden, dangerous and isolated, it became a small community in its own right. Some men merely passed through in order to use drugs away from prying eyes, while for others the Russian Centre was their life, their home and their end. I grew to know many of these men over the years, until their eviction by the authorities in 2009. Some I saw elsewhere over the years, but most vanished into the urban sprawl, their fates unknown to me.
In times past, the main gate would have been held loosely closed by a heavy iron chain and proximity would trigger a jolt of protective adrenaline in anticipation of what lay within. I would have visited just before first light, while the neighbourhood police remained asleep and the addicts were able to go about their morning routine unmolested. There would be few witnesses when I slipped inside, the smell of fresh bread in my bag soon joined by smouldering rubbish, and the acrid stench of heroin smoke.
Today, late in the afternoon, a group of Pashtun men are huddled around the entrance gate waiting for a bus and a small boy reclines self-importantly on an old school chair, as if to guard the secrets contained therein. Walking quickly past, there is a familiar sense of crossing a threshold into the forbidden, with potential for surprise and danger, but it quickly and unceremoniously abates. The usual almost imperceptible indications of human habitation are absent. More doves than usual coo from within hollow spaces or peer out from twisted shell holes in the building’s fabric. The stark ‘cheeps’ of small birds somehow cross open ground more clearly than I remember, echoing off bare concrete walls. Where are the many dogs that chose to raise their litters in its innumerable recesses? I can see paths less trampled and where emptiness had always been deceptively implied, this time it is intuitively felt.
I recall the many visits here, spanning three years, in which I grew to know the complex better than any structure anywhere in the world, aside from my own home. I also knew the faces and the lives that gave this otherwise desolate place a thin, dark veneer of life. Today, spray paint and grazing sheep are slowly erasing those faint human traces.
Nature’s unsentimental reclamation of the site should have been cause for relief, but instead my feelings were only of sadness. The fate of the centre bears no relation to that of its inhabitants; indeed, following their eviction, I had photographed many of them living in far worse circumstances under the Puli Sokhta bridge and such a thing is not readily imagined.
Empty Russian-made rooms comprising of six sides have replaced two; mud flats flanking a small river beneath them and the underside of a road far above. The same men now live amongst the entrails of animals slaughtered above and pitched over the side between carriageways. Frozen earth, bitter wind and icy waters mark winter. For the rest of the year, clouds of flies coat living surfaces from dusk until dawn, drawing heat in anticipation of morning flight. Many of these men, Soviet-trained engineers, former businessmen and bright teenagers amongst them, will no longer be alive.
At the Russian Centre two years on, a thin film of dust seals in a past lost to the present. The familiar is there, yet gone – both theirs and mine. It speaks of lives passed, our memories rendered hollow without tangible proof of their existence; there just isn’t enough traction to allow these figments to be convincingly dragged back into any kind of reality, even a historical one. I think once again of Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’ and the incredible teacher, who introduced a reluctant class to his writing. Larkin speaks of the pain and frustration sometimes felt when looking over old photographs, where memories and feelings can lie tantalisingly close, yet utterly irretrievable.
I am mindful of the dramatic changes in my own life over the last few years and, bizarrely, the Russian Cultural Centre represents one of the few constants binding ‘then’ and ‘now.’ I have sometimes been reluctant to concede that important unresolved experiences, and people, have moved from present to past – a strong visual and emotional memory can blur the boundary between the two, much to my frustration. Often, the process requires an unforeseeable trigger to ease the transition. Thankfully I can say that in returning to ponder the difficult past of this place, its people and their future, I have ended up finding peace in my own. It seems time is marked only by uncertain progress, and birdsong”.
I actually wrote two final paragraphs. The second, which is less personal and more ‘political’, is below.
“A mile north of the Afghan Parliament, the Russian Cultural Centre’s stands untouched, serving as a macabre monument to the nation’s thirty-year history. Its recent drug-stained past may be slowly retreating from view, covered by dust and overshadowed by bright new construction, but 2014 fast approaches and uncertainty abounds. Against expectations, none of the rumours promising redevelopment of the site have materialised and so boys still play football on its dusty expanses while they can; one goal comprises of a large slab of concrete with an ominous concentration of bullet holes at chest height. Disconnected from wider change in Kabul, the Russian Centre remains suspended in time, as if awaiting the fate of the nation to be etched onto its walls or for its legacy to finally be at an end.”
While at the Russian Centre, I revisited a number of scenes that I’d photographed years before and took straight colour photographs with a view to contrasting them with short from Russians and Royals. Unfortunately, the files are in the UK and not currently accessible, but when I return I will post them for everyone to see.
As I worked my way back towards the front gate, I walked up the ramp shown in the photograph below and spent a few minutes marvelling at the ceiling.
A thought, that became an idea, burrowed into my head and by the time I had reached the waiting car, a new project – something completely different to what I’d done before – had taken hold. This was not something I wanted to shoot, but something I had to shoot – the result was Terrestrial Cosmos. After completion, I returned to the UK and by the time I was back in Kabul a few months later, at the end of 2012, the Russian Cultural Centre was gone. New concrete foundations and towers of fresh rebar were already standing in its place and development continues today. A bright green roofed building (identity unknown) is well underway and new apartment blocks have taken shape. 2014 has arrived and I wonder whether the site will continue to track the fortunes of the nation as a whole. We will see.
Each project I undertake is related to another, somehow. I cannot predict how these connections will take place and think they are rather like evolution, where speciation can be the product of continuous, gradual change or stochastic leaps. I’ve learnt to love this mysterious process and know that it can be nurtured, but never controlled. Like most creative people, I am always a little afraid that it will once day abandon me. I’ve learnt very well the impact of stress and unhappiness on the manifestation of inspiration. I can say the same of personal liberation, love and simple human kindness.
Finally, I will leave you with a few ‘ghosts’:
…. and the lucky ones:
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