Exhibitions

The Meaning of a Nation – Russia and its Neighbors.

Justyna Mielnikiewicz

December 26, 2016 marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union, when fifteen Soviet republics became independent countries.

Since 1991, post-Soviet political elites in each of these countries have been engaged in nation and state building. Some countries remained within Russia’s sphere of influence, while others like Georgia and Ukraine have tried to break away to become part of Western Europe. They both paid a heavy price for their choice with a war in Georgia in 2008 and one in Ukraine in 2014.

Justyna Mielnikiewicz’s work presents an in-depth look at these countries around Russia . It also is a profile of Russia itself reflected in experiences of its neighbors and those Russians who stayed “ abroad “ modern Russia after the Soviet Union Fell Apart.

Work consisting of three main chapters explores borders as ever-changing spheres of influence that overlap physical borders marked on the map. It documents life on the European frontier and delves into symbolic meanings and reconstructed historical narratives of these borderlands, which contribute to forming national identity and shaping the images of the neighboring countries.

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I have lived in Georgia since 2002 and since then have worked stubbornly and almost exclusively in the former Soviet states. I witnessed the color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan’s failed attempt, and watched Russian tanks roll towards Tbilisi in 2008.  The subjects of my stories are regular people often caught in extraordinary situations. I talk to them to learn about the countries they are from and their country’s histories – particularly the history formed during their lifetimes. They are nations caught in a great struggle to build independent states in the face of intense Russian influence. Yet my work is not just about that – it is also about survival , about the joy of life amid all hardships and about friendship.

Trying to understand what is a meaning of the nation, a border and patriotism for my heroes and for myself is central to my work. The paths people take towards or away from reconciliation after fighting a war is also a major part of my quest. Because the Soviet Union in essence had no borders, many people built their lives in lands that are now independent countries, separated by borders. The unexpected implosion of the Soviet Union, with its many arbitrary borders and the rise of ethnic nationalism lead to several armed conflicts in early 1990s – mainly in the Caucasus. Unresolved problems in other borderlands were hibernating time bombs. The war that has been going on in Ukraine since 2014 has proven how those unsettled issues continue to be vulnerable to political manipulations. We see that borders drawn in 1991 are not carved in stone and can be changed unilaterally as the Crimea example has proven.

When I finished my decade-long work in Caucasus in 2013, I focused on Ukraine. The story of David Ebralidze interconnects both projects – and he is not the only one. As a young man David fought in Georgia for Abkhazia . It took him 12 years to shake the war experience. He moved to Ukraine and started making furniture – only to find himself in yet another war. In 2014 he took his laptop to the pawn shop and bought a bus ticket to join a volunteer battalion. There were many volunteer battalions forming because an actual army practically did not exist. I asked him one of my standard questions – “ could you ever forgive your enemy? If so, how?” David said he will answer me with a story: “Now in the Donbass Battalion I have very good friend also Georgian . We were together for 400 days in the battalion here. In Georgia (in early 90s) we fought against each other in the civil war and here we have become friends and fight side-by-side. And he is my closest friend. All problems can be resolved with time if there is no interference of the third party . ”

Post-Soviet fates are interconnected and are inevitably linked to Russia – the Imperial one of the Tsar’s time, Soviet Russia, and today’s Russia under Putin. December 26, 2016 marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union, when fifteen Soviet republics became independent countries . Since 1991, post-Soviet political elites in each of these countries have been engaged in nation and state building. Some countries remained within Russia’s sphere of influence, while others like Georgia and Ukraine have tried to break away to  become part of Western Europe, both paid heavy price for their choice with war in Georgia 2008 and 2014 in Ukraine. Few, like Baltic States broke away entirely joining EU and NATO.

My project explores borders as ever-changing spheres of influence that overlap physical borders marked on the map . It documents life on the Europe frontier and delves into symbolic meanings and reconstructed historical narratives of these borderlands, which contribute to forming national identity and shaping the images of the neighboring countries.

I have been documenting Post Soviet regions for the last 15 years, first of all, to fulfill my personal need to understand the world better, and then to be able to pass my findings further – hopefully to bring more focus to the part of the world I deeply care for and continue to be fascinated by .

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Cortona on The Move 2017 Festival Exhibition

Technical Information

Photographer : Justyna Mielnikiewicz
Producer: Cortona on the Move
Curated by : Arianna Rinaldo
Prints 53 ( framed with glass) :

30 in size 51x61,5
10 in size 102x128
3 in size 200 x 250 ( on foam board)

1 intro text • Captions provided in both English and Italian
Authors and copyrights: Justyna Mielnikiewicz for the photos and one text of introduction .