Witness: Picturing the sinking of the Soviet Union

Thu Dec 15, 2011 5:31pm EST

1 of 8. Russian President Boris Yeltsin (C) looks back as he walks to attend the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) founding meeting in Almaty in this December 21, 1991 file photograph.

Credit: Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov

The following story recalls the experiences of Reuters photographer Shamil Zhumatov when the leaders of the newly independent post-Soviet republics gathered in his home city of Alma-Ata in 1991. Zhumatov has been a Reuters photographer in ex-Soviet Central Asia for the last 17 years and has also covered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He lived the first 20 years of his life in the Soviet Union and the second 20 years as a citizen of Kazakhstan.

By Shamil Zhumatov

ALMATY (Reuters) - The Soviet Union, we had always thought, was surely too big to fail.

We had all seen the bare shelves in the shops. We knew that many constituent republics had declared their independence. But this was still my almighty Soviet Union, the only country this 20-year-old photojournalist from Kazakhstan had ever known.

So why had 10 national leaders rushed to my capital city, Alma-Ata, on December 21, 1991? Who were these hordes of journalists and photographers jostling for position and shouting questions?

It was one of my first assignments for the Kazakh Telegraph Agency. The night before, I sat in the agency's darkroom splicing 300-metre rolls of film and inserting it with great care into cartridges, 36 shots at a time.

We didn't work with factory-made rolls of film; this was the Soviet Union. Painstaking preparation was part of the job, especially before any major event.

And this was certainly major. Even my seasoned colleagues had had few opportunities to photograph national leaders. Party congresses, military parades, even New Year celebrations: these happened in Moscow, events we watched on television.

Less than two weeks earlier, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus -- the Slavic core of the Soviet Union -- had signed the agreement that dissolved the country and created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Although the alliance wasn't closed to other republics, when we in Central Asia heard of it, we felt cast off and betrayed. Shouldn't we also have a say in the fate of our country? The excitement and freedom of independence would come later; right now, we were frightened children clinging to the coat-tails of our parent.

WHAT IF?

Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of newly independent Kazakhstan, mobilized quickly to ensure our country and a host of other newly independent republics were brought into the fold.

He met one leader after another at the snowbound airport as they arrived to sign the declaration that would bring the number of countries into the grouping to 11.

It seemed everyone who arrived was in a rush. Even now, when I edit my pictures, I can see the worry etched on the faces of the Kazakh statesmen of the time. What if someone were suddenly to change their mind, snatching away the security Moscow had always provided?

Two lonely protesters stood in the snow outside the hall where the signing would take place, holding posters decrying the end of the Soviet Union. "Shame on the Destroyers of the USSR!" said one. "Down with the CIS!"

Our shared Soviet heritage was all that bound us together. Even the name of the new alliance sounded strange. We could appreciate the idea of "independent states". But a "commonwealth"? Between a set of ethnically divergent countries, two of which -- Armenia and Azerbaijan -- were already engaged in a brutal conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh?

Inside, the grandiose ceremony had begun. Never before had I seen so many KGB officers gathered in one place. Its 9th Department, which was responsible for guarding dignitaries, had a lot of people to look out for.

And so many journalists! Some photographers had brought ladders to climb above the crowds -- a device I would use countless times over the next years, but something I'd never seen before that day.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin was the most charismatic of all the leaders present. His words -- and he spoke a lot -- were accompanied by animated hand gestures. People shouted questions at him on the move. For a photographer, he was a great subject.

Yeltsin's individual style contrasted sharply with that of the ranked officials around him. Even the Trilby he wore was at odds with the thick fur hats of other leaders.

After the signing ceremony, the leaders stood for a group photograph. One journalist shouted to Yeltsin: "How are you feeling?"

He grinned and gave the thumbs-up. With a single click of my mechanical Nikon F2, I realized that a new time was upon us. I was recording history.

STRANGE FILM

Before writing this article, I was scanning my old black-and-white negatives in a photo store in Almaty, as Alma-Ata is now called. The other customers were printing out pictures taken on their mobile phones.

"What a strange film! I can't even see any picture numbers along the perforations," said the curious sales assistant, too young to recall the 300-metre rolls with which I once worked.

At 40, I have now spent half of my life in the Soviet Union and half in independent Kazakhstan. The second two decades have brought changes unimaginable during the first.

The Soviet Union gave me much for which to be thankful: an education which could not be bettered today, and the well-built apartment blocks that my parents still call home.

But gone are the fear and uncertainty -- my own and Kazakhstan's -- I remember from that day in December 1991. They have been replaced by a maturity and an independence that comes from facing and overcoming your challenges.

We have both grown up.

(Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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