It’s 2017 in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Asya Ivashintsova-Melkumyan is clearing out the clutter from her family home. In the process, however, she happens upon a large container filled with relics from her late mother’s turbulent life. Amazingly, it’s the first step in a journey that will see thousands of forgotten photographs thrust into the limelight. And these enigmatic pictures will ultimately give fascinating glimpses into what life was really like in the Soviet Union.
The treasure trove’s discoverer, Asya, is the daughter of a language specialist named Melvar Melkumyan and his wife, Masha Ivashintsova. Asya was just a young girl when her parents’ marriage sadly came to an end. And while Masha chose to remain in the Russian city of Leningrad – now known as St. Petersburg – Melvar relocated almost 450 miles to Moscow with their daughter in tow.
At the time, Moscow was the capital of the Soviet Union and was located at the heart of its biggest territory – the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. But by the time that Masha succumbed to cancer in 2000, the Soviet Union was firmly a thing of the past, having collapsed almost a decade earlier. And a very different Russia had emerged to take its place.
According to Asya, Masha’s death at the age of 58 marked the end of an often difficult and troubled life. And at first, the younger woman could not bear to look through her mother’s things. “Everything that reminded me of her caused great pain, and my only longing back then was to clear all of what belonged to her from my sight,” she told the website My Modern Met in 2018.
Seemingly to spare herself any more pain, then, Asya kept Masha’s possessions hidden away in the attic of her family’s house in St. Petersburg. And for almost two decades, the items remained tucked out of sight. But in 2017 Asya decided that it was time to clear out some of the clutter that had accumulated in her roof space. It was here, moreover, that the young woman discovered a box she knew was full of her late mother’s belongings.
Inside the trunk, Asya found a collection of film negatives and printed photographs that had all been meticulously stored in labeled envelopes. But as she was still reeling from her mother’s death, she was reluctant to delve any deeper. “I did not really want to look at them, since I was afraid it would bring all the memories back,” Asya explained.
Yet Asya’s husband, Egor, was positive that they should investigate the pictures further. You see, he suspected that they could truly be something special. Following through on his hunch, Egor asked a friend to lend him an old scanner so that he could reveal some of the photos in all their glory. Nevertheless, it took a while before Asya was able to appreciate the snaps’ significance. “My pain did not allow me to see,” she continued. “I right away imagined my mother’s fragility – her emotional bitterness.”
Asya did manage to bring herself to the point of seeing past her grief, though. And as Egor began to develop more of Masha’s photos, it became increasingly clear that they had stumbled across something incredible. Altogether, the collection consisted of more than 30,000 undeveloped photographs in the form of negatives and rolls of film.
To make the unexpected find even more exciting, the photographs were accompanied by a series of diaries that detailed Masha’s personal experiences of living in the Soviet Union. By poring over her mother’s words and images, then, Asya was able to catch glimpses into another world. And perhaps because of the incredible insights that Masha’s images offered into life in the USSR, the young woman eventually decided to share her mother’s work with others.
It’s hardly surprising that the talented Masha was able to capture such arresting images, though, as the woman lived through a tumultuous period of history. Born in 1942, Asya’s mother came into the world just 25 years after the Russian Revolution had totally transformed the nation. This period of political upheaval began in February 1917 and soon saw the radical Bolshevik government rise up to replace the now-defunct ruling Romanov family. Then, five years later, the Soviet Union was officially formed.
By the time that Masha was born, however, the Soviet Union had become embroiled in World War II. And as a result of its part in that bloody conflict, the global power was able to extend its reach across much of eastern Europe. These territorial developments, among other factors, subsequently ushered in a new period of uncertainty: the Cold War.
Yet while Russia was rocked by the specter of another conflict looming on the horizon, an 18-year-old Masha was concerned with more personal matters, such as finding the time to indulge in her hobbies. Yes, according to Asya, her mother developed an avid interest in photography as a young adult in 1960. In another time, her family had been Russian aristocrats, maintaining opulent lodgings in a desirable part of Leningrad. As was the case with many other wealthy citizens, however, their property and belongings had been confiscated as a result of the revolution.
Nevertheless, it appears as if Masha’s family still had lofty aspirations. And as a young girl, Masha trained as a ballerina in order to please her grandmother. Yet this career path would prove short-lived. After her elderly relative had passed away, you see, Masha’s dance lessons came to an abrupt halt, and she swapped her ballet slippers for classes at technical college at her family’s behest.
Yet it seems as though the Russian woman was still drawn to the creative industries, as she later found employment as an artist and a theater critic. As Masha grew older, however, she began to struggle with her mental health. And all the while, the Soviet Union continued to grow and evolve. With the dawn of the Brezhnev era in 1964, the nation established itself as a global superpower.
Over the years, Masha snapped many photographs that captured the reality of life within the Soviet Union. And from the 1960s onwards, the one-time artist found herself in a position to depict a unique offshoot of Leningrad society. In particular, Masha managed to capture the underground photography and poetry movement that thrived in the city for two decades.
During the 1950s, the Soviet Union had experienced a period known as the Khrushchev Thaw. This saw a relaxation of censorship laws, leading in part to art forms such as poetry growing in popularity. By 1965, however, the authorities had begun to clamp down once more on citizens’ creative freedoms.
With the end of the Thaw, then, many of Leningrad’s creative communities were forced underground. After that, self-published works – known as samizdat – had begun circulating around the Soviet Union. And although the punishment for producing these uncensored creations was severe, many prominent artists nevertheless contributed pieces.
Among those who appeared in the Soviet Union’s samizdat journals was Viktor Krivulin – a poet and novelist born in 1944. Following his graduation from Leningrad State University, Krivulin rose to become a prominent figure in the city’s underground cultural scene. And in the 1960s he began a romantic relationship with Masha that would end and be rekindled on a number of occasions over the years.
In fact, even though Viktor eventually married another woman, his on-off relationship with Masha continued until her death. But interestingly, the poet wasn’t the only radical artist to capture the photographer’s heart. Yes, in 1974 she began a relationship with Boris Smelov – another man who was big in the underground art scene.
Boris was a photographer who specialized in portraits, cityscapes and still-life shots. And in the 1970s he became well known throughout the Soviet Union for his work. The snapper’s unconventional approach often put him at odds with the authorities, though, and soon he could only showcase his art in unlawful exhibitions.
Masha and Boris maintained a relationship for two years before they eventually parted ways in 1976. And according to some reports, this was the same year that Masha divorced Asya’s father – a hint, perhaps, at the tumultuous nature of her personal life. “Her love for these three men – who could not be more different – defined her life,” Asya wrote on mashaivashintsova.com – a website dedicated to her mother’s work.
According to Asya’s statement on the website, Viktor, Boris and her father were all “geniuses of the time.” As such, then, her mother was constantly living in their shadows. “She sincerely believed that she paled next to [the men],” Asya wrote. And as a result, Masha never revealed her photographs – nor her fledgling literary work – to another living soul.
“I see my mother as a genius, but she never saw herself as one,” Asya continued. “[She] never let anybody else see her for what she really was.” And in her diary, Masha herself appears to agree. “I loved without memory,” she wrote. “I never had a memory for myself – but always for others.”
As Masha grew older, her mental health reportedly continued to deteriorate. In 1981 the photographer also found herself out of work. And because unemployment was then a crime in the Soviet Union, she was forced to choose between a prison sentence and a stint in a medical facility.
Apparently, Masha selected admission to a mental hospital over a life behind bars. But sadly, this heralded the beginning of a ten-year ordeal. According to Asya, her mother struggled to comply with the regime’s strict rules and found herself slowly worn down.
“Masha had a difficult relationship with communism,” Asya wrote on the website dedicated to her late mother. “She was eventually bulldozed by the party and committed to a mental hospital against her will for her ‘social sponging.’ She could never assimilate to the all-encompassing, shouting world of socialist excitement.”
Meanwhile, the world around Masha had begun to change once more. Following Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power – the politician became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985 – the state embarked on a period of political and economic reform known as perestroika. And slowly, the secrecy that had come to define the nation started to fall away.
For six years, Gorbachev ruled over a rapidly changing state – and Masha continued to snap photographs. Then, in 1991 the Soviet Union came to an end. Soon, Leningrad returned to its traditional moniker of St. Petersburg, and Gorbachev had stepped aside to make way for the president of the newly established Russian Federation: Boris Yeltsin.
But even as the Soviet Union became a thing of the past, Masha did not put down her camera. Instead, she continued with her passion until 1999 – a year before her death. That said, the Russian native was nonetheless forced to undertake a diverse series of other jobs throughout her life to make ends meet.
Masha worked as a librarian, for instance, as well as an elevator mechanic, a design engineer and even a security guard. However, it wasn’t until her daughter’s chance discovery in the family attic that the photographer’s true talents were revealed. And now, Asya is working hard to secure the recognition that her mother deserves.
According to the official website dedicated to Masha’s work, the photographer worked mostly with either a Rolleiflex or a Leica IIIc camera. She would sometimes use an Ikoflex, though, or a Zorki – the latter being a popular piece of equipment manufactured within the Soviet Union. And Masha’s thousands of images were captured on a Ukranian-produced type of film called Svema.
With such a vast volume of work, however, it was no easy task bringing the thousands of negatives to life. And at first, Asya did not want to show her mother’s photographs to anyone outside of her immediate circle. Nonetheless, in time, the young woman realized that she wanted to share the snaps publicly, and so she enlisted the help of some friends to make her vision a reality.
After enlisting the help of her husband and a pair of family acquaintances, Asya began the arduous work of carefully scanning, archiving and exhibiting Masha’s photographs. Even today, the small team has yet to complete the painstaking task – meaning some of the collection’s greatest treasures may still be waiting to be revealed.
And for Asya, the images have provided an invaluable insight into Masha’s life. “For my mother, taking photographs was a very natural process – like breathing. Nothing of significance,” she explained to My Modern Met. “I think it was helping her to escape reality and her emotions to a certain extent.”
“I remember how emotionally torn she was the whole time,” Asya continued. “This lies in stark contrast to the calmness of her photography. In this regard, the important find was also my mother’s diaries. Through those, I have had a real revelation of my mother’s internal life – how vulnerable she was, and how much she had to go through.”
Moreover, Asya now believes that it is her responsibility to share Masha’s work. “During her lifetime, whatever she did was never taken very seriously – neither by her family nor by the men she loved,” she explained. “That’s why I think that it is my job as her daughter now to show her works to the world [and] make sure she gets the credit she truly deserves.”
Thankfully, it appears that Asya is well on her way to achieving her goal. Currently, an extensive collection of Masha’s work is available to view online via her website and dedicated social media pages. The Russian native’s photographs have also appeared at exhibitions in New York and the Polish city of Bydgoszcz.
But what would Masha have made of all the attention? Well, according to Asya, she may have viewed it as a mixed blessing. “I think she would be a bit scared – also as I am now – by the fact that so many people are judging and talking about her work now,” she explained to my Modern Met. “But at the same time, I am sure she would be grateful for this appreciation and support that is coming from all parts of the world.”
For fans of photography, too, Masha’s story may echo that of Vivian Maier. Maier was an American woman who spent four decades working as a nanny, spending much of her career in Chicago’s prosperous North Shore district. However, after Maier’s death in 2009, it emerged that she had taken over 150,000 shots of various locations – including her home city, Los Angeles and New York.
And although Maier’s talent went unrecognized during her lifetime, her work is now lauded and exhibited all around the world. Through her impressive photographs, the streets of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s are brought to life for everyone to see. Now, Masha looks set to do the same for the Soviet Union, giving a fascinating glimpse into a bygone world.