Pinpointing Magadan on a map takes you to the furthest place in Russia that can be reached by road. Evgeniy Serov has lived in the port city all his life, documenting its inhabitants and the neighbouring regions of the Russian Far East. The majority of his photographs celebrate the area’s nature. Serov considers nature his first love, and photography his second. It’s easy to understand why — the combination of long bleak winters and placid summers give a remarkable scope to the images.
To reach Magadan by road one must join the Kolyma Highway at Yakutsk in east Siberia, a 2,000 km route known as the “Road of Bones”, on account of the thousands of prisoners who died building it under Stalin’s rule. The city’s post-war architecture is set against craggy headlands and overlooks the sombre Sea of Okhotsk — travelling south one would eventually come to Japan. One of Serov’s photographs is a drone image of Lenin Street, showing part of the old city during the winter solstice, “The people who worked on the construction of these buildings were Japanese prisoners and behind them is Nagaev Bay, where ships filled with gulag prisoners would dock,” Serov explains.
Living in Magadan calls for some fortitude; temperatures can drop to minus 50 degrees in the winter, and for many, working conditions are hard and brutal. “There’s a tendency for people to suffer from ‘delayed life syndrome’,” says Serov, meaning that they are only waiting for “real life” to start. Often, this stems from a desire to move away. But for many that never happens. “They’re not living for the moment.”
“Now, a lot of people from the villages come to work in gold mining.” Large gold reserves gave rise to excavations in the region in the 20th century, and developments still continue today. Serov’s photographs capture traces of industrial life encroaching on the hitherto unspoiled landscapes, where bulldozer tracks seem insignificant against the steep mountain slopes and wide tundra. The territory is enormous, and limited transport routes means that travelling to some of the surrounding villages can take several hours. “There are places where many people can’t go because it’s too difficult to reach,” says Serov, who has made it his aim to document the more obscure corners of Magadan Oblast: from the Northeast Siberian taiga where you might come face-to-face with bears, to Magadan’s half-a-century-old winter swimming club.
Abandoned villages and half finished Soviet era structures are scattered across the region — for Serov they are places of discovery. “The more I explore the more I want to know. I’ve learned a lot about Magadan this way. You have to confront what you find — these labour camps and derelict buildings — to really reveal the truth,” he says. The village of Sinegorye is one such place, a dilapidated settlement of windowless buildings, home to a small population. Another is Kolymskaya Ges, a hydroelectric plant producing electricity for the whole region. The dichotomy between such crude edifices and the awe-inspiring peaks against which they are set is characteristic of Kolyma. The contrasts, while stark, are spectacular. “Here there’s also a Soviet legacy — there once was life in these abandoned places. I love this type of correlation with nature and construction,” says Serov.
While life in Magadan is a struggle, even an endurance test at times, the region has captivated a unique group of people. Geologists, hitchhikers and even surfers have travelled to Magadan to come face-to-face with its unique landscape, from the Kolyma Mountains to the winding rivers of Srednekanky District. “The most interesting thing for hitchhikers is that Magadan is where the road ends in Eurasia,” says Serov, who began podcasting about the territory last year.
His podcast series, Station North, explores the Russian Far East through interviews with people who have journeyed to Magadan. In doing so, he has gathered together a small community of individuals who share the same passion for exploring the fringes of Russia. “I met a lot of travellers here in Magadan. Usually, when you live in a region you don’t necessarily think about what is interesting to other people. For example, it’s extraordinary that you can surf here — it’s not easy, but you can. I want to share this with others.” One of the people Serov met was Konstantin Kaskaev, who hitchhiked from Yakutsk to Magadan. Kaskaev’s ambition was to reach the famous Jack London Lake, a quiet, picturesque mountain lake in the Yagodninsky District. On reaching Yagodnoye, Kaskaev asked locals to help him cross the River Debin. He then walked 60km to reach his destination, where he lived for several weeks. There’s something almost Walden-esque about Kaskaev’s journey, and, like him, many others have travelled to Magadan to be inspired by the natural wonders.
Like the vantage points in Caspar David Freidrich’s paintings, Serov’s photographs give a profound sense of breadth and stature. In one of his photos, Serov captures mountains in the Khasyn region; russet coloured red hematite and yellow pigments sweep across the peaks and valleys as Serov’s girlfriend stands off-centre surveying the panorama. The diverse complexion of the range is caused by hydrothermal activity and iron oxidation. “There are a lot of geologists in the region, and people are reading the books that they’ve written. They’ve really opened up Magadan and its wonders to the rest of Russia. A lot of visitors now want to see it with their own eyes,” says Serov.
In another series entitled, Lighthouse Keeper, Serov documents the life of Nikolay, who works at Chirikov Lighthouse on the Startistsky Peninsula in Magadan. “Nikolay was born in Poland to a Soviet military family and knows that discipline and responsibility are the most important qualities of a lighthouse keeper,” explains Serov, who himself describes his attachment to the region as a combination of struggle, discovery and love. “My connection to nature existed before I started taking photographs, maybe I started to take photographs because of nature,” he says. Perhaps what Serov captures best is the primordial influence nature has on man, and in Magadan it’s undeniable.