Uncovering Hidden Beauty in Russian Suburbia
Published: July 30, 2014 (Issue # 1822)
Every Russian has memories of the suburbs, and mine are quite straightforward. I lived in a suburb in south-east St. Petersburg from the age of five till ten. I remember looking out of the kitchen window — on the 12th floor of a beige brick high-rise — and staring at a square patch of grass, crossed by a diagonal path, with two other absolutely identical high rises on the right and on the left. Sometimes a barrel on wheels arrived to sell milk or kvas (a drink made from fermented bread) and tiny people in tiny jackets, like beads on a string, formed a queue. There was a hill we used for sledding in the winter and, as I later found out, it was made of rubbish from a time when this distant part of the city only had wastelands and dumps. Behind the patch of grass there were rows of tin garages, and behind the garages was the dusty sky criss-crossed by wires. A couple of years ago they built a big highway that stretched over the garages, connecting the edgeland of my childhood with some other edgeland.
I also stayed in the suburbs a couple of times during trips to Moscow as an adult. In summer, in Yugozapadnaya, where the high-rises emerged from the trees like abandoned Portuguese churches in Goa, urban jungles under endless tropical rain. Then in winter, at Petrovsko-Razumovskaya, an unbearably grim corner of the universe where I had to ride a freezing trolleybus from the metro for 15 minutes passing a factory that made crutches. Once I came back from a party at about 7 a.m., my host was asleep, and I spent 40 minutes lost in the empty frozen nowhere looking for the right door: all doors in all the estates around were absolutely identical, just like the estates themselves.
Russian suburbs are organized in mundane repetition. There is a school, a couple of small shops, driveways with huge holes, hopelessly thin young trees and an elderly grey-haired lady concierge sitting downstairs in a glass cubicle filled with houseplants, powerless to prevent the outbursts of violence, robberies and staircase drug consumption.
Large estates are like fractals, or a space created by facing mirrors. Building 8 is exactly the same as building 14, and its young inhabitants must perhaps have the same preoccupation: to someday acquire a similar cell in one of these purpose-built units around town. Can creativity come from places like that? In contemporary Russia, somehow, it does.
The new generation of photographers were the first to embrace the edgelands with their eyes wide open. To fully explain the strength this requires from a visually aware person, it’s important to appreciate how ugly the suburbs are. Not beautiful ugly like Brutalist buildings but ugly in the most tacky way. The buildings are disproportional and the materials they are built with cheap. The shop signs look like shroomy sea punk visuals, and there’s always an obligatory old sofa or washing machine abandoned in a little park, not to mention cigarette butts, empty cans and plastic bags — all details which don’t do any favors to a photographer.
Pages:  [2 ]