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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Photos Depict a Human Brezhnev




Find any issue of Pravda or Izvestia in the 1970s and chances are high you will see a front-page picture of Leonid Brezhnev.


The photographs, almost always taken with a wide-angle lens, all looked the same: Politburo members, their faces hardly discernable, overseeing a parade from on top of Lenin's Mausoleum on Red Square; or Brezhnev sitting across a conference table with a foreign dignitary.


The general secretary was always stiff and imposing, without any emotion on his bulldog face. The byline under the pictures also never changed: Photos by V. Musaelyan and E. Pesov.


But it is a different Brezhnev, much more humane and lively, who can be seen until May 14 at Vladimir Musaelyan's exhibit, which is part of the Moscow Photo Biennale at the Manezh Exhibition Hall.


Musaelyan, who with Eduard Pesov was the general secretary's personal photographer and constant shadow for 13 years, is putting on show pictures from his own archive, many of which have never before been seen in public.


The exhibit shows Brezhnev having fun at a hunting party with U.S. State Secretary Henry Kissinger, or playing with his granddaughter. Elsewhere he is depicted as an honest family man with his elderly mother and heavy wife. Another portrait has him concerned and alert, conversing with the Communist "gray cardinal," ideology chief Mikhail Suslov. Then there is Brezhnev kissing East German leader Erich Honecker on the lips, Brezhnev on a yacht and Brezhnev reclining in a chaise longue while vacationing in the Crimea.


These pictures could never be published in the Soviet Union at the time because they showed Brezhnev as a mortal, not as the mythological figure that Soviet propaganda wanted him to be in the eyes of the masses.


In addition, Brezhnev often selected the official pictures for publication himself and preferred distance shots to close-ups, despite their photographi c lack of expression, Musaelyan said.


Brezhnev is despised by many Russians for the period of economic and cultural stagnation that accompanied his 18-year rule and is frequently lampooned for the senility and drunken binges that are said to have marked his last years.


Now, 16 years and a whole political era later, Russians are able to look at his photo images more calmly, as art and history. The context of the photo biennale contributes to this existentialist reading of the exhibit. Musaelyan's works are flanked by fashion photography and a laconic exhibit of portraits of victims of Stalin's death camps.


"He is a normal person," said a young businessman named Alexei Panteleyev as he perused the exhibit, "And yet he was the symbol of the empire."


Another young visitor also looks at the late leader with unabashed sympathy. "I was a schoolgirl when he lived, and it was a very good time," said Yelena Lavrenenko, a bank accountant.


Assigned by the government news agency Itar-Tass to work as Brezhnev's personal photographer, Musaelyan permanently accompanied the Soviet leader and even stayed with him at his Crimean dacha.


His masterful camera fixed many moments, sometimes secretly, for Brezhnev's family album, for Musaelyan's archive and, as it turns out today, for history.


"He was an imposing, handsome man and looked good on film," Musaelyan said in an interview. The pair also developed a good rapport, which is important for a relationship between a photographer and his subject.


Musaelyan recalls that often Brezhnev would ask: "Why are you taking pictures?" and the photographer did not know how to reply. "Intuitively, I had known I was working for history," he said.


Musaelyan's view of Brezhnev is largely positive. Despite popular hearsay about drunken parties at his hunting lodge at Zavidovo, outside Moscow, Musaelyan said he never saw Brezhnev drunk.


But from the mid-1970s onward, the general secretary's health started to deteriorate, affecting his grip on power. In one picture in the exhibit, Brezhnev is captured two months before his death, sitting sad and inward-looking in a deep red armchair.


Musaelyan, who at 59 still works for Itar-Tass, photographed some of Brezhnev's successors but was assigned to other duties in 1986. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Western photo agencies approached him, asking to buy Brezhnev's private photos, but he declined, intending to keep the pictures for posterity.


"Even if five or 10 of my pictures remain in history, I will consider my life's task fulfilled," he said.