An ode to the high-rises and drifters from Russia, with love
Born in 1987, Kirill Savchenkov is one of thousands of Russian boys and girls who grew up in bleak post-Soviet high-rises at the outskirts of the city – the scene of their childhood being that special moment of Russian history. '90s Russia was poor, dangerous and strange, squeezed between two tectonic plates: the collapsed Soviet union and the new conservative era of Putin’s Russia. Wastelands which in 10 years would become malls – shards of our parents' and grandparents' ideologies, the outbursts of crime mingling with video rentals, MTV, newly imported chewing gum with transfer tattoos. This transition time was forever imprinted in our childhood memories.
Born and raised in Moscow, Kirill Savchenkov is still preoccupied with the concepts of memory and transition. In his book Iceberg he captured his peers: fellow skaters and artists, girlfriends, the people who shared his love, fights and adventures. The result is a moving portrait of contemporary Russian youth: not just their faces but their dystopian, rough habitats and chaotic way of thinking. The book traces Savchenkov’s journey from a skating background to photography to contemporary art, and captures the ephemeral beauty of those years where you just don’t know what to do with yourself. Just like '90s Russia, these years would not return. We are not here forever, but at least we grew up free.
We spoke to Savchenkov about Moscow suburbs, a new approach to narrative and things that Russians laugh at.
Tell us a bit about the concept of Iceberg?
Kirill Savchenkov: In Iceberg I wanted to capture a transitional phase of my life connected to my development as an artist. I started taking pictures while I was still a skater, and my skater era was coming to an end because of an injury and my plans to go to university. I started taking pictures of skateboard tricks, then got interested in documentary photography, youth culture and landscape. Then I finished my first degree, went to art school and realised that I was moving towards art, working with ideas rather than images, and becoming more interested in deeper dynamics in people and society, such as the urban environment. The photos included in the book were all taken from 2008-2012.
What kind of story are you telling?
Kirill Savchenkov: It's a non-linear autobiography of the main character, a skater and a photographer. The book is largely about an eclectic approach to narrative. People are used to relying on their memory, but memory is not static – it's a subjective dynamic process which sometimes suffers erosions and keeps constantly changing. In this book I explore memory as a process. I'm also interested in the connection between the images that appear in people's minds as they look through it.
Why are you so interested in Moscow's suburbs?
Kirill Savchenkov: Mainly because I grew up there. One of my main interests is memory and how the environment you grow up in affects you. The suburbs occupy the biggest territory across the post-soviet states, there are a lot of memories there for me.
What's so special in the landscape and atmosphere of these areas?
Kirill Savchenkov: I've always lived in an area surrounded by forests. It created a sort of isolation – to leave you always had to cross the forest. I grew up with stories of serial killers, one of whom committed multiple murders in Bitsevsky park, just a 5 minute walk from my house. As a child I used to spend a lot of time in the forest playing, going for walks or at barbecues, and then as a teenager I was hanging out there with my mates. There's still a metro station there, and high rises: rural landscape coexists with the very human idea of the district.
Is there anything you particularly like about typical post-Soviet high-rises?
Kirill Savchenkov: High-rises are a special part of this landscape, they're like eternal mountains standing amongst forests, fields, huge wastelands. You're born and you die but they still stand, they get covered with snow in winter and reflect the sun in summer, giving a giant shadow during the sunset. The generation which built them is gone, another generation comes and changes them slightly. It's not a homely landscape, the feeling of the high-rises as a home is completely erased.
“I remember, as a child, the first steps of Western culture developing in Russia. Even today it functions really awkwardly, like a collaboration of national identity and neo-liberal capitalism.” – Kirill Savchenkov
Who are the main characters in Iceberg?
Kirill Savchenkov: I called my book Iceberg because it's this drifting thing which has more hidden beneath the water than above. An Iceberg encounters other stuff as it's drifting – that's the whole visual part of my book. My characters are guys I used to skate with, my girlfriends, girls I fell in love with, friends I got into fights with, who did art or studied. They all are captured in this period of transition. When you've finished school and before you've made up your mind about life you're drifting, changing, transforming, thinking what to do with yourself. It’s just like skateboarding: usually guys quit at 22-23. You get a car, get a girlfriend, get a job. You feel that you're still into it but you're not here forever.
Do you think young people in Russia are different to their Western peers or we all are the same now?
Kirill Savchenkov: I think we're more similar now, even compared to the beginning of the '90s. The difference which remains is in the cultural background, and the cultural code. Formally we're listening to the same music, we have the same phones, apps and social networks. My generation was born at the end of the '80s, and the beginning of the '90s. I remember, as a child, the first steps of Western culture developing in Russia. Even today it functions really awkwardly, like a collaboration of national identity and neo-liberal capitalism.
How about cultural codes?
Kirill Savchenkov: We laugh at different things – In Russia our laughter has a great amount of terror – it's hardcore. Let me tell you a story. I have friends, graffiti artists from Brussels, and they act like such rough guys: they're into graffiti, dungeons, mystics and so on. Once we met up in Paris at their flat and had a Youtube session. They were showing us videos which seemed hardcore to them – mostly stuff with animals, like a hamster stuck in a wheel. So we go on this Russian social network and show them our hardcore videos: a collapsing building full of people, a bear attack, someone gets hit in the face with a brick...they were shocked. They were like, guys, what the hell are you showing to us?
Iceberg is available on request, through Savchenkov's website.