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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

Friday, Nov. 21


Learn more about Russian labor laws at Labor Law Seminar 2014 at the Courtyard by Marriott St. Petersburg Center West Pushkin Hotel this morning at 166 Kanala Griboyedova. Sponsored by Baker and McKenzie and the Pepeliaev Group, the event begins at 9 a.m. and will discuss amendments to existing laws, employment terms, risks of termination and other pressing matters.


Educate yourself about educational careers at Education and Career XXI — November 2014, a two-day fair hosted at Lenexpo convention center on Vasilievsky Island that welcomes students and educators alike to develop relationships between scholarly institutions and learn more about the educational market in Russia and abroad.



Saturday, Nov. 22


Russian Premier League-leaders Zenit St. Petersburg return from the international break to take on Kuban Krasnodar at Petrovsky Stadium this evening at 7 p.m. Tickets for the game can still be purchased on the club’s website, at the Petrovsky Stadium box office or in any of the club’s merchandise stores.



Sunday, Nov. 23


Get in the holiday spirit at today’s Winter Bazzar at the Astoria Hotel. Featuring gifts from around the world such as French eclairs, Dutch cheeses and Indian jewelry, the annual event organized by the International Women’s Club will feature 18 international stands and raise money for charity through the sales of a diversity of products that further illustrate the city’s international connections.



Monday, Nov. 24


Dr. Axel Schulte, Department Head at Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics in Dortmund, Germany, is the featured speaker at the SPIBA Industrial Committee lecture on “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Digitalization of the Supply Chain.” The event begins at 4 p.m. at the Graduate School of Management at 3 Volkohvsky Pereulok and registration is required by Nov. 21 either by emailing office@spiba.ru or calling 325 9091.



Tuesday, Nov. 25


Tag along with AmCham during their “Industrial St. Petersburg” Tour program today. This incarnation of the ongoing series will visit Philip Morris Izhora and include an Environmental Health and Safety Committee meeting.


Find out how to expand your business east during the “Business With China” forum beginning today and concluding tomorrow at the Lenexpo convention center. The largest Russian forum dedicated to business with the Asian giant, topics that will be discussed include logistics, customs clearance, trade financing and many more.



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