One photographer’s quest to document Moscow’s landfill hills

23 February 2021

Visiting Moscow for the first time, you may not notice that the Russian capital was first built on seven hills. Today, Moscow is rapidly expanding, and again finding itself surrounded by gentle slopes. These hills, however, are very different to the ones the Russian capital found itself among when it was founded more than 800 years ago. These are hills of waste.

Tons of rubbish are produced each by the estimated 20 million people living in Moscow and its suburbs. That trash is piled in dumps up to 80 metres high in numerous areas outside the capital. But while those sites were once well outside city limits, in 2021, they are increasingly being seen as potential real estate. What once were neglected scraps of land are now massive construction sites, feeding the capital’s need for more homes and more affordable housing. When confronted by former waste dumps close to these new developments, construction companies take advantage of Russia’s lax environmental policies and regulation and cover the hills of trash with fresh soil — usually presenting the move as part of a revegetation program, or promising to build a ski resort to attract new residents.

Moscow-based photographer Nikita Zhirkov documented seven such former waste piles outside Moscow. He had initially been lured in by the idea of capturing nature reclaim each hill. Instead of a magical metamorphosis, he found scenes straight from a Tarantino movie, filled with vituperation and intrigue.

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Zhirkov first came across the issue of former waste piles when he began looking for an affordable flat and stumbled upon a good deal in Salyarevo. “I went to check it out, but as soon as I left the metro station, I felt the stench — I couldn’t bear it,” he remembers. In the distance, not too far away from him, Zhirkov saw a hill about 80 metres high that he soon found out was Salyryevo’s former municipal solid waste site, a pile of household rubbish covered in soil to conceal the landfill inside. “I was impressed, anxious, even scared, but curious at the same time. I wondered if there were other, similar hills, and I soon found plenty,” Zhirkov says. He travelled around the Moscow region through the summer in 2019 in search of similar landfills. He saw many close to busy neighborhoods, with a towering proximity that never ceased to amaze him. On warm summer days, the images he took on the former waste dumps appear soothing and quietly appealing, the grass dotted with sprouting plants, blossoming bushes, and fresh lively greens. “In the end, nature inevitably wins,” Zhirkov observes. But just as the top soil conceals a mountain of waste, these seemingly idle images don’t reveal the whole story.

In the Moscow suburb of Kuchino, Zhirkov walked over an uncovered waste dump just before its first layer of new soil was delivered, suffocating from the smell despite a mask. Elsewhere in Elektrostal, as Zhirkov approached a small recycling plant next to a dump, a guard appeared to detain him for shooting the area. Zhirkov got away with deleting a few images and left safe. But in Iksha, after a few hours roving around a giant landfill, he came across a group of people who were working and apparently living in temporary houses right on the landfill site. They advised him to leave when two armed guards arrived in a car and told Zhirkov to follow them. Zhirkov tried to escape, running down slippery slopes of waste in a bid to lose the guards, who chased him for another half mile until Zhirkov managed to find shelter in a nearby village, finally escaping home on the next train.

Zhirkov had planned to photograph all of Moscow’s reclaimed landfills, but decided to close the project after the Iksha incident. He had photographed seven revegetation sites in total, including some which were officially closed to the public (Zhirkov gained access by pretending to be a student and revegetation enthusiast). He had been able to see revegetation in progress and photographed both the workers and the equipment closely. But he had also seen other, legally-questionable activities. Attitudes in Russia towards waste are not only metaphorically but also often literally a crime.

But Zhirkov feels it’s not only the government which is responsible for the current disaster, but also careless attitudes that are to blame. Zhirkov admits that photographing the landfills pushed him further towards the zero waste lifestyle, and now feels that reckless consumerism is constantly generating waste. “Sooner rather than later, we will come to realise that the Earth is our home and we are fully responsible for it,” he says.

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