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The ordinary, yet exceptional people of Russia’s provinces

A significant part of Russia remains unknown to many of its citizens — mainstream media have no interest in the provinces. This photoblog captures a provincial life otherwise left behind. Русский

In 2009, Valery Klamm, a photographer from Novosibirsk, launched a photo project about elusive provincial Russia. This photoblog, called “Birthmarks on the map” (Rodinki na karte), quickly became popular for introducing poorly-known people and places. The idea of “our little homeland” as portrayed on Klamm’s website struck a patriotic, if unorthodox, chord.

Last year, Klamm wrote that “our motherland — in the sense of a supra-idea, a general idol that is worshipped and defended by all, in which we are born and to which we owe a debt — has ceased to exist. Spaces are cut off from one another and atomised, and the relationship between the people and ‘their’ homeland has become blurred and unclear. Everything is unfamiliar: there’s nothing left to love, nothing left to live for… My homeland for me is extraterritorial — a series of faces and fates.”

Klamm is now preparing his book The Siberians for publication — a collage of photographs and stories of “ordinary and exceptional” people living in the depths of provincial Russia. Over the years, these photographs have appeared on Rodinki na Karte. The photoblog is entirely financed by Klamm himself, and he raises funds via crowdsurfing platform.

When you started the blog in 2009, you decided to distance it from either trashing or praising the Russian provinces. Do complications arise in trying to preserve a balance?

If you go beyond evaluation, judgment, cliché, if you don’t see the exoticism, a “problem territory” or the “backside of the world”, then the result is simple: life itself.

This isn’t about a pastoral idyll. In contrast to city life, I find a certain kind of warmth in the countryside, a certain humanity. 

This year, one of the members of the jury of the World Press Photo awards declared that they were tired of stereotypes. Photographers are always walking down the same path: “more poverty”, “ruins”, all of them are “socially concerned”.

This wasn’t interesting even for our first expeditions. My blog spoke in a different tone from the very start: not alcoholism and devastation in the provinces, not wonky fences and the ruins of the past.

Gorno-Altaysk: artist Kalambina Zhilkovskaya (right) and her sister prepare wool for felting. 
This isn’t about a pastoral idyll. In contrast to city life, I find a certain kind of warmth in the countryside, a certain humanity. That Russia, actually, is the one which touches foreign visitors the most deeply.

What is the scope of the project?

Broadly speaking, its subjects live across Russia — from Chukotka to the White Sea. The majority are probably from Siberia, as there are a lot of my own posts.

Do you act as a curator?

I am the founder and editor of Rodinki. I have invited some other people to work with us. I said: “Guys, I can’t pay you anything, but it’s a worthy cause.” They responded well. Some people find me themselves, proposing their own subjects and work. We take a look and decide everything together with the author.

Tell me about yourself, about your life before this project.

On my father’s side, I am of Russian German descent (my grandfather was shot in 1938 and his family deported to Siberia to work in a labour battalion). My mother is Russian. Due to dekulakisation in the Kuzbass region, her family was deported to the Vasyugan swamps.

My own life began in 1961 in Novosibirsk. My parents, my aunt, my German grandmother and great-grandmother and I, who constantly cried, all lived together in a room of 12 square metres in wooden barracks in an industrial district.

An example of a Spruch, the traditional tapestry of the Siberian Germans.  
My father loved photography. Higher education was forbidden to him as a son of an “enemy of the people”, but that only drove my decision to study architecture.

Architecture organises the brain very well — when you start to create something real out of nothing. You become a designer. However, I wasn’t an architect for long.

At the start of the 2000s, I worked in the Novosibirsk department of the Soros Foundation, where I was coordinator of the “Siberia” programme. That was when I began to delve into documentary photography and photojournalism.
I decided that it was important to tell people’s stories so the country could understand itself better. That I had to amplify the quiet voice of the man in the provinces, the “fading hero”. 

Such work irreversibly changes a person; when you earn your keep simply because you are good at providing for other people. Your understanding of what is beneficial is turned around, and you begin to have a broader outlook on things. In some sense, you become overqualified. That’s fatal to future career development; you no longer have an appetite for dealing in rubbish.

How did you define your mission?

Let’s call it a humanitarian mission. I decided that it was important to tell people’s stories so the country could understand itself better. That I had to make the quiet voice of the man living in the provinces, the “fading hero”, louder. That the language of these conversations is photography.

Do you dedicate much thought to Russia as a whole?

No, of course, all those grand words like “patriotism” are superfluous in this context. I’d put it like this: it’s not enough for me to only inside myself. My neighbours, in this country and on this entire planet, are important to me. Those people are right here, even if that’s not close at all. And I like to be a teller of simple stories, a “photographer of the ordinary”.
Rurality is a universal theme. It doesn’t require translation; it surpasses all borders and differences, touching every audience. 

Of course, I experimented as a kid, exposing film, printing in the dark room with my father… But I came down with photography later. At the start of the 2000s, I was working in the Soros Foundation, and I was managing photography expeditions around Central Asia — I started taking pictures bit-by-by in the field, though I was embarrassed to do it next to professionals.

Nowadays, those pictures look funny and naive — an old man wearing a tubeiteka with a poster of Sergei Shnur in the background, deer horns on a souvenir trader’s hood...

A former architect, Irina Vikhoreva now runs a tourist centre in Novososedovo, Novosibirsk region. 
But I really liked my work back then. And then some people gave me an advance, they said that I’m mad enough to become a photographer. I learnt a lot from the St. Petersburger Sergey Maksimshin, among the other excellent photographers I accompanied on expeditions. Many of them then joined me in my work on Rodinki.

Would you like the project to expand its horizons beyond Russia?

Rurality in general, or the “realities of rural life”, is a universal theme. It doesn’t require translation; it surpasses all borders and all differences, touching every audience.

Therefore even the few breakthroughs beyond the borders of our country, whether of Rodinki or my own early work, have received a warm response. These included features in festivals in Austria and Cambodia, and presentations in Canada and Sweden.

Of course, I want to show a broader picture of Russia, beyond a political agenda and without stereotypes. Again, that’s the missionary in me speaking. 

The father of Vladimir Osipov (centre) from the village of Bergul was wounded in battle, but lived to see the 65th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. 
Much the same can be said about my personal project under the umbrella of Rodinki, called The Siberians. It’s an archive of my photographs from south-western Siberia and the book published on the same basis. The project is a mosaic. With every part of it, an endless puzzle unfolds, a photographic polyphony, whether with a hum or a song.

There’s a famous book by Robert Frank, The Americans. Then there’s The English by Ian Berry. My modest step in the same direction is the mosaic-book The Siberians.

There’s a famous book by Robert Frank, The Americans. Then there’s The English by Ian Berry. My modest step in the same direction is the mosaic-book The Siberians. With the help of crowdfunding, I am raising funds for its publication online — for me, that’s a truly global test.

Can you earn a living from Rodinki? How is the project financed?

I live off everything connected with photography — photoshoots, multimedia editing, teaching. At the beginning, Rodinki was funded by the local authorities, but since 2014 it has become a personal, independent project. In short, I support it — it doesn’t support me.

What is this project to you? What have you found in it?

In the aul [ed. Turkic: settlement] of Nizhnebayanovsk on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia’s Novosibirsk region, lives Meyram — locally known as the “water man”. He’s a mechanic who works on the village water tower. All water in the village is his doing, even though his wages are meagre. I was his guest, in his bleak bachelor’s house. And he says something like: “I have never envied anyone. Jealousy is a humiliation… try and do your best, and don’t count others’ blessings. Everything good here is mine, as is everything bad… If somebody feeds himself and his family with stolen goods, then they’re drinking poison together. In the meantime, I will eat plain bread, but they will be no happier”.

Meyram Moldakimov (otherwise known as “the water man”) on his way to work in the village of Nizhnebayanovsky, on the border with Kazakhstan.

He understood the importance of what he does, even if not in those very words. Even when he was not at work, he would ride his bicycle every day through the snow to the water tower to check whether everything was in order. Suddenly, a shift worker was unable to deal with a problem. And they said that were there an emergency, Meyram would go down into the water and sort it out himself.
Photography as a whole is a strange joke; it’s not just the ability to store pictures of life in a black box, it’s the key for a person holding the camera. 

Photography as a whole is a strange joke; it’s not just the ability to store pictures of life in a black box, it’s the key for a person holding the camera. A key which can open doors to some kind of different conception of life. You go through the flow of other people’s destinies, and the flow goes through you. You start to learn something, start to interact with the world and with other people differently.

In photography, it seems, the main thing is detail.

Several years ago in the Altai I took a picture. I’ll now describe it now. It was of the interior of a church, and the candle-holders were made of spent bullet cartridges. The focus is on the bullet cartridges and candles; the rest is just a blurred background.

The photo caption reads: “in the village of Kurya in the Atlai territory, the homeland of Mikhail Kalashnikov”. That’s seriously how it turned out: it really was the hometown of the famous weapon designer — he must have been baptised there once, where these candle-holders stand.

You write in your blog that a slogan for the project could be a quote by Andrey Platonov, “treat other people as though they were your children”.

I began to associate these words with Rodinki after I had already started the project. But it seems that I’ve read something similar before, in the works of other authors. It’s as if one should treat people like ill children who need to be pampered and have the tears wiped from their eyes to take the fear away. It’s unconditional, meaningful charity to others. When I start photographing, I don’t feel distance, but kinship.

Personally, when I find myself in remote places in Russia, the feels which arise in me are not always the kindest. I always feel that they swing like a pendulum, from truly sad sights, from drunkenness, for example, to surprising insights.

I remember reading somewhere that there was once an old Slavic medicine-man. A man approached him asking to be healed. All they did was drink moonshine. They talked for life, or sat silently, or sang — and what followed was a miraculous recovery.

As I understand it, the real difficulty arises in trying to unearth the most interesting things from the mundane conversations about politics or daily life. And to break through that wall is very tough. Have you developed this skill? After all, there you are, having just arrived in an unknown village…

At the dawn of Rodinki, at the very beginning in 2009, I arrived in the village of Kolyban in Novosibirsk region, a place rich in history.

I had travelled there for some reason to visit the local auntie from the ministry of culture, and the discussion turned toward the local attraction — namely, the late lamented Vyacheslav Verevochkin. A military man, lieutenant Verevochkin served in a tank division in a number of hotspots and, after joining the reserves, returned home to his home village of Bolshoy Oyosh. And somehow, unwittingly even to himself, he started making tanks. Right at home, in his garage. He bought busted old tractors and welded imitation armour plating to them, imitating the technology of the Wehrmacht, Japan, and the allied forces during the second world war.

A church in the village of Kurya, birthplace of the world-famous weapon designer Mikhail Kalashnikov 
The media had already whipped up a frenzy around the subject, so I said to the auntie, “tell the ironmonger that I’m on my way”. And she said to me “I’ll call him, of course, but he’ll just send you away. He already had hundreds of such visitors from all over”, to which I replied “well, call anyway — he won’t send me away immediately, after all”. In short, we somehow came to an agreement. When I arrived, Verevochkin was busy at work — making a tank. An austere guy, he says to me: “and what do you want?”

I told him — you know how it goes by now — that I’m photographing rural Russia, seeing how people live in the villages and small towns, and so on. He looks at me and says “well, I dunno about that, but come on, let’s have some tea in the kitchen”. Either way, he didn’t tell me to bugger off, so that was fine. We sit and drink tea, he’s very obliging, tells me everything — and the story is remarkable. “When I left the army I arrived home, and what was there for military men to do? Work as a security guard? Well that just wasn’t for me. So I built a workshop, and the first thing it produced— well wouldn’t you believe it — was a tank!” And so he set up shop. As a result, the director Nikita Mikhalkov even bought a few of his creations for one of his films. And that was it.

The local men and lads began to help Vyachesav, founding some kind of great museum in the village — a wartime reconstruction, complete with trenches. And in the garden stood a Tiger tank, complimenting the rural landscape.

First you reach an understanding and build trust, explain some things, listen to others — and then your subject will become something more: a hero, an adviser, and a colleague.

We drank tea together, and I hadn’t even taken out my camera before he says alright, now go home, come back tomorrow morning, work, take whatever pictures you need. This is how you enter a situation: first you reach an understanding and build trust, explain some things, listen to others — and then your subject will become something more: a hero, an adviser, and a colleague.

The important thing is not to rush.

These ways of life also differ among cultures and ethnicities. You’ve travelled to villages and visited Altais, Belarusians, Germans and Kazakhs.

The Siberian Turks of course have a very specific cuisine, which always involves lamb, in some way or another. There’s an oriental element to it, one must drink a lot of tea and make conversation unhurriedly. Nevertheless, Slavs — Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians — are closer to me, despite the fact that I’m half German.

I’m now working with the ethnographer Irina Oktyabrskaya on material for the Visual Anthropology Review journal. We hope to produce an essay on ryzyka, a Belarusian word in use among the descendants of Old Believers, who left their native Vitebsk region and settled in Siberia. Ryzyka means risk, passion, a force of life.

There’s a story here: I turned up in Severnoye in the Novosibirsk Region and approached the regional house of culture for advice on local personalities and subjects, asking my favourite questions: is there anybody in your community who mankind needs to meet, who keeps your community together, and so on.

The Kobdobayev family in their yurt in the Altai Republic, not far from the border with Mongolia. 
So they say to me, well, you need to meet Osipov — he’s our director, from the village of Bergul. He’s really wonderful. I go to him in his newly renovated office and there sits a very serious-looking man with a laptop. I tell him in brief about myself, about Rodinki — but there’s the sensation that he’s in a great hurry, as if he’s about to flee any moment. I’m in such a hurry, everything comes out garbled.

And he says to me “wait, wait. Have a seat. How about I sing you a song?” I ask him “fantastic, but what will we sing?”, he responds “I’ll sing you a lullaby which I sang to my son”. So I sat, my eyes rise heavenwards and shivers run down my spine. Whatever this ryzyka — this Slavic force of life — may be, then I felt in then and there. To be able to move from conversation to song, from laughter to tears, with just a few clever words is a very powerful, very spiritual faculty.

You’re now compiling The Siberians, but do you know where you’ll go next? Perhaps you’ll take another path entirely. 

The path has now ended; further there’s only steppe. And there are no roads in the steppe, only different directions. It’s possible that my “children” — Rodinki, The Siberians — will mark a new stage in my life. Or they’ll just become an archive: a chronicle of rural Russia.

All images courtesy of Valery Klamm. We are grateful for his permission to use his photographs.

Translated from Russian by Maxim Edwards.


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