The Drunken Bicycle-Travels in the Former Soviet Union
Occasionally, in the town squares of many cities in Siberia there is a man selling rides on a bicycle, a drunken bicycle. A conventional two-wheeled bike has been outfitted with a reverse steering gear. If one turns the handlebars right, the front wheel turns left. Of course, the operator demonstrates how easy it is to ride and offers bottles of beer if one can simply travel a few meters without falling. Crowds circle the action, and there is never a shortage of brave young men who attempt the traverse. That said, I have not yet seen a customer navigate the bike successfully.
The drunken bicycle is an apt metaphor for life in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). The bureaucrats appear to be swaying on a drunken bicycle, the hapless traveler spends his days confused by the swing of it, and this photographer is continually under its influence.
My confounded expectations while photographing can be accompanied by some curious pleasures. The security guard repeating, “I love you, I love you,” as he gestures for me to delete my pictures of a waterfront habitat destroyed by land moving equipment. Or the policemen who accused me of stealing strategic military secrets because I was photographing a World War II tank cemented into a pedestal in a city park. Or the graffiti scribbled in large block letters on a desk in a high school hallway: “Stalin is gay.”
It is difficult not to telegraph my bemusement of these incidences with my smile. The publicly dour Russians think we Americans have a foolish grin continually pasted on our faces. Well, I do, but it is not the former Soviets I am laughing at. It is the joy of seeing Marilyn Monroe represented in a wall-sized painting with Lenin looking up at her, or my surprise at a grandmother who asks me to take her picture in a bikini at the beach. The FSU is a paradise of paradox, where the landscapes are limitless and the people are full of passion and pain.