Filthy Rich: Photos of Russia's Wealthy Elite and Their Hired Help

For the post-USSR aristocrat, nothing says "loaded" like your own personal servant. Photographer Lilia Li-Mi-Yan explores the relationship between master and the help in her work.

by Anastasiia Fedorova
Jul 1 2016, 2:00pm

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian society has gone through major changes—from being the society of the proletariat to a present-day world of newly established classes and social difference. The 90s saw the wild, uncontrolled rise of capitalism and a deepening gap between the rich and the poor. Moscow-based photographer Lilia Li-Mi-Yan is interested in how these roles continue shifting even today. Her photographic series Masters and Servants explores the relationship between Russia's rich and their servants, the complex social hierarchy of today's Russia, and the paradoxical situation in which society's most economically vulnerable can find themselves working side by side with its most wealthy.

"I am a very compassionate person and I'm most interested in people's relationships," Li-Mi-Yan told Broadly. "I couldn't stop thinking of the fact that in the Soviet time, everyone was on an equal social level and then suddenly everything changed in a blink." Masters and Servants was shot in Moscow; most of "masters" belonged to a circle of wealthy people Li-Mi-Yan knew. She photographed them with their staff—butlers, housekeepers, au pairs, nannies, drivers, and bodyguards—in their houses, a rare glimpse into the private lives of the wealthy.

Surprisingly, access was not an issue. "A lot of of people happily agreed to be photographed without questioning the concept of the project much," she recalled. "Although there were of course people who refused for various reasons, the main being publicity. After the first few publications in the media, a few people asked to remove them from the project."

Its archaic and old-fashioned title hints that the project—apart from being a study of certain elite professions—goes deeper into analyzing human relationships through the prism of power structures like money and social privilege. The work of domestic staff is often stigmatised in Russia, and the lines between personal and professional in their jobs are often blurred.

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"In Russia, working in service industry has always been perceived as a job of lower rank, [though it] has to be mentioned that all the employers think that they treat their workers with the most care and respect—in a way, they feel like patrons," Li-Mi-Yan explained. "At the same time, all the service workers, regardless of how warm [their] relationship with the employer, dream of saving up some money and finding a different job. Most of them have university degrees and very interesting professions, and [see] doing the service industry jobs as a detour on the way to the happy future. Some housekeepers refused to be photographed as they saw it as something which would put a tag on them."

Li-Mi-Yan photographed both male and female servants while working on the project. She pointed out that the jobs are almost always gender specific: "Most of housekeepers, au pairs, governesses are women; most of drivers, gardeners and securities are men." She has always been interested in the social portrayal of women; she once documented life inside Armenia's only female prison, produced a photographic study on how makeup was used as a tool of daily transformation, and created portraits exploring the bodies of middle-aged women. You can see the social framework that imposes a certain look and type of behaviour on women present in Masters and Servants too—visible in the differences in clothes, facial expression, and poses between female employers and their employees.

Domestic work often serves as a way out for the economically vulnerable, which only adds to the picture. "There is a recurring story among the home personnel I photographed," Li-Mi-Yan said. "They studied, got married, worked, got kids, and then suddenly at some point their settled life fell apart. They found themselves in a position when they couldn't find a decently paid job. Working in this industry gives them an opportunity to survive and help their closest relatives. From all of my characters, only one women of retirement age has chosen this profession [and was] not being forced by circumstances."

Masters and Servants

tells the stories of real people, although its aim is to make the viewer question the social structures depicted and fill in the gaps in their own narrative. "In the text for my project, I deliberately provided very formal information about the characters. I wanted the viewer to have freedom of thinking into the stories," Li-Mi-Yan says. "But I realized the whole depth of the influence these images had on the viewer only when I posted the project online. In various unpredictable reviews and reactions, the amount of second guessing was unbelievably high. I am happy about this result. It's like the project keeps developing and growing by itself."

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Masters and Servants is a valuable documentation of a specific post-Soviet social order, but it also works as a visual riddle for the viewer. The images—very still and carefully composed—leaves enough space for you to get lost in examining the relationship between its subjects, till the distinction between master and servant dissolves completely. "My goal was to create a kind of psychological portrait in which nothing would distract the viewer from studying different types," Li-Mi-Yan added. "Behind the seemingly neutral nature of images, there is a trap which leads the viewer into losing understanding [of] where is the master and where is the servant."