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Snapshots: Russia - The Mythology of Everday Life

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 20, 2021 | 0:26:23
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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 another,

the history of Russia has been written to the rhythm

of political and social upheaval 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's 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.

[ Geese honking ]

[ Bell ringing ]

[ Church bell tolling slowly ]

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Nistratov: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: The Russian myth is kind of an export product.

[ Camera shutter snaps ]

In fact, it was foreigners who invented the myth

of the mysterious Russian soul.

[ Flames crackling ]

[ Distant shouting ]

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What I'm interested in

are the visual manifestations of this myth.

The observation of Russian culture

in its most banal, everyday form.

In my mind, life in Russia

has more than its fair share of the absurd.

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My new project is called "No."

It reflects my desire to ask questions

about women in Russia.

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[ Camera shutter snaps ]

Narrator: Valeri Nistratov began his career

as a photojournalist in the early 1990's, aged 17.

Having covered a number of armed conflicts throughout the world,

he gradually abandoned current affairs

for more long-term documentary photography.

All around the country, he hunts down

the poetic nature and humor of his fellow people --

and, sometimes, their slightly screwball side.

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Man: [ Shouting in Russian ]

[ Sniffs ]

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[ Both speaking Russian ]

[ Stamp clacking ]

[ All speaking Russian ]

Nistratov: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: Social themes such as domestic violence,

feminism, the woman's role in society,

don't interest me in themselves.

I just want to look at women in Russia

in an absurd way, through ironic eyes.

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[ Camera shutter snaps ]

Interpreter: Russia is quite a traditional

and conservative country,

and the woman plays a very particular part in it.

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Russia is often talked about as a woman,

and I think that's spot-on.

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Russiais a woman in the sense that,

in a certain way, she's always waiting

for her Prince Charming,

who'll come along and rescue her.

[ Broom swishing ]

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[ Cows mooing ]

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[ All speaking Russian ]

[ Laughs ]

Nistratov: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: In Russia, men are inferior to women.

A large majority of women in Russia

are disappointed by men.

You hear them going on and on

about how there are no real men left anymore --

that they're all dead and buried,

and that all they do is work or drink.

Things like that.

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[ Camera shutter snaps ]

Woman: [ Speaking Russian ]

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[ Speaking Russian ]

[ Camera shutter snaps ]

[ Laughter ]

[ Camera shutter snapping ]

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Interpreter: In fact, through the image

of the Russian woman,

I photograph a certain reflection

of the everyday reality of my homeland.

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[ Distant dog barking ]

[ Camera shutter snaps ]

[ Dog barking ]

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[ Speaking Russian ]

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[ Camera shutter snaps ]

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I feel that I'll never be able to truly depict

this stifling feeling of a lack of air in my photos.

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[ Bird cawing ]

It's as if, sometimes,

places were emptied of all their energy.

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When you arrive in a small town,

village, or hamlet,

the thing that strikes you most

isn't the time seems to have stopped still.

It's that the place seems to have had

all its vital energy sucked out of it.

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I like this kind of state.

I like seeing a man walk out of his home,

look up at the sky or into the emptiness,

then walk off down a road.

Where is he going?

Who's he going to meet?

[ Train wheels clattering ]

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[ Metal rattling ]

[ Rattling stops ]

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Narrator: Through their work,

Russian photographers are in turn becoming

the creators of a new, resolutely modern-day myth.

They lock onto powerful symbols, imprints of history,

and draw together the portrait of a country

in which traditional icons -- orthodox or communist --

coexist with those of today now that capitalism rules.

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Maximishin: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: I started working for "Izvestia,"

a state-sanctioned newspaper, in 1999,

so I'm a photographer of the Putin era.

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My first serious job was in Chechnya in 2001.

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I wasn't an experienced war photographer,

so it only took a month before I started suffering

from Chechnya syndrome.

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When I got back, a guy from "Izvestia" called to ask me

to cover the opening of an exhibition.

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I didn't have a clue what he was talking about.

I know at least two other photographers who,

after the Beslan school siege, said, "Never again."

With Beslan, it was obvious

that the hostage-taking was carried out

just to get photographers there.

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Narrator: On September 1st, 2004,

Chechen terrorists took an entire school hostage

in Beslan, North Ossetia.

After a three-day siege, and in general chaos,

the Russian authorities gave the order to attack.

The result -- 330 civilians killed,

including 186 schoolchildren.

Maximishin: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: This was three days later.

It's said that wars begin when CNN arrives

and end when CNN leaves.

At Beslan, we saw that that saying was real.

We were working hand in hand with the terrorists.

They couldn't work without us,

and we couldn't work without them.

So the mass terror started once the mass media arrived,

and I didn't want to have anything more to do

with the workings of that machine.

Narrator: Sergey Maximishin

is one of the most important photographers

of modern-day Russia.

A two-time winner of the World Press Photo prize,

he's been crisscrossing his homeland for 20 years.

Witty and enigmatic, he pokes his sharp eye

into the most unexpected recesses

of the great spectacle of history.

Interpreter: When I'm asked, who is my master in photography,

I always reply, "The writer Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol."

I look for what Gogol brought out into the open --

the absurd sides of life in Russia.

Even Gogol's aesthetic category is absurd.

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My best photos are those where I've succeeded

in getting close to Gogol's tone.

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They're surrealist.

Well, on the one hand, they're very naturalist.

On the other hand, they're surrealist.

Just like life in Russia.

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Maximishin: [ Speaking Russian ]

Okay, whose turn is it?

Whose are these? Man: [ Speaking Russian ]

Look at this. This is fantastic.

Very well found. Good job.

There's a problem.

Look, you missed these donuts, goddamn it.

These donuts are a symbol of Saint Petersburg,

a representative sign.

You know what annoys me?

You'd found an interesting angle.

You shouldn't have strayed away from it.

You should have taken shot after shot for half an hour.

You should have taken hundreds of identical photos.

Once you've found a subject, you mustn't stray away.

You must exhaust it,

remove all the blood from it like a leech.

Draw the maximum from it.

Here's a report I did on Sebastopol

for the magazine "GEO."

I spent a whole day on it

because a double spread in "GEO" is no joke.

I can't allow myself to take a bad photo.

Photography is like digging for gold.

After an hour's hard graft, you'll have one good photo.

After two hours, two good photos.

Go walk Russian streets and let yourself be surprised.

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Russia isn't easy to photograph

because there's no street life.

It's too cold, so people run from one place to the next

without hanging around.

In India, people live on the street.

The number of subjects per unit of time

is much higher in India, Cuba, or Kenya than in Russia.

♪♪

Here, life is indoors.

Inside houses, apartments, and stairwells.

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Saint Petersburg is a tormented city.

Everything is exaggerated, excessive.

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[ Door creaks ]

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[ Distant bell ringing ]

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Maximishin: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: What interests me at the moment

are the small contact points between civilizations.

They're places where incredible things happen.

Russia is on the fringes of all this.

It's an astonishing country.

Sometimes, when I read the news, I want to flee

to the other side of the world.

But on the other hand,

I want to watch the movie till the end.

As I've seen a good part of it,

I want to know the ending.

Russia is a country with no floor, no ceiling.

If you look at a scale

of the expressions of human nature

without angering any other country --

Estonia, for example, which I know well --

if Estonia is there,

Russia is there.

Baseness knows no limits in Russia,

but neither does generosity of spirit.

There are no limits in this country.

Everything is possible.

[ Indistinct chatter ]

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Maximishin: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: I don't think this photo teaches as much about Russia.

Russia has many faces.

You know, I spent 40 days in Iraq,

and without being presumptuous,

I felt like I learned a lot of things.

But I've lived in Russia for 53 years,

and I don't understand a thing.

Tyutchev was right when he said,

"You can't understand Russia through reason alone."

[ Wind howling ]

Narrator: 1,000 kilometers from Moscow,

we enter into the far north.

Far from the golden domes of the Red Square

and the city lights, this is home to eternal Russia --

that of never-ending winters

and summers that are far too short.

[ Train wheels clattering ]

♪♪

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For six years, photographer Aleksey Myakishev

has been making regular visits to Kolodozero,

a small, isolated village in Karelia

on the edge of a lake.

Season by season, he captures the daily lives

of its inhabitants on film.

They live just as they did 300 years ago --

to the rhythm of the snows and harvests,

like in a fairy tale.

♪♪

Myakishev: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: I hardly ever take photos in Moscow.

I live there, but I never find any interesting subjects.

I'm interested in the provinces,

in isolated places,

because that's where I come from.

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Myakishev: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: I went to the Russian Far North

for the first time in 2007 to work on a report.

I immediately felt it was a place

I would often return to.

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Narrator: A freelance photographer,

Aleksey Myakishev works the old way.

At a time when everything's going digital,

he remains faithful to film -- black and white --

and his 35mm Leica.

♪♪

Maximishin: [ Speaking Russian ]

Interpreter: When I started coming here

to Kolodozero, I wasn't on a job

and didn't have any precise aims.

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I just lived my little life here.

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[ Match strikes, hisses ]

♪♪

[ Exhales ]

[ Muttering indistinctly ]

[ Object clatters ]

I like the people here a lot,

maybe because they're very calm.

♪♪

They don't seem to have any cares.

They don't have the same face

as people in the big cities.

In the city, you wear a mask.

♪♪

Here, the people have no masks.

I kind of see them as soul mates.

I want to show their nature,

the relationships they have together, their life.

[ Both speaking Russian ]

Myakishev: [ Laughs ]

[ Laughs ]

[ Laughing ]

[ Laughs ]

[ Laughter ]

[ Coughs ]

♪♪

Myakishev: [ Speaking Russian ]

You have the impression that nothing's going on here,

but it isn't true.

When you walk through a village, for example,

you don't see a soul on the street,

but all of a sudden, children surge out of nowhere.

[ Children laughing ]

In fact, it's teeming with life.

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This place is a mystery to me.

I discover a totally different world here.

[ Slurps ]

And I feel much freer.

[ Fire crackling ]

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Interpreter: Russians have a very close relationship

with nature.

The North has a very big impact on people

because life is very tough here.

In winter, temperatures drop to minus-40 degrees Celsius.

My Russia is the landscape you see

from the top of this hill.

Forest stretching to the horizon.

Lakes.

A church.

Rooves covered with snow.

That's my Russia.

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[ Singing in Russian ]

♪♪

When I met Father Arkady, it was so easy to talk with him

that it was impossible for us not to become friends.

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Father Arkady is typically Russian.

You never finish discovering things about him.

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When you attend one of his masses,

you realize how much he has dedicated his life to God.

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Myth has it that bears prowl the streets of our villages,

and it's true that you sometimes see wolves.

These myths make up an image of Russia --

the Russia of Western fantasies.

But we don't even know who we are ourselves.

To a Westerner,

the Russian is likened to a dense forest.

Many of us, including me,

are trying to understand what this Russian myth means.

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[ Shudders ]

[ Speaks Russian ]

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[ Singing in Russian ]

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