Photographers' Blog

Parallel world of Chechnya

Grozny, Chechnya

By Maxim Shemetov

What did I know about Chechnya before last week? For someone who grew up in the 1990s the very word Chechnya meant a string of grainy images on TV showing people in battered camouflage outfits, shooting at each other amid destruction and ruin. Fear, wahhabis, Shamil Basayev, terrorism, mountains: these were the words that used to spring to my mind when someone mentioned Chechnya.

It still has a reputation as a frightening place where people get kidnapped and entire villages are razed. When I told my friends I was leaving for Chechnya on assignment they asked me in jest if I would need an armored vehicle. Many of then were visibly worried. But then I spoke to a colleague who had worked there for more than 15 years. He said: “You won’t find a safer place in Russia, be smart and you’ll be okay”.

I flew to Grozny, with mixed expectations. When we got there and I stepped out of Grozny’s Severny Airport, I knew this wasn’t Russia. It was a totally different, parallel world, a cross between Singapore and the Middle East, with veiled women, men in camouflage, Islamic skull caps and long beards, and armed police on every street corner. There was a mosque outside the main airport terminal. A huge portrait of Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov was just across the street, and another, smaller portrait of Russian president Vladimir Putin close by. The streets were spotless, a rarity in Russia where many cities are full of potholes and crumbling buildings. I got into a taxi and plunged into Grozny.

Grozny was once described as the world’s most destroyed city. I remember photographs from the 1990s depicting unthinkable destruction and suffering.


(Photo by Yannis Behrakis)

It has changed in a way I found astounding. The quiet streets are now lined with trees and marble facades, the skyscrapers of Grozny city, the center point of Kadyrov’s reconstruction efforts, soar into the sky. Locals lower their voices when describing their hard-line leader. He controls every construction site in the city. Locals say that if he doesn’t like how a project is going he often orders it to be knocked down and built anew. When his motorcade glides through the city, complete with sirens and columns of security vehicles, people freeze and stare with awe. His relatives hold key positions in government. His father, a former president, was killed in a bomb blast in 2004. Both men’s portraits glare from giant billboards. “Ramzan, thank you for Grozny!’ says a red neon light sign opposite the city’s giant central mosque.

Countdown to Sochi 2014

Sochi, Russia

By Kai Pfaffenbach

There are a few things you expect as a German photographer from cozy Frankfurt when your boss sends you to cover the test events for the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympic winter games in Russia.

Will it be heavy snow and cold you have to brave? How difficult will communication be (as I don’t speak Russian)? How will the general feeling of Russians be about Germans a few days after they celebrated the anniversary of their big victory over Hitler’s sixth army in Stalin-(Wolgo)grad during WWII in 1943? Well, after nine days within the 70km (43 mile) perimeter of the 2014 Olympics I can say it is a bit of everything but it is definitely a balancing act between extremes.

When you read the invitation letter of the Organizing Committee you learn that “Sochi2014 will be the most compact Winter Games in the history of the Olympic Movement”. The Games will be held in two clusters. The coastal cluster where all indoor events (speed skating, curling, ice hockey etc..) will be held and the mountain cluster around the (former) village of Krasnaya Polyana and the alpine resort of Roza Khutor where the outdoor venues are located. When the Games start on February 7, 2014, a new rail track should connect the coastal cluster with the mountains. With less than one year to go construction works are well under way but for now a narrow bumpy road is the one and only way to get up and down. Dozens of tunnels and bridges need to be built through the valley along the “wild water” river. Sometimes it seems bizarre when the graveyard of the little suburban village of Krasnaya Polyana is less than 100 yards away from the Olympic lane.

Notes from the pole of cold

Oymyakon valley, Russia

By Maxim Shemetov

One loses all bearings when faced with the shroud of white that obscures all things mid January in the Siberian city of Yakutsk. Only the traffic lights and gas pipelines overhanging the roads help you to find your way. Wrapped in frosty fog the city life seems frozen in a sleepy half-light. It is -48 C (-54 degrees Fahrenheit) outside.

Before venturing out, I put on two layers of thermal underwear, trousers, two-sweaters, pants winterized up to my waist, and huge low-temperature boots. I pull close the hood of my down jacket and fasten it so that only my eyes are exposed. Lastly, I slip on two pairs of gloves and head for the entrance hall – the airlock. Now only the ice-bound door separates me from the cold. There is Space outside and I feel like an astronaut.

However I do not have enough time to freeze today – the minibus is waiting for me at the corner and I pile in with my gear. Our routes lies along a Stalin-era road that is officially called “Kolyma Federal Highway”. Locals call it “the road on bones” after the thousands of Gulag prisoners who built it in the middle of the 20th century perished. The sights that it passes by are “terra incognita” even for the most of locals. As we travel further and further northeast towards the snowy foothills from the provincial capital of Yakustk, the signs of life appear less and less frequent. Down the road, one can travel over 200 kms (124 miles) without seeing a homestead. The cell phone coverage cuts out when we arrive at Handyga. Fifty kilometers (31 miles) later we load up on tanks of fuel at the petrol station that is the last human outpost at the edge of the vast and mountainous taiga. Only the occasional UAZ minibuses (bukhanka – bread loaf as it is called there and trucks break the monotony of the endless, empty road.

Pussy Riot’s activist beginnings

By Tom Peter

When the Khamovnichesky court announces on Friday the verdict in the case against the punk band Pussy Riot that is accused of hooliganism in Moscow’s main church, the world will witness how the Russian authorities respond to an artist’s smack in the face.

Many admire the braveness of Yekaterina Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Maria Alyokhina, others object to the form and the choice of location for their shock performance. But make no mistake; the impact of the “Punk Prayer” on public opinion was not the chance result of a post-adolescent prank. At least two of the three defendants have emerged from a scene of young conceptual artists that have been engaged in political activism for years. They knew exactly where to hit so that it hurt most.

SLIDESHOW: THE EARLY YEARS OF PUSSY RIOT

I met Nadezhda and her husband Pyotr Verzilov in 2007 after they co-founded the art group Voina that gained international fame with a number of spectacular stunts in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Yekaterina joined the group a little later. I never met Maria Alyokhina during my time in Russia.

Russia’s hooligans

By Maxim Shemetov

Photographing a soccer match for the first time, I realized that shooting the fans can be more interesting than covering the game itself.

We all keep up with the destinies of football clubs and the careers of soccer players. There are many parts to soccer life, however, that rarely appear on TV and on the front pages of newspapers. It’s the life of people absorbed by the game – those inspiring exciting games, TV translations, as well as the construction of new stadiums.

Fan life is inseparable from the game itself, but there are certain aspects to soccer-fan culture that are rarely talked about. It’s a quiet closed-off world with its own unwritten rules and laws, concepts of respect and dignity. The community is very picky about who it lets inside. The fan culture is aggressive and resembles that of medieval knights at first sight. Physical power, fighting skills and determination in battle are often attributes of soccer fans.

Babushka tunes

By Sergei Karpukhin

Life in the Russian provinces has never been easy. The absence of common utilities even now is not a rarity in villages: water is gathered from wells, stoves have to be heated up, the cattle watched, in the summer the vegetable patch needs tending…

All these tasks, and household chores in general, fall on the shoulders of the womenfolk, and in the villages where the young have left, they fall on the shoulders of the ”babushkas” – the grannies. Dealing with this workload has always been helped by song. Normally it’s those songs taught to you by your mother or grandmother in early childhood. The songs are passed from generation to generation gathering all the love, tenderness, happiness and sadness of the people who lived before.

These grannies from the village of Buranovo in the central Russian region of Udmurtia started their folk ensemble almost 40 years ago to sing these songs. Recently they have started to sing popular hits from Russia and overseas in their own language (more similar to Finnish than Russian). They were chosen by popular demand to represent Russia in the Eurovision 2012 competition. Their vitality, love and the sharp understanding of life inherent in their collective experience is an uncommon virtue, even among the young.
Even if these wonderful seniors don’t get first prize in the competition, I feel their story will make them winners.

An accordion for Ablogin

By Vasily Fedosenko

To Vladimir Ablogin, it may still seem like a fairy tale, but as he touches his new squeezebox “garmoshka” accordion, which had covered thousands of miles to find him in his dilapidated wood hut, he knows what has happened is real.

I arrived in his run-of-the-mill Russian village in the Smolensk region at Belarus’s border on an early December morning to take pictures of local peasants voting in Russia’s parliamentary election. Looking like it was still from the Soviet era, the election day soon turned into a rare holiday in this backwater settlement, which was until recently prosaically named “Gryaz” (Mud).

Paying little heed to my presence and already warmed up with Russia’s national tipple, a bare-footed Ablogin sat on a bed in his higgledy-piggledy home, playing a traditional Russian “garmoshka” button accordion to amuse his audience of several women and men.

Femen gets naked for Putin

By Denis Sinyakov

“Young silly girls” that’s how Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov referred to Ukrainian Femen movement activists Oxana Shachko, Anna Deda and Irina Fomina. The three were sentenced to 5-12 days jail for appearing topless at an election site during the presidential vote in Russia on Sunday and imitating an attempt to steal the ballot box, which Putin had used to vote earlier in the day.

It was the first time Deda and Fomina had been in jail.

One wouldn’t be able to tell it was Fomina’s first ever protest the night before, when the women gathered to practice in a hostel room overlooking the Moscow river. I had never covered this intimate process of preparation for an act of protest before. Moreover, it was the first time I met the activists, and I barely knew their leader Anna Hutsol. That left me slightly confused.

The day before the elections, Hutsol replied to my request to come and photograph them, saying she would most likely agree. All day long, in my head I was going through pictures of Femen shot by Alessandro Bianchi in Italy, Gleb Garanich in Ukraine, photos that had won at the World Press Photo and POYi, trying to make mine different. My fears about repeating what had been shot already proved groundless, thanks to the interior of the Soviet-style apartment made into a hostel.

Owners of The White Silence

By Anton Golubev

When I was a little boy, I adored the books of Jack London. The Nature of the North – that was the thing that captivated me. The White Silence; a chilling title, words that are hard to appreciate for a city dweller used to the din of cars and neon lights. The majority of Russians seldom leave cities further than to go to the dacha, the country houses that most people own just outside the city limits. Some might travel to some mountains or woodlands. Only a few will visit such a godforsaken place as the Russian North. The land where The White Silence reigns.

The North is a cruel place. Here, where the population density reaches one person per ten square kilometers, there is no transport links, there is nobody to ask the way, there is nobody to ask for a light or hot food, and there is little chance that anybody can help you if something happens. You can count on yourself only. The White Silence is a jingling calm when you can’t hear any sound around, it’s a thin line of a low northern wood on the horizon between two halves of the white nothing, it’s a blizzard when the boundless white Tundra flows together with the overhanging northern sky, it’s a half-strewed snowmobile track which you follow to reach the light and warm of a human dwelling.

It’s hard to imagine that somebody can survive in this cruel land except wild animals but there are some people who live there – the northern tribes people of Nenets, Khanti, Komi, Dolgany, Chukchy; the owners of The White Silence. These people arrived in the far north more than a thousand years ago, when the Roman age was finishing in Europe, and they became the owners of this severe land. They pasture reindeer and catch fish as their ancestors did for tens and hundreds of generations.

Portraits of Russian voters

By Will Webster

Russia goes to the polls on March 4, in a presidential election that present Prime Minister and former two term President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to win. Russian politics is a strange beast, opaque is the most constructive word to describe the process of moving and shaking that goes on in the corridors of power. A whole class of analytical Kremlinologists aim to shed light on the minutiae of the process, although opinions widely differ, and the outcome appears to be the same – 6 more years of Putin in top spot. In this atmosphere behind closed doors, with one outcome highly probable, it’s difficult to illustrate the campaign trail, if such a thing exists. However in this story of same old, same old, there is a group of individuals that stand out, that no one seems to ask about: the Russian people – they are the ones that cast the votes. People like Anatoly, an artist from Moscow.

Following a parliamentary election in December, one of the typical plays of allegiance shifting and maneuvering in the top levels of the power vertical something changed. Widespread claims of vote falsification brought out around 5,000 people onto the street in Moscow, a show of opposition to the authorities that hasn’t been seen for years. The movement grew, organized and strenghtened in the fertile fields of social networks. It provided leaders that in principal have no political leverage apart from a following online. People like Alexey Navalny, anti corruption blogger, and Yevgrnia Chirikova, an environmental activist battling the destruction of her local forest to make way for a new highway. Would they be able to maintain their voice of protest and public displays of opposition throughout the winter (a bigger problem for those not aware of it – ask the Grande Armee of 1812) in order to make a difference in the presidential vote? The protests did grow, a couple more followed, the numbers swelled – up to 100,000 came out to call for fair elections in January. The authorities seemed to be at a loss on how to snuff out this unplanned voice of opposition. Official plans were immediately drawn up to make the voting process more transparent, webcams in polling stations, symbolically see-through ballot boxes. Still, the unrest persisted. Another strategy was started – organized supporter events for United Russia, let the people know (on state run television networks) that actually most people are with Putin. By necessity these shows of support must be more impressive than that of these Muscovites wearing white condoms (Putin’s initial response when the white ribbons appeared on the street).

Aha – we have an angle, the people are moving, thousands and thousands of them, showing their support with their feet. But rather than faceless pawns, they are real people. People who want their vote to count.

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