abandoned building with Aurora Borealis above it.

In Russia’s far north, legends and lives are frozen in time

A photographer returns to her roots and the haunting, stark beauty of the polar landscape.

Wind-blown snow swirls past abandoned buildings keeping cold vigil over the empty streets of Dikson. Once the centerpiece of Soviet dreams to develop the Arctic, the port town was slowly deserted after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
This story appears in the December 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

People say that once you have the Arctic in your system, it will always be calling you. I spent my childhood running about the tundra and watching the northern lights as I walked to school in the polar night, the poetic name for the two months of darkness that’s not just winter here but also a state of mind. I left my hometown of Tiksi, a remote seaport on the shore of Russia’s Laptev Sea, years ago to live in big cities and different countries. But the Arctic has been calling me back. I crave its isolation and slower pace of life. In this frozen northern landscape, my imagination flies like the wind, with no obstacles. Every object becomes symbolic, every shade of color meaningful. I am my real self only when I am here.

It’s much the same for those I photograph. Sometimes I think their stories are like chapters in a book, each revealing a different dream but each also connected to a love of this land. There’s the hermit who imagines he’s living on a vessel at sea, and the young woman who dreamed of living with her beloved at the edge of the world. Then there’s the community that’s keeping its past and future alive as its members follow the traditions and retell the myths of their ancestors. And finally there’s the old Soviet dream of polar exploration and conquest. Each dream has its own color palette and atmosphere. Each person who is here is here for a reason.

The first dream belongs to Vyacheslav Korotki. He was the longtime chief of the Khodovarikha Meteorological Station on an isolated peninsula on the Barents Sea—a slender, barren spit of land that, Korotki says, feels like a ship. When I first met him, I instantly recognized his tarpaulin jacket, the kind all men wore back in Soviet times in my hometown. He is what is known as a polyarnik—a specialist of the polar north—and has dedicated his life to work in the Arctic. He still helps report the weather.

Outside the station I could hear ice shifting and grinding and the wind making the radio wires whistle. Inside it was quiet, with only Korotki’s footsteps and a squeaking door marking the passage of time. Every three hours he’d leave, then return, muttering observations to himself—“Wind south southwest, 12 meters per second, gusts up to 18 meters, getting stronger, pressure falls, snowstorm is coming”—which he would then report over a crackling old radio to a person he has never seen. (A fading culture adapts to the changing times in this Arctic town.)

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(What’s it like to grow up underneath the aurora borealis? In this episode of our podcast Overheard, we chat with Evgenia about the unexpected beauty of her childhood home in the Siberian Arctic. Listen now on Apple Podcasts.)

One day I felt sad, the polar night causing my thoughts to run in chaotic directions. I came to Korotki with a cup of tea and asked how he could live here, alone, every day the same. He told me: “You have too many expectations, and I guess it’s normal. But every day is not the same here. Look, today you saw the bright aurora borealis and a very rare phenomenon of thin ice covering the sea. Wasn’t it great to see the stars tonight, after they were hiding from us behind the clouds for over a week?” I felt guilty for gazing too much inside of myself, forgetting to observe outside. From then on I became all eyes.

One month I lived with a young couple, Evgenia Kostikova and Ivan Sivkov, who were collecting meteorological data at another frozen edge of Russia. Kostikova had asked her beloved Sivkov to join her up north after their first year together in a Siberian city. They monitored the weather, chopped wood, cooked, tended the lighthouse, and looked after each other. For medical help they relied only on a distant helicopter, but it could be delayed for weeks in rough weather. Kostikova called her mother almost every day, but as there was little news to report, she’d often ask her mother to leave the phone on speaker and to go about her housework. Kostikova would just sit and listen to the sounds of her faraway home.

Perhaps partly because of their isolation, the 300 Chukchi in the village of Enurmino have kept their traditions, living off the land and sea as their ancestors did, hewing to the same myths and legends passed through the generations. It is an honor to be a hunter, and the villagers follow federal and international quotas as they hunt for walrus and whale to sustain their community through the long winters. Not far from Enurmino, I spent two weeks in a wooden hut with a scientist who was studying walruses. We were trapped inside for three of those days, careful not to set off a panic among the estimated 100,000 walruses that had hauled out around us, their movements and fighting shaking our hut. (Reindeer herders in Russia’s Arctic migrate 800 miles a year. Now it’s getting tougher.)

The dream of Soviet greatness is covered in frost in Dikson, on the shore of the Kara Sea. During its heyday in the 1980s it was called the capital of the Russian Arctic, but since the demise of the U.S.S.R. it has become almost a ghost town. Perhaps there will be new towns as the region warms, but it pains me to see the failure of human effort on such a scale.

During my first weeks I was disappointed with the photos I shot in Dikson’s endless darkness, but then the aurora borealis suddenly exploded in the sky, coloring everything in neon hues for several hours. Cast in a green light, a monument to soldiers looked like Frankenstein’s monster, who, after all, at the end of Mary Shelley’s book, escaped to the isolation of the Arctic. Then the aurora faded, and the town started to slowly disappear back into darkness until finally it was invisible.

Evgenia Arbugaeva was born in Tiksi, in the Russian Arctic. She recently photographed the Indonesian butterfly trade for the magazine.

The nonprofit National Geographic Society helped fund this article.

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