In my relatively rebellious teenage years I would listen to a protest punk band called Civil Defense. This interest in, and appreciation of, the band’s troublesome and troubled front-man, Yegor Letov, initially arose from my enduring affection for the music of his partner, Yanka. But this post is about something else.
It is about the cover of one of Letov’s albums, “So the Steel was Tempered” (Так закалялась сталь, 1988). The title is a fierce retort to the almost identical name of a social realist novel by Nikolai Ostrovsky (1930s). There’s a bit of language trickery involved: the novel’s title began with the word как — how (“How the Steel was Tempered”), while Letov’s comeback began with так — so (in the sense of “like this”).
This heart-wrenching image struck me as soon as I saw it in the early 1990s. I wasn’t the only one, of course: the album cover became quite known. However, the name of the photographer was nowhere to be found. Later, when the album was released again with a new cover (warning: image of dead bodies), the author of the other photograph was duly listed. But not in 1988. As a result, a whole generation that grew up on late Soviet protest music knows this iconic image, but doesn’t know much about it.
The photographer who took this picture is Valery Khristoforov, whose name (once you know to look for it) can be seen under plenty of newspaper images to this day. He is a classic figure of Russian photojournalism, but his authorship was oddly difficult to find. Even reverse searches on Google bring up exclusively Letov’s album.
In the end, however, I did find the author’s name at the very bottom of a sole blog post, where this image appears scanned from a magazine and has a title: “A Street Incident”. And then, with some help, I contacted the photographer. He is now deputy director of the photo department at Argumenty i Fakty, a Moscow-based newspaper. With his permission, here’s the backstory he shared with me, along with the full uncropped original:
A person without legs sat on Tverskaya Street, asking for coins. A policeman noticed a photographer talking to him, and shooed the disabled man away. The man started to roll away, and the photographer followed. That’s when the cart hit a rough patch on the asphalt and overturned. I was ready and I shot it.
Within seconds, the passers-by rushed to help the man up. At the moment the picture was taken, they had not yet had a chance to react. But at the time, in 1988, this image of a fallen person and the surrounding stone-faced indifference became a symbol of the way people with disabilities were treated in the USSR.