Looking back on the year I’ve spent in Siberia, my favourite hobby of all was people watching. I thoroughly enjoyed snapping people in their natural habitats, watching them go about everyday life from a distance. I am too young to have known what living in the USSR was really like, but just sitting on the bus felt like I was in a live action Soviet film. So I started to capture these moments of everyday life with a film camera, and I soon noticed that it captured the remains of Soviet aesthetic in modern-day Siberia in a way that an iPhone simply could not.
The beauty of people watching in Siberia is that often it’s hard to place a person’s thoughts and emotions. They’re not the most expressive people in public, but then they’ll answer a phone call and speak intimately with a loved one and you’ll see there’s a depth outside the exterior.
Everyone goes to Russia to look at the babushkas, and they don’t disappoint. In the winter I would sit on the bus and assess their different hat, scarf and coat combinations. Certain face shapes better suit a beret, others look best encased in fur. You get bonus points if they are looking after their grandchild, because you get to see their soft side. But their mother grizzly bear instincts kick in when they make a fuss and ask strangers to stand up and let the little one have a seat.
I didn’t take many portraits of friends even though most of them loved being photographed. In this sense, millennials are the same everywhere. However, most of them are true to their “Russian soul” and would refuse to smile for the camera. The same happened in cafes everywhere I went. Extremely well-dressed girls would bounce in giggling for an influencer photoshoot. Then their faces would drop as they posed with interesting pouts and serious, intent gazes. In a heavily image-based culture, it would seem that photography is a serious matter.
Contrary to popular opinion in the UK, Russians are warm and sociable creatures both in their work and private lives. All through the afternoon into the evening the local corner shops will be full of people in search of either ice cream, chocolate, beer or big bags of packaged sweets, for their evening in or out in the car park of their apartment.
Free time is spent in the kitchen drinking black or green tea and big boxes of plain biscuits. In the evening that translates to beer, vodka and crisps. Peachy coloured wallpaper, house plants and lace curtains adorn most apartments, just as they did in past decades. Even with the rise in popularity of Ikea, kitchenware and home decor haven’t changed much in the years since the end of the Soviet era.
Maybe it’s so interesting watching them because these young Russians are moving around in Soviet-looking spaces, under the influence and upbringing of their Soviet grandparents. Yet their heads are full of new music, modern relationships, aspirations beyond the apartment blocks they live in. The exterior is no longer so much of an indicator of their inner world.
I wonder if people watching will still be interesting 5 or 10 years down the line, if this rhythm doesn’t change. Will it get boring if everyone in Siberia starts looking Western? People are always interesting, even if they are convinced that their lives are not, so chances are the answer is yes.