my Dear Yakutia: An Intimate Portrait Of Russia’s Far North

Aleksei Vasilyev is a Yakut photographer and a rising Instagram star with tens of thousands of followers. His most famous project, titled My Dear Yakutia, evokes what he…

Aleksei Vasilyev is a Yakut photographer and a rising Instagram star with tens of thousands of followers. His most famous project, titled My Dear Yakutia, evokes what he calls the “magic realism” of this part of Russia’s Far North, where people and spirits seem to cohabitate in frozen spaces. Vasilyev shared his images with the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL’s Russian Service, along with stories from behind the scenes.

The Saardana arts-and-crafts factory produces traditional warm winter shoes, fur coats, and souvenirs. Founded in 1969, it's the oldest operating manufacturer of folk crafts in the region.

The Saardana arts-and-crafts factory produces traditional warm winter shoes, fur coats, and souvenirs. Founded in 1969, it’s the oldest operating manufacturer of folk crafts in the region.

“I started photographing in 2012-13, when social networks began to appear,” Vasilyev says. “Instagram became the first creative platform where I posted my work. Maybe it was just the result of idleness. There was nothing for me to do. The job I had at that time didn’t give me any pleasure. I went to work each day and just waited for it to end. I was working at a newspaper, but I never really had any talent for writing. It was the most ordinary, boring, monotonous life.

“When I became interested in photography, I realized that it’s not necessary to write well if you can photograph well. And photography became a salvation for me from the meaninglessness life I had.”

Aleksei Vasilyev

Aleksei Vasilyev

Vasilyev has won awards from the international Andrei Stenin photojournalism competition, the Young Photographers of Russia contest, and the LensCulture photography network, among others.

Describing his photo of a frozen mammoth statue, Vasilyev says: “I went out into the streets and photographed. When the temperature reaches 40 below [zero Celsius], a white fog descends on the city and everything looks like some gloomy fairy tale. Or like in the movie Silent Hill. There are almost no passersby. The atmosphere is strange. And the mammoth in the fog looks almost alive.”

A tent is set up for ice bathing on the Epiphany holiday in Yakutsk.

A tent is set up for ice bathing on the Epiphany holiday in Yakutsk.

This street scene in Yakutsk won Vasilyev one of his photography awards.

This street scene in Yakutsk won Vasilyev one of his photography awards.

“When I take pictures on the street, people often come up and ask what I’m doing. They ask if I’m not a spy. Somehow, such paranoia is typical of people in today’s Russia,” Vasilyev says.

A worker carries boxes at the coldest market in the world, where frozen meat and fish are sold in the open.

A worker carries boxes at the coldest market in the world, where frozen meat and fish are sold in the open.

“Now I’ve almost completely stopped photographing in the street,” he says. “I don’t walk around the city for two or three hours like I did before, and I don’t take pictures of strangers. Ethical questions became important to me. Do I have the right to use their images on social networks or in a project without their permission? More often than not, people don’t really want that.”

“But sometimes it happens that people want to be photographed. Freestyle wrestling is the No. 1 sport in Yakutia. We have many world champions, Russian champions, and participants in the Olympics. When I was filming a report at the Olympic Reserve School, one guy came up to me and asked me to take a picture of him for his parents living in a distant village.”

“The village of Marsagalokh is 100 kilometers from Yakutsk. It’s one of my favorite places to shoot. A lot of Soviet aesthetics have been preserved there.”

Twins Semyon and Stepan play dulganchas -- mythical swamp creatures -- during a film shoot.

Twins Semyon and Stepan play dulganchas — mythical swamp creatures — during a film shoot.

“My project Sakha Wood started in 2019 as a result of a collaboration with Yakut filmmakers. I attended six or seven filming sessions. There is a film boom in Yakutia now. We shoot comedies, horror movies, and dramas. But lately they’ve been trying to make fantastic and mythological movies.

“These twins were acting in the movie The Beyberikeen With Five Cows, based on a Yakut tale. The boys played mythical swamp creatures called dulganchas. Many people have noted that these creatures are similar to characters in Star Wars.”

Actors perform a scene in The Beyberikeen With Five Cows in August 2019.

Actors perform a scene in The Beyberikeen With Five Cows in August 2019.

“This is a scene from the same film, based on a Yakut story. It’s about the struggle between good and evil forces. The man with horns is the spirit of the underworld. According to Yakut beliefs, the world consists of three parts: the heavens, the middle world of people, and the lower world of evil spirits. This is a fight between a man and a spirit of the underworld.

“The filmmakers here are dreamers. They try to do what they want with practically no resources. Sometimes they make something great, but most of the results are amateurish.”

“This is a typical portrait of the Yakut TV audience. I wanted to show the people for whom the actors and the film crew are working. At first, I tried to take photos of the audience in the cinema but I didn’t like the result, and I deleted everything. Then I went to visit my friends. I saw them lying in front of the TV and felt that this was the mood I was trying to achieve.”

Vasily, an actor, vapes between takes while playing a corpse in a morgue.

Vasily, an actor, vapes between takes while playing a corpse in a morgue.

“I took this photo during the filming of a mystical horror-drama called A Cursed Land. It’s a sequel to a film shot in 1996, which is considered a classic of modern Yakut cinema. The sequel was shot in 2019. This is the scene where the main character comes to the morgue to identify a body. The guy who vapes while playing the deceased is a popular actor for roles like this. Vaping in Yakutia is very popular, and there’s always smoke on the set.”

18-year-old Yuliya

18-year-old Yuliya

“Once I was on assignment for The Moscow Times. I was asked to take portraits of 18-year-olds who were born and grew up during Putin’s presidency. This girl is from the ‘Putin generation.’ She’s now studying in Moscow. There are many young people who take an active civic role. But here [in Yakutia]…I don’t know, they probably think more about where to go to study and where to work afterwards.

“During the photoshoot, this girl said she wasn’t interested in politics. This is typical for young people in the regions. It seems to me that they don’t really think about Putin much.”

“The most memorable photo shoot I’ve done was at the end of October this year, when I visited the reindeer breeders in the northeast of Yakutia, in the Tomponsky district. The temperature was about minus 30 degrees Celsius. We rode a reindeer sleigh to the mountain peaks. It was an extreme trip — that’s why I remember it so well, I guess,” Vasilyev says.

“In general, I want to leave an image of my region for posterity with my photographs. Maybe some years will pass and then people will look at these photos, and they will have an idea about life in Yakutia – a distant, cold land, but one that’s dear to me.”

More of Vasilyev’s work can be seen on Instagram:

This post was originally published on Radio Free.


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