Russia Without Us, a Moscow-based zine founded by Andrey Urodov, is one of a small number of new online publications redefining how Russia’s new generation document their experiences today. It’s sardonic, ironic, and makes excellent use of user-submitted photography to present a range of personal stories from across the country.
The website is funded by user subscription, and its labour of love has seen great successes online withroughly 30,000 visits a month, and 100,000 subscribers to its page on vKontakte, a popular Russian social network. Urodov’s project offers an independent, and radically new way of addressing social issues in Russia today.
The daily grind conjured up by Russia Without Us is a bleak one, but not without hope. What lessons can the site offer for similar initiatives in the Russian media landscape today?
Maxim Edwards: According to the website, Russia Without Us is a ‘journal for teenagers who yearn for the times and eras in which they were unable to live’. I particularly liked ‘Emigration skills’, a wonderful story that reminded me of Soviet émigré writer Sergey Dovlatov’s 1970s novel The Suitcase. Judging by the title of the project, your readers and writers are emigres, but not in the direct sense of the word. Just what are they running away from? In short, who is the ‘us’ in Russia Without Us?
Andrey Urodov: For a long time I couldn’t find the words that could explain what Russia Without Us is all about. It’s not a particular theme that unites the journal and its readers, but rather a sensation, a feeling.
That’s why, as you say, those words appear on the site’s main page: ‘a journal for teenagers who yearn for the times and eras in which they were unable to live’. In no way does this mean that we want to return to the Soviet Union or find ourselves in Russia in the 1990s.
The point with our magazine is quite different. We felt that there is a generation of people who were born at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s and are united by one simple thing: confusion. They don’t understand how or why they ended up in the country they’re living in now.
As the Soviet Union was collapsing, most of us were still crawling under tables and learning our ABCs. As Russian journalism flourished in the 1990s, we were already watching television, listening to the radio or cutting things out of magazines and doodling on newspapers with marker pens.
We could see that era: we could touch it, feel it, run it through our fingers; we saw pictures, heard phrases from the television, but we didn’t understand anything. We were children.
In small regional cities across Russia, absolutely nothing has changed since the 1990s. Society is completely alienated. Young people sniff glue in garages, in complete hopelessness. Personally, I associate those years with the morning trip to school in a rusty old PAZ bus. A whole crowd of people is stuffed into the lurid, plywood interior of the vehicle, which very slowly inches towards work or school.
With every turn it seems as though something will break, that the handrail will hit you in the head or that your foot will fall through a hole in the rotten floor. Everybody around you is half-asleep and bitter. It’s 20 degrees below zero outside, and somewhere in the background you hear Madonna’s ‘Frozen’ playing. The driver loves Europa Plus radio. And that’s how you live, day in, day out. 14 or 15 is an age at which you sense and understand things particularly keenly, but there’s nothing you can do about them.
Now that we have grown up, we are able to properly take account of what happened. But the feeling of injustice at the misfortunes people had to live through has not gone away. We want to show how these internal impulses influence today’s society, in what direction they push it.
The current hyper-patriotism in Russia is an attempt to take revenge, to score a few emotional points. The state understands this, and capitalises on people’s sensitivities. In contrast to that, we believe that one can love one’s country without hypnosis on TV. Our country has more than enough talented people, indescribable natural beauty and places where history still lives.
It’s strange to feel oneself part of a generation that survived the confusing and controversial 1990s and 2000s, but only now has realised its participation in those events.
Now, all we have left is to read, watch, argue and doubt. We want to be there when everybody finds out why things are the way they are. Russia Without Us is about that sensation. This country came into being without us, and now we’ve turned up in it. And to some degree, these 20 to 25-year old guys will be responsible for what will become of it.
ME: Your project concerns a whole range of personal stories—from homeless people on Moscow’s Arbat to kebab vendors and Russian businessmen in Slovenia. What inspires you in your search for topics? Likewise, what inspires your authors, and who are they?
AU: We have always been oriented towards personal stories; time speaks the language of witnesses. Hundreds of books have already been written on the 1990s and early 2000s.
Nowadays, young researchers are also beginning to work on the period. It’s even the focus of the Last 30 project, which has some similarities, although our journal takes a less systemic approach. We don’t try to explain the past to people — on the contrary, we are searching in our everyday life for echoes of what happened.
That’s exactly why we take interviews with the kebab seller in Moscow, with the former midshipman who now sells Christmas trees in Kazan. It’s why we searched Nizhny Novgorod for uncle Lyosha, who worked as a cash courier and became famous as the village idiot. Engineers became fishermen, philologists became businessmen, party functionaries became truckers. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the lives of millions of people were turned upside down.
Importantly, this process isn’t going to end any time soon. People quit their jobs in their home towns in the provinces and leave to work concierge and night-watchman jobs in bigger cities. They leave university and attempt to emigrate. All of this is an echo from another time — a restless society, whose people are in search of their path in life.
We want to draw attention to the fact that behind the headlines live a huge number of people who are — or feel that they are — no longer needed. As this rejection has become a fact of daily life, it must be addressed. Our publication was created in order to unite young people around these shared problems and force them to reflect, empathise, and create something new.
ME: This kind of ‘samizdat’ is not an easy undertaking. The printed version, for example, has a very small circulation. What are your sources of funding? Do you have the ability — or desire — to work together with larger media firms?
AU: The first issue of Russia Without Us had a circulation of some 20 to 30 copies. Last year, we were able to raise 150,000 roubles [£1,300] to print our sixth edition, through crowd-funding. 700 issues were printed, most of which we distributed through our own efforts to independent bookshops in Moscow and St Petersburg. The remaining issues were sent by post to 15 cities across Russia and Ukraine.
Even though our sales did not make ends meet, we contributed our own money and published another issue. We didn’t have the funds for another issue after that, so decided to stop for a year and work on our website, which now works by paid subscription.
As a result, we can raise a few kopecks for the printed version. We’re a non-commercial project, and so blindly invest all our money in the next release. We’re soon planning on publishing our ninth issue.
We don’t want to work with big companies, they’ve long since identified their priority: money. Popular youth magazines in Russia are no longer written for people, but for advertisers — especially in an economic crisis.
They don’t give a damn if they lose readers, but do everything to ensure that advertisers are content. Their permanent ‘special projects’ make me want to be sick, but they convince themselves that their materials are useful both to readers and bring a tidy profit.
But it’s also true that people are not idiots. They want to be a community, not just a ‘source of traffic’. We offer them a different scheme — paid access to the site on a monthly basis, the proceeds from which go towards the printed edition of the journal, and payment for editorial work.
ME: If I’m not mistaken, the project began with an archive of thousands of unused photographs and a long and boring winter. What role does photojournalism play for you?
AU: We’ve never had professional journalists nor photographers on our team. My friends and I took a lot of photos on film since 2008, so we ended up with a huge archive of photographs, around 10,000. And that’s how we began.
We are always adding to our photo archive, and before even reading a text we ask the author whether they have precisely five good photographs. If not, we move on. That’s how we do things.
ME: How would you assess the state of journalism in Russia? What has been the reaction from readers?
AU: We produced our first edition in January 2014. Back then, there was only really one site I admired, W-O-S.ru. Their film crew would tell all the fashionistas to go to hell, turning up drunk to the most glamorous exhibitions, premières and summer festivals.
Of course, there was always the Bolshoy gorod journal (Big city), which told stories of normal city life. That was cool, and there were big publications that dealt with social topics, but they somehow seemed a little backward, with poor layout and small photographs.
On the whole, you had to break through all of that to actually read a good text. Nowadays, many publications have been redesigned. I’ve heard that even Novaya Gazeta is going to change. And rightly so: young audiences skip long texts, they look at the internet through another lens.
A good example is Takie Dela (takiedela.ru), which in this respect is very user-friendly. As concerns our site and people’s view of it—we’re very pleased that we receive letters from readers of all ages and that, even if we don’t see entirely eye to eye, we’ve struck a chord with them.
ME: You mentioned that your readership statistics also include those for an online community called ‘Russian courtyards’. Could you tell us something more about the project? Didn’t it predate Russia Without Us?
AU: Yes, ‘Russian Courtyards’ is a vKontakte group that appeared in September 2013 and has since spawned a huge number of clones.Inthe beginning, it was where we uploaded our photographs of courtyards across Russia, taken on film.
In short, we partly uploaded the Russia Without Us archive onto the group, after which people started to send and share their own photos. We deliberately do not indicate the city where the photo was taken, as we believe that the Russian courtyard is one large canvas. From Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, something familiar can always be found in them.
Probably as a result of that, the group now has nearly 50,000 subscribers. After some time, we also included the series on our website, publishing photos of courtyards in need of help.
We wanted to turn it into an instrument for young people through which they could write to government officials and let them know that their house or courtyard was in urgent need of repair.
ME: You’ve also been offered a book contract. What has come of that?
AU: We were approached with a book deal last August. All of our friends who had worked with big publishing firms tried to dissuade us. Nevertheless, we met with guys from the AST publishing house. They seemed like professionals, people we could work with. AST had absorbed many of its competitors, so a whole bunch of editors now work there, publishing books under their own profiles and under various imprints.
It took them about a month to prepare a draft version of our book, which was to be shown to the firm’s managers. And then something very interesting happened. Exactly at this stage, all the corrections made to the book, sent to the guys from the editors, got stuck. Essentially, the editorial staff were unable to change anything, as if they had no interest whatsoever in producing a good book.
If something is prohibited ‘from above’, then it becomes a taboo. As a result, the book was published with the kind of advertisers’ slogans that the AST management felt would improve its sales.
ME: Nowadays there are even more opportunities to work with audiovisual materials and for funding online. What does the future hold for Russia Without Us?
AU: Our plan is very simple: to take our vision of user funding to our subscribers. We’ll then try and expand our editorial team and survive until the summer. After all, you can’t survive on buckwheat forever.
Photographs courtesy of Sergey Khrapov, Pavel Grazhdansky, Andrey Urodov and Fyodr Melnikov. Originally published at Open Democracy.