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Uncovering Hidden Beauty in Russian Suburbia

Published: July 30, 2014 (Issue # 1822)



  • St. Petersburg’s Primorsky District, pictured here, is home to 500,000 people.
    Photo: Egor Rogalev / The Calvert Journal

  • Russia’s suburbs, such as Zyablikovo outside of Moscow, have inspired a new generation of Russian photographers.
    Photo: Masha Demianova / The Calvert Journal

  • The Holodno clothing brand embraces local suburbs in their creative practice.
    Photo: Holodno / The Calvert Journal

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.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Saturday, Oct. 25


AVA Expo, the eighth edition of the event revolving around all things pop, returns to Lenexpo this weekend. Geeks, nerds, dweebs and dorks will have their chance to talk science fiction and explore a variety of international pop culture. Tickets for the event can be purchased on their website at avaexpo.ru.



Sunday, Oct. 26


Zenit St. Petersburg returns home for the first time in nearly a month as they host Mordovia Saransk in a Russian Premier League game. Currently at the top of the league thanks to their undefeated start to the season, the northern club hopes to extend the gap between them and second-place CSKA Moscow and win the title for the first time in three years. Tickets are available at the stadium box office or on the club’s website.



Monday, Oct. 27


Today marks the end of the art exhibit “Neophobia” at the Erarta Museum. Artists Alexey Semichov and Andrei Kuzmin took a neo-modernist approach to represent the array of fears that are ever-present throughout our lives. Tickets are 200 rubles ($4.90).



Tuesday, Oct. 28


The Domina Prestige St. Petersburg hotel plays host to SPIBA’s Marketing and Communications Committee’s round table discussion on “Government Relations Practices in Russia” this morning. The discussion starts at 9:30 a.m. and participation must be confirmed by Oct. 24.



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