What’s it like to grow up underneath the aurora borealis, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean? Photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva describes leaving—and returning to—Tiksi, a Siberian coastal village that during her childhood became a ghost town in the wake of the Soviet collapse. That experience taught her to find beauty in unexpected places—riding reindeer with nomadic herders, visiting isolated Arctic weather stations, and following mammoth ivory hunters.
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PETER GWIN (HOST): Conjure an image of the Russian tundra: Siberia, as far north as you can go before you hit the Arctic Ocean. Your image probably looks like a snowy whiteout. You might picture stark, forbidding ice-scapes, devoid of color and life. But through the lens of National Geographic Explorer and photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva, it’s a wonderland, bristling with people and their stories. Like, for example, the keepers of the remote weather stations that line Russia’s Arctic coast.
EVGENIA ARBUGAEVA (PHOTOGRAPHER): When I was a kid, my dad would bring me to visit meteorological station, and I wanted to be in all of them. I just wanted to see how it is to live there.
GWIN: So as an adult she hopped on an icebreaker that brought supplies to those isolated outposts.
ARBUGAEVA: I saw this station that was, you know, from the thirties that haven't been renovated since then and was all surrounded by sand. And then there is this man, comes out with his bright blue eyes. Total loner, unable to kind of make connections with people because he is just too overwhelmed by all of us.
GWIN: The man’s name was Slava. He was in his 60s, and he lived alone at the weather station—an hour’s helicopter ride from the nearest settlement. Right away Evgenia was drawn to him.
ARBUGAEVA: He was kind of trying to hide, almost, from everyone. But I could tell that he is a real thing. He is of the Arctic, of the nature.
GWIN: Mm-hmm. So how did you—I mean, if he's afraid of people or, you know, not good at making connections, how did you convince him to let you come and spend time with him?
ARBUGAEVA: Well, as they're unloading all the supplies, and all these people from meteorological organization, they're like, OK, Slava, you know, give us the charts, blah, blah, blah. All these things. And he's overwhelmed by all these questions. And I went there and I'm like, Oh, what's this? What's this in the distance? He's like, Let's go. I'll show you. So he took me—just, I think he was happy to get away from all these people.
GWIN: Evgenia followed Slava for a photo series called Weather Man. She captured the storm-battered wooden cottage where he lives, his lonely march to log data in subfreezing weather, and the antique-looking radio that’s one of his few links to the outside world.
ARBUGAEVA: I learned so much from him. What I saw in him is this total honesty about who he is, and acceptance of who he is. And also understanding the value of the land, in the sense that he found the spot that makes him happy, and he is this land. So he managed to get into the point where he is this sea and he is this peninsula as much as he is Slava.
GWIN: I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic. And this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo, and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
This week: Why it’s impossible for Evgenia Arbugaeva to look away from the Arctic. She tells us about hunters looking for the tusks of ancient mammoths melting from the permafrost and about nomadic reindeer herders following the rhythms of their ancestors—and why this unique environment leaves humans both awed and afraid.
More after the break.
Evgenia’s story starts on the edge of Siberia in a town called Tiksi.
ARBUGAEVA: It's a small town on the shore of Laptev Sea in the Russian Arctic in the republic of Yakutiya. And when I was growing up there, it was about 12,000 people living there. So it was pretty big. It was a famous and important seaport on the northern sea route. And during Soviet time, there were all these people coming, working there— military people, scientists, seamen, and it was quite a vibrant community.
And then—so I grew up there. My parents were teachers in the high school. And then after fall of Soviet Union, everybody just kind of—it was this massive wave of migration. And we moved to the city called Yakutsk, which is the capital of Yakutiya and officially the coldest city inhabited by people.
GWIN: The coldest city inhabited by people?
ARBUGAEVA: Yes. Right now—I just talked to my dad just now, this morning. He said it's minus 55.
GWIN: Oh my gosh. Wow.
GWIN: But Tiksi—was it as cold as that?
ARBUGAEVA: Yeah. It's not as cold as Yakutsk. It's a harsher climate because of the winds. The winds are really strong, and blizzards sometimes last for few days. And you just literally cannot even go out from your house. As a kid it was great because you don’t go to school.
GWIN: You have—even snow days in the Arctic.
ARBUGAEVA: Yeah, blizzard days we call it, because you’re—you know, especially if you’re a small kid, you come out of the house, and you literally will be just flying in the tundra because the winds are so strong.
GWIN: So tell me how you came to photography then, from Tiksi to Yakutsk. You know, I know from working with photographers that the cold is not the friend of the camera. So how did—when did that start?
ARBUGAEVA: When I was 15, I was an exchange student in Connecticut in the U.S. And I took photography class, and I was just blown away right away. You know, I spent a lot of time in the darkroom. And then when I came back to Yakutsk, I thought, OK, I have to continue. So I started working in the local newspapers, and developing my film because there's not much places to develop film, and I was developing my film in the darkroom in the morgue.
GWIN: In the—
ARBUGAEVA: Morgue? Is that where you keep the dead bodies?
GWIN: Yeah, yeah. Wait a minute. So you're developing your pictures in like a—in the morgue of, like, the city morgue?
ARBUGAEVA: Of a hospital, yes.
GWIN: Of a hospital.
ARBUGAEVA: Because I—there was, you know, there was no places to develop film. And there was this guy who was taking pictures of dead people and corpses in the hospital, and he had this darkroom. And so I was going there, and I was developing my film.
GWIN: Was that weird? I mean, was it creepy?
ARBUGAEVA: Um, no—
GWIN: I mean, is there like a cadaver over here?
ARBUGAEVA: I was very much focused on developing my film!
GWIN: I was gonna say—right, right. So how did you take it to the next level? What comes next?
ARBUGAEVA: Then I went to study in Moscow, in this—Moscow International University. I was studying management—art management. And then I went to travel with reindeer herders, and I was working as a—you know, I was living with the reindeer herders, and working …
GWIN: Wait a minute, so how do you make that connection? You went from art management to reindeer herding? That was like a big leap there.
ARBUGAEVA: In Yakutsk, I mean, we're so close to Indigenous cultures. Most of them are nomads and reindeer herders. So I was aware of them and I was photographing them at the celebrations that are happening in Yakutsk. And also a family of reindeer herders are good family friend of ours. So when I came back after university in Moscow, I just joined our friends and I started migrating with them, and—
GWIN: What does that look like? What do you mean migrating?
ARBUGAEVA: It’s—well, reindeer herders, they have a herd of about 2,000 reindeer. And some of them live in the chum [tepee-like dwelling]. Some of them live in the tent, and they follow the herds so they migrate every—depending on the season, they migrate every week or less, depending on if it’s winter or summer.
GWIN: Let’s kinda skip ahead a little bit to going back to Tiksi. How did that come about?
ARBUGAEVA: So after living with the reindeer herders, at some point I did start photographing because it was just so amazing—some things that I saw there. And at that point I'm thinking, OK, this is what I want to do, and I want to be a photographer. And I go to New York to study photography in International Center of Photography—one-year program. And then I stay in New York for a little bit, and I'm being completely overwhelmed by everything that is happening in New York. There’s amazing art, amazing artists around. The speed of the city—I love it and I hate it at the same time—as all people who live in New York. And then I think, OK, I have to go back to Tiksi. I remember that longing that I had all those years, and I thought to go and explore it as a photographer.
GWIN: This is how many years later—you're how old?
ARBUGAEVA: Nineteen years later.
GWIN: OK. Is this the first time you've been back?
ARBUGAEVA: Yeah, it’s first time I’m back since we left.
GWIN: What did that feel like?
ARBUGAEVA: It felt so strange. Yeah. I had very strong emotions, especially because now—as I mentioned before, when I lived there, there was 12,000 people living in town, and now it's only 4,000. So the most—majority of buildings in town are abandoned. So it looks very scary and just—I was just really, really sad. I thought that I'm not going to take any pictures because it's just too sad to photograph.
GWIN: That's so ironic because the pictures that I've seen that you took of Tiksi are not sad.
ARBUGAEVA: Well, my first trip after wandering these empty streets, I went to the shore of the sea and I was sitting there just kind of looking at the horizon. And I saw a family by the bonfire, and there was this girl who was just throwing stones in the water and they were very quiet. And I could feel that we’re on the same emotional wavelength somehow, and we started talking. And the more we started talking, the more I thought, this girl, she's still here. She still has her reality here in Tiksi. How does she see the town? And next trips—I came back and I already was following Tanya, this girl. And she opened her vision of town to me, which was so similar to how I remember it. So I thought, Wow, so it doesn't really matter. You know, if you love a place and if you're a kid, you don't see that all this, you know, ruins. Ruins start to be a playground. It becomes a haunted house full of stories to explore rather than a relic or a reminder of a fallen empire.
GWIN: What was it like to go to these places with her, and you're seeing it through her eyes, but you’re also seeing it in your memory?
ARBUGAEVA: Because my childhood in Tiksi ended so abruptly—so that it wasn't like, you know, I was growing out of it, it was just like I had this beautiful world and then I was taken away from it. And so there was no closure. And I was just so happy to be with Tanya and to become a kid again in this place and have enough time to play again in the tundra and to run again—trying to touch aurora or things like this and—
GWIN: Trying to touch aurora? Is that a game that kids play in the Arctic? I want to play that game.
ARBUGAEVA: Or like making wishes, you know, or like digging a hole in the tundra and putting your wishes and writing your wishes and putting your wishes in there, hoping that they will all come true—things like this, you know, and because it was just me and her and her friends and no adults around, I just was so free to be a kid again as well.
GWIN: What does the aurora borealis look like in Tiksi?
ARBUGAEVA: It is a part of daily life. I mean, when I was a kid and when Tanya was in Tiksi, you just see aurora on your way to school, because in winter, it's polar night. So you don't see the sun at all for a few months. So you go to school and then you just watch aurora.
GWIN: What is it? What does it look like?
ARBUGAEVA: It can be different. It can be just green or just white or just yellow, or it can be all kinds of colors. Purple, yellow, green. It depends. It can be very different. Can be a little bit—it can completely explode in the sky.
GWIN: And it's moving. It's like shimmering and moving across you, or … ?
ARBUGAEVA: Yeah. It's moving. It's like this. It's alive.
GWIN: Why is it important to you to focus on the Arctic right now? I mean, I know you come from the Arctic and you obviously have a deep love for it. But what are you thinking about right now about the situation that the Arctic faces?
ARBUGAEVA: Oh, there's so many things going on around the world, but in the Arctic especially—I mean, I can’t not take pictures there now. You know, it's just—there's just so many changes and so many things that I know they need to be photographed now. Like we used to look at it with awe, right? Now we're looking at it and we're scared.
GWIN: Are you scared?
ARBUGAEVA: I'm both in awe and scared.
GWIN: So one story that you work—I think it may be your first story for National Geographic—was looking at the mammoth tusks. And I think in a way, that story speaks to the changes in the Arctic. That was such an interesting sort of way to look at how the climate’s changing.
ARBUGAEVA: Yeah, that was a very interesting assignment, and my first one. The story takes place in these uninhabited islands in the Laptev Sea, and because of the erosion and permafrost thaw, there is these mammoth tusks that emerge from the land.
GWIN: So these are woolly mammoths that were living in this region, and then like they're frozen there? Or they—how are the mammoths there, I guess is my question.
ARBUGAEVA: Well the mammoth used to live there, and then their carcasses and their bones are preserved so well because of permafrost. And because now permafrost is thawing, all these remains of mammoth come out and what happens now is it becomes—they call it like this tusk rush. So there is all these people—
GWIN: Like a gold rush?
ARBUGAEVA: Like a gold rush but tusk rush, yeah. Because after the ban of international trade of elephant ivory, Chinese market needed to have a replacement for the material. So mammoth now—with emergence of all this mammoth tusks in Siberia, this is now material the carvers are working with. And—
GWIN: It's not illegal to use mammoth tusks?
ARBUGAEVA: It's not, yeah. But there's—it's a gray kind of area still. And, you know, sometimes when we're digging out the skull of a mammoth and you're just—I was just standing there thinking, Wow, this is so scary. What's going to happen? Because we were also—when I was on the Bolshoy Lyakhovsky [island] and I had a GPS and we had an older map—so that was 2013, and I had a map of 2008 on my GPS. And I was standing on the edge of the island, and the map of 2008 was showing that I'm very much inland. And that's when I was just struck by the difference of the border off the edge of the island.
GWIN: Because it—because the permafrost had eroded?
ARBUGAEVA: Eroded. Yeah.
GWIN: Oh wow.
ARBUGAEVA: And some of the island, scientists predicted in my lifetime they won't be there anymore.
GWIN: The island will be gone.
GWIN: So what's next? What do you want to do next?
ARBUGAEVA: I keep working. I just finished three new stories in the Arctic and these are—in a way the Weather Man was the first chapter of the stories. And now I produced three more chapters, and I'll just keep creating my necklace with different beads and each story as a bead. Yeah, I keep working in the Arctic.
GWIN: Is there any particular image that you just can't get out of your head that you’re—would be your dream to photograph?
ARBUGAEVA: Well right now I really want to be able to find a way to photograph tundra in the way that people could really see it. Because, you know, tundra is just a, you know—in some areas they call it Arctic desert, right? So it's just very empty space, but it's not. And it's a world of its own. And so I'm struggling. I'm trying to figure out now, how do I capture that tundra as space? It was a backdrop almost visually, always for a story unfolding. And now I really want to focus on these natural spaces that are protagonists of their own.
GWIN: Wow. Well, Evgenia Arbugaeva, thank you very much.
ARBUGAEVA: Thank you so much.
GWIN: To see more of Evgenia’s work, her photos from Tiksi, and her National Geographic stories about mammoth ivory hunters and chasing rare butterflies in Malaysia, check out the links in our show notes. You can also find her photographs on our Instagram feed @natgeo. And Evgenia’s working on a new documentary set in a region of Siberia that features some of the world’s biggest gatherings of walruses. You can find links for all of that in the show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.
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Overheard at National Geographic is produced by
Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, Marcy Thompson, and Ilana Strauss.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen. Robert Malesky edited this episode.
Our senior producer is Carla Wills.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who produced this episode.
Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.
Michelle Harris fact-checked this episode.
Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.
Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world and funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Evgenia Arbugaeva.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.
See Evgenia’s photos in National Geographic, which include stories of the lucrative “tusk rush” on woolly mammoth bones that have emerged from Russian permafrost as well as the murky world of butterfly trading in Indonesia.
Evgenia’s lens also focuses on the wild whimsy of her frigid hometown, Tiksi. See more photos on Instagram @evgenia_arbugaeva and @natgeo.
Learn how a gigantic offshore oil rig could radically alter the Arctic environment.
Listen to a Nat Geo photographer explain in a previous Overheard episode how climate change’s impact on the Arctic is threatening the way of life for Alaskan Natives.
If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe today.