My babushka, my muse: one photographer captures her grandmother on Russia’s remote island of Sakhalin

28 May 2021
Interview: Liza Premiyak
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With an eye for flamboyant styling, offbeat imagery, and bold colours, London and Moscow-based photographer Kseniia Grebennikova is usually found shooting fashion campaigns and look books for brands like Adidas, Outlaw, and Sputnik. But the sudden loss of a grandparent convinced her to spend more time with her family back home in Nevelsk, a town with a population of just 10,000 on the island of Sakhalin in Russia’s Far East. She picked her grandmother Natasha — who she’d always admired for her colourful Soviet style — as her model and muse for a new project, Obsession to Return. Flanked by rugged cliffs, Japanese-style architecture, or just playing dress-up indoors with the photographer’s younger sister, these photos could be straight from a fashion magazine.

We caught up with the photographer and her grandmother over Zoom, while they were both sightseeing in St Petersburg, to learn more about what keeps them close when they’re a ten-hour time difference apart.



Early memories

Kseniia: Just the other day, we got our old VHS videos out to show my younger sister. The tape opens with me being held by Babushka Natasha.

Natasha: Yes, your mum was running you a bath, so I was holding you in the meantime. We lived down the road from each other your whole childhood. I became a grandmother aged 40, which is pretty young compared with today’s standards. It felt like a status change: suddenly I was a grandmother.

K: My first memory of you — it’s still clear as day — is you with your white high-heeled shoes and green jacket, bringing home bags filled with sweets from the grocery shop where you worked. For many years, I wanted to work in a shop, too. I would visit you and thought you got all this stuff for free.

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N: You would help me as well. You passed products to me. You were my little helper. But you would also throw tantrums. I remember one time when we were going into town and you decided to wear my shoes. I honestly thought you were joking, but no, you were determined to go out in them. I remember saying: “Aren’t people going to stare?” I had to barter with you: “Ok, you can wear my shoes, but babushka is going to have to go barefoot.” You gave them back after that.

K: I really wanted high heeled shoes because that’s what you wore. I don’t remember you ever in flat shoes. You’ve only just started wearing them now, with age. When we started shooting, you were so happy to put the heels back on.

Rituals

K: We love playing lotto [a Russian board game very similar to bingo]. When there was no electricity and water in Nevelsk, games were the way to pass the time: with one grandma I played cards, with you it was lotto.

N: And making pelmeni and vareniki [dumplings].

K: One of my early memories is me, aged five, cutting out dough and shaping them into dumplings. We even have an old polaroid picture of us making vareniki in the kitchen. Lotto and dumplings are important rituals for us, which is why I wanted to include them in the project.

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Style and fashion

K: If my grandmother Yulia was a simple, Soviet, provincial woman who took everything upon herself, my grandmother Natasha was like a goddess. You always had your face and nails done up. You wore a lot of dresses. And you had a rich social life. There were a couple of occasions in childhood I’d arrange to sleepover at yours, and you would come home with lots of food and announce you were having people over. You had this aubergine coloured hair. A huge bouffant.

N: As soon as I got to 10th grade, I had a chignon hairstyle. When you were 4 or 5, I took you to get a manicure for the first time.

K: You passed down your pamper routine! I’m now somewhat of a beauty freak.

Part of the project was shot in the hairdressers for that reason. There’s also another shot in the project where my little sister is putting on your makeup. I remember doing the exact same thing. My sister is like me when I was younger. In the project, she symbolises myself in childhood because our interactions are so similar.

N: I got it from my own mother who always had her hair and nails done. She had another friend, and they would hang out together and do their makeup.

K: The thing to note is that you and your mum did not come from means — my grandad was a miner. Yet there was still time for glamour in village life.


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Roots

K: I left Nevelsk when I was 16 to study in the UK. Some of my favourite places in Nevelsk are included in the project: Zarya beach with its dilapidated ship has a particular resonance for me. As kids, me and my friends used to play in an abandoned swimming pool. I also loved climbing up the hills to look at the sea.

Other than Nevelsk, it was my idea to set a part of the project in neighbouring Gornozavodsk.

N: It’s my hometown; my roots! I was born in Gornozavodsk and moved to Nevelsk in 1964, where I’ve been based ever since.

K: I am really unfamiliar with the place. I’d rarely gone there and didn’t know it well. When I was a child, I always thought it was the same town, and you just had to go a little further south. It was interesting for me to visit. We even tried to find your old home to photograph you in front of it.

N: It wasn’t accessible. So much has changed. There used to be a river by our house and it’s completely disappeared. But I have lived in Nevelsk for 60 years. We have the most stunning nature — it’s truly wonderful — the sea, the sea lions. Sometimes, you can see the sea lions right by my window.

K: When you fall asleep you can hear the sea lions talking to each other. It’s like listening to a meditation soundtrack. I think they are endangered: apart from Nevelsk, you can only find this type of sea lion somewhere in the US.


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On keeping in contact

K: We talk on WhatsApp everyday. When my Grandma Yulia passed away, I realised I needed to make more effort to keep in touch. I had this feeling of panic over losing another person close to me. It made us closer. Plus, I had matured and we had a lot more to talk about. I realised you were living on your own in Nevelsk and could use the social contact. So we call each other, we gossip about life in the village.

N: We talk about everything. Especially [she laughs] about aches and pains.

K: When I was younger, my grandmother did spoil me and this meant that we had a very specific dynamic. For a long time, I was the granddaughter. I got a lot of attention and babytalk.

N: Now we are friends.

Occasional arguments

K: We’re always bickering, especially as I’ve gotten older. We have mismatched ideas about humour — what is funny, what is not. You don’t like the things I find funny and when she you something that’s more to your taste, you’ll hear me say “grandma, that’s not funny.”

N: These differences are generational. All in all, we always come to an agreement.

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K: There are lots of life perspectives where we don’t meet eye to eye. You have a Soviet mentality. I’m open-minded. You often say that today’s teens have no brains. I think the opposite: our youth are really socially aware and knowledgeable. Even at schools, the programmes are harder and more complex than ever.

N: The thing that annoys me is there seems to be no longer any respect for teachers, like back in my day.

K: When was the last time you visited school? Where did you get this idea from? TV?

N: TikTok…

K: You love TikTok! I noticed this strange music coming from the room next door; it took me a while to realise you were glued to Tiktok. Why do you love it so much?

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N: It’s the one place where I can cry, laugh, catch up on current affairs. Before TikTok, it was Odnoklassniki [a Russian social media for finding old classmates] but that got boring, so now I’m on TikTok.

K: Also, I have this habit of looking through old family albums when I’m back home.

N: That’s when I get inundated with questions: who is this? What year was this? I can’t even remember what I did yesterday!

K: I’d start asking you “well approximately”. “Well approximately, when did this person die?”. “What happened here?”. I’m really drawn in by these photos because it’s almost like reading a story. For some reason, I’m really stuck on this obsession with life and death. But it drives you mad.

N: Now I say, we can only look through photos together if there’s no mention of dates.


On shooting together

N: My favourite photo is the one where I’m waist height in the sea. There are waves crashing all around me. It was cold and yet you were encouraging me to go further and further in.

K: Originally I wanted you to float in the water, but we compromised on you getting in up to your belly button. This was August, during one of the first days of shooting. To be honest, I didn’t realise how deep it was. And you don’t know how to swim. I’m surprised that’s your favourite photo — I thought it might be one from the hairdressers.

My favourite photos are the less obvious ones, like you in the stairwell. Those are the photos that really remind me most of my childhood. They aren’t the most glamorous images, but they show your surroundings, the way you live.

N: We laughed a lot.

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K: The first couple of days we laughed so much — and I’m talking about real belly laughs. It was really great to see you laugh so much because the last few years I really think have been somewhat sombre.

N: I loved it all, including you picking out outfits and jewellery for me.

K: You were a patient model and makeup artist, considering how tired you were.

You can be self-deprecating at times. But when we got the photos back, I think even you recognised how cool the shots were. You look the bomb even if don’t realise it.

N: [Laughs] One time I was eating a sandwich over a kitchen counter. Next thing I hear is “freeze” and you’re pointing a camera in my face. After a while I got used to “freezing” and being photographed.

K: I don’t like giving directions when I take someone’s photos. I like to document them as they are. Sometimes it seems like the photos are staged but in actual fact I was just a fly on the wall. The moments that stuck out for me and those I photographed were the ones that characterise you as a person — and that’s what I was striving to capture. That’s why I call it a documentary project with elements of fashion.

N: The photo shoots gave me the opportunity to see you from a different perspective. Not just as my granddaughter, but as a responsible, professional individual. I could tell that you love your profession. You have drive and purpose. And I’d never seen what happens on a photo shoot, so it was all new for me. And then to see it’s your granddaughter doing it. I was proud.

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