Kandalaksha

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Kandalaksha

In the middle of a work trip to Russia in January, Jonathan Campion took a long weekend above the Arctic Circle.

A thousand miles from Moscow, a thousand kilometres from St. Petersburg, the Arctic town of Kandalaksha, on the frozen shores of the White Sea in Murmansk oblast’, is one of Russia’s most northerly communities. Founded 500 years ago as a fishing village, but with an aluminium smelter and locomotive depot giving the area an industrial purpose under the Soviet Union, Kandalaksha has been forgotten for the last twenty years. It is now only a dot on the vast Kola Peninsula - a 100,000 square kilometre expanse of pine forest between the White and Barents Seas.

 

Which isn’t to say that Kandalaksha is decaying. A couple of Russian store chains - Sem’Ya supermarket; Svyaznoy mobile phones - have braved it this far north. There is an inconspicuous shopping mall, an indoor market, street-side kiosks selling hot pirozhki and instant coffee. There is even a sushi bar. All are a short walk from the eerie Hotel Belomorye, the town’s only landmark. The place is pretty: a couple of orange and blue housing blocks liven up the central street, ulitsa Pervomaiskaya, while a wooden church and old wooden cottages rest by the shores of the White Sea.

The people of the Kola Peninsula are typical provincial Russians: superficially harsh with strangers, startlingly warm to friends. Kandalaksha feels safe, but foreign visitors get a paranoid greeting, met outside their train carriages by groups of militsiya, and only let go once they have given up their passports to be scanned, then written the address of every place they have ever worked, studied and lived on a piece of paper.

A few steps from the eerie Belomorye, a wooden bridge over the River Niva leads straight into the pine forest. Red squirrels scamper up the trees. People come to the forest in winter to make the most of the four hours of daylight, and fill their lungs with the taiga’s perfect air. Children turn slopes into toboggan runs; adults explore the forest paths on cross-country skis.

 

It’s two sleeps back to Moscow. After a weekend in Kandalaksha, they are two deep ones.

***

Jonathan Campion studied in Yaroslavl and Tver in 2005/06. After working as a translator in Kyiv and London, he now travels to Russia and five other CIS republics as part of his work as a wine & spirits industry analyst. He is a published travel writer and photographer. His website is www.jonathancampion.com, and he tweets @jonathancampion.

 

 

 

 

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Saint Petersburg, a ‘Window on Europe’

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Saint Petersburg, a ‘Window on Europe’

This renowned quote is said to have come from the mouth of Peter the Great, as he surveyed the newly built city of Saint Petersburg. For anyone who has walked its streets, or simply seen pictures, the city appears to have a distinctly European flavour colouring its landscape. Whether this comes from the Italian architecture (Francesco Rastrelli designed the stunningly opulent Catherine and Winter Palaces), or the network of canals which afforded Saint Petersburg the romantic pseudonym ‘The Venice of the North’, it is hard to pinpoint. The leitmotif of a window similarly appears in the final, enigmatic scene of Sokurov’s film ‘Russian Ark’. The continuous movement of the film, set entirely within the Hermitage walls and captured in a single shot, visually narrates a dialogue between embodied versions of ‘Russia’ and ‘Europe.’ The character’s wanderings throughout the Hermitage intertwine episodes of Russia’s historical past with works of art by European masters; a journey across timeframes which interrogates the sinuous relationship between Europe and Russia. Their course culminates in the arrival at an opening onto a nebulous view of the river Neva, with the narrator’s final words obscurely echoing across the water, ‘We are destined to sail forever, and to live forever.’ These words trace a line from Russia and Europe’s turbulent past relationship, and then continues it into an ephemeral, yet eternal future together. Like an image distorted by a frosted pane of glass, this vision of Russia’s relationship with Europe seems to elude any concrete definition, remaining ambiguously obscure.

A window, like a photo, can only offer a squared snapshot of a world, which is often saturated in contradictions, just like Saint Petersburg itself. As a city apparently teetering between Europe and Russia, its windows offer tiny glimpses into its interior. What to make of these impressions is then left up to a person’s own imagination and interpretation. There are two separate sides to a window, and if Russia and Europe, two cultural giants, are really separated by something as seemingly innocuous as a sheet of glass, then it is not always clear who is being watched by who.


 

Text by Joanne Riggall
All images  ©Joanne Riggall

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Petersburg Portraits

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Petersburg Portraits

One of the most common questions people asked upon my return from an exchange semester in Saint Petersburg was ‘and what were the Russian people like?’ as if I could sum this up in a handful of well-chosen words. In light of the contemporary refugee crisis and the European referendum, the concept of national identity has become an increasingly pertinent topic. However, their question focused more on generalised stereotypes of Russians which are mythologised in popular culture.

When travelling or living abroad stereotypes may begin to haunt your everyday interactions, as a slightly forced conversation can hinge on your British love of tea, or meander around the stale subject of the weather. While these can add useful fuel to waning discussions, it is far more rewarding and compelling to look beyond these stereotypes. Photography can be a useful medium in attempting to explore Russia (or anywhere) without any preconceptions, as it obliges you to really look, even if only for an instant. There are so many qualities about Russia which are indescribable, yet photos allow certain moments to be captured. These snapshots can then accumulate into a greater impression of a country and its people. For example, these photos contain the solitary gaze of a passenger riding a slow train, and the glimpse of a fur coat from a puddled-street. While photos cannot offer a voice to their subjects, they can demand a second glance at a person who we may have stereotyped, or simply dismissed altogether.

A quote from Susan Sontag may provide a more concise accompaniment to these photos, as she writes that ‘One can’t possess reality, one can possess (and be possessed by) images.’

Text by Joanne Riggall

All images © Joanne Riggall

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