In the attic of an old house, artist Ihor Solodovnikov stumbled on a collection of 5,000 photographs taken by his grandfather, Ivan Lytvyn. The images preserve the faces of Ukrainian villagers in the postwar period and the folk traditions that were rarely, if ever, captured by official Soviet photographers.
The unique find documents how rural Ukrainians lived and worked, what they wore, and how they spent their precious free time. The photos also reveal the transformations taking place in Ukraine from the late 1950s to the early ’70s as local customs gave way to Soviet influence.
In 2010, Solodovnikov and his family were preparing to sell Lytvyn’s house in the Cherkasy region. Solodovnikov was sorting through rubbish in the attic when he found his grandfather’s old suitcase, filled with photographic accessories. But he didn’t explore the contents closely until two years ago, when he noticed the rolls of film left by Lytvyn. Solodovnikov started working to digitize the photographs.
“I couldn’t pull myself away. I scanned the negatives day and night,” he said.
It took Solodovnikov about a month to digitize his grandfather’s archive of 5,000 photographs.
“I saw a different time and a different life: generations, traditions, faces that are long gone,” he said.
Ivan Lytvyn was born in April 1924 in the village of Hrushkivka in Ukraine’s central Cherkasy region. He lived through the Holodomor, the Stalin-era mass famine of the 1930s, and recalled that several children in his own family did not survive.
At the age of 18, Lytvyn was deported to Germany in the midst of World War II. He managed to escape from several camps, but wound up in Buchenwald before the war’s end.
“The value of life has been reduced to zero. After what I saw, I’m not even afraid of death,” he later told his grandson.
Lytvyn’s greatest passion was drawing. After the war, he studied with the Ukrainian painter Makar Mukha, who ran a school near Hrushkivka. Mukha encouraged Lytvyn to pursue art, and he began studying at an academy in Odesa, but poverty forced him to return home. Lytvyn was already married and needed to help his large family. Soon, he had a daughter, and later a son.
“He regretted that he could not draw freely, that he had to work, take care of the household, provide for his family. He was a wonderful family man,” Raisa, Lytvyn’s daughter, said.
Lytvyn worked as a librarian in Hrushkivka. He also painted posters in the village and made sculptures and monuments to fallen soldiers. He secretly restored the surviving icons in the village church.
Lytvyn had started taking photos before the war, when he was still in school.
“He always had rolls of film and negatives falling out of his pockets,” Solodovnikov recalls.
In the late 1950s, Lytvyn acquired a modern Zorki 2 camera, a Soviet copy of the German Leica.
“My father was the only one who had a camera in the village. They were inseparable. He wore the camera on a strap over his shoulder. He lived with it,” Raisa said.
Lytvyn started to supplement his income with photography. On Sundays, there were often lines in front of his house as neighbors came to request passport photos or pictures marking their birthdays.
Photography replaced Ivan’s passion for drawing, a dream he was unable to pursue.
Among the many striking photos, Lytvyn’s portraits stand out.
“I see a reflection of time in his portraits,” said Valery Miloserdov, a photographer and expert on the field in Ukraine. “The people are very genuine in them. His photos were taken in the late 1950s to the early 1970s. This is a very interesting period that is not depicted in official Soviet photography at all.”
The images confer an element of poetry to the lives of ordinary villagers.
Lytvyn managed to capture the diversity of folk wedding traditions, some of which would later fade away. These photos make up the largest category in the photographer’s archive.
The photos document the shift from traditional wedding rites to Soviet-style ceremonies. The flower wreath traditionally worn by a Ukrainian bride began to be replaced by a veil in the early ’70s.
The character of funerals was shifting, too. Lytvyn’s photos show the emergence of newer Soviet customs, like the appearance of a brass band.
“Lytvyn was not part of the school of Soviet photographers,” Miloserdov said. “I think he himself understood that his photos were very different from the style of Soviet propaganda. If he took his photos to a newspaper, he would have been told, ‘Very, very nice, but we can’t print it.'”
But Lytvyn understood the standards for “good” Soviet photography. His archive includes pictures he took specifically for the library, where he worked for other official purposes.
These photos are very different from his personal work, in which he closely observed ordinary life and the feelings of his friends and neighbors.
“My grandfather had a need to take pictures,” his grandson said. “And, as I understand, he was more interested in the shooting process than the result.”
Most of Lytvyn’s photos were never printed.
“My grandfather just printed the orders he had, and some family photos, but it’s a very small number — about 10 percent of everything he photographed. At that time, my grandfather did not have a photo laboratory, or the time or opportunity to print everything,” Solodovnikov said.
After 25 years working at the Hrushkivka library, Lytvyn was invited to work in Kamyanka, the district center 8 kilometers away. He started working at the local art workshop, but instead of doing creative work there, as he hoped, he was required to draw propaganda posters and write slogans.
Lytvyn’s son Anatoliy worked alongside him and recalls painting portraits of Vladimir Lenin and other Soviet leaders. They inscribed slogans like: “Glory to the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]!” “Peace, Labor, May”; or “Long live the anniversary of the Great October!”
After moving to Kamyanka, Ivan stopped taking photos.
“It seems to me that he was not well-appreciated in the workshop. He was already old. Nobody went to him to be photographed there, either. He thought he could gain something in the city, but instead he lost. It seems to me that my father regretted the move,” his daughter said.
On February 11, 1987, Ivan Lytvyn died of a stroke in Kamyanka, Cherkasy Oblast. He was 62.
All photographs were provided by Ivan Lytvyn’s grandson, Ihor Solodovnikov, a Ukrainian artist, photographer, and art critic. His archive of his grandfather’s work also includes three paintings.
Fascinating look back into the Soviet period in Ukraine. Two things stand out, the extreme poverty, but also people in some of the images actually looked happy.
Perhaps happy that they defeated one fascist and only have one more to go?