Grigoriy Yaroshenko (b. 1971 in Moscow) graduated from the Moscow Institute of Cinematography. He has since worked as a photographer and a cameraman for over 20 years and received several awards for photography, including the Silver Camera Award (2009), Black & White Photography Award, The Spider (2012), 1st Prize of the Museum of Photography and Modern Art, Tampa, Florida. (2016). Major recent photographic series include Touch me if you can catch me (2016) photographed in an orphanage for blind and deaf children, Norilsk (2015), Britain (2014), and Trench (2013) which portrays Uzbekistani migrant workers and their life in Moscow and Uzbekistan.
White Space Gallery has recently published a book on Norilsk series. Text by Andreas Petrossiants:
Grigoriy Yaroshenko’s Norilsk: Industrial Ruins, Allegorical Time
Allegories are, in the realm of thought, what ruins are in the realm of things. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Ruin’1
Night and Norilsk In a memorable image from Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961), Lidia, played by the late Jeanne Moreau, stands at the corner of a building, framed by the developing outskirts of Milan during the miracolo economico and by encroaching shadows casting geometric forms all around her. Lidia’s presence in the frame is accentuated by the sharp architectural angles, and is made fragile by her solitary position amidst the rising concrete to her left and sun-burnt shrubbery in a plant-pot to her right. She becomes a part of the framed image, a small component of the composition, though less dominating and more dynamic than its other constituent elements. Notwithstanding the weight of her humanizing narrative—she walks to contemplate the rapidly deteriorating health of a friend and her failing marriage—she is eclipsed by those seemingly narrative-less edifices surrounding her, in the neighbourhood where she and her husband had lived as newlyweds. However, the tacit objectification that might occur, is instead mitigated by the very mechanics of the composition: her envelopment only breathes more plot into her character’s trajectory. As seemingly stagnant contemporary ‘ruins’ decay around her, they simultaneously continue to expand with Milan’s economic development. We are reminded of Walter Benjamin’s writing on ruins: ‘In decay, sorely and alone in decay, historical occurrence shrivels up and disappears into the setting.’2
This collapse of history into setting is captured in the photographs by Grigoriy Yaroshenko contained in this book. The pictures take the Russian city of Norilsk as their protagonist—somewhat analogous to Antonioni’s portrayal of Lidia. The choice of character, for this series at least, is made clear by the fact that only a small handful of photographs feature human figures.3 It is fitting that Yaroshenko himself described to this author that his photographs cannot exist without narrative. Here, instead of an itinerant character as momentary subject, Yaroshenko is himself the flaneur, with camera in hand—on the ‘hunt’ as he remarked to me. But what exactly, given this aggressive verb, is Yaroshenko’s prey? Superficially perhaps, we might identify the impulse as a solely documentary one. One further thought, however, the photos appear to succeed in superimposing the realms of ‘thoughts’ and ‘things’ over one another, as espoused by Benjamin in the epigraph. Yaroshenko develops a wandering lens—neither merely documentary, nor totally allegorical—which is freed from crowded sites of sociality and spatiality, and, indeed, also from the present moment itself, doing away with linear time, so to speak. Norilsk’s history and its present merge into a single set of photographic compositions, which Yaroshenko utilizes to construct a non-linear narrative of trauma and memory embedded within the city’s shape, structure, and (occasionally) workers. Via an allegorical depiction of Norilsk in quasi-auterist black and white images, Yaroshenko depicts similarly decaying ‘ruins’—of industry, of histories that populate the city’s image—as they at once eclipse Norilsk’s own character, and bring its story into a stark light. As Olga Sviblova—the director of the Multimedia Art Moscow Museum (MAMM) who organized a photography exhibition titled Eight Decades of Norilsk Combinat (2015), including a series by Yaroshenko produced for the exhibition—notes of Norilsk’s very characteristic deterioration: ‘The buildings in Norilsk decay quickly due to the severe climate. At the same time, they can’t be demolished: thanks to the permafrost, there is nowhere to bury the debris. The living objects and the dead coexist in space and time.’4
Romantic Trauma, Polluted Fog
The city’s collective memory includes traumas that are inscribed into its ruins: composed of massive and expansive housing blocks, seemingly infinite mines, quarries, and factories, and a permafrost extending towards the horizon in every direction. Located well above the Arctic Circle, the city is covered with snow more than 250 days a year; withstands temperatures thirty, forty, and even fifty below zero in the winter; experiences a ‘polar night’ without sun from November until January; and, owing to its massive and economy-dominating mining and metallurgical industry, was listed in 2007 as one of the top ten most polluted cities on Earth.5 Its operating factories and plants are as much a fabric of the city as its natural geography. It is perhaps the epitomic ‘monocity,’ characterized as a city in which almost the entire population works within or for the same industry—a term descriptive of many cities of the former Soviet Union. Aside from their annual meteorological tribulations, the collective memory of Norilsk’s 175,000 inhabitants begins with a foundational trauma at its foundation in the late 1930s. It was founded as a site for forced labour, constituting the centre of the Norillag system of GULAG labour camps, with 72,500 inmates at its peak in 1951.6 Such socio-political, historical, climatic, and geographical conditions contribute in part to what Yaroshenko refers to as a ‘romantic fog’ that permeates the city. He is quick to point out, however, that such a fog is great for making pictures, until one realizes that the fog is not an immaterial aura, but rather, a grossly material pollution expelled continuously from the plants. He continues: ‘For photography [the fog] is very beautiful, but it is impossible to breathe. It is a shame that photographs cannot transmit smell.’7 It is, however, becoming easier to breathe in Norilsk. The most polluting plants have been shut down.’
More important even than smell perhaps, is a memory perceptible in the photos only via their transmittable context. It is crucial to note that the series—sponsored by Nornickel (the main employer of the city’s inhabitants) and MAMM, in a revitalization effort that somehow mirrors the economic development of Lidia’s Milan—was produced during the first week of the inverse of the polar night: a time in the early summer when daylight lasts long into the early morning hours. Even in this moment dominated by sunlight, likely foreign and shocking to those that have endured the dark winter, dirtied snow incompletely carpets both peripheral and more central parts of the city. Perhaps it is this sun, a stark contrast to the winter only just surmounted, that Yaroshenko finds drawn in chalk on asphalt. It is as if the drawing is hieroglyph, or a sacred symbol—iconography shared just as those weeks of respite from the cold are shared by Norilsk locals. As summer begins to bud, if only for a short moment, Yaroshenko’s optimism—a placeholder, perhaps, for the citizens’ nascent and necessary tenacity—comes to the fore. Many people hope to leave the city for Moscow or Saint Petersburg. It is assumed that they remain for the high wages paid for the difficult and taxing work in the factories and plants. As Sviblova remarks regarding locals’ thoughts on this question: ‘Many are newcomers from the former Soviet republics. Even though there is nothing to stop them moving away from this bleak land with a forbidding climate, they put down roots here and can’t break away, often for decades.’8 This attitude shared by the citizens of Norilsk, which, for lack of a more appropriate term, I’ve opted to call tenacity, is brought to the fore in Natalia Meschaninova’s gritty film on the city: The Hope Factory (Комбинат Надежда, 2014). Initially conceptualized as a film about young people leaving their hometown, Meschaninova described how she shifted the film’s setting to Norilsk because she wanted a ‘place that was difficult to leave not only psychologically but practically as well. Norilsk was the perfect place.’9
Norilsk is attempting to resolve its major problems, but the monocity, notwithstanding certain attempts by Nornickel, cannot cease its excavation of the ground and metal production, just as it cannot shed the history that comprises the compositions of its image and its ‘ruins.’ Looking to Yaroshenko’s series, as the past and present can not be separated from one another – the former informs the latter, and the latter contains the former’s mark, rhythm, and material/immaterial ruins.
A Future out of Ruins
Noting that Yaroshenko studied at the Moscow All-Union State Institute of Cinematography—before switching to concentrate on photography in the early 1990s due to the economic crisis following the Soviet Union’s collapse—it becomes even more pertinent to continue the allusion to the image of Lidia invoked throughout this essay. Yaroshenko is quick to note the influence of Italian Neorealism (and later Italian filmmaking of the 1960s) and French New Wave on his so-called ‘hunt’ for pictures.
In the cover image, even more strikingly reminiscent of Antonioni’s image, a woman stands braving what seems to be a burdensome wind. In front of her, a large patch of grass, emerging from its usual place under metres of snow, as the sun reappears in early summer. While the dark clouds above her seem an ominous and grey allegory for the burdensome history/present of Norilsk, she is not overcome by those large compositional structures as Lidia is. Instead a sense of space, both literal and allegorical, opens before her. The images convey a certain sense of hopefulness covered in dust: hope for a cleaner Norilsk. Yaroshenko’s wandering eye has captured how a city can emerge from darkness in more ways than one, and can carve out a present without forsaking its history in the process.
Andreas Petrossiants. New York, 2017
1 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Ruin,’ trans. Michael W. Jennings, in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, eds. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 180. 2 Ibid., 182.
3 In another series of photographs also shot in Norilsk on the same trip, Yaroshenko instead takes pictures, in colour, of groups of people.
4 Olga Sviblova, interview by Aigul Khabibullina, ‘Russian History Isn’t Just Made by Moscow or St. Petersburg,’ Getrussia, unpaginated, last accessed 10 August 2017 from: http://getrussia.com/interviews/russian_history_isn_t_just_made_by_moscow_or_st_petersburg/.
5 ‘Norilsk,’ Wikipedia, last updated 29 July 2017, accessed 9 August 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norilsk. 6 See: Simon Ertz, The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2003), especially chapter 7: ‘Building Norilsk.’
7 Grigoriy Yaroshenko, phone interview with the author, 29 July 2017.
8 Olga Sviblova, in ‘Russian History Isn’t Just Made by Moscow or St. Petersburg,’ (see note 4). Norilsk’s rich cultural history was initially fostered by the hundreds of educated people who arrived there as Gulag prison labourers. She remarks: ‘As the cold forced the people to spend most of their free time indoors, reading, art and TV became the main leisure activities.’ 9 Natalia Meschaninova, interview with Anton Sazonov, ‘Grim up North: The Hope Factory and the Changing Face of Russian Cinema,’ The Calvert Journal, last updated 27 January 2014, accessed from https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/2004/the-making-of-the-hope-factory-natalia-meshchaninova.