The desert may not be what comes to mind when you first think of Siberia’s vast expanses. Yet, there are a number of deserts in the region, the biggest of which is Chara Sands in western Siberia. The landscape captured by photographer and explorer Alexander Nerozyathat appears in the Republic of Tyva, when summer takes hold. Lying at the geographical centre of Asia in southern Siberia, Tyva is one of Russia’s most underexplored regions. Not far from Mongolia, the area’s versatile terrain, scattered with lakes, mountains and the mighty Yenisey river, also boasts an intricate tapestry of cultures. As one of Siberia’s most prolific photographers, Nerozya has travelled there numerous times in pursuit of magic manifested in the poetry of light, time and place.
Timur Akhmetov moved to Chukotka with his parents as a child. He’s been hiking in the region since his school years, mesmerised by its breathtaking beauty. He left for Moscow in 2009 and later moved to Sochi, but Chukotka’s truly epic landscapes draw him back for long photographic hikes and expeditions. Chukotka, in Russia’s Far East, sits on the shores of the windy and turbulent Bering Sea, not too far from Alaska. The climate here is extreme and changeable, and most of the population still lives a nomadic life, dedicating their time to reindeer husbandry. Akhmetov’s photograph captures a herd of reindeers somewhere close to Lake Tytyl. The crystalline pink light and snow on the ground suggest that it could be winter, but the image was actually taken in mid-May: summers in Chukotka are hot but swift, sometimes lasting less than two months. The reindeer run through the shot — a subtle reminder that in Chukotka, ever enigmatic and changeable, little can be seen as truly fixed.
In Kuzbas, west Siberia, the balance between humanity and nature has been disturbed by extensive mineral mining. Locals see the industry as a source of resources, perhaps not noticing that their population is a resource too, vital to economic growth. New mines and settlements open every year, while others are abandoned, in a constant circle of life and death. This idea of change inspired Maxim Amelchenko to give up his education in the city of Kemerovo — where he himself was studying the mining process — and set off to explore the shifting landscape of his native region.
Wooden cabins are usually associated with fairytales, but this image was taken during a scientific expedition to study butterflies. Svetlana Bulatova spent one summer with a team of entomologists to document the way they observed and studied the creatures’ peculiar lives. The scientists would spend most of their time in the meadows where butterflies would come looking for food. One such spot was in the Leningrad region, not too far from Saint Petersburg: the day was cloudy, and the photo appears as if an unknown figure had just blown a thousand dandelion seeds away into the air. The fragile balance and seamless connections within nature and between the human and the animal worlds lie at the heart of much of Bulatova’s photography. See her story of one ranger trying to rehabilitate a nature reserve in war-town Chechnya here.
A finalist for the 2020 Makers of Siberia photo prize, photographer Vlad Tretiak is best-known for his dreamy neon-bathed snapshots of his hometown Kemerovo. He took this image early last year in the outskirts of St Petersburg. “It was the first time that I’d ever been to the suburbs in St Petersburg, and the view from my friend’s flat seemed both alien and appealing, I loved how the electric light contrasted with the dirty soil. I could feel the chaotic and hostile nature of this place, but was amazed that it was actually inhabited by real people,” Tretiak remembers. The high-rises in the suburb of Murino to the north-east of the city are one of many new, densely populated urban developments being constructed on the outskirts of Russia’s former imperial capital. And, after living in St Petersburg for most of 2019 and 2020, Tretiak found that despite the sheer scale of the city and the grandeur of its main streets and historical neighborhoods, St Petersburg’s suburbs are not all that different from those in Siberia.
Ilyas Hajji took this image in Amuzgi, an abandoned village three hours drive away from the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala. Home to more than 40 nationalities scattered among the Caucasian mountains and the coast of the Caspian Sea, the Russian republic of Dagestan is like a country within a country. Yet despite a deep appreciation for their roots, many local young people are fleeing the region for larger cities and opportunities, leaving entire villages abandoned. Amuzgi, formerly a village of armourers and blacksmiths, had been in decline since 1935, when Soviet law forbade independent craftsman from making armour. People started began leaving the village to seek new work, until the settlement was abandoned for good in 2016, when Amuzgi’s last inhabitant died. The woman in the shot is travelling to Amuzgi from the neighboring village Kubachi as part of a festival designed to draw attention to these lost villages. There is no paved road to Amuzgi so she walks along the rocky mountain road for several kilometres to reach her destination.
The mighty Volga river, one of Russia’s most important waterways, is a source of hope and inspiration for many — including photographer Alexey Gunkin. “The river is a magnet. I feel a physical need to be by its side and to photograph it,” says Gunkin, who has been taking pictures of the river and those who live on its shores since 2016. His work is an attempt to capture just how the river shapes local people by nurturing a sense of freedom and internal strength. One photo shows a six-year-old boy tending his herd, accompanied by his dog and grandmother. The image was taken in late April, when Volga is at its mightest, often bursting its banks and leaving entire villages underwater. The boy and his small flock were lucky to find a safe patch of pasture close to a river dam, some 40 kilometres away from Volgograd. Gunkin remembers his first encounters with the river at the age of six, when he first went fishing with his father. He began kayaking on its waters at the age of nine and has continued ever since, driven by his deep connection with the river and his admiration for its ever-changing nature. See more images from the series here.
Photographer Anna Pliusina took this photo of a sunset on Gogland Island in the Baltic Sea, capturing both the serenity and unique character of the remote location. The island is located at the junction between Russia, Estonia, and Finland’s maritime borders. Unreachable by public transport and closed to visitors, it is inhabited by a few families who maintain the lighthouse and the meteorological station.
Photographer Alexander Zhemchugov frequently travels across Russia to document breathtaking isolated locations often unknown to the outsiders. The Altai region, with its unique history, spirituality, and natural landscapes is one of his long-standing subjects. This picture was taken next to the village of Ust’-Kan, nestled amid the expansive steppe and a dramatic mountain backdrop. “This place could seem isolated and desolate, but actually it harbours history of ancient civilisations. Ancient tools dating back 100,000 years were discovered just under the mountain at the centre of the frame,” says the photographer.
Anastasia Soboleva took this photo in 2015 in Agoy in Russia’s Krasnodar region: a major holiday destination. Although busy, this shingle beach radiates serenity. For the photographer, staying by the coast provided the perfect opportunity for observation. “I love landscape photography because it allows us to capture the inner nature of the place. Our surroundings largely explain our behaviour, communication, and thinking, and influence cultural production. That’s why photographing landscapes has always been an important part of my practice,” Soboleva explains.
This photograph is part of Denis Zeziukin’s visual study of Stary Oskol, a Russian town located in Belgorod region in the country’s west. The streets of Oskol are a combination of urban planning templates from different time periods: the Soviet-era housing estates coexist with modern housing developments. “Stary Oskol is an example of modern Russia’s architectural eclecticism, a generalised image of a typical Russian city,” the photographer explains.
Photographer Vera Laponkina took this picture in the town of Gvardeysk in Russia’s Kaliningrad region in 2012. It is part of her project Ozerkita, an exploration of the Kaliningrad area and its complex history and cultural heritage — as well as its reflection in contemporary and frequently camp pseudo-historical architecture. The church in the photograph was once Lutheran before it was passed to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Maxim Amelchenko took this image in his home town of Mezhdurechensk in Russia’s Kemerovo region. It is one of the largest coal mining areas in the world, with new deposits being tapped into every year. In the meantime, locals reclaim abandoned and exhausted mines by turning them into recreational areas for picnics. Syrkashy Mountain in Mezhdurechensk is one such place where people come to see the sun set over the Kuznetsky Alatau Nature Reserve and the former Olzherasskiy open-pit mine. Amelchenko would come here often before he moved to Kemerovo and later Moscow, where he is now studying photography at the Rodchenko School of Art.
Anastasia Tsayder’s project Arcadia explores Russia’s urban green spaces and their history, to see how Soviet utopian ideas collided with our lived environment. “Conceived as a socialist paradise before being reclaimed by nature, the Soviet Union’s garden cities form the romantic landscape of the now post-Soviet inhabited space”, she explains. This photograph was taken in Tolyatti in southern Russia in 2016.
Maria Babikova took this photo of a smelting plant in the town of Karabash in the Chelyabinsk region in 2017. “Chelyabinsk is very industrial. Throughout my childhood, I grew up staring at the factory chimneys from my window”, she recalls. “But Karabash is on another level. It is a strange apocalyptic landscape, where trees and rivers are dead and the rocks crumble underneath your feet; the consequence of large-scale human consumption and environmental neglect.”
Petr Antonov took this photograph in Moscow in 2011 as part of his project, Trees, Cars, Figures of People, Assorted Barriers. It deals with the transformation of the post-Soviet urban landscape by exploring its most typical recurring elements. “The photograph shows a gated community on the banks of Moskva River. The 2000s residential high-rises tower above a football field, acting as a sort of a modern substitute for the majestic mountains that would loom above a hunting scene in a classical painting,” Antonov says. “I use a lot of landscape photography in my work, as man-made landscapes provide a very accessible key to the society as a whole”.
Dmitry Lookianov took this photograph in Russia’s Rostov region in 2014 for his project Intrinsic Journey. It marries both the mundane and the surreal, the monumental and the crumbling, the disrupted and the calm. Intrinsic Journey itself is a study of the landscape, which Lookianov compiled from 2012 to 2017 by exploring the notions of the tangible, ordinary and recordable around us.
Alexander Anufriev’s series New Moscow documents construction at the outskirts of the city. This photograph captures the precarious intersection of urban and natural spaces. Blocks of flats are built on a field which used to hold sewage waste, and the fertilised ground is now overgrown with wild flowers and vegetation, in some places sprouting taller than the people tasked with removing them.
Maria Pokrovskaya took this photo at the top of “Bear’s Stream” quarry in Norilsk in the north of Russia. The quarry dates back to 1945 and is still used to mine copper and nickel ore – the process which largely shaped the industry and the landscape of the area. “This photo was taken in December, during the polar night, when it’s only light for a couple of hours. At the top, the wind is always strong so it’s very challenging to hold the camera and focus”.
This photograph of the Northern city of Vorkuta and its eponymous river was taken by Roman Demyanenko. Born and raised in Vorkuta, Demyanenko later relocated to Voronezh but documented his native city during two trips in 2018 and 2019 – its northern nature, the traces of the harsh history of coal-mining and prison camps, its crumbling architecture, and its inhabitants. “I tried to be true to the documentary genre and remain neutral. But in the end, I think it was my connection with the place, and the stories of my ancestors, that helped me finish the project,” the photographer says.
Liza Faktor took this photo at the meeting place of the Angara and Yenisey rivers in Siberia. “What was most likely a normal agricultural procedure of burning old grass to prepare the soil for new crops felt deeply disturbing,” Faktor remembers. “The landscape stores memories of traumatic events that took place in it — in this case the memory of victims of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing in the 1930s, when whole settlements were displaced and dumped on the wild and unwelcome shores of Angara and Yenisey.” The photograph is part of Surface of Siberia, a study of Siberian landscape that looks at the complex relationship between man and nature and their connections through exploration, romance, challenge, suffering, and historical memory.
Alexey Loshchilov took this photo in June 2017 from the Yacht Bridge in St Petersburg. The towering skyscraper is the Lakhta Center, which was close to completion at the time – an almost otherworldly presence in this remote and serene part of the cityscape.
This picture, taken by Maria Pokrovskaya on the road from Norilsk to Alykel Airport, captures both the austere beauty and harsh conditions of Russia’s northern landscape. “During snowstorms, a car can easily be blown off from the road, and in this case the only way to get to the airport is in a specially arranged convoy of buses.” says the photographer. “It could have been that the owner of this car was caught up by the weather.”
This winter cityscape in southeast Moscow belongs to Dmitry Lookianov’s Instant Tomorrow — a meditation on iconography and the spirituality of the future through our day-to-day surroundings. Tower blocks framed by urban wilderness are an integral part of the Russian cityscape and the imagery of the suburbs.
This image is from Natalie Maximova’s series Hyperborea — named after the advanced northern civilisation of Greek mythology. In the photographer’s work, the landscape of the Russian north becomes the ground to explore the fine line between myth and memory.
Roman Gostev took this photo in Nizhnevartovsk, Siberia. Both small towns and metropolises in the Siberian taiga exist in the shadow of giant factories, artefacts of the Soviet industrial dream that once brought millions of people in this cold and remote land.
This otherworldly, Mars-like landscape is located near Novosibirsk in Siberia; its hues and rugged texture are the result of copper mining. This photo is part of Alexander Nikolsky’s Refraction: a visual exploration of Russia’s inner periphery and the vast spaces which envelope regional cities, as well as the way that human presence impacts nature.
This photo was taken by Anton Klimov at the peak of Mamay Mountain at the southern end of the lake Baikal. Mamay is popular among local free riders, as well as skiers and snowboarders seeking wild, natural slopes. The photographer has spent several years documenting the mountain and how it has changed under human influence.
This photograph was taken by Fedor Konukhov in Moscow’s Ramenki district, from the balcony of the flat where the photographer grew up. It’s part of Konukhov’s ongoing documentation of Moscow’s cityscape and finding serenity in its eclectic urban environment.
The image was taken by Lena Tsibizova in Koshelev, a new town built on the outskirts of Samara in May 2018, just ahead of the FIFA World Cup. The new builds here were erected at breakneck speed and are stark in their monotony. These small three-storey houses are largely home to young families: those who’ve fled the nest but haven’t managed to put aside enough for a flat closer to the city centre.
Liza Faktor took this photograph passing through Dudinka, an industrial sea port on the Yenisey River serving the Norilsk area. It captures the drifting ice, “huge chunks of ice, as thick as my height, breaking and crushing into each other, floating down the stream and into the Arctic Ocean. They were of deep marine color, green and blue and pure, and excruciatingly beautiful”. The photograph is part of Surface of Siberia, study of Siberian landscape that looks at the complex relationship between the man and the nature which are connected with exploration, romance, challenge, suffering and historical memory.
This photograph of Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam in Khakassia is part of Alexander Nikolsky’s series Concrete: a look into the cultural and architectural impact of the material which defined the built environment of the Soviet era. “I was mesmerised by the vagueness of the boundary between natural and anthropogenous,” he says, “It’s not exactly clear which of the cascading hills surrounding the concrete structure are man-made.”
This photograph of the Rear-front monument in Magnitogorsk was taken by Arseniy Kotov (who also goes under @northern.friend on instagram) as part of his ongoing exploration of Russian urban environment. In the last few years, he has travelled across the country extensively to document places that usually go unnoticed: “I’ve seen more cities and regions of Russia than the average Russian would see in a lifetime. ”Light is integral to his work and helps to capture Russia’s cityscape and their grandeur, mundanity and romanticism.