The Hitchhikers

We are hitchhikers. In winter, spring and fall we have regular jobs in sales.  We sell building materials and wood to save up for the upcoming travel and equipment.  Then in summer we always quit our jobs and hit the road. Our employers hate this, as it is the biggest selling season. But in life you have to prioritize and for now our choice is to travel. Because it is better than sitting in an office in front of a computer screen.

  It all started when our friend traveled across Russia for five years as a hitchhiker. We went for 10 days trip and after that we just couldn’t stop. First, we explored our region, Altai. And last year we hitchhiked to Crimea.  We traveled 4500 kilometers from Barnaul to Novorosibirsk in six days. Then we also hitchhiked around Crimea, explored the shores of the Black and Azov seas. Now we have been traveling from Barnaul to Vladivostok for more than a month.

  We choose routes near the federal highway so that we could come and go within three days without carrying 50 kilos of food. All the travel is planned, we initially think over the route, calculate the timing. During the trip, we ask locals where to go and we check out those places that impress us from their stories. We mostly look for beautiful nature spots, cities are less interesting to us. We sleep for free at places through couch surfing.

  The drivers are well wishing people. A lot of people say “Now if I hadn’t stopped here you would have had to walk along the highway to your destination.” Everyone thinks that he alone was kind enough to stop for us and that nobody else would have otherwise picked us up. But normally as soon as we come out to the highway, we just sit in the car and leave. Sometimes drivers say that they can only take one of us, but separating is not safe.

The drivers tell us their tales. Once we were traveling through Irkutsk region. We got into the car, everything was normal. Regular introductions, “Hello, I’m Olya, I’m Zhenya, I’m Alexey”, and then we left. He started talking about people, who had sat behind bars. He said “I myself served a sentence three times”, and looked at us. He probably thought that we would get scared, jump out of the car and run away (laughs). But we are girls with humor, we began asking him questions. The whole eight hours on the road, he was telling us about life in prison: what can be made from bread, how to properly enter a prison cell and how to make chifir (editor’s note: an exceptionally strong tea, brewed in Soviet detention facilities such as gulags and prisons).

One time we spent the night at the police station. We drove to Teletskiy Lake in Altai Republic. The driver got out of the car to take our photo and didn’t put it on brake. And the car with money and documents went under the water up until the roof. We watched the car slide into the water and bubbles appear on the water surface. Like in a movie. Then until the morning: first they called a tractor, but the tractor couldn’t pull it out, he had to call a shishiga (editors note: Russian 4×4 all-road (off-road) military truck produced by GAZ) . As a result,  the district police officer took pity on us and drove us to the police station. They have a resting room for staff there, they gave us a blanket, hot tea to warm us up.

  Once we went with a driver on Lada, and the rain was pouring on the windshield like it was from a bucket. And the wipers didn’t work. We went more than 100 km/hr, he said “Look, girls, what I can do!” The music blasted loudly from his speakers, vibrating an entire car, and the water diverged from the windshield. He was guided only by the oncoming lights. We were very scared, it’s good that the rain in Altai is just a very quick downpour.

One time we were driven by a trucker from Pyatigorsk. He picked us up in Samara and drove us to Omsk, we drove for three days, we spent the night in the cockpit. He let us steer the wheel, and we drove a wagon that is 16 meters long, loaded with 20 tons, despite the fact we only had category B driver’s license.

On a normal travel day we carry a sleeping bag, several pairs of socks, underwear, pants, shorts and t-shirts, hats, groceries, personal hygiene products and a first-aid kit in our backpacks.

Hitchhiking is a completely spontaneous way of traveling. You need to understand exactly what the risks are, because no one gives you a guarantee whether or not you will manage to drive a thousand kilometers today or not.  On these kilometers you daily encounter many people and their stories. When you’re in your own car or a train, you can be silent. But here you are forced to communicate with people, learn a lot, leave a mark in their life, just like they do in yours. Through these encounters you learn about  cool places that you can’t find even on the internet. In hitchhiking, you spend together 24/7 with your travel partner. By now se now understand each other right away, we no longer need words to communicate.

  During these travels, you get acquainted with different nationalities, regions of Russia, begin to love your homeland. We don’t need to go anywhere abroad. We have such a huge country, a lot of cool places, there is no way to find it anywhere else in the world. To see them, you only need time and desire. Sometimes you see the beauty in the details. So, the heart sinks. The sunset we saw in Barguzin is nowhere to be found. Such an orange sun, cold water, cold blue. Such a warm sea, as in the Tatar bay, is not anywhere else.

Now after two months of traveling, we really want to be home. I want to come to my place, lie on my favorite sofa, hug my beloved cat. The next trip planned – in Thailand. The really popular route in South East Asia: Thailand – Cambodia – Laos.


The Pregnant Lady

Pregnant woman, 37 years old

Today is my last day of freedom; I have C-section appointment for tomorrow. And that’s it. I will have to breastfeed a baby, no more breakfasts at a café for me (ed. note: Mesto47 team met the woman in a coffee shop). I can’t say that I dislike children, it’s just that I would have liked to live freely. But my husband insisted. I give birth to children only to satisfy my husband.

I met him on Odnoklassniki (ed. note: Russian version of Facebook.) I was working at the airport, and they gave me free internet access. Before IT guy cut off my access to social media, my husband wrote me a message.

From the very beginning I knew it was a boy. After the first baby I could not get pregnant and went to see an astrologist. Together with a colleague from the airport, we went all the way to an opposite side of Yekaterinburg to see her. Her room really impressed us; it had star alliances and horoscope signs all over it.

When she asked me, when I was born exactly, she said, “You have a close connection to your father. When you make peace with him, everything will work out. It will get stable.” She also said that she saw two boys in my house and that the place for conception would not be Yekaterinburg. It would be located at a two-day trip distance from the Ural Mountains.

At that point a relationship with my father was ugly. I had a big grudge against him. I had a little sister. When she was twenty, on the second year of college, they found a tumor in her head. Exactly the same diagnosis as Janna Friske (ed. note, Janna Friske was a famous Russian pop singer, who died after brain tumor diagnosis). During the three years of my little sister’s cancer treatment my father did not support my mother morally, needless to say, financially.

We fought endlessly. I would kick him out of the house, insisted that he and my mom would get a divorce. He was drinking. But my parents are affected by this mentality of being raised in a village. If you get married, it is only one time for your whole life. A divorce just because your husband is drinking and he is not helping? Unspeakable! What can one do, he is a husband, a father. The master of the house. Our men are weak, and I had to take the responsibility for my sister’s upbringing upon my shoulders. She fought for three years and died.

Anger against my father was accumulating, but after astrologist advice I started saying hi to him, when I came to visit my mom. I might not have forgiven fully, but I just forgot about it, tried to ignore it, because my husband wanted children and family. And it worked. After this incident my husband went on a business trip to Astana, two days by train from Yekaterinburg, and I got pregnant.

I do believe that fortune telling is nonsense. But following some kind of advice is different. For example, you have to make peace with your father for something to happen. Fortune telling and energy are two different things.

At the moment it’s hard for me physically. I can barely get up, sit down or lay down. Women should give birth before they are 35, it is probably inborn in their nature. Now, when an app on my phone tells me that walking somewhere will take 30 minutes, I calculate an hour.

After giving birth I will miss travelling. When you fly to Asia, everything is spicy, a lot of seafood, sometimes even an adult would be scared to try some food. You have to always think about the child. When the child is born, we will move to Sochi. Ural has a bad climate: a long winter and spring, and my husband and I like it when it is warm and green.

I will call him Jan. It’s an ancient Jewish name. His father is Ruslan. So his middle name would be difficult, that’s why I went for a short name. (ed. note: in Russia, a person’s middle name is derived from your father’s name).


The Racedriver

Sergei, 28 years old

I was born on Sakhalin. I’m a drag racer. The culture of drag racing came to us from the USA. It’s simple: two cars line up, then race for a quarter mile (402 meters). The faster car wins. A time under 10 seconds is considered to be fast, speeds get up to 290 km/hr. In Russia, drag racing is illegal. 

I don’t come from a rich family, I’m a child of civil servants. My mom worked her whole life as a city administrator, and my dad was a policeman. He is the reason I got addicted to cars since my childhood. He had a lot of cars. One day my brother and I tried to calculate how many and we settled on forty. We illegally began driving from age 13. On public roads. The Russian reality is all about taking advantage of the opportunities you have.

I remember this feeling, the first time I sat behind the wheel. I begged my dad for a long time, “Dad, let me drive”. He doubted it at first, but then one moment he turned to me at the parking lot and said “Do you want to start driving? Come on”. 

My first experience was in a Land Cruiser. This was a big jeep, so I had to put a pillow under my butt to look over the wheel. I sat in the driver’s seat, put my pillow beneath me and he showed me how the car functioned. We drove in one circle and he said “That’s all, you take a car for a ride now. I have some things I need to finish at home”. He left me alone after one lap in the parking lot. For three months I went back to that parking lot each month with my dad to do a lap. I enjoyed it. Often we would get water from the spring, and one day we forgot to do it and my mother yelled at us. My dad came to my room, gave me the key and said “The bottle is in the car, you know where the spring is, go. If you need something, call”.

When I was deciding on a university after high school, I was looking for a major that works with cars. I graduated with a mechanics degree from Vladivostok State University of Economics and Service. I went to work as a mechanic at an auto shop. The year that I graduated, I managed to save money and buy myself my first car – a 1993 Toyota Mark II. I met a friend who introduced me to drag racing. I started going to races, and it inspired me to improve my own car: increase the power and improve other specifications. I gave the car a name: “Blackbird”. I spent days at the site, bought many parts, ordered and installed them. With every new component the car got better and better. It was getting more powerful, but that wasn’t enough for me. 

It was winter time when the crisis hit. There was a 2.5x increase in the currency exchange, and all the parts I was buying were imported. My car was completely disassembled, one engine sold, the second bought. And we were just stuck. It was like my feet were covered in asphalt. I was so upset that I didn’t drive for two years. I was saving money to assemble the car back in a proper way. There was a lot to be changed for it to compete against the most powerful cars. 

2007 was not a good year for me, from the beginning of the season it was breakdown after breakdown. In 2018 I made a difficult decision. I decided to sell my car. At that time I was tired of all this, I had an idea of buying a finished, assembled project and driving it. I put a car up for cosmic million rubles, as they would say in our circles. The car didn’t sell for two months, so I decided to sell it for parts: took it for tuning and sold them. My girlfriend was even more worried than me. She saw how difficult it was for me to take my car apart, and she said, no, you should not do it. As a result, instead of the million that I wanted for the finished car, I earned 1.6 million.

The car I have now I bought from Sergey, he also loves to collect cool cars. When one of our drag racing friends is selling a car, we want it to be in good hands.There are situations when a young man, a daddy’s boy, who has the money acquires such a car without ever having to deal with it, and then accidents occur. We always try to get such cars to good people who know what they are doing and who take a good care of the car. I participate in races with this car, I constantly illegally ride in the city.

This is an illegal movement, police often comes, they disperse us, but sometimes we manage to come to an agreement with them. We would like this to become legal and leave the streets. To avoid conflicts with the authorities and misunderstandings of ordinary citizens.

In 2014 there was a huge epic fail. It all started with the usual dispute when our guys went to the old airport terminal to race. The police came and did not let them ride one weekend, then the second. “That’s fine, we won’t race here, we’ll race in the city”. It was simply unrealistic: a very large number of people gathered, two thousand and two young people in the most epic places – Aleutskaya Street, near the FSB building and Ocean Avenue. Police were helpless. They tightened the screws on us way too much and the whole situation blew up.

Authorities understand well what is going on and they know that the development of the drag racing movement is irreversible. We would like to become legal eventually. Firstly, it’s the safety of people. Big crowds attend racing events, although we try not to make massive announcements. Sometimes people who come here as spectators relax, get drunk and, as a result, get into tricky situations. Secondly, it is a public road. We hang up bags and tell people to pick up their garbage. We also have preventive conversations with some guys in the city, who drive arrogantly and start racing right in Vladivostok downtown. We are trying to help the authorities to move racing away from the city. 

When I was younger, I allowed myself to play around in the traffic stream. Now I am looking for a free section of the road, where there are no cars at all, I go for high speeds there. 

When I race, it’s a moment of complete freedom. My head is empty, not clogged with the everyday routine. I feel free. I catch the buzz. The fastest I ever went is 298 km / h. The limit of 300 is not broken. Yet.


The Bootmaker

Misha (Blago), 43 years old

I grew up in Blagoveshensk. I work as a shoemaker and sew mukluks: a type of traditional Buryat boots. I didn’t have a mother: when I was two years old, they took away her parental rights. I don’t remember her, I don’t even have photos. She drank all the time and my father took me to live with him. She died when I was ten, from vodka.

My stepmother raised me. I learned that she wasn’t my birth mom when I was 13 years old. I somehow suspected it and looked at the documents. Her name was Valentina and in my birth certificate it said my mother’s name was Natalia. I brought it up to my stepmom and she admitted that I was right, she showed me the documents saying that my mom hadn’t been allowed to raise me. I wanted to find her but there wasn’t any information about her. Probably there’s a grave in the cemetery but I never went. I don’t know why.

I had a normal life with my father and stepmother, it wasn’t worse than anyone else’s. Normal, average family. I was a bad student, it was really hard for me, especially chemistry, physics, geometry: all those x’s and y’s and equations. I was better at French, I liked that. Then I went to college for municipal construction but I didn’t even stay until the end of semester.

My father was a shoemaker, so I also went off to learn to make these traditional Buryat boots. They paid you a stipend while you studied. Within half a year I learned everything that I needed to. Afterwards, in 1993, at 17 years old, I was put in jail for the first time for four years.

I hadn’t been working alone, my partner Slava was four years older than me. The first time we broke into an apartment we didn’t even really want to take anything, we just wanted to walk around as though we owned it. We didn’t even really steal anything special, just small things.

From outside of an apartment you can tell how people live. We selected those  with pretty windows, or an expensive door, or which had air conditioners. You set your sights on an apartment – you go during the day, and put a bit of tape on the door or stick a match in the lock. In the evening you look again: if everything is where it was, then no one’s home. If the tape has been unstuck or the match is on the floor, then someone is inside. Or you can look in the windows. Now that wouldn’t work anymore, as soon as you get near the entrance, the cameras are already watching you.

When I was held in a temporary detention center for three days, I was just a kid and there were adult men there and they immediately said “Well it’s gonna be jail, it’s gonna be tough, you should follow a strict set of rules.” As a child, that’s scary. Actually the first time I went to prison, they stuck me in the sweatbox. There two forty five year old guys forcing confessions out of kids 15-17 years old. They force them to confess the crimes they hadn’t admitted to committing. For this they get a reward – their sentences are cut in half.

The first two days were okay, I didn’t know they did that yet. And then they told me, “ok go write your confession” and gave me a stack of blank sheets of A4 paper. Then one of them grabbed a metal mug and hit me with it – I started bleeding all over the floor. That saved me. I wrote down what I’d already told the cops. I thought he would kill me, you know? Within a day they transferred me to a normal cell. One older guy and about 20 underage guys. There it was okay, it wasn’t as crazy and lawless as in the sweatbox.

In jail you live by the code. If you’re a normal guy, you hang out with normal guys. If you’re a sniffler (editorial note: here and further is the description of a known Russian caste system in Russian prisons), you hang out with others. A sniffler is like…people are constantly telling him bring this, give me that, go there, leave that alone, make tea. If no one pays attention to the sniffler – then he’s just nobody, alone he has no life at all. He’s not even able to say anything himself. He is agreeing with someone else or helping someone else…just sniffling, as we say. And once you start being like that, then that’s it, this is how your life in jail will continue. You can’t get out of that position, you can only fall lower.

Even lower – those are the hurt people. You know who they are? No? Well, it’s the gays. And the pedophiles. At some point in jail they start talking about something that happened once, and there, people are strict about that kind of thing. If you’ve done something bad with a woman, even if you’ve just licked her somewhere, then that’s it. If you, as a normal guy, even drink tea with him, just “splashed” as we call it, in the same cup, then you’re associated with him. You also can’t smoke after him, if you get cigarettes from him it has to be a closed, full pack.

I was a normal guy, as we say “mujik”, I wasn’t reliant on anyone. That was how most mujiks were. I didn’t want to be one of the criminal chiefs. That’s a shitload of work. I saw how they lived. Totally over the top, very showy.

In the early 90s, they fed us stinking herring and barley. The herring wasn’t cleaned, it still had guts, it still had its head. In my second sentence it was already better. They started to make good borsch, they gave us one can of tinned salmon a day.

Every morning at six we’d wake up to music. Every day the same song: “What a hard day” by Minaev. (Editorial note: Russian version of “You’re in the army now”).  Then we did exercises for 15 minutes, always outside, in summer and in winter. Before breakfast, there’d be a check. Everyone comes out of their rooms and there’s a roll call for half an hour. Then you sit down and wait for breakfast. Not everyone fits into the cafeteria so you’re divided into groups. Then you wait until lunch, in hope of someone getting a package from a visitor. A lot of people got ephedrine. Those were pills from China, sometimes people would even eat 10 pills in soup or in condensed milk. I never tried it, but the guys who did it, they were running around like crazy all night long, they were on a different level. Of the guys I know who were in jail, half of them are already dead. Some overdosed, some are still in jail, some caught tuberculosis and died.

In the jail there was a library. In our free time we read or watched one of the two television channels. I read all of Chase’s detective stories there.

I also did my first tattoo in jail when I was underage. Instead of tattoo ink, we burned and cut off the heel of a boot, then we ground it into a powder and mixed it with urine. And then you sit there all day long, poking and poking away the time with the needle. Tattoos like: “It’s more likely that a lion will turn down meat, than that a woman would stop manipulating and lying.” Or “The more I know about people, the more I like dogs.” I used to have a tattoo of the crest saying “Hello thieves” but people looked at me weirdly in the bus, so I covered it with a bigger tattoo in Thailand. And other tattoo I had removed. I didn’t know what it meant when they made the tattoo, but later it turned out that it was a crest and stripes meaning that you’re fatherless. Then I thought, why the fuck would I be fatherless, my father is still alive. To remove the tatoo, you take the plastic barrel of a pen, pull out the ink ball, light it on fire and blow. The skin swells, your eyes are burning, and you get blisters. It’s so humid in jail, the wound was rotting for a month. Maybe it was infected.

After I got out of my first sentence, after exactly a year, I was put back in again. Me and a partner broke into an apartment where a barterer lived, he dealt in mink coats from China. Unpacking and taking away 20 fur coats wasn’t easy, we didn’t have a car so we went back 3 or 4 times to grab everything. When we left, the apartment was empty. My partner met a drug addict who was collecting cigarette butts to smoke and offered to buy him a cigarette. Then my criminal partner (he was an Asian Buryat, you can’t mistake him for anyone else) and the drug addict with a braid went to go buy cigarettes at a kiosk right by that apartment — with just a ton of cash. Of course the lady in the kiosk remembered them and later told the cops everything. Then it turned out that the apartment actually belonged to a cop, the barterer was renting it to him. Then the cops got the entire town looking for us and found us very quickly.

During my second term I also worked as a shoemaker inside the jail, I sewed felt boots and mukluks for the policemen. In exchange, they brought me tea, cigarettes, meat. Ten packs of cigarettes, half of a kilogram of tea in exchange for a pair of warm mukluks. It was good for me and good for them. When I was in jail the first time, my parents came and visited every month to see me and bring me stuff. The second time I went to jail, I wrote them and said they didn’t have to come. My dad came to see me just one time, he brought me the materials so I could work.

When I got out for the second time, I still had this urge to go back to apartments. I don’t fucking know why, now it’s not like that anymore. I broke down a door, took the electronics and the television and hid them by the garbage shoot to go back and look for cash. Then the door opened, the owner came home. I heard it and jumped off the balcony from the second floor. It was nighttime and I didn’t even look to see what was down there. If there had been a stake or something, I don’t know what would have happened. I fell and ran, kept running, I ran about 100 meters and my heels hurt so much. I fell down, I just couldn’t any more. And I yelled for help. A lady called out from the balcony, “what’s wrong, what happened.” I said, “The cops hit me, they broke my feet. They threw me out of a car, I’m lying here.” She came out and called for an ambulance. Later I learned that she’d recently lost her son, he’d also been beaten up. You see, that’s why she came out.

In the hospital they put two casts on me. I lay there and waited, wondering if they would come for me or not. They didn’t. And since then I’ve been clean. That was a last warning. Now I don’t want to anymore, it’s gone.

I was married for ten years. It was in the 2000s, after I was released, I immediately found myself a seventeen year old. We met at a market, I suggested we go have a shot of vodka – and that’s how it all started. After that I bought her clothes, I got her all cleaned up, and then she didn’t need me anymore. She started partying, cheating on me. Of course I also cheated on her, maybe twice. But she did it completely openly. Every Friday she drank with her friends, she’d just get dragged into something. Once I called her, and she couldn’t talk at all. She was mooing like a cow and she couldn’t get out a single word, she was in a car somewhere. Then I heard two guys talking. I asked where she was, said I would go get her, but she couldn’t answer me. I put up with it for a while but then it was just too much. Maybe it didn’t work out with us because of children. She had an ectopic pregnancy and then they had to remove her Fallopian tubes. I hope the child had been mine, but I can’t be sure.

In 2013 we officially divorced, but after leaving the registry office we went to a pub and ended up in a hotel room. She got married but she still comes to me and cheats with me on her husband. That’s better than if she was married to me and cheating with someone else. At least she’s with someone else, coming to me. She knows that if she came back to me I wouldn’t put up with her running around like she did before. When she comes over, her husband knows that she’s with me. He doesn’t call me himself but his friends do. They’re mad, of course. But I don’t give a damn, I’m having fun. I don’t force her to come, she comes herself.

If she wanted to come back to me, I would take her of course. She actually said “buy an apartment and I’ll come back to you.” I bought a studio apartment and she said she had to think about it. Right now I don’t have anything, I even sold my car when they took away my driving license. And her man has a car, a two room apartment, guns. So she decided to stay with him.


The Miners

Night train Blagoweschensk – Khabarovsk. Mesto47 team is heading to the dining car. We take a table across a group of miners with an empty bottle of vodka. From their conversation we figure that they are travelling from a corporate event on lake Baikal, a soccer competition commemorating Steel Miners’ Day. They are having a drunk discussion about their final match and celebrating their victory as they bring the competition’s Cup back home, to Mnogoverschinniy, a tiny village in Khabarovsk region that mines 3,5 tons of gold each year.

They hear a foreign language and initiate a conversation. They ask us where we are from, what we are doing and where we are heading. They take me for a prostitute who accompanies a foreigner and ask me how much I charge for my services per hour. I get angry and tell them I am a journalist. They apologize and ask for a permission to sit at our table. We drink and talk. The most talkative are their leader Jenya, he is around 50 and Grisha, 21.

9:30 pm Two vodka shots. Miners profession. Jenya is loud. He shows off his huge golden ring, bracelet and a shiny heavy thick chain on his neck. He lets us take a photo of his jewelry.

Marina: What is it like to be a miner?

Jenya: We are living in Mnogovershinny village. It is a Swiss gold mining company. A miner is a person who comes under ground and starts extraction. He comes out happy, puts his hammer on one shoulder and goes to lunch with a big smile on his dirty face. In order to become a miner, you have to be strong and dumb. Why strong? Because it is physical labor, you have to turn off your brain and work, work, work. Why dumb? So that you are not scared in a dark confined space. You are alone there, 120 meters under ground with a lantern and a hammer that weights 70 kilos. We have this black humor joke: if I die, they get me out, then dig me back under ground. I will chill there for three days, and they will send me back to work. We have this superstition; we don’t have a word “last”, we say outermost. If you ask a miner, which shift he has today, he will never reply the last one. You can’t say that, what if it really becomes last?

Grisha: I am doing vocational training for miners and each summer I work under the ground. You just turn on your flashlight on and walk. Rockslide can happen anywhere. If a rock that weighs a ton falls on you, your helmet will not save you.  It happened twenty times, when you sit there, look at a rock and think, “It looks like it’s about to fall”, but it doesn’t. You walk away a bit, and it falls down. At the end of the day, everybody has their mission, we are all like ants in a big ant hill.  A miner should be paid as much as an engineer. Nothing will happen without him, he does the most difficult job.

Jenya: A mine does not forgive mistakes. If you don’t break nature laws, no accidents will occur. Are you in doubt? Don’t go there. Don’t remember something? You should not do it.

10: 10 pm We drink two more shots. Life in Russia’s Far East. Putin.

Grisha: if you watch mass media in Moscow, what do they say about people’s life, how do they live, good or bad? When you take a train through Far East, have you seen many beautiful houses and roads?

Marina: No.

Grisha: It is 21st century, and life outside of Russia is changing rapidly. But in our country people are learning again how to hammer in nails. A westerner will live till he is 100 years old, he will be happy, the ecology is OK there, they have Teslas. Not like here, people live until 60, when they retire. Miners used to earn more: older generation in the USSR were paid 100 rubles. They managed to go to Khabarovsk just for a weekend to drink beer. We knew that we worked in bad conditions, but at least we were paid well for this and the family was covered. Now they pay pennies, and you might die, so what’s next?

Our President doesn’t fulfill a single promise. It feels like Far East lives in a separate country, not in Russia. They don’t open new kindergartens. Children are playing in dirt. People work without following safety instructions. They work anywhere, as they need to provide for the family. He gets pennies, but he does it for the family. Do you have many bad roads in Moscow?

Marina: No

Jenya: I am an old man, and this is young people talking. Just imagine what opinion they have about Russia. I am sure that the youth will not betray the motherland, but it will not follow its President.

Grisha: To be honest, I feel like half of Russia will be sold soon. I can see how they sell forest. Yes, Siberia has enough forests for 1000 years to come. Locals are not allowed to cut the wood. But then some guys from Moscow come with connections and they do it. The same goes for fish. We have this law in Far East if you just want to fish, they will fine you for 1 million rubles. And then the fish goes to Moscow, it is sold cheaper than here. It goes to the center from Far East it doesn’t get to the locals. You don’t even pay attention to domestic politics.

Jenya: FSB works well here, so shhh…

Grisha: At the end people do not have anything. How are we supposed to live? In a country that doesn’t want to support us. People, who sit up there, don’t fight for it. For what they need to fight. They are just unreachable.

11 pm We meet a Korean dude, he buys beers for everyone. The beer’s called Siberian Crown. We drink and chat about gays.

Jenya: Marina, tell me, are we adequate people?

Marina: You have a special approach towards life. You say everything as it is, you don’t really have a filter.

Jenya: Yep, we are not about filter for sure.

Korean dude tells Grisha that he is beautiful.

Grisha: Translate to him we don’t say beautiful to a man, this is unacceptable. You can’t say this, it will lead to no good. When in Rome, do as Romans do!

Jenya: We don’t have gays. We just destroy them. It does not matter if he is good or bad.

Marina: if you don’t have gays, why is it a problem? 

Jenya: We had one guy move from Irkutsk to our town with his 3 mln rubles motorcycle and tubes in his ears. We put a lock on his ears and locked him up to a door handle and left. After four hours we came and unlocked him. He quit and left.

Grisha: You need to experience living here for some time. People are programmed this way: we are one kind of people, and you are another. If we give in, there will be no families. How will women have children? And there are so many single girls nowadays, they just don’t give birth. The nation is just dying out. Who will love you then if everyone is gay?

Normally, after progress and human development reach their, regress starts. Same sex marriage means that people are killing themselves just because they made up some kind of addiction in their head. Can a birch tree grow and then suddenly become an orange tree?  It is a psychological disease, something must have gone wrong with his head. There are gays who were shown images of naked women, and they wanted them. They just deny it. Faggots are useless people.

Jenya: One guy from our village fell in love with a girl. A girl left for Saint Petersburg. He moved there and got a job of a bouncer at a night club. He told me, “I come out of the club, and I see two dudes kiss. I tell them to leave, but they don’t listen.” The administrator told him that this was not accepted. They fired the guy. You see, we are raised differently. We don’t understand it when a dude kisses a dude.

An advantage of the Far East is that you will not let them in here. Your bold guy will not bring them to march here. (editor’s note: reference to Yuri Luzhkov, former mayor of Moscow, who allowed Moscow’s first gay parade). A man and a mujik are different. Mujik will defend the motherland. A man can commit treason.

23: 50 We finish our beers. The speech is not that clear already, but we somehow manage to talk about soccer and poetry.

Grisha: I don’t like reading that much. They gave us Esenin (editor’s note: famour Russian poet) to read at school. Some alcoholics wrote something beautiful, yes, but it does not mean that children should learn this by heart. In poetry I don’t see anything beautiful or useful for me in life.

Actually, I would like to move to Rio de Janeiro. It is a beautiful city with masquerades, parades, and ocean shore. It is also a soccer capital. I used to have just one favorite player: Cristiano Ronaldo. And now when you watch soccer, you see many players stand out.

Soccer in Russia is not in the best condition. We have no soccer fields. We’ve got million talents in Russia. Did you see our team play at the Championships? I think they should be fired. So many sick kids could be getting their treatment with the money they are making. Foreign soccer players play soccer professionally, and they get paid accordingly. Our players just kicked the ball like kids in the backyard. They just talk, they don’t act. Tell the youth, “we will pay you a quarter of that salary”, and a younger generation will start winning.

Midnight. Empty bottles and a snoring miner at the table. A fat train stewardess in a short skirt decisively walks our way.

Fat train stewardess: Dining car is closing.  Thank you, good-bye.

Marina: What time is it? Could we stay a bit longer?

Grisha: You have foreign guests here. And you are closing down so fast.

Fat train stewardess: Thank you, good-bye.

We obey and continue to drink in a third class carriage, but with no recorder running.


The Ex-Cop

Victoria, 42

(Editor’s note: this co-traveller’s name has been changed on her request due to signing a non-disclosure agreement upon retirement)

In my job one has to have good sense of humor, otherwise, I would go mad. I always wanted to work for the police. I can’t say my parents were happy about my choice. My dad was a policeman for 27 years himself. I am a young pensioner; recently I retired after being a policewoman for 23 years.

This job comes with unregulated hours, so it’s hard on family life. One needs an understanding husband or wife. You come home, and they call you up. A murder just happened. It means that your workday has started. You have to wake up, put some clothes on and go there at night. Of course, it’s annoying when you have some weekend plans, but then someone just gets murdered, raped or beaten so severely, that he or she is about to die. If you work in the murder department, you should check out the details of the crime scene yourself.

On average we get 125-128 calls a day. We have three crime scene investigation teams plus three patrol and inspection services. We manage. Sometimes we would get just 80 calls, but this is considered to be few. Apart from this, we study law, shooting, have work out sessions and self-defense wrestling exercises.

Sometimes young girls join the police with romantic ideas in their head, based on books and movies. They think that they will just stand in their uniform be writing something down or investigating. And in reality they work with morally deficient people, who verbally abuse them. You have to interrogate them, sometimes they are under alcohol influence and can be aggressive. You should calm them down, but it doesn’t always work. They get back their anger at you, even though it’s not your fault.

But it’s not exactly every day you  get thugs, assholes, and scumbags, who should be either in nut hospital or on a life-sentence. You have to treat such people as humans. It’s easier to do for a woman, as she has more patience.

Crime psychology of a woman differs of that one of a man. A woman is more insidious. She has no obstacles, no long-term strategy. She just has a short plan: to get her revenge on this asshole here and now.

One time a woman stabbed herself, because of jealousy. She saw her boyfriend with another woman and said that it was him who stabbed her. He got arrested, but the doctor said the pathway of the stroke showed that he could not have done it. She continued to claim it was him, but then later lied that she was cutting meat and did it herself by accident.

Once I faced a similar situation. They called us because of theft, and a woman said that her partner stole her earrings. In reality there was no theft. He has been physically abusing her, and she wanted to revenge, to get him punished. To scare him. But at the same time she didn’t want to claim the beating. The physical abuse was obvious, but she claimed that she had fallen down. This situation really upset me as a woman. I came into a room, and there were three babies lying on the bed. One was a breastfed child, and the other two were between year and a half and three years old. The youngest one was spluttering with a bottle. I took him, and his lips were already blue. I started shaming her, “how can you do this, you are a mother”. At 23 she already had three kids from different men. She didn’t even have papers for the smallest baby.

When we watch detective movies on TV at the police station, we laugh at this nonsense. Arrest and evidence collection in the movies is just ridiculous, just bloopers everywhere, it reminds me more a fantasy or a comedy genre. Things don’t happen like this in real life, one can get fired for such mistakes. Any evidence extraction is always recorded, by photo or video.

Policemen don’t have many rights, even though they work for a low salary and have really high working loads. And they have a lot of responsibility. We had a situation: a boy stole his dad’s keys and got his gun, but didn’t manage to kill a teacher, who gave him a C for the term. Luckily his sister saw this and told somebody, so the police could prevent him from doing it. But the neighborhood officer was fired, as apparently, he wasn’t watching them close enough.

It is impossible to define a criminal by the way he or she looks. You can tell a drug addict by his behavior or by their eyes. When I was attending police academy, I had a nice neighbor. He was saying hello to all grannies next to our house, he would hold the door for women with strollers. He studied well and was his mom’s pride. But one day we found out that he killed more than 20 people. He organized a criminal group, they would stop at the road and pretended that their car had broken down. They used a girl with a little child, while other members of the group were hiding in bushes. They killed people, took their cars and hid the bodies by putting them under concrete in a friend’s garage. One day they were talking about it, and a girlfriend heard it. She ran away, they were chasing her, but she managed to get into a stranger’s car and asked for help. She got to the police station and told them everything.

 Half of the neighborhood attended the court hearing, nobody could believe this, everybody thought that he had been arrested on false charges. Nobody could have identified a criminal in him, regardless of experience in the police. His behavior was not changing in any way, he was always self-restrained, polite and calm.

In road police we have police guys with tummies, they have to sit around a lot. And in our department, if you are not in shape, you will not be able to fulfill your work duties. At some point your shape can save your life, and I am an alive proof to that.

It happened when I was not on duty. I was just walking home, it was winter, strong wind, around 9 pm. Suddenly a man attacked me from behind and started choking me. The most terrible thing in this situation was the fact that I was pregnant. He didn’t say a word to me, was just choking me silently. I shook my head, hit him with it and bent him. He was much heavier than me, and my weight was insufficient, but I managed to escape. I didn’t even think about arresting him. If he kicked me into my stomach, I would have been dead. That’s why I could not risk it, I didn’t have the right to do so. Maybe he wanted to take my purse, maybe to rape me. I don’t know what he wanted.

One has to work out in order to be able to stand up for themselves. Of course, it is tougher for a woman. Even a well-trained man would not be able to withstand the fight. But to hold on for some time, call for help and have a possibility to at least run away, invest all strength in one stroke. There is a chance. One has to be realistic about it. All self-defense methods are targeted at knocking out a gun or a knife. Of course, not when a gun is pointed at you. In this case you might be better off to agree to his demands and hit him on the sly, when he relaxes and his attention is diverted.

The most important is not to behave like a victim. Never be a victim. It is not important whether you have muscles. If you are tense or nervous, they will pick up a fight. You have to be confident.


The Stolbista

Stolbi nature sanctuary is a national park near Krasnoyarsk. The stolbi – “the pillars” – are some of the oldest mountains on our planet. Rocks of unusual beauty and shape, surrounded by endless taiga.

Throughout the last centuries Stolbi became more meaningful for a local community than just a national park. It became the symbol of a whole subculture. All this time, Stolbi has been pulling in all sorts of people like a magnet: adventure seekers, climbers, people who were running away from something in search of freedom. Freedom from routine. Freedom from regime. Freedom from social inequality.

This is the story of our guide Irina, who is a recognized Stolbist (ed. note, Stolbi regular climber). She recently turned 60. 50 of those years, she spent in Stolbi, conquering the peaks that are too difficult even for the strongest athletes.

“I was born and grew up in the Far East. One childhood memory is very vivid: when I was three, I escaped from my parents and made it to the top of a mountain. Older guys found me and took me back to my parents. Even back then I was drawn to the heights.

When I was 6 years old, my family moved to Krasnoyarsk and my mother took me to Stolbi. After this, she would hardly see me at home…. For me and my friend blini (ed. note, Russian pancakes) became a currency and for a blini with cottage cheese or minced meat strangers would let us drag along to climb the Stolbi with them.

When I was a teen, people took me from the wall and beat me for climbing without rope. Older comrades beat my butt with rock shoes, they said that I shouldn’t climb like that. Now it’s different: people know that I climb free solo all the time, and they respect me. Out of all women, I am one of the most dedicated Stolbists. I often go climbing with guys on rocks with a high level of difficulty. Many men would not even try to climb pitches that I have completed.

You have to have a certain mindset and emotional state before difficult areas for free solo. Only this way you can overcome extreme situations, by suppressing your will and emotions.

Many people climb with headphones on, but it doesn’t work for me. I feel more comfortable hearing natural sounds. What is going through my mind as I climb? If it’s a difficult route, I think, “Why did I climb here? They warned me it was not a good idea to climb here.” If I am climbing with another person, I carefully watch that he is doing everything right. This grabs all my attention.

When the route is incredibly difficult, you can’t think of anything, you just need to concentrate. You sort of get into an autopilot mode. Sometimes, after descent, people are curious about how you managed to overcome this difficult section, but you can’t remember it, because your own internal navigation system put your hands in the right spots.

In the backpack of any Stolbist you will find the following items: magnesium for our fingers, for them not to slip on the rocks, a short rope in case you suddenly need to save or just belay somebody. And of course a water bottle, we fill them with water from a local spring.

I never had serious injuries. One time I fell into the rope on the wall from a height of 12 meters and just stayed hanging there. After this I was very scared, but with time you are able to get rid of your fear. With experience I can understand where I can climb on my own and better calculate my abilities.

I am just not afraid of some things. I have so much energy, that I need to invest it into something so that it doesn’t disturb other people. If I don’t put it into climbing, it may burst out of me, and then I will be up to no good. There must be something wrong with my brain. I like living like this, to feel the rocks with my hands and legs, with my mind too. Rocks are my emotional half. Sometimes I approach a mountain that requires a technique that I don’t possess, and I think, “How will I do this?” And then I just do it. For me Stolbi is a place of power, a temple of nature, where God himself envisioned us, humans.

I am teaching climbing at Krasnoyarsk University. When I take my students to Stolbi, I teach them how to listen to nature and communicate with it.

I don’t show many things to my grandchildren, because it is very dangerous. Once they see something, it is impossible to tell them they can’t do it. They think, “If granny can do it, so can I”.

Krasnoyarsk locals spend a lot of time in Stolbi. Originally Stolbism was shaped as a protest movement. People came here not only for spiritual, but for social freedom. In the city you could be a general. But in Stolbi you are free of any social ladder. In the mountains everyone is equal before difficulties, it doesn’t matter if you are a professor or a millionaire. If you climb well, everybody will respect you.

As soon as the national park was established, people started building huts up in the rocks, which became an important part of Stolbist culture. Most people who came to Stolbi were involved in politics. They annoyed the Stolbi administration with their behavior, they constantly fought for their rights. Sometimes the huts were burned down. Very often police would come to the hut, put everybody in buses and leave.

A hut is essentially a closed club, and it’s very difficult to get in. I am the only person on Stolbi, who belongs to two huts, and I have keys to both of them. There are 15 huts in a national park and only experienced climbers and awarded professional athletes become members. They help find people who lost their way and assist fire fighters in putting out forest fires.

A couple of years ago, guys from our hut found a couple, who had been missing for three days. The man, 20 years old, died, but they managed to save his girlfriend. She was wearing a skirt and pantyhose in cold weather. There were many situations, when we called emergency serices for people we found on the way. Once we had to bring a man who weighed 90 kg down from a pillar. He was climbing alone and fell down 30-meters; that’s equivalent to a 10-floor building. I don’t’ know how he survived.

Once I played a role in a movie. They filmed a TV series in our hut, and I was a stunt woman for the leading character. It was in winter, we had -30 degrees, and the actress borrowed my clothes. It was funny to watch the show on TV later with an actress walking around in my pants and hat.

There are many stories, legends and jokes that go around Stolbists. Once a Stolbist fell down during a climb and broke his hand. Then he came back to the same spot a year later to show his buddies where he broke his hand. And guess what, he fell down again on the same spot and broke another hand.

Stolbi took many human lives. One of the most decorated Stolbists, Volodya Teplyh, slipped on the Feathers, a route that he had climbed hundreds of times before. Each year I host night competitions in his memory under the moon light. A small church was built next to Stolbi with the names of people taken by the mountains and rocks carved on it. I used to climb with many of them, and knew them very well…

These people influenced me, they shaped who I am today. They taught me how to survive sorrow and happiness. How to love my family. Because of Stolbi, I never feel alone.”


The Teenagers

Dima, Ekaterinburg

I grew up in Ekaterinburg, I’m transgender. It all started because I thought I liked to dress like a boy. Then I started thinking about it more, and at first I decided that I was agender, something in the middle of both sexes. Then, about a year ago, I realized that I wasn’t happy with how I am. This realization came slowly. I felt like if I were to continue ignoring it, it wouldn’t get any better. It’s when you look in the mirror and you don’t see yourself. It’s me, but something is off. It’s not the same feeling you have when you notice you are overweight. You see that you’re just not the person that you could be. It’s difficult, because it really exhausts you psychologically every single day.

When I met my new friends a year ago, I introduced myself as Dima for the first time and asked them to use male pronouns. I was 12. Up until then I wore girls clothes, I didn’t feel like that was wrong because I was a child. I have a traditional family: mom, dad, brother. My parents are great. Both my mom and my dad are good people. They’re always ready to help. I love them. My parents don’t know about this, about my other life. At home and at school people call me by my official name, Sveta. I have some acquaintances that I asked to refer to me as masculine. They accepted that. Sometimes they use the right pronouns, and sometimes I correct them.

I buy clothes from the boy’s department and from time to time I steal clothes from my dad. He gave me one jacket because he didn’t like it. Right now I’m wearing his jacket. At school I only feel uncomfortable when people call me Sveta or use the wrong pronouns. I’m not really friends with any of my classmates, it’s not like I’m an outcast, I’m more just quiet. I don’t really want to tell them about this because no one will care. And if everyone knows still keeps on calling me the wrong name knowing that I don’t like it –  that’s worse than if they just don’t know. I don’t have the strength to correct them all the time. If I start a new life somewhere, that would make everything much easier.  Soon I will visit a university fair  with my mom to check out some international colleges with free tuition.

I have two friends who are going through something similar – one in Ekaterinburg and one in St. Petersburg. I met the friend from St. Petersburg online, we met on Vkontakte (ed. note: Russian Facebook) in February. He’s older than me, he’s about 20. We’ve never met in person.

When people call me Sveta, I feel disappointed. I’m not disappointed in the people, but I just feel like something isn’t right. I don’t feel like I’m in the right place. With friends, I can be myself. Dima and Sveta aren’t two different beings. I use Dima, a name that makes me feel comfortable, with my friends.

Trans people can choose whether they want an operation or not. It is only up to them to decide. If they feel like they’re not themselves in their body, just somehow off, you can call them trans even if they have not had an operation. I don’t feel at home in my body. I’ve thought about the possibility of having an operation. As far as I know, it starts with hormone therapy. Then you can do the surgery. I’m sure that my friends would support me, they know that it’s not an easy process. I don’t know about my parents. I think at that point I would move out and leave. In Russia you can get prescriptions for hormones, but I think you can only do the operation somewhere out of the country.

 All the time, I’m thinking about how I look. A big issue for me is which locker room I should go into. The locker room is assigned for women, and I don’t assign myself to that category. I can change at home and just leave my things in the locker room. I’m not happy with either option. The variant of using the men’s toilets, when I can manage it, that works. In malls, when I’m not there with my parents, I go to the men’s bathrooms.

I think I bisexual. I was dating a girl, she lives in Estonia, so we only talked online or with video calls. We stopped dating because we started talking less. I understand her really well and now I love her like a best friend.

The Mesto47 team also met Dima’s friends at a meet up of the group “Twenty One Pilots” in Ekaterinburg. We met at the square 1905, about 10 teenagers from 13-17 were at the meeting. They were immediately noticeable: they got our attention because of bright yellow tape. The whole group had tape on them from head to toe. We got to know them, put tape on ourselves as well, and headed with them to a park, where we spent all day. I discredit myself with the first question.

Marina: What is a meet up?

Alena: (pink hair, 17 years old) A meet up is a gathering of people who are connected by something. In this case it’s the group Twenty One Pilots. We have a lot of common interests. When you come to a meet up, it’s like you’re with friends that you’ve known forever. The first time it’s strange, but then with each meeting, you feel more at home. You already know a lot of people. Two years ago I was scared to come, and I ended up coming to a meet up for the first time a year ago. I’ve been friends with these guys for a year and they’re like a second family to me. I’ve gotten less shy, less scared of talking to different people. Before I was really closed and I was scared of asking people for things, I would be almost hysterical, completely shaky. Now I can ask people for things with no problems.

Dima: It was music that brought me to my friends, and I actually started to play music, which helps you to feel music even more and let out your emotions. They’re different feelings, playing or listening to music. You can listen to music and understand what the writer was feeling, or you can play music, and think about what you’re feeling.

We sing a few songs, first in English and then in Russian. As usual, everyone is very interested in Georg, the foreigner in our group. Everyone tries to talk to him, but is shy and asks us to translate. One of the girls takes his arm and gives him a henna tattoo of the word СЧАСТЬЕ, happiness. We talk about happiness as the fulfillment of dreams.

Marina: What are your dreams?

Lyosha, 16 years old: My dream is to start a band. I already know a bassist and a keyboard player. I already have the name: the last day of summer. Although it’s up for discussion.

Alena: I don’t know how to describe it. But after studying, I don’t want to live like my parents. They can never just go somewhere, have fun, unwind. Most of the time they sit at home and watch TV. I don’t want to just sit around like that, I can’t stand monotony, I always need to go somewhere, even if it’s just going to a different city for two days. I can’t really formulate this into a dream, but not to just sit in one place, not to have every day be the exact same.

Alina, 15 years old: About different generations…I wanted to go to Moscow, actually in February, when I wanted to go to a Twenty One Pilots concert, I’d already bought the tickets, but my parents said I couldn’t go. They said that they’d heard so many stories about women who had gone to Moscow for work and they’d been recruited into ISIS or taken into slavery, or raped and killed. They thought that would also happen to me, so I couldn’t go.

Dima: My dream is to move out of the country, because I have some friends there, that’s a plus, and also because in Russia there are too many stereotypes. There’s a ton of homophobia here, sexism, and all of that and it’s really hard. There are more possibilities in different countries. Actually, a dream that I’ve now already fulfilled is to talk with a native English speaker, because I’m really trying to learn English, I watch movies. Actually it’s because of Twenty One Pilots that I got interested in English. But what’s missing is practice. I have no one to talk to.

The teenagers tell us that right now we’re at the very place, where the people of Ekaterinburg fought against the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s this square, and a symbolic place for this interview.

Marina: Do you get along well with some of your other peers at school?

Everyone: Nooooooooo

Lyosha: People separate into groups. For example, more influential people with money, people who just get along and have the same interests….

Alena: I hated my class. At school, no one actually touched each other but in the air there was just an oppressive atmosphere. At recess I would also run to my friends in other classes. I was so happy to graduate.

At school we had “notes” like who drank, who smoked. In the square outside there was even a place where people would meet up for cigarettes. They didn’t really do anything in particular. Sometimes there were interesting people there, but they still were living really boringly. They also were cutting, they had scars. There wasn’t a single one of them with unscarred hands: they like to suffer a lot.

 Aisu, 14 years old: About peers…I’ve been in four different schools, and I was bullied in three of them. In the first two it was just because of my nationality. My classmates were Nazis. In the others, if someone insults you, and you don’t say anything back, then they just see you as a perfect target and start making fun of you to raise their own self-esteem. Right now I’m lucky in my class. I can’t say that they’re friendly, but they’re tolerant and they just don’t care that much about each other. We can get along and joke about the same topics. With the other classes it’s not great. You can stand there and someone will just push you, just because you exist. I tried complaining, I told my parents. They went to the school and talked to the teachers, but after that people just made fun of me even more. Saying that I was a snitch. They think that this is essentially the way to get cool. Like look at me, I’m awesome, I smoke and I bully people.

Alena: Also about school, you know, when you see it in American shows, how they bully people…they stick someone’s head in a toilet. Here, it’s more like that people are talking about you, that they start rumors, they bully you online.

Aisa: But sometimes they also hit people. Once a boy took a running start and kicked me in the stomach. I was like….what did I do to deserve this.

Alena: At my school no one really hits each other, maybe just the boys. It’s more verbal. Emotional violence.

Interestingly, the entire time at the park, none of the teenagers took out a beer or a cigarette. When we asked them about this, they all categorically said that that that type of thing isn’t what brings them together. They’re brought together by music and talking about the same things. A conversation topic that kept coming up was parents.

Alena: We try to shake up our parents. I fight with my mom about homophobia. It’s especially difficult if the child has a different orientation or does something that goes against their parents norms or societal norms. At their age I can’t convince them of things, but I question them, I tell them some facts, and when they don’t have any more arguments, then for me it’s a victory, I’ve won today.

Aisa: I in general try not to talk about that kind of stuff with my parents. Or any stuff.

Arina: Three years ago I started talking to my mom, saying that the way I see it, it’s not necessary to be homophobic. At the beginning, she almost wanted to kick me out, but now she already stopped saying insulting things about people. Like for example if a girl is walking and she comments like “wow, why is that girl dressed like that.” So I believe that you can change people, because in their soul, they know that it’s good. I told her, that you can’t hate love, you need to accept it as their life. She started understanding that I’m right, she had no arguments left and it got better.

Aisa: Talking about optimism. When you say that you’re trying to be an optimist, they tell you that you have to be a realist, or that you don’t understand real life.

Lyosha: And when you saw that you’re a realist, then they ask you why are you so sad.

Aisa: Or then if you complain about some problems, they tell you, that you’re exaggerating. They tell you that other people have it worse, that they have real problems. They really think that I’m just exaggerating and exaggerating. And now I really know people who now have serious psychological problems.

We leave the group, we take a picture all together and then hug them goodbye. Some of the kids hide faces with their hands for the photos and Dima goes to the side to not be in the photo. After the meeting, we walk along the river and we talk about how it’s great that these teenagers were able to find each other. How they’re different from other people. How at school and at home people don’t understand them, but this group accepts each other exactly as they are.


The Rapper

Oleg, 18 years old, Ekaterinburg

I was born in Aleksandrovskoe village in the Tomsk region. I grew up with a lot of siblings, we never had enough money, so I started working when I was twelve. I grew up quickly: I didn’t have a real childhood.

When I was twelve, I dragged cast iron bath tubs around, I helped movers and ruined my back. When I was thirteen, I worked in a church. I cut the grass, took away the burned candles, the priests paid us pennies. When I was fourteen, I used someone else’s documents and went with my brother to do road work, we shoveled asphalt.

I came to Ekaterinburg three years ago to study at the Gorny College Polzunova. The stipend is really small – even though I have a higher one (790 rubles) it’s not even enough to pay for a room in a dorm. So you have to work. I was working as a janitor for 7,000 rubles a month, I worked as a realtor, and I also worked in the kitchen at KFC. For a while I worked illegally and made almost 100,000 rubles. Then a guy burned us. Some important people came into town with fancy cars, took us into the forest, and we couldn’t say anything…we didn’t know what had happened to the money. After that I stopped with that kind of work, I was thinking that I want a family and that’s too risky.

Our teachers at college ask why we do so badly in school and work at the same time. It’s because we’re surviving and not living. My parents help, but it’s a struggle to even buy clothes and food.

Things have been hard but I have more going on in my head than others my age. Right now most 18 year old guys just think about where they can go get wasted or have sex. Random hookups, partying, gangs. I’m really ashamed of young people today, they don’t think about life.

I’m studying to be a mining electrician. It’s like a repairman for all the machinery in the mines. I didn’t want to study that but Mom said you need a masculine profession. I wanted to be a musician because I went to music school, I play balalaika, guitar, all wind instruments, and piano. Earlier I went on concert tours with kids from all over Russia, I even learned violin. Or I wanted to be a pastry cook. That’s something I’ve loved since childhood. But now it’s too late, I’m in my third year and I need to finish it.

Right now I’m rapping. People say that rap is really dirty but if you really take apart each line by itself, you can see a lot of thought behind in. I’ve written a lot of tracks about my life and about people. I have a really wide worldview, I see the world from a lot of different perspectives. From the perspective of the rich and the poor. Right now I’m writing an album, I need to record it properly, make a good video, and make it catchy. You know, we’re in the age of fast food. For a no-name to shoot for something more elaborate is really hard. If I can’t make it with this album then I’ll go to the army. There’s no fucking way I’ll go do what I’m studying. Standing in mines with water up to my balls isn’t for me.

People react to this potato costume in a lot of different ways. There are some people with cool reactions. They’ll hug me, yesterday a girl gave me a Nike bracelet. Then there are some people who get scared. People are usually dull and frowning and just don’t pay any attention to you, although that’s actually very difficult. Right now I need to go home. I don’t really want to work but I need the money.

I’m not complaining about anything. In our country, it’s hard for a lot of people. That’s the school of life, it teaches me something that no one else can.


The Homeowners

Story 1. Dima, Kazan, founder of Chak Chak museum and Tom Sawyer Festival leader

I am from Naberzhnye Chelny. When I was young I moved to Moscow to work for a popular newspaper. First I liked seeing stars in real life. And then I realized that life was only about work and traffic.

Then cars came into my life: I thought that I need to do something more real. I started selling cars and grew to the position of the director of a carshop. And then realized: what’s next? What will I leave for my kids? How will my name be remembered and what mark will I leave in this world? So at 36 I started having middle age crisis.

I met my wife thanks to car business. I came to see my parents in Naberezhnye Chelny, and I needed to renew car oil. I was looking for a dealer, but in a local shop they told me they don’t have original.  I was mad and said that I would complain. In a week there was a conference with all car shop representatives on the roof of Ritz Carlton hotel. I decided to talk to the boss of that service center from Chelny and complain, but a beautiful lady came out and I just had a glass of wine with her.

Together with my wife we developed an idea for chak chak museum. As we were living in Moscow, we were talking about culture and history of Tatarstan. Once we developed an idea, for about a month we lived in Lenin library. Even in today digital world when you try to find information on tatars and chak-chack (ed.note, traditional Tatar sweet, made with dough), there is nothing. We asked to give us all books on Kazan history. They brought us entire carts full of books. As we were reading them one by one, we found references and wrote out all carefully. We were digging and digging, it was a lot of work. In one month we shaped a story line for chak chak history.

Two years passed form an idea to realization. There was a question about finance, as at that point we were just employees. We started looking for a house, wrote down a business plan. We tried to take out a loan in the bank but we were told, “This is a risky business.” When we asked what was NOT a risky business, they gave us McDonalds in city’s downtown as an example. Then we started applying for grants, but they told us that we were young and had no prior connection to art and museums. It was true and fair.  We thought that the silver lining in this is that we wouldn’t owe anybody. We can be free and flexible.

Then we decided to get advice from state museums… We had to learn what kind of mindset governmental organizations have. At national museums they gave us a brochure on preserving and cataloguing museum items. But we wanted something totally different: to tell a live story of Tatarstan and its cities through chak-chak.  The house where museum is situated used to belong a merchant, a grocer. As soon as the visitors come in, they find out that chak-chak in fact doesn’t have a a recipe. It’s just the soul and hands. Often we heard from some people, “I know that in this village there is an artist who makes the best chak chak in Tatarstan” But when you try to talk to this master in person, it is impossible to get her to talk on how her chak chak is made. Maybe, they are mad that people come to the museum for master classes. Or they don’t want to be filmed by other people.

During an hour tour guides in our museum explore the history of an epic sweet. A visitor goes back to the 19th century, and through chack chack we showthe  daily life of tatars, their tales, objects of their daily life and history of traditions. People, for example, used to color their teeth in black in order to show that they were rich enough and could afford to eat sugary products, which were expensive at that time.

Apart from the museum, we also curate Tom Sawyer festival in Kazan. This festival takes place all over Russia. Old Russian homes are being reconstructed by volunteers. They paint them for free, get their facades in order. Our volunteers love history and these houses. People help for entirely different reasons. Someone is tired of his job, he just wants to work with his hands, throw everything out of his head. Somebody comes to meet new people. Also we cooperate with volunteers from France who come on their own budget to help us with houses.

Sometimes we face the distrust of people living in those houses. We tell them about the festival, that we do everything for free, and they don’t believe us. If we like the house a lot, and the residents are suspicious, we can go on talking to them for a year: drink tea, get to know each other. It’s a long process, as the color of the paint needs to be coordinated with local authorities. For visual component of the project we use the help of architectures and designers.

It is important to preserve these houses for next generations who should understand our history and architecture. In the city they call us precedent humans. People around us keep saying. “It is not done in this way. You cannot do that.” And we just do it.

Story 2. Kostantin, the homeowner we meet through Dima as his Tom Sawyer festival project

My last name is Lebedev, but I believe that this could have been a made up last name at the end. My grandfather and his brother ran away from the Solovki (editorial note: Soviet prison, a remote place of detention known for its tough inhumane conditions). The two brothers separated and changed their last names not to get caught. Who he really was, we don’t know, he never told anybody.

Our grandfather was a director of a plane factory. My father was also an engineer-constructor, he was inventing planes. He smoked Belomorkanal (editor’s note: the cheapest and strongest cigarettes in Soviet Union) all life, he died from lung cancer, and I keep his ashtray. There was a good balance in my upbringing: my dad was strict, but fair, and my mom was a kind and a soft person. When I was a child, I loved taking apart everything: toys, washing machine, tape recorder. I was very curious how a mechanism functioned. Sometimes I could not collect everything back, but my parents didn’t yell at me for that, and I learned how to work with my hands.

Now this skill is very handy, as I do all the work around the house. My family has been living here since 1949. I was born in this house, my great grandparents, my grandparents and my family all lived here.

The house was built in 1900, when instead of village lodging, there was a great demand for furnished apartments. In provincial towns an intellectual class was being shaped: doctors, teachers. They didn’t want to live in village houses with barn-yards. The house was split into four apartments. When the soviet power got established, they forced urban density, the walls in the houses were removed, they put all people in the same flats, which gave birth to Kommunalka. If the house doesn’t become damp, if people live in it and take a good care of it, it will stand for a long time.

Twenty years ago Kazan downtown looked horrible. It had many old wooden rundown houses because of bad care. And all the center was populated by people from low social class. Kazan had a program on extermination of rundown buildings. They tore down the houses in the downtown, and in exchange these houses’ owners were given new apartment for free. It gave them a chance to move out from the house with no drainage, where rats were running around, into a brand-new modern apartment. However, not all people were eager to re-settle.

Our house also was assigned for this program… They wanted to kick us out against our will. But the difference between us and those who agreed to move was that we were taking a good care of our house. Now we live in a state with human rights, but back then in the 90’s nobody cared about that.

Many people who gave their consent to leave, didn’t have a good life. But for our family the situation was different. We lived in a cultural center, with a school and a shop nearby. Downtown area was becoming better and better and the atmosphere was changing. We were born here, we understood that nobody would give us an apartment with the same square space.

And how can you make people move out from their apartment? You might decide to set it on fire. If they don’t want to move, you should fabricate a case against them or black mail them. We were threatened with a court decision, and some people showed up at our door, and told us to move. I was twenty years old back then, and I took situation under my control. I studied the court decision. We started a battle for our apartment, and I filed a court of appeal. And won. That’s why we are here. I won a fight for my house.

I am an auto mechanic, and I spend 12 hours a day at work. That’s why for me my house is a place to rest. It’s like a bed, your favorite spot: you lay down, you take a rest, you are fresh and awake and you go ahead achieving your goals. When I was younger, I rode motorcycle, I wanted to become a sailor, dreamt about far away lands, reread all Jules Verne. But having travelled a bit, I decided that home is better for me.

The house is a place of power. When our previous neighbours were being resettled, many were 90 years old. They had been living here many years, and as soon as they moved to the new apartment, they died. Old people moved in with their stuff and moved out inside a coffin. For an old person it is very difficult to adjust to a new life.

I am a happy person. I can’t complain. My father passed on to me his diligence, I have a house, work. I have two kids, they are healthy, they are fine. A person tends to choose something he is used to.

The habit is God’s gift, it’s His tribute: to happiness it’s equal substitute.

Story 3, Alexey, another homeowner

Originally our house was built to make money from renting it. In 1896 it was acquired by Peltsam Emanuil Manilovich, he was an ichthyologist, a scientist who studies fish. He never had any systematic education, apart from elementary school, but he became an established member of scientific circles because of his empiric research.

After he retired from Tomsk university, he settled down in Kazan and bought this house. In 1912 he died and we don’t know what happened to the house up until 1934. We know only that it was nationalized by Soviet state and it belonged to Agricultural bank of Tatar republic. My great grandfather was appointed as the manager of this bank in 1934, and he received an apartment in this house. Since then, my family has been living here. Four generations: great grandfather, grandparents, parents and me. My grandmother used to live here, but October last year she died. Now I am remodeling the interior on my own and I plan to rent it out to tourists on AirBnb. There used to be a gorgeous interior with a colonnade and a tiled stove, but my grandfather took it apart when central heating came. They were trying to save space back then, as they were assigning living quarters to our apartment during the war. My parents didn’t appreciate this old interior, it was truly Soviet Union Style. All this beauty was covered with carton, and there was a carpet over colonnade.

At the end of the seventy’s when the country was going through hard times, animals were very sick in Kazan zoo, some were gnawed by wolves. That’s why my grandmother with my father took in different kind of animals: leopards, pumas, a lion) to raise them.  They nurtured them till they are one year old, and then gave back. Pumas got back to the zoo, and lion and leopard went to circus.

It’s been a long time I have been searching for my profession that would bring me satisfaction, a profession I could make my living of. In 2005 a professor from Paris University came here to film a documentary. He asked me during an interview, “Are you happy?” For me it was a weird question, I haven’t heard such a question in my entire life. I said, well, yeah, even though I didn’t understand by which criteria I should use to answer such a question.

In Russia we don’t speak a lot about happiness. Those people I grew up with faced only one question: how to survive? Go to university. Only not to work as a janitor. After graduating from university you live in darkness. You don’t understand where you are and what you need to do. I went to work as a bell ringer in church. However, I didn’t find answers to my existential questions. At some point I started noticing that religious formula for achieving happiness (penance, admittance to your sins and many others) don’t give me a feeling of happiness. It looks more like kabala slavery.

At the same time I was doing my PhD and working as a research assistant. However, it didn’t bring me happiness either, just horror, suffering and poverty. Then I got into business. We were selling a wine package which turned into a lamp. We did it for couple years, put a lot of effort into it, got tired, but didn’t enjoy it that much. My mother came to terms into my constant search and my unemployment. First she pressured me, but I was shutting her down and she learned to live with it.

To be in search of yourself for such a long time is hard psychologically. That’s why I understand those people who decide to give up. You just have to really hate to work for somebody else, like I do. There is no alternative, you either find your passion, or you will suffer in this life. I can’t suffer, so I will suffer in a different way.

Russian art: literature, paintings, everything is scary. It’s a philosophy of Russian nation. The idea that suffering is a virtue was always used for the purpose of politics.

I think that happiness consists of several areas. It’s your love life, your relationship to a person next to you, area of your professional mission. If all areas are balanced, I think you are a happy person. And if you don’t stress yourself out all the time or think about something good, you believe that any situation will result into a good experience. It doesn’t mean that you fly in the clouds or wear pink glasses.

I consider myself an agnostic. Gnosis means knowledge. Agnosis is someone who doesn’t accept such knowledge. I believe that we don’t have enough knowledge to accept certain values as truths. There are no such instruments in this world to understand how it is structured. I can not understand beyond something concrete and decided not to dig into it. It’s better to concentrate on something I can influence: on my life, so I can live it happily.