In March 2017, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in towns and cities across Russia. The rallies, which were the largest anti-government demonstrations in the country for several years, grabbed headlines both due to their scale and backlash, as well as the significant presence of young people who participated in them. Russians under 25 made up between 40 to 45 per cent of the protesters — almost double the youth turnout of similar rallies in 2011.
Teenagers returned to headlines in 2018 and 2019 after again making up large swathes of the demonstrations protesting issues including the government’s attempts to block the popular messaging app Telegram and Moscow City Hall’s decision to block dozens of independent candidates from standing in local summer elections. Hundreds of young people were detained.
This context is important when looking at Olga Vorobyeva’s latest series, Lo-fi Youth. Taken at parties, gigs, and in bedrooms, the photos in this coming-of-age story on Moscow’s Generation Z make an effort to leave politics out of the frame. The only photo with any relevance to political discourse is a snap of a jacket emblazoned with the words “Filthy Youth”. It is still enough to remind you of one simple fact: this is the new face of young Russia’s resistance.
Lo-fi Youth is the first project that Vorobyeva completed in her five years living in the Russian capital. In search of inspiration, the 28-year-old shot the series while still trying to fit in to her new home city. In many ways, it feels similar to Past K-Ville, a photo book by US photographer Mark Steinmetz, which follows the lives of teens in a fictional town in America’s Deep South. The city Vorobyeva’s protagonists inhabit in Lo-fi Youth, by contrast, is of course very real, but for its young inhabitants, who have come of age during a time of intense global digital connection, Moscow is only half of their lived reality, the other half of which exists online.
The Calvert Journal spoke to Vorobyeva about her own teenage years, the gulf between generations, and moving to the big city.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Crimea, in a small town by the sea, which was where I spent most of my childhood. Every single bit of me wanted to break out of there, even though now it’s hard to imagine why. Life in the big city sounded enticing and exciting. Every summer, those people who had left to work in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Moscow, would arrive back in town for the holidays. It was like they had a special aura around them; they were the “city people”. When I was young, I wanted to be just like them. Back then, we didn’t have the internet and the differences between us seemed insurmountable.
You found your protagonists on the street, at parties and concerts. What were your favourite haunts growing up?
Because I grew up in a small town, there were no venues where we could listen to music. A few gigs took place at our local House of Culture. Apart from that, we’d spend all our time among nature: in fields, exploring abandoned houses, or at the coast.
How has the place you grew up influenced your work as a photographer?
I think the environment around me made me more observant. Perhaps because we didn’t have much going on in town, you paid more attention to the natural environment. I could always tell the seasons by the fruit and vegetables in our garden, for example. The fields, the sea, and open spaces took on a hyperbolic significance. I had one friend with whom I used to go around and study this wonderful natural world around us. I think, in some way or another, it awakened a desire to delve deeper into the world around me. Photography became a useful tool for these kinds of explorations.
Was there a moment when you first had the idea for Lo-Fi Youth?
Since moving to Moscow, I’ve been drawn in by the energy of the young people around me. At one party, I realised that even though there wasn’t such a huge age gap, my generation is just different. At the time, I’d been listening to the band Sonic Death. One line from one of their songs had resonated with me: “Look at me/ I’m not young anymore/ And that’s forever”. Since then, I’ve been thinking about generational differences and the reasons behind them: was it all thanks to the internet, access to information, changes in technology?
How different were the young people you met from your teenage self in terms of their attitudes and interests?
I think Russia’s Gen Z’ers are much more brazen and self-confident. Or maybe, in hindsight, I was just a quiet teenager. Nevertheless, today’s young people aren’t afraid to express themselves. In fact, creativity (whether that’s expressed in fashion and art) is already an integral part of their existence. They are never doing just one thing. There is a lot of multi-tasking that goes on: you can be a filmmaker, a dancer, and a musician all at the same time. They’ve grown up in an era when the whole world is hyperconnected: a time where for some people, it’s become more difficult to hide, whereas for others, there is a platform where they can be themselves fully.
One of your influences for the project was Past K-Ville by American photographer Mark Steinmetz. What made you choose this photo book in particular?
Past K-ville is concise but tender. What surprised me most was that he shot this project as an adult. So often you see projects about young people that are shot by young people. But in this case, the distance between him and his subjects creates something beautiful. As a result, the book offers a different kind of story. Photo books are my favorite storytelling format.
Did you have any kind of intention behind these portraits?
It’s important to keep some kind of document of our time, for anyone in the future who is curious about how things really were in the past.