It was a landmark event that ended an era: the resignation of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev 30 years ago finalized the demise of the USSR. The PA’s chief photography officer in Moscow at the time, Liu Heung Shing, was the only foreign photographer to capture the pivotal moment of December 25, 1991.
In the fall of 1991, the Soviet Union was rapidly accelerating its dissolution. On December 8, 1991, the leaders of the three Soviet Slavic republics came together to declare that the Soviet Union no longer existed and to create the new Commonwealth of Independent States, which was joined by eight other republics two weeks later.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Liu Heung Shing worked as Associated Press Moscow’s cinematographer in 1990-1993. Liu and his PA colleagues won the Pulitzer Prize for news photography in 1992 for documenting the Soviet collapse.
It was clear by that time that Gorbachev was unable to reverse the de facto breakup of the country, and when Liu received a call on December 24 inviting him to the Kremlin, he realized that the decisive moment had come. .
The next evening, Liu entered the Kremlin with a team led by CNN Chairman Tom Johnson to witness Gorbachev’s live televised address to the nation.
“I had covered China earlier in the post-Mao era, and I know how much China was influenced by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and how, after WWII, all of Europe and America quickly fell into the Cold War, ”said Liu, who left the PA in 1995 and became the founder and director of the Shanghai Center of Photography. “So I was like, ‘You know, this is a big problem in terms of history.'”
When he took a position under the tripod of a television camera, a KGB guard sternly warned him not to take any pictures during Gorbachev’s speech so that the click of his camera’s shutter did not spoil the picture. live broadcast.
Liu thought about how best to capture the decisive moment and quickly decided that an image of Gorbachev suppressing his speech at the end would convey the mood best. He decided not to use a flash that would make the photo look like a routine press conference-style photo, and opted for a slow shutter speed to capture moving sheets of paper. and reflect the fleeting moment.
“The most important consideration was that I want to make sure that you still see the paper moving,” Liu said, adding that he thought it would best reflect “the passing of the moment in history”.
After Gorbachev finished his speech and closed the folder containing it, Liu hit the button and “as soon as I took this photo, the KGB guard standing to my left behind the camera … me hit through the tripod, “Liu recalls. “But it didn’t really hurt.”
Eager to quickly process the film and send the photo to AP clients, he hurtled down a giant staircase to the Kremlin’s red carpet.
“I was running like crazy, I was running like I was running two hundred meters at the Olympics,” he recalls. Down the stairs, he saw hundreds of reporters waiting to enter, who immediately realized they had missed the moment.
“I heard them all yell four letter words at me and lift their middle fingers in the air, but I kept running,” he said. “I went straight to my car and saw the flag of the Soviet Union go down and the Russian flag, the flag of the Russian Federation, go up and I was driving madly back to the office.”
In this pre-digital era, Liu didn’t know if his image was sharp until after the film was processed, and he feared that the slow shutter speed had left Gorbachev blurry: “It would have been the failure of my life. .
“So I went back and processed the film,” he recalls. “What a sigh of relief, you know. Mr. Gorbachev was sharp, the paper moved, and that’s the picture.
And then, Liu said, it made “the front page of virtually every newspaper the next day in the world – the end of the Soviet Union.”
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