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Snapshots: Russia - On the Edges of Empire

This series charts the work of photographers in China, India and Russia who explore their countries through their lenses. Because of the keen observation that photography requires, the artists are perceptive witnesses of the societies they inhabit.

AIRED: May 13, 2021 | 0:26:28
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TRANSCRIPT

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Narrator: 9,000 kilometers from east to west,

3,000 from north to south,

11 international time zones and 22 republics --

Russia is a world unto itself,

straddling the Eastern and Western worlds

brimming with contrasts and contradictions.

[ Dogs barking ]

From one utopia to the other,

the history of Russia has been written to the rhythm

of political and social upheavals of a rare violence.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union,

a new Russia has appeared.

Communism has made way for savage capitalism,

strongly backed by an authoritarian political power.

As for photography, it has changed hands.

During the Soviet era, it was a massive-scale propaganda tool.

Today, it has become a privileged form of expression

for a whole generation of artists.

Far removed from media based clichés,

they crisscross the country.

Through their eyes,

these films offer an unexpected journey

into the heart of a country in full transition.

[ Fire crackling ]

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Chernobyl, 1991.

Five years after the explosion at the nuclear power plant,

photographer Victoria Ivleva

entered into the heart of reactor four.

She stayed there for 15 minutes,

scrambling over piles of twisted, melted metals

and other remains.

She was the only photographer to have ever obtained

this dangerous privilege.

A humanist adventurer,

Victoria Ivleva defines herself as a committed activist.

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[ Indistinct conversations in Russian ]

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[ Woman chants in Russian ]

[ People chant in Russian ]

Victoria Ivleva has never stopped speaking out.

From Afghanistan to Rwanda,

she has covered numerous armed conflicts.

Her photographs are a testament to the chaos of the world

against which she strives to fight a daily battle.

Filling the roles of reporter, activist, and volunteer,

She never balks at openly criticizing Vladimir Putin

and his government,

like during this protest in homage of Boris Nemtsov,

a fierce opponent of power shot down 100 yards from the Kremlin.

Ivleva: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: This year will mark 100 years of bloodbaths in Russia.

I don't think a single day has gone by

when someone hasn't been assassinated in this country.

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[ People chanting in Russia ]

And I'm one of the 140 million guilty parties to the situation.

It's my homeland, and I love it.

But it has committed so many atrocities across the world.

It oppresses a neighboring country,

bombs a distant country.

Our government interferes in our private lives.

It wants to know who's sleeping with whom and in what position.

It wants to know what the dominant ideology is

within a family.

The state is everywhere, even in our beds.

Unfortunately, I've often noticed that conversations

with unconditional defenders of Russia

usually end with, "Beat it.

You're nothing but an idiot."

Even when you manage to catch them out,

to show them that one plus one makes two,

they reply, "No, it makes three.

Now beat it."

[ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: I've seen lots of wars.

Firstly, as a human being,

and all of them, in one way or another,

are etched in my mind forever.

Ukraine was one of them, of course.

In my opinion, it was the worst ever case of Russian infamy.

What I saw in Ukraine was a people --

not a government -- a people

which had decided to change its course of history,

and my country decided to prevent that

by whatever possible means.

I took this photo 11 years ago

during one of my trips around the ex Soviet states.

This cross stood in the yard of the NKVD prison

in Lvov, Ukraine,

in memory of the victims.

And yet, we had the feeling of being brother peoples,

that no two peoples on this earth

were as close as we were.

Ivleva: [ Singing in Russian ]

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[ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: Russia's internal problems,

which we never even thought about before,

have surfaced here in Ukraine.

It's a kind of imperial complex which nobody evoked before.

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Ukraine revealed that side to itself.

It all came out.

And that has deeply saddened me.

[ People chanting in Russian ]

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Ivleva: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: This was a huge protest march against the war,

but one which couldn't really change anything, of course,

But I found memories of the massive crowds

that gathered on the streets of Moscow.

We photographers formed our small cortege on the side.

We blew up lots of war photos

by distinguished Russian photographers.

The photos showed what we don't really like to show in Russia --

the victims of war.

I blew up a photo of a young woman shot dead

and lying on the ground in a pool of her own blood.

She must have left home in a hurry

because she was wearing different shoes on her feet.

She had tried to escape from war,

but hadn't managed.

We let things like this happen.

We let Russia become an aggressive country,

which no longer knows how to live in peace

with its neighbors.

We have a degree of responsibility for that.

After all, we don't live in a monarchy.

We have elections.

And it was my fellow citizens who chose that man.

I was powerless to prevent it,

to change the minds of my people,

which means that this is who we are.

And that makes me very sad.

[ People chant in Russian ]

Domozhilov: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: It all started with the subject of sports.

My first series was on football fans.

I'm a big sports fan,

so it didn't take me long to choose my subject.

Then the subject of football began to evolve

towards an interest in sports in general.

[ People chanting in Russian ]

Domozhilov: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: It also became a port of entry

into other, vaster, and more complex subjects,

such as aggression, crowds, or fanaticism.

[ People shouting indistinctly in Russian ]

Domozhilov: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: Everywhere I went, I came across people

with links to nationalist movements.

[ Russian heavy metal music plays ]

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Domozhilov: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: That's what inspired my long-term project.

To me, the subject of identity

is the next logical step after aggression.

The fanaticism based around football

is also a matter of identity.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union,

we all became hostages of cultural trauma.

And now we no longer know who we are.

We were Soviets.

But what are we today? Russians? But what's a Russian?

Someone with Russian blood? Someone who speaks Russian?

Someone who loves Russian culture?

The incumbent power is trying to build an identity for the people

to make us kind of Sovieto-Russians --

hence, all the tension.

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[ Indistinct conversations in Russian ]

Interpreter: Also working on another series,

the least political of all.

It's the story of the particular personality that is made.

I hope to finish soon.

[ Both speaking Russian ]

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His real name's Slava,

but he goes by the nickname Ali Baba.

[ Speaking Russian ]

He's the archetypal traveler, a pilgrim.

He's a homeless guy from Moscow who has made a name for himself

in combined wrestling.

It's a type of wrestling

where you can use a combination of techniques,

but which still has rules you must abide by.

[ Both speaking Russian ]

Domozhilov: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: He started taking part in semiprofessional tournaments

at over 40 years old.

He has fought an incredible number of bouts --

over a hundred --

and has traveled all over Russia,

and he has learned from his defeats

to march towards victory.

He has always turned down any material gain.

Recently in Russia, you can sense a kind of fever mounting,

a fascination with strength,

but also with militarization.

Russia needs a warrior figure, which perfectly suits

the creators of the modern day ideological myth.

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Our president fits this portrait very well.

He's the perfect example of masculinity.

That's why Putin has kept getting elected for so long --

the people want a strong czar, both mentally and physically.

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It's sad, what's been going on these past five years,

this ideological break.

I sometimes feel we are incapable

of agreeing on certain things.

We don't have the wisdom, intelligence, or desire

to listen to each other.

Those who back Putin, for example,

often find it hard to discuss things with liberals.

And yet it's very obviously where the tragedy lies.

We need to learn how to speak and listen to each other.

Events in Ukraine only served to increase aggressiveness

and arouse passions.

That's why Ukraine has a place in the next part of my project.

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At first, I decided to photograph

Russian army volunteers.

I wanted to understand

why Russians would want to go away and fight.

I was struck by the fact that they weren't people

who had already fought --

veterans of Afghanistan or Chechnya --

and all kinds of professions were represented.

A baker and a sales manager were all of a sudden fellow soldiers.

[ Soldiers marching ]

They all wanted talks to begin, for peace to be established,

and for it to be all over and done with.

[ Marching continues ]

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[ Baby coos ]

[ Giggles ]

[ Speaking Russian ]

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Domozhilov: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: Two or three months after my last visit to Donbas,

I started going through a bad patch.

So when I was asked to cross the entire country

to do a series in the Far East on the breeding of cranes,

I said yes.

I see this bird as a very powerful symbol,

and it has been kind of following me around

these past few years.

This bird is the future, our hope.

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This year, we'll be celebrating the centenary of tragic events

that changed the entire course of our history.

After those events, we started killing each other.

Some people became executioners, others their victims.

[ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: Today, we're also going through a very tormented period,

and the crane gives us hope that all will end well.

Faith, hope, love -- that's all.

What's the point of living well

if you think it will all end badly?

That's the subject of my work.

The story behind these birds is something very symbolic.

And naturally, it speaks of Russia.

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[ Traffic sounds ]

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Narrator: In conflict externally and internally,

even along its own borders,

Russia is a deeply divided country --

a situation which has a direct impact

on the daily lives of citizens.

Geographically isolated,

Russian society is gradually closing in on itself.

However, a new generation is trying to push the lines

beyond boundaries and beyond preconceived ideas.

They're young, cosmopolitan, and progressive,

and they embody the Russia of tomorrow.

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[ Both speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: When are we going on vacation?

Interpreter #2: We're always on vacation, honey.

Okay.

Regarding things we agree on or disagree on,

there are no problems in our home.

Everything blends together in a very organic way.

For example, I can listen to Ukrainian music all day long,

and she doesn't mind at all.

And not even the neighbors complain.

Right.

Oksana Yushko and her husband --

former photographer couple based in Moscow.

He's Ukrainian, while she's Russian.

The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine,

opposing Ukrainians and pro-Russian separatists,

deeply affected them, as it did the whole of Russian society,

which was split into two camps.

in 2014, following the tragic events in Crimea

and the Maidan Uprising in Kiev,

Oksana Yushko began a photography project

on mixed Russian-Ukrainian families.

Interpreter: After the events in Crimea,

people couldn't talk to each other anymore.

They were very aggressive.

At one point, I told myself, "I have to reconcile everyone."

In May 2014, I was visiting my folks in Kharkov,

and I asked them if I could take their portrait.

Yushko: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: My folks have been together for over 50 years.

My mom's Russian, and my dad's Ukrainian.

We never made any distinctions between Russians and Ukrainians.

I wrote, "With this photo of my parents,

I am starting a new project.

My friends and family co-inhabit two worlds,

two countries with neither borders nor prejudice.

I'm seeking Ukrainians and Russians

who would like to take part in this project

and tell their story and talk about their families

and their values.

[ Indistinct conversation in Russian ]

Interpreter: I love Ukraine.

As a kid, we always went on summer vacation

to a resort on the Black Sea in Ukraine.

Back then, I didn't even realize we were two different peoples.

[ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter #2: Do you remember what you felt

during the Maidan Uprising in Kiev?

We were in Kiev for the Christmas holidays.

I went to Maidan to see what was going on.

I felt as if a disaster was just waiting to happen.

All those people had been camping out there for a month --

The soldiers' blankets, which smelled of smoke,

all those bitter faces.

Interpreter #3: I've stopped talking

to a lot of friends and colleagues over Ukraine --

mostly to colleagues, in fact.

I work in a place that has a very strong corporate culture,

which presupposes discretion and politeness.

But people don't always behave correctly,

especially on social networks.

So I deactivated my accounts

so I wouldn't be able to prejudge people,

especially colleagues.

Yes, there's an escalation of conflict right now.

People have become very aggressive

about the subject again.

that's why I decided to photograph people like us.

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[ Dog barking ]

[ Woman speaking Russian ]

Narrator: In her ongoing project entitled "In Search of Islands,"

Oksana Yushko is photographing neo-rural couples --

former city dwellers who decided to leave everything behind

to live on the banks of the Volga River.

[ Speaking Russian ]

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Yushko: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: Why the Volga?

Because it's a federating symbol.

We call it Mother Volga.

it's a route, a path,

a springboard towards something else.

[ Geese honking ]

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[ Camera shutter clicks ]

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Yushko: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: Olesya and Sasha said,

"Don't depict an over-romantic image of us.

Our life may seem idyllic,

but in fact it's a lot of hard work every day."

[ Speaking Russian ]

They've not only changed their life,

but they've given it new meaning.

Olesya and Sasha, formerly lawyers in Moscow,

are building a small hamlet called Tigidim

to live there and welcome passing tourists.

Today, a new generation has appeared,

made up of people who do things for themselves

and try to shake things up.

The people I'm photographing in this project

are building their own world.

They want to change things for the right reasons.

[ All Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: What did you do before?

Interpreter #2: We were both lawyers and really stressed out.

Due to your clients?

In Russia, case law doesn't matter anymore.

Justice has become arbitrary.

The sense of injustice was extremely trying,

especially for me.

It was impossible to fight against it.

I don't even know what to call it --

against such cynicism.

Our own story has even inspired a tale

about the hamlet of Tigidim.

Some people lived close to a post.

They were very poor.

One day they saw a horse

galloping across the surface of the sea.

It was strikingly handsome...

...jet black, with its mane trailing in the wind.

They decided to catch it.

At first, each of them tried to capture it on their own,

but nobody managed.

In order to succeed, they would need to join forces.

And indeed, they duly caught it and tied it to the post.

But they realized the horse couldn't live like that,

so they built it a stable.

Then, over time, around the stable, they built a hamlet,

and the hamlet benefited from the horse's magical powers.

To protect itself from people who meant it harm,

it vanished from the face of the Earth.

So the hamlet and its inhabitants

also became invisible.

But those who came with good intentions

were welcomed with open arms by the people of Tigidim,

and they could appreciate the beauty of the hamlet

and the warm-hearted nature of its inhabitants.

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