When traveling from Yaroslavl and the cities of the Golden Ring to Saint Petersburg and Moscow during the summer of 2008, I was able to photograph Russia from varied perspectives. My family and I traveled there to volunteer with foster children and children from impoverished backgrounds in Yaroslavl, a city 155 miles northeast of Moscow along the Volga River with a population of approximately 630,000. These writings and photographs are intended to be a reflection on my own personal journey through a country that affected me deeply and profoundly. In Russia, I saw the resilience of children, the impact of generations of hard circumstances, and the innate beauty of a landscape and a people that have survived.
Elizabeth I of Russia
I fan my face, moist with the humidity
Of summer, pressing in around me from the sweating
Petals out the window, melting into tinted pools
Elizabeth approaches me, her makeup slowly evanescing from her face
White chalk dissolving with bloody lipstick
And she says to me, smiling, pointed teeth sparkle
As the people of this vast land struggle in her garden
Farming weeds from hardened silt
Eyes wolfish, "Is this place not grand?"
Gliding through the garden, blooming green, gold, pink, yellow fireworks
That distract the eye, a perfume infusing the air
Intoxicating the mind, she surveys all that is hers
This garden, that mansion Peterhoff,
Masquerading as the ruler of Russia
When she knows in the deepest cave of her stomach,
Hidden beneath her heart
That the Russian spirit is free
Air, cool against my cheek
Combing through my hair
Water, silent comrade
Of the street
Twining, soft, around my fingers
I am quiet as I breathe
The clear breeze of Saint Petersburg
The groaning of the cars
The shaking of the engine
I find her only in the cracks of the paint
The brightness of the buildings
The calm endurance of the water
There, I see her
I stand on the thin balcony
Of Saint Isaac's Cathedral
Winding around the entirety of Saint Petersburg
I look out among the rusty yellows and reds of the buildings
Imagine the lives of those living there
From here this city is Russia
Without the facades, only the nakedness
Of rust, of color, of life
The wind strips the skin from my bones
So I can more intimately feel
The blood flowing through
This city's veins
I soon descend the staircase
From the high terrace
Surveying Russia's jewel
Beautiful and bare
I pass him, perpetual observer
Encompassed by white orchid petals
Glide in front of him
Tanned arms, slim lines
Lie draped by her side
Long hands, sloped
Gently holding flowers wilting
In the heat
She turns, looks back
Eyes sparkle, crinkled at the edges
Mouth rosy, smiling as the cathedral rises behind
Barely resting against the soft clouds
He captures her beauty, smile, happiness
Molding it with his bare hands
Into a silver ring
That will bind them together
In the promise of a future
Russia, I see your flesh disappearing in each flicker of the window
Inside our small compartment, four beds, and bloated suitcases
Growing smaller, falling away, like the shrinking story on the Matryoshka doll's breast
Your spirit grows weaker with every chug in the belly of the train, transparent fingers slipping
On the rusty metal, peeling in time with the rhythmic breath, struggling in smoky gasps for air
Until the European architecture, beautiful and vast, rips you from my desperate grip
The food, the arching vaults, please my groaning stomach and feasting eyes
I look down and see a silvery red being clutching at my collarbone
Her hair fiery and soft cascades along her back, eyes rebellious, strong, face stoic
I place her in my breast pocket, leading to my soul
Mother Russia, I hold you in my heart, safe forever
Clack, clack, clack
The jumprope round and round
Her tap shoes clicking on concrete
She falls, dirtying her dress
"Ah-deen, dva, tree!"
We start again
Clack, clack, clack
You talk to me, loquacious, smiling
Until you see them, pockmarked faces, eyes glazed,
Staggering not so noticeably, but tripping nonetheless
You run to them, you sit them down, tell them stories of your day
I watch them as they watch the playground sand and smile
They leave, you tell me, "Mama, Dad"
Speaking once again, smiling broader than before
Until they finally lose you, spirits on their tongues
Keep them far away
You want them even more
The shelter, a place for children awaiting their fates of either returning to their parents or going to an orphanage, is where I first met Alisia and her younger brother, a boy too shy to tell me his name. The first day I met Alisia it was drizzling. All around us was grey or brown or black, except for her white shoes, rhythmically clicking on the pavement, and her pink dress, which she twirled every few steps. I was entranced by her, this being of seemingly unending light. She spoke to me in Russian, nonstop, relishing the chance to talk to someone who would simply listen; she didn't care that I couldn't understand.
The fourth day I saw Alisia, her parents came to visit her. I nodded at her mother, who smiled, not making eye contact, looking dazedly around. Her father sat on the bench with its cracked blue paint, by the climbing bars. He looked to the side, askance. It surprised me when Alisia and her brother went, squealing happily, to their parents' sides: I almost felt jealous. They were drunk, I could tell, yet the siblings were overjoyed that they were there. They sat on the bench, Alisia put her small hand around her mother's, smiling up at her and talking excitedly. But I focused on that small hand somehow enveloping the older, larger one. I saw the small tension in the muscles of her little palm, the concerned protectiveness in the faint wrinkles of her young hand. This moment seemed tragically backwards to me, the baby daughter watching over the unfocused, ailing mother. I watched from the corner of my eye until the meeting dissolved, and Alisia returned to me. I smiled, selfishly wanting her to be as excited to see me as she was to see her parents. But she looked at the ground, no longer wanting to talk, and turned her head to look back at the bench where she and her parents had sat. I picked up the jumprope, formerly shiny white, now black from the asphalt, and she started to jump in time with me.
It was her birthday, the day she and her brother left. They were forced to pack up and go to an orphanage the day they found out their parents had lost custody of them. Alisia had been so excited to celebrate her birthday with us. But on that day she was only able to pack her few possessions and be taken to an orphanage, without being able to say goodbye. I cried when I learned of this, it broke off a piece of my soul. I imagined her being bussed away, holding her brother's hand as the rain slid down the window. But then I remembered what had first caught me about her--the lightness of her being, her resilience, her youth, her innocence, her vibrance, her passion. Her life. And I felt then that she would be okay and that she would lead a good life. I chose to ignore the fact that the beginning age of dependency on alcohol in Russia had slipped from age 16 to age 13. I chose to ignore the fact that only 1 out of 10 Russian orphans becomes a functional member of society.* I decided that this girl with such purity and innocence would endure and make something of her life despite her traumatic childhood and the unfortunate statistics of her country. I felt deeply that she would be okay and grow up to become a beautiful successful young woman. I had to have faith in that and in her. But, then again, what chance did she have?
*These are 2008 statistics.
The shelter kids have been found on the streets or taken from their alcoholic parents and are waiting for the verdict on their fates: to go home or to go to an orphanage.
I see them standing there, peering through the windows barred with curly iron
Faces pressed eagerly to the thick glass keeping out the winter
A few trickle out, shyly at first, glancing hooded eyes at the van
Standing there, smiles beginning to grab young lips as a slow drizzle seeps from the sky,
Spotting the dirty windshield and pushing down soft tufted hair, exposed to blinding white and sinking ink cement
Small voices float across the ground, cracked by winter and from pain
Up the slick doors of the van, sweating with first rain, between the windows
Opened barely like a newborn's wings, to my ears
"Pree-vyet, Pree-vyet, Pree-vyet"
Shoes stride from the high rubber step to the hard carpet, small feet pounding
Slipping in the wet, I see a solitary shadow, blurred against the grey
Of the window, cut by metal he shouts, "Hello America!"
Hours go by, smiles last
Like birds they fly, rushing to the tops of trees, among the bruised sky
Until the van rolls away
He shouts from the pavement, now outside
Between the children, smaller than him, not bearing the cigarettes hidden in his pocket
Fierce, the smile gone again, he shouts, "Good bye America, good bye."
I bonded with three young sisters: Susha, Masha, and Vika. All three are talented artists and all three lived on the streets after running away from an alcoholic home.
Little jay, youngest
Of the three, wild spirit take flight
Up into the rain
Up, up, among the
Trees, the boundless Russian sky
Never caught by chains
The only way I
Hold you, restless sovereign sprite
Is in my beating heart.
Masha, the youngest of the three sisters, was without a doubt the most energetic and lively.
Between your sisters
You clever artist, teaching
Me to speak with you
"Krasne, red," she tells
Me, accent rolling off her
tongue, face glows with pride
up at me, stroking my hair
Vika, the middle sister, was undoubtedly the intellectual as well as a talented artist. She worked diligently speaking English to me, constantly asking me to teach her more words.
Lead your sisters through
The streets, pouring rain atop
Three small crowns, fleeing,
You gaze up into
Starry space, swirling above,
Embracing you three
Quiet and strong,
You endure solely for your
Sisters, sleeping beside
Susha, the eldest sister, was the quiet, incredibly talented artist. She led her sister when they lived on the streets of Yaroslavl.
Do you see this place I live in?
Do you see my dirty knees?
Flying on the dragon's wings, upon the shining sky
Do you see my scraped shins?
Do you see how dark around my eyes the rings?
Breathing in the mountain air in the clear snow cave
"Do you see me?"
She asks, covering her eyes
Barred windows can't hold
With black cement and white metal
Young spirits from flight
There sat a woman at the corner, looking toward the left
Toward the cobbled street, winding up the hill, the greenish haze of the peak dipped in the glowing sun
Toward the horizon, spanning blue and pink across the world, enveloping the silent slant of Russian countryside
And the crack in the wall, reaching for her head, clawing at her genius notes sparkling in the wind,
Says to mankind, Let your soul stand free and cool before those from whom you beg
For they are not more than your soul, as your soul is not more than your body, and you body is not more than his
And he is not more than you
You artist, solitary, singing by yourself, projecting you
Solitary me, listening by myself, absorbing what is true
Is that violin whispering it?
That single word?
What is it?
Whispered from the curbed across a simple bridge of air into my ears
Hissed slow and delicious the word "life"
Melodious, in the cobbled cracks, the dying paint, the poverty
Chanted again and again
Life, life, life, life, life
*based on Walt Whitman's leaves of grass
They surround me
People I love, the effect on me of my family, my mind, the place I live in
The sickness or loss, or depression or praise
Battles, the horrors of war coming to my ears or eyes from newspapers, the television
All of these things come to me day and night and go from me again
But apart from the pulling and the pushing stands what I am
Atop this green hill, complacent, idle, pensive, and unclouded
I believe in this soul, this spirit coasting down the river, glassy scepter in the grassy hands,
Slipping the the reeds of wheat that dance in synchronized motion
Rippling along the surface of the water, on the side spotted with leaves
Straining through the brown leaves on the trees, erect beneath the brooding sky
Gliding up the hill around my ankles, billowing my skirt, and flowing through my hair
I believe that slip of grass is no less than the craftsmanship of stars
And this country wind, broken leaf, burning sky, winding water, is the spirit of Russia
And the dusty twirling road surpasses any highway
My foothold is unpredictable in this shifting silt
I laugh at what you call Russia
And here I know the breadth of time
How it holds me and how it holds you
*based on Walt Whitman's leaves of grass
You ask how many friends I have? Water, goods, these pans, and you
On market day the old birds gossiping are joyful chatter too
Besides these few companions, no other pleasures need I choose
They say the diamond and the curtains keep
The soul contented in its sinewed case
But music, that great spirit, it does heap
Riches in his hand and dreams in her sleep
Toward the fleeting light
Soft around the edge and blurred
He walks along the path to breathe an air
Purer than his own
Toward an aged wisdom
Beyond his own
Toward a dream
Beyond his father's own
Through the forest
From the frothing fights
From the swaying field
That he has always known
Toward a ridge
Twice bathed in golden light
Surrounded by a mist
Clearer than his cigarette breath
From the chaos
Of raging Mars
From the cracked
And crestfallen street
Toward another kind of peace
Toward the vast clarity of the Russian horizon
You walk along the street
With your camera in your hand
You see her finger claw against the side of her head
And you say, "Why do her nails plow her skin?"
But you don't understand
Why her eyes are closed
Why her body is still
Barely begging for the fruits of men
Something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, children of America?
Still you raise up your camera
And she jerks her eyes wide
And with them she asks, "Are you trying to capture humanity?"
So you look down at the ground
As she asks you, "Do you think me a freak?"
And her eyes snap shut, her finger goes to her face once again
And the silence surrounds you as you think, "Oh my God
Am I here all alone?"
Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
You've read all the books and seen all the pictures
And still you don't know that she calls the shots