A photographer’s darkly comic testimony to Moscow’s ignored radioactive crisis

4 May 2021

22 April was International Earth Day. For hundreds of workers building a new highway in southeast Moscow, however, it was just a normal Thursday — despite the ecological disaster brewing underneath their feet.

The highway construction site is perched on top of a radioactive chemical landfill site. Digging over the earth has caused radiation levels to spike, vastly exceeding accepted safety norms — but none of this has stood in the way of the local authorities who approved the development. Photographer Dmitry Pechurin grew up in the same area, and felt helpless, pitted against both the system and the major ecological catastrophe in his neighbourhood. He turned to photography to deal with the personal turmoil that the development has triggered — including losing his sense of home. “Here I am, at the playground where I used to play as a kid, putting on protection to take soil samples and carry out radiation tests,” he says.

Machines started breaking up clods and removing weeds in Moscow’s Moskvorechie-Saburovo district last summer, including on the grounds of the former landfill. The groundwork prompted Pechurin to leave the neighbourhood he grew up in for a safer area of the city. He had begun visiting the landfill with experts and activists almost a year before construction began, taking pictures and mixing them with screenshots from official TV reports that denied the radiation existed. By combining these shots with deliberately blurred analogue images and abstract shots of the area, he created a photo project that is both darkly comic, mysterious, and sentimental. For Pechurin, the greatest threat is not only the radiation itself, but also the collective denial from officials and residents. “Most locals I talk to about the radiation in the neighborhood don’t believe me; [they] see this as a fictional horror sorry,” Pechurin says.

The Russian capital has undergone massive infrastructural redevelopments in the past five years. New traffic routes were introduced in central Moscow, dozens of new metro stations were inaugurated, and a one-time Soviet cargo train route was redesigned for public transport. A large swathe of the Moscow region, almost one third the size of Moscow itself, has seen major transport restructuring to serve a new string of housing developments. Changes have been introduced quickly, but not sustainably. And although many of these initiatives have allowed for greater mobility and comfort for millions of new Muscovites drawn to the city by the promise of work, many have also neglected the protection of local ecosystems. Others have reignited old problems. When the radioactive landfill was first created, it was far from the city. Now, it is far closer to residential areas — and directly underneath the planned multi-lane highway. “As the landfill gets dug up, radionuclides are thrown into the area. Together with dust, all this enters the human body,” says Pechurin.

It is not only Pechurin who is concerned. The photographer spent months with activists, scientists, municipal authorities, and volunteers close to the site, taking chemical tests, spreading information in the community, and even organising a 24/7 occupation of the site in an attempt to prevent the construction. The protest was brutally dispersed by police, with some 62 people ultimately detained. But the demonstration was not in vain. “After the uproar that [the protest] caused, the mayor of Moscow officially declared there was some radioactive material on the site, but not an amount that was significant enough to halt construction,” Pechurin says. Moscow City Hall also allocated funds and personnel to regenerate the area, although independent experts claim that it is not enough to tackle the problem at hand.

For Pechurin, the situation is far from optimistic. Before construction began, Saburovo was one of Moscow’s most appealing outskirts, naturally divided from most of the city by a belt of parks and lakes. The decision to build the highway has not only destroyed its fragile ecosystem, but also Pechurin’s family. “My parents and my closest relatives all live there. They have no funds to move out. I see it as a personal tragedy,” Pechurin shares. The case has shifted Pechurin’s perspective towards politics in general — particularly as the incident coincided with major ecological catastrophes in the Russian regions of Norilsk and Kamchatka, where tons of toxic waste leaked into the Arctic and along the Pacific coast respectively. “If issues as dangerous as radioactive leaks are being neglected or denied, I wonder what kind of things are happening in other areas.”

Pechurin was personally involved in the protests, but he admits bitterly that he sometimes feels out of touch with the reality in Saburovo. “Everyday, I see people in white uniforms taking measurements and samples; I see puddles of unnatural orange and turquoise outside my window, yet at the end of the day, I switch on the TV, and see reports that make me feel as if I made it all up,” he explains. It is this deep sense of being disconnected from the reality, from both his family and the familiar places where he grew up, that inspired Pechurin to create an artistic photo project, rather than a documentary shoot on the Saburovo crisis. Inspired by Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Pechurin uses reconstructed pseudo-documentary shots to address not only ecological problems, but also intimate philosophical and psychological issues, such as denial, fear, manipulation, and encounters with the unknown. “I don’t provide any evidence. I want the audience to make their own decision whether to believe [in the Saburovo crisis] or not,’ Pechurin states.

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