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The Drunken Bicycle

February 18, 2011

Preparation for the toast, Siberia, 2010, all photos Frank Ward

My portfolio of travels in the Former Soviet Union from 2005 to 2010 has just opened at the Photo Eye Gallery and at

Some of the pictures in this post aren’t actually in either show. These first five didn’t make the final cut, but I like them anyway.

Fishmonger, Lake Baikal, 2010

The following statement from The Drunken Bicycle on Photo Eye is interspersed with my comments in parenthesis.

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.

Beach Bubbles, Vladivostok, 2008

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.

"I love you, I love you," the armed guard said as he threatened me, Siberia, 2010

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.

Caught photographing military secrets, 2009

Or the graffiti scribbled in large block letters on a desk in a high school hallway: “Stalin is gay.”

Desk and chairs, Elista, Russia, 2009

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,

Marilyn Monroe lovingly observed by Lenin, Vladivostok, 2008

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.

Babushka in a bikini, Odessa, 2005

The closing picture, illustrating an ancient mosque in Khiva, is actually a photograph of a soccer game where all but one of the participants have blurred into invisibility during the long night exposure.

Night soccer in front of a mosque in Khiva, Uzbekistan, 2010

The exhibit on is called The Great Game after the 19th century conflict between Russia and Britain over domination in Central Asia. I haven’t included any pictures from SDN in this post. Please take a look if you want to see more.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2011 12:19 am

    Did you at least send the woman a print or was it just the thought that counted (to her)? Interesting look at Russia, seems like a place we don’t know anymore, as if we ever did. 🙂

    • February 19, 2011 4:59 pm

      I did send a picture to the woman who asked me for it. She probably saw me take the above picture and approached me to have her own picture done. The above lady kept a deadpan expression throughout our whole encounter. The other lady could speak some English.

  2. February 22, 2011 12:42 am

    “Preperation for the toast” is an image that resonates with me. I can correlate my polish community with how you connect with your siberian community. There is such an intense level of welcoming in both cultures; however, you managed to capture a fleeting moment and present it as a shared moment. I appreciate this image because I can make the connection and know the reciprocated feeling of being on the other end of the toast. I often wonder about traveling, finding myself welcomed into a home, a place, a business, a moment in which fleeting moments such as this image can be seen through my eyes and through the eyes of my camera. I sincerely appreciate seeing your photographs from Siberia. I do not get to speak with you on a regular basis anymore, but seeing your work is just as rewarding as any conversation we would engage in.


    Jeffrey Byrnes

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