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Jul 08, 2014 5:24PM

Travel Diary: Vladimir Kravchenko's Ukraine & Russia

Sensing the demons.
My background is Ukrainian, I was born and lived there until I was 12-years-old. Since then I've been living in Sydney. The photos in this series during two months of travel across Russia and the Crimean Peninsular (formerly Ukrainian — since April 2014 it's been de-facto Russian.) Prior to this trip, aside from two short visits to Moscow, I have never travelled through Russia. I set out on this trip mainly because a good Australian friend of mine was keen to 'do' the Trans-Siberian railway and discover Russia. For me, the experience was twofold — on the one hand, I revisited a familiar culture and on the other, I saw it from the eyes of an outsider, which was accentuated by the presence of my Australian friend.  
 
The trip started in Vladivostok and went through Irkutsk, Listvianka (by lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world), Kazan (Russia's biggest Muslim city), Moscow, St Petersburg, Simferopol (Crimea) and Sevastopol (Crimea). We travelled cheaply by train and car, mostly staying with the locals and trying to follow the 'when in Rome' principal as best we could. I photographed everything on cheap Russian 'Kodak' film that could be bought in any shop along the way and developed it as I went along. I also tried to shoot 'on the go' from wherever I happened to witness a scene that caught my eye without adjusting anything. 
 
Over a chunk of land spanning thousands of kilometres, over a time of some three centuries, Moscow produced a culture recognisably uniform: both horrid and beautiful. What fascinated me was the bizarre mixture of West-meets-East, with a tinge of post-soviet militarism. As Russia is a very centralised state, Moscow acts as a big heart which pumps cultural 'blood' into the vast body that Russia is and somehow – though unpalatable as this blood is to my eyes – the moribund body does not mind it.
 
The images evoke in me a sense of the grotesque, the mismatched, a disharmony of sorts. That's also what compelled me to take them. Possibly because of my intimate knowledge of Russian/Ukrainian cultures and languages, my inability to immerse myself in the environment the way a local would, made me constantly bewildered at how something familiar can also seem so foreign; how people to whom I could connect with on many levels would not notice something I'd find unacceptable and sad. At the same time, the people on the photos humble me with their resilience and optimism. All over the magnificent and often hostile landscape they smile, carry on with things and have a lot of fun.
 
What's happening in the Ukraine (and Russia) in the last few months makes me feel sad. Retrospectively, I sensed all of the demons before they even came out. It makes me think about the (in)ability of the individual to affect change when faced with such immense power. I'm not sure. A person is born into an environment and they somehow have to deal with it, live in it, whether they like it or not; that to me is what happens in modern Russia.
 
Photos/Words: Vladimir Kravchenko