Heidi Hollinger, a photographer in Montreal and Moscow, and Jonathan Sanders, Director of the Project on the Russian Future in New York, presented their new book, The Russians Emerge, at a recent Kennan Institute event. The Russians Emerge is a collection of portraits of Russians – from political leaders to plumbers – taken in the decade since the fall of the Soviet Union. The book, according to Sanders, uses pictures and narratives to tell the story of the people of Russia living in the "quicksand society" of the post-Soviet era. Sanders explained that post-Soviet Russian life is characterized by extreme uncertainty and constant change; wherever they step, Russians are in danger of having the ground sink beneath them, like quicksand.

Sanders stated that Hollinger's status as an "outsider-insider" in Russia and her extraordinary people skills allowed her to connect with Russians from all walks of life and obtain a broad view of modern Russian society. Hollinger's ability to gain access to high-ranking political leaders is particularly impressive. Sanders described Hollinger's first encounter with then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. When she was given permission, after many requests, to do a very brief photo shoot of the Prime Minister, she not only took pictures of him, but convinced the very reserved Putin to try his hand at the camera and take a picture of her. Once he had granted her unusual request, she suggested that Putin have one of his bodyguards take a picture of the two of them together, to which he also agreed.

Hollinger explained that her goal in photographing members of the Russian elite was to portray them as human beings, in contrast to the drab, unsmiling portraits that characterized Soviet political photography. She showed a selection of her work: portraits of Russian government officials, businessmen and opposition leaders smiling at their desks, sitting on the floor, and even sprawled out in a gilded bathtub. She commented that most of her subjects were very receptive to the idea of creative poses – especially opposition leaders eager for any type of publicity.

In addition to her portraits of the Russian elite, Hollinger showed photographs of ordinary Russians. Her sampling included pictures of street cleaners with brooms and shovels, soldiers and police officers in uniform, and street vendors with their wares. Hollinger explained that she found many of her subjects while walking around Moscow and invited them to come to her studio. As she showed the portraits, she and Sanders related the stories of happiness, love, hope, tragedy and uncertainty that the subjects told. The stories and pictures together provide a rich and varied sampling of life in post-Soviet Russia.