Former Soviet Secret Towns With A Purpose | The Changes In Rural Russia’s Modern Life

When harvest comes, the babushkas (grandmothers) of Kamskie-Polyani get together and go from home to home helping harvest and preserve the large garden plots necessary for survival in this town without an economy.

 

Commercial Food Photographer Christine Armbruster is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography.  From the project  ‘Made of Steel’.  To see Christine’s body of work, click on any image.

 

Ganya is from Krasnouralsk, a town built around one metal smelting factory. Once a booming city with great importance during the USSR, the town has decreased in numbers and slowly crumbled. The factory remains open but there is a constant uncertainty for how long.

 

Kitchen of a summer home in Russia. In larger cities in Russia during the USSR, many were given a summer home (dacha) to grow their own food and have a place outdoors despite living in a crowded city apartment building. These dachas were vital, allowing a space to grow and store food for the winter.

 

A man sharpens his sickle in the field outside of his home on a summer night. He lives off his land in Kamskie-Polyani, growing and preserving everything he needs for survival. In addition to his garden, he keeps bees and uses the honey to trade for rabbit meat or other goods with his neighbors.

 

Kitchen interior of a Russian Orthodox Church, Krasnouralsk.

 

Russia is a liquid place. A place of change despite how solid and rigid it may seem in its ways. As it melts and reforms, the regions and people change, going both forward and backward in time, from stop to stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

During the Soviet Era, over two thousand towns and cities were built. Each town serving an unique purpose, accounting for one fourth of the country’s population. Some towns were built for manufacturing nuclear power, others for smelting steel. Some cities were closed and secret with deceiving names depicting false locations, others well known and open for visitors. Most families were assigned a city, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, these families had no option but to stay.

Handfuls of these towns had factories that were sold to individuals, keeping doors open, while others were abandoned completely. Workers did not know where the materials came from and where products went to, and when jobs were lost and moving proved impossible, former factory workers settled down. These factory workers became the local farmers, the bee keepers, the rabbit breeders.

Going back in time, many of these towns with promising futures for families now they rely on their own hands and soil. In the last 20 years since the Soviet Union has collapsed, the people had to become stronger and self-reliant.

For months, I backpacked back and forth across Russia. With the collapse of the Soviet Union came a massive destruction of documents. I had to work from the ground up to find the names of these towns— and then ask around to find out where they were, as modern maps don’t include them.

There are still secret towns, with secret histories that many Russians don’t even know about themselves. Towns with radioactive rivers and histories so unreal they wax folklore. Hitchhiking from small town to small village, I found the hidden 1/4 of Russia. The ones who used to make steel, but have since become Made of Steel themselves.

 

A boy standing outside of his home in Krasnouralsk.

 

Interior of a carpenter’s home in Otolik. Otolik and Baikalsk need one another to survive. Otolik is the artistic community, Baikalsk is a town based around one paper plant. One is the industrial backbone, the other is the creative force keeping it alive.

 

It is not uncommon to meet people on the Trans-Siberian who are there for a week of travel. On the train, there is a food cart occasionally open as well as a boiling hot water tap with the only potable water on the train. Most will bring their own food, while others flock to the food carts during short stops in the various towns. Families and individual pensioners depend on these short train stops to earn a living by selling hot homemade goods to passerbys.

 

Traveling zoo keeper and a monkey from his boxcar zoo exhibit. The zoo included: A Siberian tiger, Siberian wolves, two bears, a monkey, and a peacock. The baby bear had only 3 legs because the wolves got ahold of it when born.

 

Children play by Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world

 

All images and text © Christine Armbruster

 

 

See also:

Taste of Waldorf

By Christine Armbruster

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: