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A Soviet Drop-Out’s Journey to Freedom

In search of the traces of my refugee transit camp in Vienna, on my way to America

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(All photos Svetlana Boym)

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The little that remains of the memory of my refugee camp from the early 1980s is in extreme close-up: a breach in the concrete wall with barbed wire, a foot in a mended sock dangling from the upper bunk bed, an unzippable suitcase filled with obsolete things, a roll of the foreign toilet paper, pink like the fairy in The Wizard of Oz. And no establishing shot.

To tell you the truth, none of these things bothered me for decades. No pictures from the transit camp have been preserved and no address. I happily forgot my forgetting. My emigration from Leningrad to Boston had a few detours, gaps, and loose ends. But the point was not to travel on memory lane but to move on, to begin again. Why remember the unmemorable?

In the Soviet Union of the 1980s there was a code word: “to leave.” If you whispered it with a mysterious gravitas, there would be no need to ask further questions. To leave meant to flee once and for good. You knew well your point of departure but not necessarily your destination. To leave was an intransitive verb that marked a break in space and time. You might as well be going to the moon or to the Underworld. Farewell parties in the 1970s and 1980s resembled funerals in their finality.

At the age of 19 I decided to emigrate and had to leave the country without my parents. I was stripped of citizenship and told that I would never be able to return to Leningrad and see my family. The “personal search” all of us went through at Customs lasted many hours and included intimate parts of our bodies and of our personal belongings. The Customs officers enjoyed the procedure. They fingered every scratch on the few family pictures, counted the number of permitted individuals in the group photos, penetrated every seam in our clothes, patted the inside lining of our oversized rusty-zippered suitcases in search of “the second bottom.” Since then I always want to travel light, but more often than not, the zipper on my carry-on bag still doesn’t come together till the last pull.

My father remembers the moment of my departure with a cinematic clarity. It took place at the gate in the Moscow Airport reserved especially for those who were “leaving for permanent residency.” I said the last good-bye and moved behind the glass where my parents could still see me go through the next Customs gate. Another departing family, standing in line behind me, consisted of a young couple holding a baby and pushing a baby carriage and a grandfather carrying a large manuscript that was clearly invaluable to him. “Either the manuscript or the baby carriage,” said the Customs officer. Whatever that manuscript was, this was the one thing the grandfather could not part with. “To hell with you,” the young mother shouted and pushed away the baby carriage. At that moment I disappeared behind the glass. The baby carriage rolled slowly into the empty corridor and down the steps. An uncanny afterimage, courtesy of Sergei Eisenstein.

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It was another seven years before my parents saw me again. In my family we are used to leaving longing behind together with personal belongings and to treating nostalgic tales with a grain of salt.

My “journey to freedom” was short in time and cosmic in proportion. This might have been the first time in my life that I traveled by plane across the border. In the Vienna airport I caught a glimpse of the spring sky framed by the ramp and a frivolous sign “Duty Free,” which I couldn’t decipher. We were greeted by the representative of the organizations assisting refugees and quickly herded into unmarked buses with darkened windows and transported to the outskirts of Vienna or somewhere else. We had no idea where we were and didn’t ask indiscreet questions.

The first impression of the camp was disappointing. The place resembled a provincial military hospital or a monastery. Is this what the West looks like? Neither terrifying nor exhilarating, just banal. Among the transient residents of the camp were Jews from all over the Soviet Union, from Central Asia to Leningrad , Poles fleeing military law, Crimean Tatars, and a Russian Protestant escaping religious persecution. The camp was operated by several Jewish philanthropic agencies and guarded by Austrian soldiers with friendly German Shepherds. The latter were supposed to protect us from any attack from the outside. From what I remember, we worried little about that and just wanted to catch some rest and dream about the future. We took walks in the camp yard but never went outside the walls. Men told one another erotic dreams to fall asleep, and women kept their dreams to themselves. We ate plenty of comfort food and sweet bulochki and filled out many forms that itemized our hyphenated identities. Movies were shown all the time.

I would like to give you a more detailed description of the camp, to provide you with snippets of conversation between the emigrants on the upper bunk beds and emigrants on the lower bunk beds, their tired jokes and discussions of the meaning of existence, to convey the anxious whispers of the social workers and armed guards, to provide lifelike images of narrow beds with broken springs, the archives of classified documents next to the trash storage, ruined warehouses in the walled monastic yard where brown pigeons pecked at the cones of the local evergreens. I’d like to share with you the taste of the sweet bread soaked in the weak tea, the homey camp pasta with Viennese sausage and on the movie screen a flickering image of the sun-kissed athletic men and women building a city on the sand with song and dance. Only I don’t remember any of that, and I’d rather not fill the gaps with a plausible fiction.

We never saw the Vienna that we dreamed about, the city of Mozart and Freud. We remained extraterritorial. Like the Freudian unconscious, our transit camp had no outside; it was a place out of place and a time out of time. I don’t know how long we stayed there. It felt like we were in a time capsule, a place where there was no present, only the repressed past and the unknown future. Actually I had a good camera with me, a Leica or Zenith with a high-precision lens and a long zoom. Of course, it never occurred to me to use it. The camera was meant to be sold at the flea market in Rome together with Ukrainian linens, nesting dolls and caviar, to save some money for the rainy days “in the West.” I studied photography as a teenager, experimenting with reflections on rippling water and urban panoramas. It never crossed my mind to photograph anything in the camp. There was nothing there “to write home about.” New immigrants like to make cheerful pictures next to other people’s houses and bright cars. The camp didn’t seem worthy of a photograph.


Fifteen years after leaving the camp I became a photographer. I returned to photography as suddenly as I’d dropped it before. My digital camera has a few special effects that imitate the old Leica, but I don’t use them. Since the late 1990s I’ve been documenting my travels through the world, collecting errors, overexposures, chance encounters. I have been taking pictures of the places that I would otherwise not remember.

Once during my presentation at the Vienna Kunsthalle commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a man in the audience asked me a question about art: “Why do you photograph the same landscape in different places?”

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A Soviet Drop-Out’s Journey to Freedom

In search of the traces of my refugee transit camp in Vienna, on my way to America