It’s autumn term in Moscow – season of mists, mellow fruitfulness (well, in the top-end supermarkets anyway) and school photographs.
A few weeks ago, my five-year-old son’s teacher at dyetsky sad (kindergarten) told me at pick-up time that a photographer would be coming to school the following Monday. Knowing the seriousness with which Russians treat children’s appearance (clothes calibrated precisely to climate, elaborately-plaited hair and so on), I obediently swung into action, hosing Ned down in the shower, washing his hair in the face of stiff resistance and forcing him though a combination of bribes and threats into the nearest we have to smart clothes (his least scruffy jeans and a clean top with a shark on it).
At this point I should reveal Ned’s usual look. It is loosely based on Horrid Henry, with a touch of Superhero and maybe a dash of Dennis the Menace. Here he is:
Monday came, and I sent Ned off to kindergarten looking, if not well-groomed, at least vaguely tidy and free of porridge stains. “How did the photo go?” I asked him at pick-up. “Fine,” he said. “I had to wear a cloak.” Boys and their super-hero fantasies, I thought indulgently as we walked home.
A few weeks later, as I collected Ned and as we went through the usual 20-minute clothes-changing ritual (of which more in a future post), his teacher proudly handed me an envelope.
This was the photo inside:
I almost fell into the heated snow-suit-drying cupboard. Was this my son? What on earth had happened to him? Who was he supposed to be, and what on earth was going on with that Burberry cape? Under that streetlamp, he looked like a sort of Cossack Mr Tumnus. And however had they persuaded him to hold that bear?
As so often here, what astonishes a British eye is simply daily normality in Russia. The dyetsky sad costumed portrait, it turns out, is an entirely standard feature of kindergarten life. Ned’s costume nods to the Russian fairytale hero Ivan Tsarevich; apparently he could just as easily have been sporting velvet knickerbockers and waving a quill in homage to Pushkin (I’m quite glad we escaped that one), or have been dolled up in pirate hat and cutlass to sail Moscow’s Seven Seas.
My friend Tatiana, a mother and grandmother, told me: “We have pictures of our son and grandson as explorers, spacemen, cowboys – everything. The first few are fine but when you have 20 on the shelf then maybe it is too many.”
The practice may be an institution for Russians but still catches Westerners unawares: another English mother with a child at Russian nursery told me she splashed out an absurd Moscow sum on a (shiny) suit for her son in her concern to ensure he met smartness standards, only for him to be photographed in a miniature safari suit, surrounded by soft toy animals.
After the initial shock, I’ve become rather fond of Ned’s portrait. It could only have been taken in Russia, and will always be a record of his time here. But more than that: for all its strangeness, it isn’t kitsch, or demeaning. It isn’t ridiculing Ned; indeed it’s taking him seriously – albeit within the confines of a rather idealised Russian approach to early childhood and the preservation of innocence (the adoration lessens as kids get older). He isn’t unhappy: he sat there in his cloak perfectly willingly – I only wish I knew how they persuaded him – and is not embarrassed by the result.
And the school photo isn’t the only manifestation of a very particular, and earnest, attitude here to portrait photography. Even the universally appalling passport-type pictures are afforded the same uncompromising treatment to ensure children look their best. One English friend took her three-year-old son to have his photo taken as a coat peg marker at his new school, only to find the photographer, disapproving of the boy’s t-shirt and shorts, swiftly airbrushed them out and photo-shopped an adult suit on instead. “He looked like a businessman with a little pin head,” she recalls. Only with difficulty did she prevent the same photographer photo-shopping out a scab on her daughter’s chin, acquired in a playground fall. “He was horrified I was happy to keep it in. He didn’t even want to charge us for the photo.”
The same unashamed desire for photographic perfection can be witnessed daily in the streets and parks of Moscow. Walk through any pleasant spot – the beautiful estate at Tsaritsino, say, or the bridge over the Moskva beside Christ the Saviour cathedral – and you will repeatedly bump into camera-toting young people, all posing unembarrassedly for each other. Girls peep askance from under fringes, or from behind fans of glowing autumnal leaves. Decked out in their best clothes (including heels, naturally), they lean on railings, pouting into a friend’s lens, neither smiling nor frowning.
The pictures are often shared via vKontaktye (in Contact), Russia’s hugely popular social networking site (Facebook is nowhere here). Like the dyetsky sad portraits, they are posed, but unself-conscious. Familiar – we all take photos of our kids and friends – but at the same time a world apart.