The Heidi Chronicles


“It seems a law of nature that no man is ever loath to sit for his portrait,” opined British writer and artist Max Beerbohm. And if ever evidence was required, one need only scan the oeuvre of photographer Heidi Hollinger. Her work makes visible the human side of Russian politicians of all stripes, from the respected reformist Galina Starovoïtova, assassinated in November 1998 as she fought to eliminate corruption, to the ultra-hardline communist Victor Anpilov.

Her photos of the famous, infamous and anonymous have earned her a solid international reputation, and have been published in Russia and in companion books, Heidi Chez les Soviets (published in Canada by Les Intouchables) and Les Russes/Russians (Stanké). They also embody her long-term love affair with the Russian language and people.

Hollinger, a native Montrealer, traces her interest in things Russian to her first-year course in the Russian language at McGill, taught by Marie-Claude Beauchamp, BA’80, MA’84, BEd’94. “She spoke it so beautifully,” says Hollinger, “that I fell in love with the language. She played a big role in my destiny, and I thank her for that.” Recalls a flattered Beauchamp, “Heidi was a dynamic, active person. She’s the sort of person you don’t forget. I’m not surprised at what she is doing now. She was what she is.” And that, according to Paul Austin, head of the Russian and Slavic Studies department, is “very determined. She knew what she wanted and she has been able to get it,” he says.

But Hollinger herself dispels notions of a “master plan,” and when telling her stories she gives the impression that she is very much carried by the momentum of circumstance. Still, there’s no denying that Hollinger has a compelling presence and one quickly senses that she is more than capable of making things happen on her own.

She graduated from Modern Languages and Literature, specializing in Russian and Spanish, but throughout her studies also nurtured an on-going love affair with the camera. After having received a “good” camera at the age of 12, she assumed the role of family photographer; later she worked at the McGill Daily (where she was photo editor) and the Mirror, a widely distributed Montreal weekly. Nonetheless, she recalls, “It was more like a hobby. I always wanted to be a professional, but my mom would say ‘Oh, that’s not a serious profession.’” The lesson, she jokes, is “Don’t listen to your parents.”

Her interest in politics began with a photo assignment for the McGill Daily which brought her into contact with British socialist folk-rocker Billy Bragg. She and Bragg went out for three years, and his commitments proved influential. A friendship with a Chilean refugee, Pablo Garrido, who told her of the atrocities committed in Chile under Pinochet, also contributed to her education. She journeyed to Russia for the first time in 1991, and in 1992 she returned to stay, initially to do graduate studies focussing on Russian opposition parties. But how was a young Canadian to get in contact with these people?

The camera again proved handy. “I went to a demonstration,” she recalls. “In Russia the politicians take part in parades, in the first row. I just took a few pictures.” From there, her interest snowballed. The parades formed a perfect venue to approach her subjects, and the camera facilitated her research immensely. “It was very easy to meet politicians as a photographer,” she explains. “I appealed to their vanity. I would just say ‘Hi — can I photograph you?’ They usually said yes, and I would give them the picture after.” She staked out the Duma, the Russian parliament, in search of subjects.

But more formal photo shoots were less easy to come by and getting appointments required persistence and hard work. “In some cases I would have to call for a whole year, every day.” Eventually, the labour paid off. Indeed, Hollinger has established herself not just as a good photographer, but a celebrity in her own right — the Annie Liebowitz of the Duma. “Because I’ve photographed so many, a lot don’t say no. Now my secretary can make a call and set up a photo shoot with no problem.”

Part of her success is no doubt due to sheer determination, but she can also be very disarming. An air of vulnerability causes her subjects to trust her and want to befriend her.

In the midst of a 1999 photo shoot with Vladimir Putin (then Prime Minister, now President), her subject expressed wonder at her high-tech equipment. She offered to let the former KGB-agent-turned-politician try it out and instructed him in its use. His bodyguards responded with alarm — what was this foreign woman putting into the hands of their charge? — but he stepped out of his official persona and started photographing Hollinger. “He actually wanted to know how it all worked. He was curious, and very meticulous.”

In a backhanded way, being a woman — especially a young, attractive one — may also have facilitated her rise. “Russian men don’t take women seriously,” Hollinger says. In a 1995 interview with the Gazette’s Susan Schwartz, Hollinger explained, “I got away with a lot. I was able to get shots I wanted and press passes and all that. I think it’s that I wasn’t considered threatening to anyone, so they let me come to their parties and meet their kids.”

Russian politicians have proven a very open and engaging set of subjects. “They’re not worried about image. I guess they don’t always realize what it could lead to,” she observes. “But I don’t think I’ve ever led anybody astray. I even asked Zhirinovski for permission to publish the photos,” she says.

Ah, the Zhirinovski photos. If any particular scraps of celluloid could be credited with propelling Hollinger into focus globally, it would be the ones with Vladimir Zhirinovski, the right-wing Russian nationalist, sprawled in his underwear on a divan. They were printed everywhere — in newspapers across Russia, Europe and North America, in George and Esquire magazines, even shown on a British film, Politicians Unzipped. And despite having given his permission, Zhirinovski told Hollinger that when he was Russia’s leader, he would break off diplomatic relations with Canada. But time has softened his resentment, and a letter bearing his signature forms part of the preface of Heidi Chez les Soviets, along with those of other prominent politicians from across the political spectrum.

Hollinger snapped the Zhirinovski photos in March 1994. By that summer, she had captured the cream of Russia’s political elite except the man she calls “the big one”: Mikhail Gorbachev. One day, a meeting with a Member of Parliament turned up the news that the man himself was going to be in the MP’s office the next day. Call, Hollinger was told, and maybe you can meet him.

“The next day I went out rollerblading, because I figured it wouldn’t happen,” she says. Still, she dutifully called and was told to her surprise to come over. “How are you getting here?” she was asked. “I’m coming by rollerblade,” she responded. She heard the MP turn from the phone and say ‘Mikhail Sergeevich, she’s coming by rollerblade.’ As Hollinger recalls, “I said ‘It won’t be a problem — I can take them off,’ but he told me ‘Heidi, whatever you do, do not take off your rollerblades.’”

So, at the appointed hour, Hollinger wheeled into the office. “There were five men seated around a table,” she says, “and Gorbachev stands up, walks over to me and gives me a big hug. Every time I’ve seen him after that, he asks ‘Where are your rollerblades?’”

Gorbachev has remained a friend, and contributed the preface to Les Russes/Russians, Hollinger’s latest collection of photos, published in Russia and Canada in the fall of 2000. “I’ve tried to photograph different ends of society,” Hollinger says. She literally pulled people into her studio from the street in order to shoot them. “One guy was doing road construction in front in my house. I said ‘You have to come to my studio right now,’ because if I waited I would lose him forever.”

The first of her subjects to be immortalized for the collection, a house painter named Alexei whom she photographed in 1995, was someone she saw while out jogging one day. “I had been thinking about this project for a while, saw this painter in his ragged work clothes and decided I had to photograph him. He was walking in the direction of my studio, and I was telling him ‘It will just take a minute,’ but he kept saying no. When we got to the studio, I said ‘You have to come up,’ and he finally agreed — but then he said ‘Oh, I have a really nice suit at home . . . I should go home and shave.’ I said ‘No, you have to come as you are.’” For taking the brief detour up the stairs to her studio, he received $10 — not much in Canada, but a healthy sum in Russia. Hollinger cannot say if the man knows that he has appeared in the book.

She does keep in touch with some of her subjects, like Sasha, a policeman. Such a friend can come in handy. Once, a policeman pulled her over, said that “something” was expired, and threatened to impound her car. When the traditional bribe failed, she called her friend Sasha and passed the phone to her persecutor.

“The next thing I know, he gives me my phone, my papers, and waves bye -bye. I called Sasha and asked ‘What did you tell him?’ He said ‘I just spoke in our language.’” The relationship has been mutually beneficial, as Sasha’s photograph has made him famous. “They’ve put that picture on the cover of many books in Russia,” Hollinger laughs.

Brushes with traffic cops aside, life in Russia has been good for Hollinger. Her renown has paid off in numerous freelance jobs for glossy magazines, the occasional commission for portraits of diplomats and their families, and campaign poster assignments. In 1994 she was hired as photo editor for Pravda, but she left the job after six months as it began to interfere too much with her own freelance projects. Now, self-employed and working largely from her studio, she is prospering. And Moscow is a good place to be.

“Moscow has incredibly high energy,” she says. “It’s very exciting; socially, everything is changing very rapidly.” Much of the change is evident in the look of the city, and civic politicians have approached Hollinger about a series of photos that would reflect the changing face of the city. Old buildings are cleaned and renovated, new ones sprout up — or down: an underground mall adjacent to the Kremlin, the Manezh shopping complex, was inspired by Montreal’s “underground city.”

But life for the average Muscovite is less wonderful, Hollinger notes. “While everybody gets to look at the beautiful revamped buildings, salaries are really low and prices have gone up. A lot of people are being left out, especially older people. There are no line-ups now but they can’t afford anything.” Her new book illustrates the divide: a photo of an elderly female war vet proudly brandishing a poster of Stalin contrasts with those of hip young business people.

While she says that she is uneasy being photographed — “I feel camera-shy” — a feature on Hollinger recently appeared in Amerika, a magazine focussing on the other side of the once-iron curtain. The article is illustrated by shots of Hollinger with the famous people she has captured on film, and one lone shot of her (the credit in small letters identifies one Vladimir Putin as the photographer). On the cover of the magazine, she wears a fur coat draped around her belly; the caption reads “Pregnant with Russia.”

She has since had a son, Luka, the reason for her brief return to Canada. But how long she will remain is an open question. “I love Canada, and Montreal,” she says, “but I miss Moscow very much. A few times a day, involuntarily, I’ll imagine myself driving down a street in Moscow, or walking along an avenue. Anything can happen there.”

But the strongest appeal of Russia is not its boulevards but its citizens. “The people are very magnetic,” Hollinger says. “They’re very open and generous with emotions. If they become your friend there, they’ll do anything for you.” And “Heidichka,” as she is known, has made many friends. It seems a safe bet that before too long the bustling Moscow nightlife will witness a soirée of politicians, traffic cops and assorted Muscovites celebrating the return of Heidi Hollinger.

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