The area of Moscow has almost doubled since 2013, when officials made the decision to expand the Russian capital into the southwest. Over the following eight years, the landscape of these newly rezoned areas changed dramatically. Semi-rural regions were taken over by developers and used for large-scale estates. Now known as New Moscow, the area offered cheap housing, but the rush to build many of these areas left neighbourhoods culturally deprived, lacking in infrastructure, and facing huge ecological challenges. Suddenly, ghost towns began to appear, as construction firms bypassed or overtook the city’s development plans for roads or sewers — leaving huge semi-constructed residential complexes stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Photographer Vladimir Seleznev spent three years documenting the swift and troubled rise of New Moscow on camera, hoping to identify the social, cultural, and psychological aspects of modern mass housing. In his series Oseev, Seleznev presents a visual study of urban escapism and explores how it mirrors the current political situation in Russia.
“I knew there was something essentially different about these places but it took me a while to find my own angle on the story,” Seleznev remembers. He had just moved to New Moscow himself, lured by cheap rent and the chance to change his own perspective. At first, he decided simply to visit and photograph these newly-built towns outside Moscow. But as he was showing the resulting work to his friends, he realised that all of the buildings looked equally forlorn and alien — whether they were inhabited or not. “These places were not Moscow, nor New Moscow, but some ‘no-name’ uninhabitable place that is very representative of our time. They were built for the future based on ideas long shown to be failures,” he says.
The series’ title, Oseev, is an imagined name for one of these suburban commuter towns. While similar to the names of other Russian towns, like Reutov or Tutaev, Oseev does not exist on a geographical map. It points to the endless ubiquity and lack of identity that is so characteristic of New Moscow, Seleznev says.
The images themselves, meanwhile, were shot in typically furbished and styled apartments — including Seleznev’s own. They are familiar yet lifeless, lacking the character that could help viewers imagine their own lives there. Most images were taken in Nekrasovka, the cheapest and most polluted residential cluster in New Moscow, although others were shot across a dozen similar complexes.
Alongside these images, Seleznev compiled real first-hand testimonies from New Moscow residents, which he recorded in the form of fake documents. Together, both mediums seek to capture Seleznev’s vision of New Moscow as a space that lies outside the realm of cultural experience: a communal place created from scratch, or to quote French anthropologist Marc Augé: “where concerns such as relationships, history, and identity are erased”. Such spaces are often referred to by urbanists and sociologists as “non-places”: spaces that can’t be identified through culture, connections, or history, like transit areas in airports or bus stations.
But while “non-places” seek to standardise the social behaviour of large, unrelated groups of people, such ideas invite catastrophe when applied to permanent developments like New Moscow, Seleznev says. “People lose their identity, as if they too are merely transiting from the uncomfortable now to a better tomorrow — which in fact, is never going to happen,” says Seleznev.
Yet despite such obvious problems, the demand for cheap housing in New Moscow keeps rising, especially among groups of middle-aged Moscovites and their families. Seleznev sees this influx to poorly developed residential areas as a form of urban escapism, rooted in civil indifference and overall insecurity about Russia’s current political climate. And while poor social housing remains neglected on the country’s list of priorities, Seleznev believes it contributes to many of Russia’s most pressing issues. “An imperfect building is a perfect home for anxiety, anger, and social apathy,” he says.