• November 14, 2015

Remnants of a Failed Utopia in the Former Soviet Union

Sometimes, as he traveled through former Soviet territories, photographer Danila Tkachenko waited days or weeks for the right amount of snow. To capture his vision of the abandoned spaceports and oil field pump jacks littering the land, “I needed a lot of snow falling,” he says. “This created a special atmosphere in the photographs, a kind of … very diffused light.”

Picture of a tropospheric radio relay link near the town of Salekhard, in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District
Diligent research led Tkachenko to forgotten places such as the tropospheric radio relay link near the town of Salekhard, in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District. It was built to extend radio transmissions to distant areas of the U.S.S.R.

Other times, gusts whipped snow into blinding blizzards, obscuring what Tkachenko was determined to document: buildings, hardware, and monuments that once stood as symbols of progress and now were purposeless, rusting against the sky. To Tkachenko, these relics looked like “a metaphor of a postapocalyptic future.”

Picture of the once sunken cruise ship Bulgaria, in the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia
The once sunken cruise ship Bulgaria, in the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia

From 2012 to 2015 he spent months photographing them for a project he called “Restricted Areas.” The name came from the location where Tkachenko began work on the series. In 1957 a nuclear-waste tank exploded at a plutonium production facility, spewing radiation over a large area. The Soviets tried to keep the accident secret as they dealt with the contaminated villages. One was Ozyorsk, where residents were allowed to stay but entry was restricted to those who had a pass or had relatives living there.

Picture of a monument honoring “warrior liberators” near Voronezh, Russia Tkachenko-33
A monument honoring “warrior liberators” near Voronezh, Russia

Tkachenko’s grandparents both lived in Ozyorsk until 2007, when his grandfather died from what the family says were the long-term effects of radiation. “This story, this fatality of progress, inspired me,” Tkachenko says. Since his grandmother still lived there, he visited the restricted city in 2012 and took photographs. Shooting in Ozyorsk prompted Tkachenko to look for other sites and structures that symbolized an abandoned march toward progress. He researched, pinpointed, and traveled through three former Soviet republics and Bulgaria to photograph “utopian gigantic constructions, which were left unfinished, or failed.”

Picture of monument built on Bulgaria’s Mount Buzludzha
A stadium-size monument built on Bulgaria’s Mount Buzludzha as a tribute to socialism. Now closed and heavily vandalized, the monument is a “very surrealistic object,” Tkachenko says.

South of the town of Kazan, Russia, he photographed the decaying cruise ship Bulgaria. In July 2011, in a sudden storm, the boat sank in the Volga River, killing more than 120 people, many of them children. It had been raised from the bottom and towed to a riverbank for an investigation. There it remains, with a memorial nearby.

Picture of a former cultural center in Russia’s Republic of Komi, on land later used as a bomb testing range
A former cultural center in Russia’s Republic of Komi, on land later used as a bomb testing range.

Tkachenko also visited a monument dedicated to “warrior liberators,” near the city of Voronezh. It was placed next to a nuclear plant in a bid to raise the spirits of employees, he was told. But construction was never completed; the plant never opened.

Picture of a Soviet-era observatory near Almaty, Kazakhstan
In the mountains near Almaty, Kazakhstan, Tkachenko visited a Soviet-era observatory. Once deemed a prime spot for celestial observation, it’s now abandoned. Arriving at these places, Tkachenko says he always feels “a bit afraid, or at least not very comfortable, though at the same time curious.” It’s “as if you suddenly are on another planet and see the remnants of some failed civilization.”

Tkachenko, 25, says he had no problems with security while photographing the sites. But his trips were not without risk, such as the chance of being exposed to radiation or being injured while exploring crumbling structures.

His project’s message is less about the failures of the former Soviet Union than about the failures of technology as a whole, Tkachenko says: “One can’t stop questioning the general thought that progress always serves the good of humanity.”

Danila Tkachenko’s photographs are featured in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. See more of his work on his website.

There are 9 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Manda
    November 24, 2015

    Moving. Stunning. Prophetic.

  2. clementius1234
    November 22, 2015

    @Eduard Kanevskiy, the headline is based on a series of quotes by Danila Tkachenko who is Russian. The quotes can be seen both in the article and in the captions.

  3. Mike
    November 22, 2015

    Great article, beautifully sky…

  4. Mark Ellis
    November 22, 2015

    Outstanding work, thank you for sharing this.

  5. Eduard Kanevskiy
    November 22, 2015

    First of all I wan to say to author’s Rena Silverman of yours fake and speculate header articles
    ” Remnants of a Failed Utopia” What and where is- the utopia and failed ?! There are abandoned objects witch be on conservation of Russian Federation and they are a legacy of Soviet Union to another project of Russian interest in this regions and areas like recently come over our interest and troops in Arctic . Very interesting photo of Tkachenko- but different contest of article of Rene Silverman exist of mostly for speculate popularity of Russia by the not clever and conceit man. You can find many abandoned oil pumps, aircrafts, catastrophe incidents with a nuclear reactor in a many countries also such abandoned city and monuments exist in USA Alaska.
    From USSR with a TRUE !

  6. Alexandra
    November 20, 2015

    Absolutely amazing!

  7. Kevin
    November 19, 2015

    I’ve traveled along vast snow covered plains in the former Soviet Union and I admit that these are haunting photos. Astonishing.

  8. Jamie Mink
    November 16, 2015

    Absolutely stunning. Fantastic work, thanks for sharing.

  9. keshav cheryala
    November 15, 2015

    this are awesome and unbelievable.

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