The first time I traveled to a small Russian village was for a woman’s 80th birthday celebration. It was a proper Russian feast of eating, drinking, playing games, eating some more, singing, dancing and then eating again. Taking a break from the revelry, I had a moment to sit quietly and absorb everything around me. I was profoundly struck by the incongruity between the lively community at the party and the dilapidated houses, single shuttered store and abandoned schoolhouse that comprised this dying village. Here was this life and vibrancy that was being snuffed out by globalization as the collateral damage of modernization, and I knew in that moment that this was a story that needed to be told.
For the past four years, I have called Russia ‘home’. The impenetrable language, the breathtakingly harsh climate, the deeply rooted distrust of outsiders, the chaos of everyday life, the endemic alcohol problem – the clichés are all here. To see beyond this, however, is to see the sincerity, generosity, and deep sense of humanity upon which Russian society is built. Like many a Russophile, this vast and mysterious place of extremes has forever burrowed under my skin.
Initially, I moved here to conduct a documentary photography project about Kazan, a city heralded for religious tolerance among its half–Muslim Tatar, half–Orthodox Christian Russian population. But it was when I began spending time in the patchwork of villages that dot the countryside, that I started to more fully understand what it is to be ‘Russian’. Every Russian, even the born and bred Muscovite, feels a deep connection to the village; it is a connection to nature, to a simpler way of life, and to the very heart of their beloved country. Yet Russia’s villages are disappearing. With 20,000 villages erased from the map in the past 20 years alone, Russia stands at the forefront of a global mass exodus as people are abandoning rural life in favor of large cities.
The Republic of Tatarstan in the central Volga region where I live is one of the most diverse republics in the Russian Federation. I have traveled to nearly every corner of the republic, staying in villages belonging to various ethnic groups with names like Mari, Udmurt, Chuvash, Kryashen, and, of course, Russian and Tatar. To experience collective village life and to bear witness to ancient cultural traditions and religious rites connects us to each other and to our shared human history, but removed from their lifeblood in these small, close-knit communities, these traditions are crowded out by the allure and the demands of modern urban life. For this reason, the vibrant legacy of many of Russia’s more than 100 indigenous peoples depends directly on the survival the village.
While it would have been relatively easy for me to create a body of work that reflects only the stark realities of what is left behind as villages are abandoned- the poverty, alcoholism, and fatalism with which Russia is usually associated- this portrayal would truly serve no one. It wouldn’t do justice to the people who live in these conditions, nor would it act as a beacon call to the rest of world to save these dying villages. I would never romanticize life in Russia’s villages. I have seen how extraordinarily challenging it is, but I fundamentally believe that a more effective impetus for change is in showing people all that will be lost once Russia’s villages are gone.
As the world becomes increasingly more connected, it seems that a loss of cultural diversity is an inevitable byproduct. The effects of this phenomenon, however, are something we have yet to fully grasp. As the adage goes, you can’t stop progress, but you can stop and reflect on its costs. My goal with this project is to examine and celebrate the diversity that remains in Russian village society in an effort to help us all value and preserve what will otherwise be lost. I am committed to using photography to explore issues vital to our global community, but to do it in a way that highlights that which brings us together rather than what tears us apart.