Photographer Svetlana Likhanova has been exploring the villages of Russia’s Kuznetsk Basin for the past several years, a theme that has become a quiet obsession
Svetlana Likhanova was born in Yurga, a small town on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and grew up in the countryside, where she and her two brothers "played all day in nature."
In 2014 she was laid off from her job as a milling machine operator. After relatives bought her a small Samsung camera to cheer her up, she began studying how the device worked, and exploring the beloved, but increasingly impoverished rural areas of her native region.
Her words and photos, provided to RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, follow below:
It's no secret that villages in Russia are dying. Slowly but inevitably. The unique history of a measured way of life, hard peasant labor, and wooden folk architecture is disappearing into oblivion. It is rare to find that picture-perfect hinterland. The image of which is forever engraved in our hearts, and which we know from the works of Russian writers, artists, and poets, and also from personal experience.
Many people used to live in the countryside. City dwellers always had relatives there who they visited on weekends and holidays, and sent their children to stay for the summer.
Today, villagers leave for the cities in search of work, education, and better conditions. The birthrate is falling, the population is ageing, the villages are left without young people and a new generation.
In most villages there are half-empty streets, abandoned houses and sheds. Those who still remain are often crowded into small houses without basic amenities, maintaining a minimum standard of living. Sometimes you turn off the main road and at first glance it seems that a village is empty. But take a closer look -- there is life there!
From 1959 to 2010, the number of villages in the Kuznetsk Basin more than halved. Some of them were lucky, they were folded into nearby cities and towns.
I’ve seen many villages that are already dead. Last spring, on a trip toward Mariinsk, I saw a sign saying "Petropavlovka 2 km" it would have been a sin not to turn off the highway to take a look. On the outskirts of the village a woman named Olga stood alone at a collapsed wooden booth that had once been a bus stop.
Seeing us, she came up and, embarrassed, asked for a cigarette. Olga said that seven other people lived in the village. All of them except her are pensioners.
Life in the city hadn't worked out for Olga. Seventeen years ago she moved to this village and settled in an abandoned house. She takes on any job: painting, helping in the garden. She still has five years until she’ll start receiving a pension. She doesn't even want to think about the future -- she's afraid. She lives one day at a time, doesn't make plans. She admits that she cries often.
I never tire of being surprised how many good, sincere people there are in the villages. Life in the countryside is not easy. It's filled with difficulties and problems. But despite this, the villagers continue to live simply and honestly. They are strong in spirit, patient, and able to help each other in any life situations.
And how village children differ from city children! They will always say hello, even if they're meeting you for the first time. And they are not afraid of work.
In Sudzhenok, we met boys skillfully driving a horse-drawn sleigh. It turned out that they were taking out manure, which was cleaned by two of their friends in a barn. Where could you find a situation like that in the city?
The extinction of villages is a serious problem for Russia. Obviously, not only for the people, but also for the authorities. The destruction of the rural way of life is bad for the country from both a cultural and economic point of view.
Often I see that programs to support villages are working -- schools and houses of culture are being renovated, medical centers are appearing.
But that doesn't solve the problem. There's no one to study at school, and you'd be hard pressed to find a good medical specialist in the village, only the elderly remain. Without the opening of factories and the construction of subsidized housing it’s impossible to convince young people to stay, let alone attract them out there.
My passion for photography has grown for me into something more, and the theme of the Siberian hinterland has become the main theme of my work.
Sometimes I myself don't understand why I do all this! What am I trying to show to who, when everything has long been obvious to everyone?!
Lately, I've been trying to wrap up the theme of the Russian countryside but then a follower snaps me out of it with a sobering comment: "Try to save your entire archive of photographs. It is impossible for today's viewers to understand how people who supposedly successfully built a bright future ended up in such a dark present. This requires a different time and different thinking."
And then I go out shooting again, with the understanding that it is too early to finish this important topic.