As we crossed the Techa River during my first time in Russia, my wife Svetlana, who grew up nearby in the small city of Dalmatovo in the Urals, casually mentioned to me that she was never allowed to play close to it as a child. This stayed with me thereafter and on my upcoming visits to Russia, I would always start here. I learnt that the river flows into the larger Iset River and was – and perhaps still is – one of the most radioactively-polluted rivers in the former Soviet Union. Its source lies beside the closed city of Ozyorsk, the site of one of Russia’s biggest nuclear facilities. It is also where Stalin developed parts of his first atomic bomb and, more importantly, where, in 1957, the third biggest nuclear disaster after both Chernobyl and Fukushima occured.
On each of my journeys to Russia I would find myself in the small forsaken village of Zagainova at the base of the Siberian flatland, not far beyond the Ural mountains on the banks of the Iset River. As the kolkhozes – large Soviet farming enterprises – in this area declined after 1991, the young picked up and moved away in the hope of finding better lives. Many got into debt buying tower block apartments in the sterile new building districts of Chelyabinsk and Yekaterinburg that promised both comfort and happiness. Such buildings are the modern answer to the Khrushchyovka apartment buildings developed during Nikita Krushchev’s reign between 1953 and 1964. Like everywhere else in the world, these buildings grow like weeds on foundations of waste excavated by the city. The vast new urban landscapes exist alongside their older counterparts, separated by undefined and forgotten strips of wasteland in which unloved, long-forgotten objects from the past reappear as geological markers that bear witness to a history which somehow refuses to end, but whose overgrowth of pioneer plants would do best to render it undone.
Nearby mining corporations and their innumerable pits dominate the landscape and produce tons of ore-dump, that finds itself again as a cover for dumpsites, which until recently were left exposed and therefore created a pungent smell in the air. City centres in the region are not filled with shops, malls, or a historic centre but with quarries themselves, located right in the middle, big enough to be easily discoverable in Google Earth. They bring both life and death at the same time, being in most cases the only employer in small towns while at the same time being the biggest polluter and source of damage to both people and the environment. The only justification for this self-exploiting circle is money and yet it is easy to wonder, where does it disappear to?
Such money could be used to relocate people living in hazardous areas, to redirect rivers which pass through toxic ponds and feed reservoirs for major urban cities like Chelyabinsk. It could be invested in filtration systems, to stop air pollution and acid rain, producing martian-like landscapes such as that in Karabash, which on account of being one of the dirtiest places on earth according to UNESCO has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
The paradoxes of all this are hard to understand, while being simultaneously difficult to overlook. They are intrinsically linked to one another and became part of my personal understanding of the area, which together form the social landscape of working class people, which I have tried to capture in this book and who make up the bulk of the Russian population. I don’t focus on the stories of individuals too much, but rather on the environment in which they are located. Each image is representative of people’s precarious living conditions, a presentation of parallel and simultaneous action and fates. Mankind is not the most obvious element in this book, but is never entirely absent. None of the landscapes shown would look the way they do now without the impact of humans.