“When I first visited this place I thought of it as a positive version of Twin Peaks,” Oleg Khadartsev tells me. We’re in a small Karelian town called Olonets in the northwest of Russia. There aren’t any mountains here, but there are lots of pine trees, rivers and lakes, and some rather peculiar small town appeal.
There is a small Orthodox church with green onion domes surrounded by the river’s cold, black waters. There are unpainted wooden houses and wooden bridges, and the soggy riverbanks are covered with yellow grass. Kids ride bikes on the sleepy, dusty streets bathed in liquid northern sunshine. A cheap cafe is blasting music for someone’s wedding. Olonets is also the so-called geese capital of Russia due to the 1.5 million geese who pass over the fields around the town during their migration. In a local hotel only six rooms have hot water. One of the main attractions is a wooden fortress which used to protect these lands from Swedish invasion — the only thing is, it burned down a couple of centuries ago.
Unlike Fargo or Twin Peaks, this place has no stories written about it, no pop culture myths. Like most of the country, it stands on forgotten stories and erased histories, a condensed metaphor for the Russian nowhere. It’s exactly this vast and mysterious nowhere that the Uncapitals project studies.
Uncapitals started from the simple question almost every young person faces in an increasingly mobile world: shall I stay where I’m from or leave for a place that promises more possibilities? Oleg Khadartsev and Zhanna Guzenko, both based in Murmansk in the Russian North, have been tormented by this question for years.
“We live in an uncomfortable area, essentially in the Arctic, and always try to find new reasons and possibilities to stay here and develop creatively,” says Oleg Khadartsev. “When you live in the north of Russia, in Sweden or in Norway, a certain number of your friends and colleagues go to the south, move to Moscow or Stockholm, and you look at this and start wondering: am I a loser or is this a normal way of life?”
We’re far away from anything familiar. I have to say, it’s liberating
Driven by an interest in northern mentality and identity, and seeking to challenge the one-sided cultural dynamics between the capital and smaller cities, Uncapitals’ founders came up with the idea of a cultural exchange between northern cultures that would take place in the middle of nowhere. So in 2015 they picked around 50 young people from Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Russia’s northern region and took them to Apatity in Murmansk Oblast to make some music, street art and videos. The setting of the cold post-industrial town dying a slow death was not the most jolly experience — but for many it was certainly transformative. For 2016 they’ve chosen Olonets in Karelia. It’s not Twin Peaks but it definitely has its own special atmosphere.
Olonets, unlike many Russian towns, is not post-industrial. It’s surrounded by fields and forests and has a peaceful, slow-paced vibe. It gets some money from tourism (which includes goose hunting), but how it survives otherwise is difficult to determine. Most of the facilities large enough to accommodate Norwegian street artists, Finnish and Danish musicians and Murmansk media entrepreneurs were meant for Soviet children: a mock modernist music school with quiet corridors filled with plants, a children’s art school which doubles as an ethnography museum and the local history museum with its display of very bad taxidermy.
The black wall of a local sports school assigned for street art overlooks tin garages which soon become a place for an impromptu party with beer and blasting car stereos, artists drunk on homemade spirits and local kids stealing spray cans. Folklore and Karelian language here mix with the heritage of Soviet architecture and the day-to-day reality of a small town. We’re far away from anything familiar, completely alien to the surroundings. I have to say, it’s liberating.
However strange it is, while in Olonets I couldn’t stop thinking of my peers in London, Berlin and New York. In all these places I’ve been hearing the same talk: big cities are too expensive, too commercial, not what they used to be. The millenials are late to the party: up-and-coming neighbourhoods are gentrified in seconds, rent is too expensive, parties are not even that fun (at least not as fun as the pictures of parties from the 80s we’ve seen on the internet). Displaced youngsters in their 20s often dream of creative communes in Umbria and art residences in the Scottish Highlands, of places where time goes slower and life is more tangible. Quite often these are the dreams of city kids who’ve never lived outside of the city. I quietly wish they saw it here, in a province of Russia — a cultural periphery on the edges of the western world. This is where the dreams of the global world shatter. Or maybe, this is where they begin.
This is where the dreams of the global world shatter. Or maybe, this is where they begin
Musician Ivan Afanasayev of noise duo Love Cult participated in Uncapitals twice: the first time he was a music expert, the second, in 2016, he joined the team of organisers with his bandmate Anna Kuts. Afanasyev isn’t from far away, from Petrozavodsk in Karelia, a city of around 260,000 people. “If you live in a small town there is always this love-hate relationship with it,” he says. “If you’re trying to reach out, find an audience, put things on on a bigger scale, you have to communicate with or move to the capitals. If you live in terra incognita on the one hand you’re super limited because nothing happens, but on the other there are no limits because whatever you do already becomes a part of the cultural scenery. It’s very hard to do anything — but at the same time everything is possible.”
It’s well known that small towns can be a great creative stimulation — at times thanks to the boredom and overwhelming desire to leave. But in the contemporary world, where nobody’s bored anymore and everyone’s always connected, does this distinction even work? Can people thrive creatively in this environment?
“There’s another question that is more interesting for me,” says Alexey Ivanovskiy, this year’s online media expert. “Can creative people come from this kind of background? A lot of them do. Also, the internet penetrates every sphere of life right now. On the one hand, we live in a very different physical environment, on the other, our online world is surprisingly similar. Modern kids who are 10 years old would easily understand their peers from any place in the world.”
For centuries we’ve lived in a world divided into the centre and the periphery. We’ve never questioned this distinction
One could argue about the cultural impact of the project, which essentially works like a short-term residency — yes, we created something in a remote place, but would we ever return there again? I doubt it. But the experience has a deeper imprint than it seems. For centuries we’ve lived in a world divided into the centre and the periphery. We’ve never questioned this distinction and never wondered who came up with it. Colonialism is rooted in the same type of attitude, and so are the emerging far-right ideologies trying to build walls around Europe.
In this increasingly mobile age we don’t have to live where we were born, we don’t even have to stay in one place. We’re still free to move to the capital but we’re also free to appreciate what we were always taught was just a worthless periphery. Projects like Uncapitals are needed because they help us understand that what exists in this periphery — lives, narratives, memory — is just as important on a human level as what we’re experiencing in London or New York.