When news of the Covid-19 pandemic reached Russia’s closed towns, many of their residents felt fortunate to be tucked away from the larger world. Their joy, however, did not last long. The virus reached them too as it first spread across Russia in March 2020, hitting these isolated communities just as hard as it did the larger cities.
Closed towns emerged in the Soviet era, when they were centres for sensitive research or manufacturing: towns which housed nuclear power plants, scientists working on military projects, or communities clustered around rocket launch pads. Many remain closed today, and require a special permit to visit. One such town is Novouralsk in the Urals of central Russia. Kristina Sergeeva, who was born and raised in Dubai, used to spend every summer in Novouralsk, visiting her grandparents. She returned in 2019, not as a mere visitor but as a researcher, pointing her lenses at the city to study the psychology of isolation. Then, Covid-19 arrived, adding a new and timely twist to her work.
Sergeeva’s story soon became centered around the city’s youth, and their transition into adulthood despite being confined to halt the virus’ spread. Covid-19 has inflicted terrible damage on almost every part of society — and in the grand scheme of things, it may not seem a tragedy that these kids have missed prom, or weren’t able to prank their teachers one final time.
Crucially, however, these young people have been caged with their parents at the time when hanging out with friends and building their own sense of identity is essential to their development.
In her series, Mailbox 44, Sergeeva photographed nine high school graduates from Novouralsk in their rooms, to hear their thoughts on isolation, online learning, and uncertain dreams for the future.
Quarantine felt like prison to me. The transition to online education was hard: my eyesight began worsening dramatically, but the teacher insisted I keep going — that indifference really affected me mentally. I felt that I was falling behind on my classes, and could not catch up on my own. Now, I have emotional breakdowns, panic attacks, and a lot of apathy.
Online learning helped us to keep our grades up. We organised ourselves in a group chat, split the subjects — I took history and geography — and shared our homework. We would change the texts slightly, so that the teachers wouldn’t notice, but they were so stressed about teaching online that I don’t think they cared much about homework. The saddest part is that we did not get the chance to organise our prom, to enjoy our last week at school, or to prank our teachers. I started spending more time on social media, because my charger was always at hand and I didn’t have to risk the battery dying. But socialising online really didn’t do it for me. I wanted human interaction. I really needed it.
I think social media is the best thing that humanity has ever invented. Staying home did not make too much of a difference for me; I was seeing my friends online and in person too, although of course we wore masks. Quarantine allowed me to dedicate more time to learning and bettering my grades. It really helped me to understand my abilities and my limits.
When quarantine was announced, I was alarmed: I’d been following news [of the virus as it spread] from China. But technology helps me to stay connected and aware of what’s going on in the world. My family lives in a three-bedroom apartment and I have my own room with beautiful windows and a lot of light. It did feel uncomfortable sometimes to spend all my time together with my family. My school wasn’t ready for online education either, so they gave us a week off to adjust to the situation. But now that we have experience, I think more schools will go online. Learning will change forever.
In the beginning, [my friends and I] didn’t even meet for birthday parties, but after a month or so we began doing coronavirus tests before meeting up for special occasions. I spent three months learning online and I loved it, because I saved those five hours each day that I would have spent driving to and from college. Otherwise, quarantine has taught me to be more cautious in public spaces and to be more strict about personal hygiene.
Quarantining was rather challenging — but at the same time, it helped me grow. It changed how I managed my time and prepared me for work as a freelancer. I’m moving to a bigger city next year to continue my education, and I’m prepared to study online if needed.
Like a lot of other people, I thought Covid-19 would only affect Moscow: I never thought it would reach us. But we couldn’t prevent it, and when I heard about the first case in our closed town I felt scared. No one was ready. I remember how our lovely physics teacher couldn’t even switch on the screen projector for our online class. But lots of apps and platforms were soon launched that have helped me with online learning.
I knew that some of my friends were [breaking the rules and] actually socialising and seeing each other during the lockdown. During that period, I did feel a bit lonely, but I learnt how to be patient and self-sufficient. I think quarantine was a positive for my education, but it did affect me mentally.
Quarantine has helped me to become more independent and productive. I started to treasure human interaction, because I realised how important it was for me. For me, interaction and real life communication are essential; I felt physically restricted when I couldn’t be outside as much as usual.