Arctic Initiative

Arctic in Context

Arctic in Context at the Jackson School of International Studies is a partnership between the University of Washington and Broaden by World Policy Institute. New content builds on the existing model for Arctic in Context to amplify voices and ideas that are often overlooked. Arctic in Context aims to inspire emerging leaders and thinkers as well as decision makers and a broad public to increase knowledge of this little known part of the world.

Evgenia Arbugaeva: Hyperborea
Photographer

Evgenia Arbugaeva was born in 1985 in the town of Tiksi, located in Russia’s High North. In 2013 and again in 2018 she traveled to the region to  photograph these remote locations as they are today.  In conversation with Erica Dingman, Evgenia discusses her work, the people she met and how the Russian Arctic has changed since she lived there as a child. Her photographs are powerful and speak for themselves

Introduction by Erica Dingman

By Evgenia Arbugaeva

In 2013, Evgenia Arbugaeva returned to the land of her childhood aboard the icebreaker, Mikhail Somov, to travel along the shoreline of Russia’s High North. Evgenia grew up in Tiksi, USSR, a bustling seaport of 12,000 people when she lived there. The population has now greatly decreased to about 5,000. Born at the height of Soviet development in the Arctic, her childhood was defined by the lore of Arctic exploration, and remote islands visited only by adventurers and scientists. Evgenia wanted to see for herself what had become of these remote regions. During her 2 ½ month voyage aboard the, Mikhail Somov, the ship made brief stops at 22 meteorological stations, delivering a years worth of supplies to hard-to-reach Arctic stations. In 2018 she became a National Geographic Fellow, which gave her the resources to return to the Russian Arctic for a longer duration.

Development of the Russian High North began in the 1930s and reached its peak in the 1980s. In 1991 there was a massive exodus with the fall of the USSR. When this occurred, the government stopped supporting its Arctic projects, salaries were no longer paid and people were forced to move. The photographs presented here are from a series called Hyperborea. Together Evgenia’s images open a window into Russia’s High North. These photographs were taken during her travels in 2018-2019, with the exception of Weatherman which were taken in 2013.

Weatherman

“I wanted to capture the atmosphere of the Polar night, of darkness, but also the beauty of solitude, a kind of meditative space.” Built in the 1930s, Evgenia feels fortunate to have captured these images of  this meteorological station. The station has since relocated to a new building.

 

Aboard the icebreaker ship Mikhail Somov in 2013, oranges were a special treat that were given once a week on Sundays. “The weekend was really precious because fresh fruit is scarce.

 

This chief of the meteorological station, Slava Korotkiy, is a true Polyarnik, the term used for a person who dedicates their life to studying the Polar regions, especially during the Soviet era.

 

This is the radio used by Slava. “It reminds me of an old, dated robot.” His job was to  take readings every three hours, 24 hours a day, everyday and report his observations to the central meteorological station.

 

Lighthouse

“I really marveled at the softer side of the Arctic and seeing the landscape with a feminine aesthetic and colors.”

The photographers namesake, Evgenia, started working in the Arctic at the age of 19 and is now the meteorological  station chief. Five years ago she met her partner Ivan and asked if he’d like to join her at the edge of the world.  Lighthouses are now a rare sight in the Arctic as most have been replaced by modern navigation systems.

 

Fresh fruit and vegetables are a rarity in the High North. “I brought apples with me, which Evgenia wrapped in newspaper to protect them from the cold. I thought that was a beautiful act, but it also shows much about the distance from the mainland.”

 

“Evgenia is a calm and dreamy person. But she is also very strong, both physically and psychologically, which you have to be to live in such a remote location.

 

Dikson

“Dikson is, in a way, the sister town to Tiksi, my birth place. So I really wanted to visit here. The architecture is almost identical and it was also an important seaport on the Northern Sea Route.” The town is split into two parts. The mainland  has about 500 occupants now  and the island completely abandoned. At its height the population of Dikson island was around 2,000 people. These images were taken on the island.

 

“The light and color of the aurora borealis turned this haunted town into something out of a dream. Or a nightmare.” The last house to be abandoned on Dikson island was in 2013.

 

“When I entered the main square I saw what I thought was a person. I was alone and it  scared me. It was like I was colliding with Frankenstein’s monster.” This monument honors and memorializes the soldiers that defended Dikson during World War II, when the town came under attack by a German submarine.

 

“It’s surreal to walk through the town alone, going into rooms and imagining people reading books. Dikson had its own newspaper that was distributed throughout the Arctic.” It is highly romanticized in Soviet books, poems and songs.

 

Chokotka

“My brother and I visited this remote village of about 300 people on the coast of the Chukchi Sea. From the beginning, the villagers welcomed us with great warmth. As outsiders we stood out and I was really touched that people did not ask why we were here. They were only concerned that we didn’t have anything to eat since we had not hunted for our food. They offered us both meat and fish.”

 

Many of these houses were built in 1950 when Soviet colonization reached the village of Enurmino. There is still a generation that remembers when they did not speak Russian or know anything about communism. The buildings have not been renovated since and are in great disrepair. Even though snowmobiles are the main form of  transportation, dogsleds  still have great cultural significance and are still used today.

 

“This is Vika Taenom and she is rehearsing a traditional dance at the village cultural center. The children are close to nature

 

“The biggest honor in the village is to be a hunter as they provide food for the whole community. When the weather is stormy the men cannot hunt. They get depressed and drinking is a big problem. The moment they are back at sea their instincts kick in and they become strong, alert hunters again.”

 

During migration walruses must find a place to rest. Traditionally walruses rest on ice floes, but the flows are disappearing as a result of climate change. Now, each summer this beach is covered with about 100,000 walruses, the number so large that they pile on top of each other and many suffocate. “I think this was the most visceral moment of the climate emergency that I’ve ever experienced. This particular image stayed with me and I felt a kind of panic.”

 

****

Evgenia will be presenting her work at the World Affairs Council on June 1, 2021. This is a FREE virtual event. You can register here.

****

Evgenia Arbugaeva was born in 1985 in the town of Tiksi, located on the shore the Laptev Sea in the Republic of Yakutia in Russia. In her personal work she often looks into her homeland – the Arctic, discovering and capturing the remote worlds and people who inhabit them. She is a National Geographic Society Storytelling Fellow, a recipient of the ICP Infinity Award, Leica Oskar Barnack Award. Her work has been exhibited internationally and appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Time and The New Yorker magazines among others. She lives in London, UK.

[Photos courtesy of Evgenia Arbugaeva]

[Interview conducted by Erica Dingman, director of Arctic in Context]

You can see more of Evgenia’s photos here.

Follow her on Instagram @evgenia_arbugaeva