I had just taken a photo of a guy selling coffee from a 'coffee van' when this guy came over, a briefcase in hand. He started asking the coffee guy what I was doing, so I turned around and told him I was working on a Russia photo project. He said he was from Azerbaijan, but moved to Russia some 10 years ago and has Russian citizenship.
I then asked if I could talk to him and photograph him for my project. He said yes and insisted on speaking English with me. He said he has a family clothing business, buying goods from China and selling them here. He said the clothing he was wearing - the jacket, scarf and sweater - was exactly the stuff he sells. He said he only buys his family the clothes that he sells. He said things have been a bit tough with the ruble move, though you would never guess that by the positive mood that he was in. He said he was working on 20 contracts with shopping centers in Russia, but the deals fell through after the ruble dropped. As we were talking next to a university, I asked him to stand in front of it so i could take his picture.
A university guard came up and said we couldn’t photograph. We asked why. ‘’It’s not permitted.’’ What are we doing wrong?' I asked. He repeated that it was not permitted, throwing in the ‘’What can I do, this is Russia’’ excuse as he shrugged his shoulders. The Azeri - perhaps in reaction to the guard's concern - then asked me if I was writing ‘compromat’ - or dirt - on Russia. No, I told him. He was relieved I was not doing compromat and we went to another spot to photograph. He then asked if he could take a photo with me. I said sure. He walked over to the guard and asked him to take our photo, but he refused. So, he walked over to three students - two guys and a girl - and asked them if they could take our photo with his phone. He told them I was American and was doing a photo project, adding it wasn’t compromat. The girl giggled. One of the guys took the phone and photographed us. He then gave me a traditional handshake and departed.
While showing me around Kursk, Ivan, a foreign languages graduate student, shared with me a memorable conversation he had with his grandfather. He said his grandfather, a native Azeri, didn't like watching WWII films because it brought back bad memories. "He told me war was pure hell, watching your friends die." Like many of his generation, his grandfather lied about his age to fight. When they were celebrating his 80th birthday a decade ago, he was actually 79.
After a 75 minute bus ride from Gus Khrustalni to Vladimir, I had 1.5 hours to walk around the historic town before my 2-hr train ride back to Moscow. I went looking for coffee and passed a colorful cafe with big windows that probably opened a year or two ago at most. Paintings were on the wall...it was a place you might find in NYC. As I sat down, I saw a young woman in a NYC shirt with pinkish-rimmed glasses. She had been reading, but was getting ready to leave and I walked over to chat about her studies and dreams. Zhenya said she was finishing her university degree and, after much thought, had finally realized what she wanted to do in life...at least in the mid-term: 'I want to draw, to create something intellectual.' She hoped to continue her studies either in Moscow or abroad, where she felt educational demands and job opportunities would be better than in her native Vladimir. Considering her artistic interests, it was not surprising to find her at home in such a cafe. Notice the artwork on the wall behind her.
I took a 3 hour train ride to Vladimir region recently to visit some so-called 'dying' villages. After getting off the train, I hitched a ride a few kilometers to a church that was halfway to my final destination. There I met Nikolai, who was chopping wood with a friend in the church yard. He said there was little money to do a proper upgrade to the church, which, despite its poor condition, still held service for the surrounding villages. Nikolai said he grew up in the area, but moved during Soviet times to Siberia near Lake Baikal, where he worked in construction. When he stopped getting paid during the economic turmoil in the 1990s, he returned to Vladimir region. He said the village he now lives in - which is located 2 to 3 km away from the church - had a collective farm that used to employ many people. Now, just a few work there. As he escorted me for a small fee to his village to find a cab driver, he asked where I was going to stay. I told him I didn't know, and asked if he knew of a place. Nikolai said he didn't know, adding he would offer me to stay at his place, but felt it wasn't in good condition and apologized. Nikolai found me the driver after a 30 min walk and I paid him what we agreed upon. He thanked me, said it was interesting to talk to an American and then headed back to the church. (For full set of village photos, see the gallery page at toddprincephotography.com)
This university student was eating some street food with two mates. I asked him if he cared about the ruble volatility. He said the ruble volatility didn't interest him as he doesn't have a source of income. His parents are state workers and he doesn't think it interests them either. He heard that the ruble drop could lead to higher inflation next year, which is a bit worrisome. He said he is majoring in philosophy because he is interested in such questions as what is man and understanding the world around him.
This Georgian sells flowers at a kiosk near a Moscow metro station with her fellow country women. There are about a half dozen of them working different stalls, which remarkably are opened 24 hours. The women call out to people passing buy, offering both imported and local flowers. Most of these women were born in Abkhazia, but haven’t seen their homeland since they had to flee during the Georgian-Abkhaz war in the early 1990s. When I mentioned I was in Abkhazia in September, they started to call out names of places in Abkhazia like Ritz Lake and Novi Afon Monastery, asking if I went there. They were keen to see photos, which I showed them on my phone. This woman, who said she was over 70, mentioned that she had traveled a bit around Europe and didn’t see any place that had better natural beauty than Abkhazia. I asked her about the flower business and she said it has been tough lately because flower prices have risen sharply. For instance, flowers from Ecuador are up 50%. I asked what she would do if she loses her job. She said she would go Georgia to live with her children.
She was working a food stand at a Moscow Christmas market in central Moscow, turning occasionally a lever to create music and attract customers. In asked her if she was worried at all about the ruble. "Of course I am, we are all concerned because prices will go up. It probably worries us migrants more than Russians." I didn't realize she was a migrant, so I asked where she was from. 'Eastern Ukraine, Kharkiv.' She said she works in Russia a few months and then goes back home in accordance with visa rules, one of the 3 million or so Ukrainians that work in Russia. I asked if the currency instability impacted her mood. She said people have been through this before. "You have to keep living regardless of whether you are in a good mood or not." At the end of the conversation, she told me she was from western Ukraine.
Sonya was among a group of girls that sung at the opening of Moscow's largest mall. She said she also plays the violin, something she has been doing since the age of seven. Sonya said she initially wasn't interested in the violin, but her grandmother insisted. Now she enjoys it.
Vladimir Ivanovich stands by the Kolomna Kremlin in Moscow region dressed in an old fashion Russian police uniform. He is as much a tourist attraction as he is a city worker. Before becoming a guard by the Kremlin, he said he was a senior engineer and traveled occasionally with work. Like tens of thousands of other engineers, he said the economic turmoil of the 1990s forced him out of his job.
German, 16, was riding his 22,000 ruble ($400) bike around the historical Russian town of Kolomna. He said he was studying at an automotive technical school about an hour bus ride from Kolomna. He said there were about 25 students in his class, one of whom was a girl. He said girls study economics .... (If you have ever walked into a Moscow bank, you will almost always find women behind the desks). I asked if his father was also involved in the auto industry. 'I don't have a father,' he replied.