Photographer Evgeniy Stepanets captured his native city Luhansk in eastern Ukraine in the end of 2013, just before the escalation of the separatist-driven conflict in the region. The series titled Not the Promised Land was his farewell to the place he grew up in and a documentation of a strange in-between moment in the history of Luhansk.
“Winter 2013 was a very disturbing and confusing time,” says Stepanets. “Maidan was burning in Kiev and Luhansk was gradually dividing into pro-Ukrainian versus pro-Russian territories. Rumours about the war, food shortages and bank closures were going around the city. By spring the situation started unfolding: government buildings and police stations were taken over. The city was gradually sinking into uncertainty, anxiety, anticipation of something bad coming its way.”
By 2014, the pro-Russian forces had won, declaring the city the Luhansk People’s Republic, independent of Ukrainian control. Taken before the political change, Stepanets photos show mostly deserted streets and buildings, the whiteness of snow and the greyness of urban wastelands undisturbed by human presence. For all their apparent objectivity, something deeply personal and melancholic shines through. “Most of the photos depict the outskirts of the town where I lived for 20 years,” says Stepanets. “These are the places of my childhood and adolescence so there are a lot of memories behind the images.”
Now relocated to Kiev, Stepanets says he hardly misses Luhansk. “The main, and often the only, goal of young people was to leave. When the first guns started firing on the streets of Luhansk, thousands of local residents went to the railway station. Now they finally had their long-awaited excuse to leave and try to start over again.” At the same time, Stepanets’ memories of his youth in Luhansk still linger: “My most immediate memory is summer, the unbearable heat. The buildings sinking in the sea of green, steppes around the city, the rhythm of train wheels, dogs barking in the night.” And in his images, what is now past remains perpetually present.