Russia covers a territory spanning 5,600 miles West to East: bridging Europe and Asia, it is filled with vast plains, steppes, and mountain ranges and marked by the collapse of the USSR thirty years ago.
“The post-soviet space is a dramatic one. While the capital of the young country looks up to the Western standards, small towns, villages, and their inhabitants seem to be stuck in the past,” notes Oksana Bondarenko, curator and director of the Moskovskiy Transport Museum. “Young photographers are interested in exploring the Russian territory and its collective memory because of this unique image.”
Industrial decline, lost splendor, and neglected populations are the favorite subjects of the four photographers we have chosen, all born at the end of the Soviet era. “So, photography here is not only a tool to depict this space, but also a way to address the problem of the photographers’ identity.” Their explorations and overland journeys between the country’s major cities have yielded a trove of forgotten stories, highlighting the neglected territories and their inhabitants.
Dmitry Kostyukov: By the Roadside
Born in Crimea into a military family, in his series « The Russia Left Behind » photojournalist Dmitry Kostyukov documents a twelve-hour drive from St. Petersburg to Moscow. There, “another Russia comes into view, one where people struggle with problems that belong to past centuries.” Over two years, the photographer, now based in Paris, went several times “on reconnaissance to find some interesting places.”
The wedding of two teenagers, aged 13 and 14, was one of the moments that made the biggest impression on him. The young bride far outshone the groom as well as most of the guests! It was in the small town of Chudovo, where a Gypsy community settled in 1986, shortly after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
“Some families I saw were in extreme poverty, living in places where wolves were killing pet dogs faster than they could breed. And all this along a few hundred kilometer stretch of road connecting Russia’s two major cities, both enjoying high standards of living,” noted the photographer.
His unsettling pictures of neglected sites and communities were published in the New York Times, earning them international visibility. From then on, said Kostyukov, “it became clear that this was no longer a personal project. Maybe one day I will go back to finish it, and make it personal again.”
See his Instagram here.
Fyodor Telkov: A Japanese aesthetic
“The first time I went to Degtyarsk, I was stunned by these yellow mountains, visible from afar. For some reason, I briefly thought that the landscape looked like Hokusai’s engravings,” said photographer Fyodor Telkov.
Degtyarsk is about an hour’s bus ride from Yekaterinburg in the foothills of the Urals. A copper mining town, where Richard Nixon gave a speech on U.S.–Soviet relations, Degtyarsk now depends on regional subsidies. But two enormous mounds of the abandoned mines towering at the outskirts serve as a reminder of the town’s history. And they continue to pollute its soil and water.
“After that, I began … to look at all of Hokusai’s depictions of Mount Fuji and tried to keep in mind his lines and compositional techniques,” added Fyodor Telkov. In the manner of the Japanese master, he composed thirty-six photographic views of Degtyarsk, with the old mines as the main subject or a detail in the landscape. We can watch the daily lives of the local inhabitants unfold in the shadow of the two mounds. We can retrace the fall of this once-prosperous territory into post-Soviet oblivion.
See his Instagram here.
Danila Tkachenko: A fascination with utopia and disaster
How to photograph an invisible evil? “During the shooting of the series Acid I used the spotlights with a green filter to illuminate and reveal areas contaminated by radiation.” Danila Tkachenko describes his mysterious shots glazed with fluorescent green, a color that evokes toxicity in the collective imagination.
The photographer, a graduate of the Rodchenko Art School in Moscow, fascinated by Soviet nuclear experiment, made this reportage in 2019, traveling across Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the Arctic Circle. The process, which lends the images an aurora borealis effect, does not detract from the tragic dimension of the sites. It evokes the thousands of people who had been exposed to the radiation and its deadly consequences.
“I travel in search of places which used to be greatly important to technical progress, and which are now deserted,” said the photographer. Shot in the dead of winter, the Restricted Areas series highlights secret cities, hulks of super-powered aircraft, abandoned observatories, obsolete antennas, all covered with a coat of white dust.
“These series are united by the fact that they are connected to my reflections about utopia and man-made disaster,” concluded the artist, who is currently preparing another sobering project on the gulags and the cities of the Russian far north.
Anya Marchenkova, conflit au sommet
Anya Marchenkova’s « Monastery » series is fascinating. It takes us to Kachkanar, in the Northern Ural, and tells the story of an astonishing conflict between a Buddhist monastery and a mining company. “In 1995 a disciple of a Buryatian dastan [Buddhist school], followed the instruction of his teacher to build a monastery at the top of the Kachkanar mountain: the construction is still ongoing.”
Kachkanar has been an iron-mining town since the 1980s. This industrial activity is represented in the photographs by a gaping hole covered with ice. Perched 600 meters higher stands the monastery. It seems as if frozen for eternity.
While the mining company and the monastery are fighting over the land where the monastery is built, the monastery’s founder is pursuing another dream: to build a zeppelin. “I see this as a higher form of escapism and a virtual unrealized solution: to drift away in the air,” Anya Marchenkova observes poetically.
See her Instagram here.
By Charlotte Jean
Charlotte Jean is a journalist and author. A former contributor to Beaux Arts Magazine and the founder of Darwin Nutrition, she graduated from the École du Louvre, where she majored in contemporary art.