Exploring life and landscape in post-Soviet Europe

A quarter century after the collapse of the Wall, what does the landscape look like for peoples of the former Eastern Bloc?

Here, six photographers travel across states that once came under the dominion, or existed in the orbit, of the Soviet Union. Their stories evoke worlds both ordinary and stunning and raises the question of how long the shadow of the the past can be said to linger over the present.

From the high mountains of Tajikistan to a failing mining town in Romania and the opulent homes of Russia’s newly rich, history, it seems, is never far away.

Inventing history

Making a mythic past in Macedonia

For Polish photographer Michal Siarek, the quest to depict Macedonia’s obsession with Alexander the Great started with an image: the construction of a 25-metre tall figure of a warrior on horseback towering above Skopje. As he later found out, it was one of many newly created references to the mythical heritage of the great leader. From that point he embarked on a five-year-long journey to explore Macedonia’s conflicted identity and troubled political situation.

Siarek first had the idea of creating a project about the rise of Macedonia's cult of Alexander the Great in 2010, when the government began its campaign to bring the historical figure back onto the national agenda.

“I was 21 back then and didn’t know yet how to cover the topic,” he remembers. “I knew about the conflict with Greece over the country’s name and heritage but It took me at least a year of research to clarify that Macedonians had not much in common with Alexander.”

The more Siarek explored the topic the more he began to realise that the obsession with Alexander was not just an attempt to fill an ideological void, but also the reason for Macedonia's growing isolation.

“The pursuit of nobility is now turning the country into an authoritarian regime,” he reflects. “I was interested and attracted by the scale of how they erect monuments that are hollow inside, everything being made from concrete and poor materials. Although they claim that they are to remain for many years, they are actually hollow and superficial.”

“The monuments of Alexander reignited the conflict with Greece. Everything was solved in the late 1990s between Macedonia and Greece, the name of the country settled as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which allowed Macedonia to be internationally present. But then a new populist government made the decision to erect this monument. The monument is called Warrior on a Horse, and though it's not officially Alexander it still revived the whole conflict.”

Siarek's perspective on this formation of national identity is distant. He captures the grand scale and detail of these new monumental buildings on a large-format camera, revealing the theatrical nature of these crumbling settings.

You can almost smell the fresh concrete and can tell that the Roman shields are made of plastic. For Siarek, these props are poor cover for the crisis unveiling in the country.

“Macedonia is torn apart by ethnic hatred and is very poor as a result. It's not able to negotiate joining either the EU or Nato. There is a constant fear that its neighbours could claim its land. There is a lot of uncertainty,” he says.

“With my project I wanted to show that the history of the region is not running in straight lines, but more like concentric circles — the situation for the last two years in Macedonia reminds me so much of the beginning of the war in Kosovo.”

In the end, the issues the photographer explores transcend time and place to touch on human history as a whole, the geopolitical nature of conflict and the foundation of modern Europe. “The story I wanted to tell goes beyond Alexander the Great and Macedonia,” he said. “It’s about rewriting or classifying history, rebuilding artefacts and questioning who owns antiquity and what legitimises the modern nation.”

Text: Liza Premiyak

Image: Michal Siarek

Snow ghosts

Soviet military-industrial power frozen in time

Danila Tkachenko is a Russian photographer whose series Restricted Areas crystallises the tendencies of many artists working on themes of the post-Soviet space. As Calvert 22’s Power and Architecture season demonstrates, there is a healthy interest in the abandoned or neglected buildings that once served as landmarks of Soviet ambition: the rack and ruin of utopia. What sets Tkachenko apart is the unforgiving simplicity of his compositions.

The architecture of Restricted Areas is scattered across Eurasia: from an observatory in Kazakhstan to submarines in the Volga region of Samara and oil fields in the remote republic of Bashkortostan. But through Tkachenko’s lens they become part of a single winter landscape, minimal and saturated with whiteness.

“Abandoned buildings of almost inhuman complexity” is how the photographer describes his subject, and it is true that the series speaks to the sublimation of the person into the political project. There seems to be no logic to it. Why would anyone build in these places? Why is there a submarine stranded in the midst of all this snow?

One image, of a deserted interplanetary antenna in the Arctic Arkhangelsk region, speaks particularly poignantly to the idea motivating many of these structures, that it might be possible to transcend the earth altogether. Planning to build bases on other planets, the Soviet Union prepared facilities for interplanetary communication such as this antenna, which were never used and left deserted.

Peer closer and a strange logic starts to reveal itself. Scattered across a vast landscape but assembled in Tkachenko’s images, Restricted Areas speaks to the scale, and ultimately the limits of imperial ambition.

Just visible on the horizon, across through a haze of snow for instance, is the secret city of Chelyabinsk-40, which was not marked on maps until 1994. It was here that the first Soviet nuclear bomb was created. Chelyabinsk-40 was also the site of the first nuclear catastrophe, one of the largest in history, equal in scale to Chernobyl. The accident happened in 1957 and stayed secret thanks to the fact that wind was blowing east at the time. It is still impossible to enter the city without special permission.

We might see deserted pumpjacks on a defunct oil field, a reminder of the enormous physical effort that the Soviet Union devoted to extracting natural resources.

Or this sculpture, Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow, the rocket on top is based on the design of a German V-2 missile.

But time and again, Restricted Areas seems to offer a reminder that even the grandest dreams can end in failure. This Bartini Beriev VVA14 amphibious aircraft with vertical take-off for instance, was one of just two built by the USSR built, only to crash after commission.

A derelict ground station in Kazakhstan's Karaganda region offers a glimpse of how much prestige and importance the Soviet Union gave to space exploration.

As does a deserted observatory in the Almaty region of Kazakhstan, an area with particularly good conditions for space observation.

Grounded flying machines, beached submarines, rusting excavation machines: Tkachenko’s series is replete with defunct technologies assembled at great human and financial cost. Buried in snow and kept off the map, they pose more questions than answers.

Here, a landlocked ship acts as a poignant coda to human lives lost and memorialised in these icy wastelands. The cruise ship Bulgaria was reclaimed after sinking in the Volga river, with the deaths of 122 passengers and crew.

Text: Samuel Goff

Image: Danila Tkachenko

The help

At home with Russia's newly rich, and their servants

Russian photographer Lilia Li-Mi-Yan is interested in the way our identity is shaped by various social factors: she photographed the inmates of the only Armenian female prisons, analysed female make-up customs and traced the owners of particular kind of Armenian vans.

Yet Li-Mi-Yan’s most celebrated work is Masters and Servants, a series of portraits of Russia’s new rich with their service personnel — maids, butlers, cooks, gardeners — a strangely intimate study of Russia’s contemporary social order.

The series touches on the huge economic disparities that were brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

For Masters and Servants, Li-Mi-Yan contacted a wealthy circle of acquaintances in Moscow.

Each portrait was shot in the employer’s lavish homes but the series goes beyond simply showing how the elite live, by exploring what these roles mean to their subjects.

“I didn’t make them swap places, instead I wanted to show their daily life. I wanted to lift the veil, putting into foreground the questions, ‘Who are these people?’ ‘Where are they from?’ ‘Where did they study?’ ‘Do they have a family?’ ‘Why are they here?’,” she writes in her introduction for the series.

Before taking each photo, she spent time getting to know the employers and employees, using her knowledge of their relationship to stage a more authentic photo.

There is still a stigma in Russia attached to hired help. Working on the series, however, Li-Mi-Yan learned that in many cases the “servants” had past careers as teachers, engineers and doctors, sometimes unbeknownst to their employers.

“He or she will have their own life, and the ability to hide it is an important element of their professionalism,” she explains, adding that this “allows them to keep their distance.”

The series and its title purposefully tests our own presumptions about who is the “master” and who is the “servant”.

Text: Liza Premiyak

Image: Lilia Li-Mi-Yan

River deep, mountain high

An epic crossing from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan

The two main rivers of Central Asia, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, cross Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Until they were diverted into a web of irrigation canals in the 1960s by the Soviet government, the waterways ran as far as the Aral Sea. For over five years American photographer Carolyn Drake travelled along their length, recording the vast post-Soviet territory the rivers ran through, and publishing the results in Two Rivers, a photobook of her explorations.

Here, Drake traces a path from the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan to the neighbouring Tian Shan mountains on the border between China and Kyrgyzstan. Her journey is told by the author Elif Batuman, working from Drake’s original notes.

In the beginning, there was only water. The son of Heaven commanded a golden-eyed duck to bring up mud from the depth to create dry land. That’s how the earth was created. There really is a duck called the golden-eye. Its Russian name is gogol — like Nikolai Gogol. In the Pamir Mountains, a spa is built on a mineral spring. The spring is called Garam Chashma, which means “hot spring”. A lot of springs have that name.

Is the travertine pool cold or hot? It looks like ice, but must in fact be warm. The baked Alaska was actually invented by the French, who called it “Norwegian omelet”.

At midnight, the shaman in Talas changes into white robes, turns off the electric pump, and lights the candles. The room has recently been renovated and needs a cleansing ceremony, which must be performed at night. The shaman jumps around, chanting and cracking a whip, to drive away evil spirits. She mentions Allah in the chant. The shaman also drives the evil spirit from her friend Kalera. Kalera doesn’t have to jump around; she just sits there.

The shaman reads cards for men and women who want to understand their lives. She’s a wealthy woman. Explaining people’s lives to them is a good business model.

The black figure among the green summer wheat is a woman in mourning. She lost her son last year. The bereaved mother collects apricots, removes the pits, and stews them — for the goats. Her son, who had children of his own, was stabbed by a drunk neighbour. The roads were snowed in. There are no telephones here. Don’t call us — we’ll call you. He was dead by morning.

The man in blue, a journalist, was visiting the sulfur springs.

The new road is closed in the winter and flooded in the summer. Until 1991, the only roads in these parts were in the military zone near the Afghan border.

That’s the journalist, with his eternal briefcase, a kind of ubiquitous bucket. He’s climbing to the source. I could tell you a thing or two about journalists and their sources.

In the beginning, there was only water. A lama came down from the sky, and stirred the water with an iron rod. The stirring created wind and fire, and thickened the centre of the waters into earth. These origin myths seem to imply a lot of bootstrapping, because where did the lama and iron rod come from? Later the people learned the lama’s tricks, and started moving the water themselves, displacing whole seas. This is the Nurek reservoir.

Following the slush-filled hoof prints of the Kyrgyz horses, Carolyn sees two figures. The grandfather motions to the little boy, who holds up a spring flower.

Tian Shan is Chinese for “celestial mountains.” It’s springtime here, it’s paradise, it’s whiter than a white horse.
White as snow.

Text: Elif Batuman

Image: Carolyn Drake

Urban pastoral

Seeing Moscow's suburb's in a new light

Where do Muscovites go on a sunny day? The options for sun-seekers in the Russian capital are, it seems, limited. To create Pastoral 2008-2012, award-winning photographer Alexander Gronsky (Aperture Portfolio prize, Silver Camera Grand Prix) spent four years capturing the patches of grass and sand on the city’s periphery sought out by Muscovites — along with the towering apartment blocks, wires and cranes that thwart any attempt at Arcadian escape.

Gronsky, who was born in Estonia and now lives in Latvia, explores Moscow’s wastelands, neither urban nor rural, the peripheral areas on the outskirts of the city.

The sense of perspective and composition in his exquisitely composed large format images is deeply reminiscent of 18th and 19th-century European landscape painting.

On first glance the landscapes carry a sense of pastoral idyll, yet the details Gronsky documents undermine this.

People are caught sunbathing amid litter in industrial wastelands, and rolling hills are replaced with the mundane repetition of identically designed high-rise blocks.

These are places on the fringes, beyond the rules of the city.

The fact that these are isolated areas gives the images a heightened, almost dreamlike sense of voyeurism.

They show a glimpse into Russian life — vast and meaningless, ugly and dangerous, littered with bottles and metal.

Together, they show the longing for nature, as well as the impossibility of a true escape, that pervades one of Europe's largest and most crowded cities.

Text: Liza Premiyak

Image: Alexander Gronsky

The town

Scenes from the decline of Romanian industry

What does it mean to define your life by a way of work that is then taken away? Post-Industrial Stories, the recently published book from Romanian photographers Ioana Cîrlig and Marin Raica attempts to answer to this question, and takes them beyond the rusting, untended factory buildings. It is not only that the lathes and conveyor belts have ground to a halt: carousels and sports halls are also neglected, aging families slowly fall back on subsistence living, the landscape takes on an inhospitable aspect.

Mono-industrial towns sprung up around Romania after the Second World War, mining and processing resources such as gold, copper and coal. They drew in workers from their (often remote) hinterlands. Idolised in state propaganda and pressurised by state quotas, the industrial working class grew into the landscape until 1989. Then, their world began to collapse.

Industries that had already been strained in the stagnation years that preceded Ceaușescu’s fall were radically downsized or abandoned altogether.

The relative prosperity of factory workers and miners gave way to unemployment and dwindling opportunities; the link between man and landscape was fractured. Cîrlig and Raica, former photojournalists now dedicated to long-term documentary projects, live alongside their subjects: leaving Bucharest behind in October 2012, they moved for a year to the small gold-mining town of Brad in western Romania.

They also spent time in Petrila, a coal-mining town in the foothills of the Carpathians. Their photos document the fragility of an identity forged by both man’s creative and destructive energies, his exploitation of the natural abundance of the earth.

“The industrial and natural landscapes blend together in mining areas,” says Cirlig, “creating an eerie atmosphere that, after a while, started to feel like home”.

She cites a retired mining engineer named Groza whom they met during their research: “When you live a good life for a long time and suddenly you are told that you are no longer needed, life becomes harder and harder; you slowly lose all will to fight. People have lost their source of income but also their purpose. It’s like a generalised depression.”

While these industries were firing, these remote locations were made hospitable: sports events, cultural centres and community events were funded by mines or factories. Cîrlig’s and Raica’s photographs capture the sense of a landscape that has once again grown harsh towards its inhabitants.

In their own words, the deindustrialisation campaign “has left a big hole in these communities: in the natural, urban and emotional landscapes.” Most dispiriting is “the sense of loss. The mine creates a contradiction: it filled the community with prosperity and hope, it clearly defined the identity of the whole area.”

When this is gone, what is left? “The most uplifting thing is the fact that life continues, people find the strength to move on, new life begins,” Cirlig says. “Plus, the natural setting for mining areas is usually a beautiful, scenic mountain landscape. Living close to nature makes everything seem more positive.”

Text: Samuel Goff

Image: Ioana Cîrlig and Marin Raica