THE NEW YORKER: Prom Pictures of Ukrainian Teens on the Verge of an Uncertain Adulthood

“Ukraine is at a point where young people are trying to build the world they want to live in, but they are limited by economic instability and an unending war caused by an aggressive neighbor.”

Janet Elise Johnson
Tuesday, 07 January 2020 23:37

Amid the maelstrom of the Trump impeachment proceedings, Ukraine has been less a reality than a projection of America’s post-Cold War neuroses. Although we have learned something about Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s neophyte President, there has been very little said about the lived experiences of the country’s nearly forty-four million people.

One of the strongest states in Europe a millennium ago, Ukraine has had a devastating century, including two forced famines, first under Lenin, in 1921 and 1922, and then under Stalin, a decade later. Since Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, it has faced several severe economic depressions and ongoing violent meddling by Russia.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and fomented war in eastern Ukraine, leading to nearly fifty per cent inflation the following year and to more than ten thousand civilian casualties and the internal displacement of some one and a half million people.

In their long conflict with Russia, Ukrainians have not been submissive: they burned their own fields and livestock to resist Soviet rule; raised two revolutions, in the pursuit of democracy, after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.; and have fought Vladimir Putin’s invasion, despite lacking a functioning military at the start of the conflict.

With the country’s economy unable to recover, many Ukrainians have been forced to work abroad in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and even Russia.

The Israeli photographer Michal Chelbin has made images of Ukrainian teenagers at two different locations during two distinct periods: first, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, in 2008, and then in and around Kyiv, in 2019.

Each time, her subjects were on the precipice of adulthood, attending their high-school graduation, an event that includes a prom. Our view is that of an outsider, although Chelbin’s father was born in western Ukraine, and she grew up fascinated by the black-and-white portraits that he had brought with him when he left as a child.

In some of Chelbin’s photographs, the teens re-create those old styles: a subject stands, for instance, with a hand resting on the shoulder of a peer sitting nearby. Unlike teens in the U.S., the young men’s dress varies quite a bit, from tuxedos or conventional suits to brightly colored jackets or uniforms. The young women wear ball gowns or more casual short skirts.

From the photos, we cannot tell whether the teens are Ukrainian- or Russian-speaking. One of the results of the war with Russia has been a stronger civic identity. Russian speakers in Ukraine-controlled territories have become more committed to Ukraine, and Ukrainians as a whole seem more open to Russian speakers - including to Zelensky, who won in a landslide.

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