‘Russian History Isn’t just Made by Moscow or St. Petersburg’

PHOTO by Kirill Kallinikov / RIA Novosti
Olga Sviblova, Director of Moscow’s Multimedia Art Museum, on the Russian city of Norilsk

Olga Sviblova, curator, artist and director of the Multimedia Art Museum (МАММ) launched her photo exhibition, “Eight Decades of Norilsk Combinat,” back in 2015: first in the capital, then in the city itself.

Lenta.ru asked what kept drawing her back to this small, industrial city in the Russian Arctic circle.

Lenta.ru: Why was it important to give a photographic account of Norilsk’s history?

Olga Sviblova: We have worked with many cities and towns all over Russia since 1997. We were interested in Norilsk - rather than St. Petersburg or Moscow - because no large country is ever homogeneous. London is not the same as Britain, New York is not the same as the USA, and Moscow and St. Petersburg cannot be equated with Russia. Every person comes with a context, every life part of a greater whole.

We started the “The History of Russia in Photography” project in 1997. Russian history isn’t just made by the residents of Moscow or St. Petersburg, so we conducted numerous photo shoots in the provinces. Among other things, we accumulated a large archive of Norilsk footage by the great Vsevolod Tarasevich. He visited Norilsk several times and took really marvellous pictures: faces, streets, buses, cars and whirling snow. Some of the subjects are reminiscent of what you may see in the large cities; others are unique to Norilsk.

What is exceptional about the photographic history of Norilsk?

The history of Norilsk is short but well documented. We are endlessly grateful to the State Archive, which granted us permission us to see photo albums made for the Russian security services. The pictures were taken by experienced photographers, but the police did not care about their names. We will try our best to identify the artists because they really did create some stunning work. State Archive officials even let us scan the pictures for the exhibition.

Several of the photos represented Norilsk as a garden city, which was quite unexpected. I never would have imagined that people had grown these huge tomatoes or even kept herds of cattle there. At least one shot would have been better suited to Sochi than the far north. I asked a few Norilsk residents if they could produce vegetables like these locally now. “We could,” they said, “but they would cost as much as platinum.” It’s much easier to have food delivered there.

How was your exhibition received in Moscow and Norilsk?

Surprisingly enough, it was an immense success in Moscow. The exhibition opened late in spring, ran until the end of summer and saw a staggering turnout. Visitors lined up to see the Norilsk show, ignoring the Western masterpieces displayed next door. It’s not a phenomenon I can explain, but the photos were certainly good.

We were happy to take our exhibition to Norilsk. The photo show got an incredibly enthusiastic response. We also bonded with the team of the local art gallery, who did a great job constructing the exhibition space. Now we are best friends, always keeping in touch and sharing news.

As for the local residents… Well, the phrase “local residents” is a misnomer; very few people living in Norilsk are descendants of the first settlers. Most come from elsewhere. But the day you arrive in Norilsk it becomes part of you. That makes Norilsk fundamentally different from Paris or Moscow, where it may take decades to get established and integrate. The harsh conditions quickly tie you to the place.

What were your most remarkable experiences in Norilsk?

Before the trip, I was carefully instructed to pack lots of warm things. I came to Norilsk to mount the exhibition in autumn, having spent my summer vacation on the Black Sea coast. You probably won’t believe me, but the first time I felt happy that summer was in Norilsk. I instantly fell in love with the place. It was the beginning of a golden autumn. There are almost no trees in Norilsk, just fine twigs, but the colours of the leaves were out of this world.

The buildings in Norilsk decay quickly due to the severe climate. At the same time, they can’t be demolished: thanks to the permafrost, there is nowhere to bury the debris. The living and the dead objects coexist in space and time. There is something unusual about it. Something very Russian.

The people here are really special. Many are newcomers from the former Soviet republics. Even though there is nothing to stop them moving away from this bleak land with a forbidding climate, they sink roots here and can’t break away, often for decades.

Norilsk has a strong cultural community. Initially, hundreds of educated people arrived there as Gulag prison labourers. These frail intellectuals became the first builders of the city. Norilsk has always had a thriving cultural life. As the cold forced the people to spend most of their free time indoors, reading, art and TV became the main leisure activities. There is an excellent cultural centre with a wide selection of educational programmes. The centre functions under the auspices of the industrial giant Norilsk Nickel, the principal employer in the area, which does a lot for the benefit of the city and its culture.

How significant is regional culture? Does it even make sense to develop culture in small closed towns like Norilsk?

Regional culture used to be a crucial component of Russian life, but the Soviets centralized everything and left only small fragments of it intact. The recent cultural surge we are witnessing in the provinces makes it highly rewarding to work there as people are so keen to soak up art.

The Soviet idea to create palaces of culture was essentially a good one. Soviet-era youth clubs known as Pioneer Houses used to provide children with at least some background in art. Singing, dancing, music lessons, that kind of thing. There is no need even to construct new premises for these things, because every town has facilities which can be converted. In the USA, a nation with a 200-year-long history, even small towns often have wonderful museums, theatres or opera houses people can be proud of. Local culture fosters human growth and creates a favourable environment for great visionaries, researchers and artists.

One further illustration of this principle is in Singapore, where the government invests heavily in new museums, concert halls and exhibition spaces in a bid to support cultural development. Foreign nationals who come to Singapore to work in the cultural sphere are granted citizenship immediately. The country lives with an understanding that culture is vital for progress. In a vast territory like Russia, this understanding is particularly relevant. Local culture is of utmost value to adults and children. A good concert or exhibition inspires you to change for the better and fills you with new energy — we all need this irrespective of where we live.

The exhibition in Norilsk was a mutually enriching experience. We left with an impressive amount of photographic material and warm memories. Norilsk is probably the most exotic place I have ever visited. Its people have managed to create life where none would seem possible. It was a privilege to observe that life.

Author: Aigul Khabibullina