Young Russia is an online film project focusing on short documentaries about young Russian women. The project was founded by filmmakers Salomeya Sobko and Maria Dudko, who had both grown up and studied outside of Russia; upon returning to Moscow, they discovered that young women were the most misrepresented group in contemporary Russian culture. In the documentaries they aim to show the real, diverse youth of the country, entirely on their own terms, and all their documentaries are a collaboration between the directors and the heroines. All of the videos are five minutes long and focus on everyday life and aspirations for the future, as well as exploring what if feels like to grow up a girl in modern Russia.
When and why did you start Young Russia?
Maria Dudko: Salomeya and I come from similar backgrounds; we both grew up overseas and came to Moscow several years ago. We began filming Young Russia at the end of 2016. There’s a real lack of representation of youth in Russian media and cinema, or at least the type of representation that we find interesting and complex. The project is an ongoing archive, filmed across the country, and each video is based on the personal aesthetics of the subject. After we filmed the first episode, Maya Kuzina, a Russian film curator, got involved as a creative consultant, so we were lucky to launch the project at the Documentary Film Centre in September this year.
What was the main inspiration for the project?
Salomeya Sobko: In part, we were driven by the underlying suspicion, or rather hope, that the younger generation of Russians is not quite as disillusioned and politically stilted as our peers. As Maria mentioned, there is very limited media representation of youth in Russia — most of what you see or hear pertains to drug overdoses and other tragedies. But if you look at what young people are actually posting about and sharing on social media, you don’t get that same sense of hopelessness and apathy. We wanted to dig a little deeper and investigate how young people conceive of their place in this country and what kind of future they envision for themselves.
What is the goal of the project?
MD: The girls that we film are growing up in an extremely conservative environment — there are very specific roles that are expected of women in Russian society. But because of the internet they have been exposed to completely different ideas and ways of constructing their identities. I didn’t grow up in Russia, but I spent my teenage years in the suburbs of Canberra, and there’s a certain alienation that you can’t escape, like you just have to wait out your teenage years in order to grow up and find people like you, who think the same as you. So the girls that we film are definitely at odds with the environment around them, but they’re very sure of who they are because they have easy access to like-minded peers. Social media really plays into this a lot. It also generates a certain visual language which I find really interesting, which again really feeds back into personal aesthetics and identity. So the goal of the project is to really document this new generation as honestly as we can.
SS: I think the project is for youth as much as or even more than it is about youth. Since publishing the first four videos of the series, we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from young people who are inspired by the videos. Many want to get involved as participants and “have their voices heard,” while many more are just happy to see what they describe as a more accurate reflection of their experience as youth in Russia. We didn’t have any preconceptions about how our project would be received, or even which form it would ultimately take. As we started filming, we realised that the young women we were in contact with were really open to sharing their private experiences, knowing that these videos were intended for a wide international audience. Ultimately we got excited by the idea of creating an online platform that would serve as a sort of living archive of youth narratives.
Where do find the young women for the episodes? Was there a selection process of any sort?
SS: For the first five episodes of the series, we relied primarily on social media to find participants. That meant hours of digging through community pages on VK as well as clicking around Instagram. Instagram is full of young vloggers from all over Russia, many with 30k followers or more, so we familiarised ourselves with their pages and communities, found out who they were following, who follows them, etc. We started reaching out to young women who had an interesting way of expressing themselves. Some of them were visual artists, some posted videos of themselves singing, others just ranted in front of the camera. A lot of the people we contacted understandably ignored our messages or refused, so we filmed everyone that agreed. Now we have young people reaching out to us on our site, so we are having to reconceive how we go about selecting participants.
Do you have an episode that is your favourite to watch or was your favourite to work on?
MD: We try and challenge ourselves with each episode. The next one which we are currently editing only uses footage from our heroine’s iPhone, which she sent to us. It’s interesting because a lot of documentarians rely on getting “up close and intimate” with their subjects. I find those sort of films really problematic, because essentially the person being filmed is supposed to “forget” about the director and sort of open themselves up, only then to be edited into whatever the director wants. But teenagers are used to livestreaming their lives on Instagram, Periscope, where they’re in control of their own images, so it’s interesting what sort of questions that poses in regards to the relationship between subject and filmmaker.
SS: Maria and I tend to be really shy at the beginning of every new shoot, which I think actually affords the participants space to define the dynamic. I think that’s atypical in a director-subject situation and grants our process a really important “horizontal” quality. We ended up getting really close to every girl, and I feel that every time I watch the videos.
What was the most surprising thing that you learned while filming?
MD: For me the most important thing that this project taught me is that there are serious changes happening within society. Russian teenagers are very good at shielding themselves from social hierarchies, whatever those are — at school or in the world around them. They are individualists, and are super confident about carving out their own paths. That’s really inspiring in the current social climate in Russia.
SS: With the present political climate, it can really feel like Russia is at an impasse. I was amazed by the extent to which Russian youth are developing an autonomous critical rhetoric. Their politics is personal and grassroots: less about waiting for a regime change or struggling for affirmation from society, and more about liberating themselves from hegemonic values and carving out spaces for self-expression and mutual support.
The women that your project focuses on often fall outside traditional “acceptable” Russian femininity: was it a conscious choice to focus on them?
MD: It’s not easy to assert yourself as a young woman living on her own terms in Russia. It was only a few generations ago that families still lived communally, which is such a big part of traditional cultures. That places certain obligations on a women’s role in society and the way that society views women. So I think “family values” are still a huge part of the Russian psyche. It’s such a limited way in which to define happiness and what women should want and aspire to. Things are changing, it’s an inevitable process, because people have access to different role-models, different ideas. There isn’t a lot of content in Russia that’s aimed at young girls that actually respects their intelligence, their individuality.
SS: I think one of the best ways to reveal the forces operating within a given culture is to look to points of resistance. So we were interested in talking to young women who were finding ways to overcome or push back against traditional society, and who were carving out a new identity and a new place for themselves within Russian culture. Our project is really future-oriented, so we wanted to focus on the people transforming society from within. We happened upon these intelligent and brave young women, and had a chance to witness them as powerful agents of social change. It gave us a lot of hope.
Now that your videos are available in English as well as Russian, do you feel any sort of responsibility for representing the new generation of Russians abroad?
SS: As Maria mentioned, I grew up abroad, so the lens with which I view contemporary Russia is ultimately that of a foreigner. Coming from the US, I’m really frustrated by the reductive (and generally Putin-centric) narratives of Russia that dominate the media. Many people's’ perceptions of Russian society are also eclipsed by stories of extreme homophobia, which result in misconceptions like “there are no gay people in Russia,” or “it’s illegal to be gay in Russia.” These reductions centre hegemony and leave out the stories of actual people, who are always forging complex strategies for resistance and survival. I feel that it’s important for more nuanced renderings of contemporary Russia to circulate, and for Russian people to be agents of their narratives.
Text: Sasha Raspopina