Whether I like it or not and regardless of how far or how much I travel, or, even where I live, I only have one motherland. I was born in a place that was part of the now non-existent USSR. That place is now a country called Belarus. Since I spent most of my childhood years there and most of my memories come from there too, that makes it my motherland.
When I talk about the motherland, I don’t do it with some sense of patriotic pride. I don’t believe in patriotism and sometimes, I wish that I had a different motherland, perhaps like my adopted motherland – Australia, or, somewhere else that’s warm and where the people like to enjoy life.
My parents immigrated from Belarus to Australia when I was ten years old. Over the next decade we stayed very vaguely connected to the country. The airfare was expensive, none of my relatives had internet, and, of course, it is just so far from Australia in every sense of the word.
Australia shaped who I am as an adult, but somehow, since becoming an adult, I’ve stayed more connected. Part of it has been a sense of curiosity in where I come from. Another part has to do with the fact that my wife is from Belarus. I never planned on marrying a Belarusian girl, I almost tried to avoid them, for some cultural differences that I couldn’t stand, but, we met while I was working on a project and visiting family and… when you fall in love, you fall in love.
Because I was ultimately shaped by an Australian way of thinking, a way very different from Belarusian, my motherland sometimes frustrates me beyond words. So many of its’ inhabitants are openly racist, openly homophobic and ignorant. They don’t mind being ruled by Europe’s last dictator, because they feel that they need a firm hand, or because they say they’re better off than some other ex-Soviet republics, or even crisis stricken Europe.
The drinking is as bad as it is stereotyped to be. The Soviet architecture is oppressive and incredibly suffocating to live in. And, there’s still plenty of unnecessary bureaucracy in almost any kind of transactions.
Enough of the negatives though. I just wanted to put things into perspective. This is a very personal post. Even if no one reads my words, I’ll probably look at this blog post as a sort of a diary entry later on in life. The images are also a part of a long term photo project on Belarus that, if life allows me, will take place over the next few years. The focus of this post is on Braslav, a region of 300 plus lakes. A place I first visited on a holiday with my parents, as a four-year-old. Through some twists and turns I came to Braslav again in 2009. This time to explore the area and to photograph it and its’ people. During that trip I met a man named Yuri. We’ve become good friends since then. I’ve visited him and have stayed with him, in his countryside home every other year. He is a big part of this project so far. Over the years I’ve come to a realization that led to a question. Why only photograph the far off and the exotic? Some people close to me in Belarus, including Yuri are just as photogenic or just as interesting as my foreign photo subjects. So, for the first time in life, I decided to photograph my friends and even my family. I want to show them and Belarus in a way that probably no one else can.
A very quick note. You might have noticed a completely new format to the blog. I’m experimenting. I’m also trying something new by adding video, to provide a better feel for the places I’m photographing and talking about. I’d like to keep moving in the same direction. With the smaller images, you can click on them to see them at full screen. Would love to know what you guys think.
I don’t like getting nostalgic, but, it becomes inevitable at some stage of life. Once you really grow up and especially, once you lose some loved ones, who were a big part of your growing up.
Scenes like the one in this photo are loaded with memories for me. This is probably the lake where my father and I fished, during that trip, when I was a four-year-old. I remember how after the entire trip, we only caught one little fish. We were so happy.
I also have particularly fond memories of the forests of Belarus. They have always reminded me of my time with my now late grandfather. I heard countless stories about the forests. We picked mushrooms there and even got lost once. The forests remind me of my time with my cousins too, as kids we picked entire buckets of wild berries there.
A winding dirt road, an open meadow and wall of trees in the distance, this scene is imprinted into my mind. It must be imprinted into the minds of many people from this region too and I guess, it is dear to them, as it is to me. I still remember the first time my parents and I came back to Belarus since leaving for Australia. It was six years after we’d left. As the airplane was making its’ decent, we could see all those trees, those meadows, lakes, the dirt roads. My mother broke into tears. It had nothing to do with a sense of patriotism or love for a country. It was a pure longing for what was a part of her for most of her life. A happiness of being back in her motherland, which is more than a country invented by politicians and drawn up on a map.
It’s interesting how life goes around in cycles. During my latest visit to Braslav I found myself looking at everything through the eyes of my cousins’ children. I have a child too now and, it may very well be, that we’ll also share memories, similar to those I shared with my parents all those years ago.
When you’re a child, everything is big, there’s magic and mystique all around. As we grow up, these perceptions disappear for most part. Strangely enough, I do still feel that way about the region of Braslav. It can’t be rationally explained, it just feels like there’s a certain energy in the area, like something amazing can happen, or, that a surprise may be around the corner. Some of it surely has to do with me having spent time there as a child, but, I also explored the region as an adult a few years ago and, that feeling only grew stronger, from the people I met, from the subtly beautiful places that I discovered.
My cousin Olya’s 2-year-old daughter Yana with flowers that she picked in the field. They visited me at my friend Yuri’s house and here, they’re about to leave for their tourist accommodation.
Masha going over puddles on her pedal-less bicycle. From memory, the weird construction of the resort bus-stop was around even when I was a child. The thing about Belarus is that in some ways, it’s like a time-capsule. Apparently there aren’t a whole lot of these relics of our childhoods in other places in the USSR.
I forgot to mention another negative about Belarus. The weather! It can be miserable. Brown slosh during the winter and cool temperature with rain, even in summer. In fact, most of the days that I was in Braslav this time, it rained. I decided not to let it bother me, instead I wanted to capture the sombre, yet somewhat poetic feel that this weather brought.
Despite it being 14C, I also made up my mind not to let the weather stop me from enjoying the activities I planned to enjoy before I came – swimming, catching crawfish, spending time outdoors.
Even when it was sunny it would eventually rain again, and again, and again…
With a rare window of sun, Yuri performs what I jokingly called Salute To The Sun. He raises his arms up and down in a yoga-like fashion and slows down his breath. Yuri believes that lakes give off special types of energy and if you tap into it, you can charge and recharge yourself. According to Yuri, there should be nothing between you and nature, hence, the ritual is done in the nude.
Crawfish used to be collected with traps, but, to my knowledge the traps have been outlawed and the only way now, is to catch them at the lake bottom by hand. This is what they look like in their natural habitat. You can find them at depths from 180 cm to 6 meters, or, at night, they often come out into the shallows. Also, the cooler the water the more time they spend at more shallow depths.
Yuri putting a crawfish into a net after catching it. Usually gloves are used, to prevent one being pinched by the crawfish’s claws. Yuri, however doesn’t bother any more.
Yuri’s kitchen. The hanging fly-catching sticky tape is fairly common in the countryside, as are the knives on the wall and an overall abandoned-looking state of things.
Yuri’s neighbour, Viktor, lost a bet, which in the countryside is usually paid with a bottle of vodka. Viktor came over with the bottle, and, of course, had a few shots himself.
This video is fairly typical of what it’s like to hang out at a table with the locals in countryside Braslav. There are many guys like Viktor, they’re simple, nice folk, sometimes unintentionally funny and goofy. They’ve worked their asses off all of their lives, but received very little in return. They accept their fate, but, inevitably turn to drinking. Some less, some so much, that they drink themselves to death.
A funny note. Viktor calls me Mityai, which is a ruralized, familiarized version of my name in Russian that almost no one calls me by.
My days snorkelling in the lake would not be complete without photographing some of the water lilies. Some of their leaves are below the water and they come in different colors, giving the world below a certain kind of ambience.
Net fishing is for most part forbidden by the government and the fines are high. However, if you snorkel around some of the lesser known lakes, chances are, you’ll come across nets that are set around reeds to catch fish. The locals have been fishing this way for centuries and old habits die slow. Add to that the fact that the average salaries in the Braslav region are some of the lowest in Eastern Europe, and fishing this way becomes a way of survival.
Yuri with fish and Kovrik/Carpet the cat hoping to get some. The very same cat which Yuri used to test whether the food was eatable or not in the video above.
Since there is an abundance of fish in this part of Belarus, it is prepared in more imaginative ways than in the capital Minsk. One of the ways is smoking it in a special oven. It takes a few hours. Here, Ruslan, who is mine and Yuri’s friend came over to learn how the process is done, by smoking some of the fish that he caught.
Yuri and Ruslan often have heated debates about almost anything in life. Virtually nothing is out of bounds. What strikes me about Yuri, is that even though the man is 60 years old and has some very strong views, he isn’t afraid to be wrong, to admit it and to learn something new. He always jokes, saying “My life is just beginning!”
This attitude is rare, not only in Belarus, but, all over the world. It’s one of the reasons why I respect Yuri so much and why we’ve become good friends.
Garlands of camomile or bluets are commonly made by young girls in Belarusian countryside. Even those who come from cities enjoy doing such simple things.
One day I invited myself to take photos of Ruslan’s daughters with those garlands on their heads. I took some more formal photos, but, as is often the case, the ones what were in-between, the spontaneous ones turned out to be best.
After smoking fish at Yuri’s house, Ruslan decided to make his own oven. In Belarus and a lot of the former USSR, men take pride in doing things with their hands, in being able to fix anything around the house themselves. In this sense, I am a major failure by Belarusian standards. I am one who usually breaks things around the house and elsewhere.
One day I decided to do a short interview with Ruslan. I asked him about the countryside house in Braslav that his whole family comes to (they’re from a larger town called Grodno). He also showed me around a little.
Renovating of houses or apartments seems to be something that virtually every Belarusian man is involved in. Men renovate the Dacha (holiday house) of their parents, their parents-in-law and, if none of the family member’s have a place in need of renovation, they help their friends renovate.
Here, Yuri and Ruslan talk about Ruslan’s newly renovated kitchen in his countryside home. He took great pride in working on it himself (which is usually how things are). Yuri likes to make fun of Ruslan and there’s a running joke about me too.
The house which I bought in the region (for $3000) is actually in very bad shape and in need of a MAJOR renovation. The reason why Yuri says that I have nice texture on the walls is because they’re like walls from a place struck by war.
Yuri’s house is a source of constant amusement. A lot of it, due to his mini herd of goats. He bought his first goat because it looked so white and cute, so, he felt sorry for it and decided to save its’ life. The goat has been a bit of a terror, destroying things with his horns and occasionally breaking loose from his long chain. Yuri uses him like a grass trimmer and chains him near the area where he needs to have the grass cut.
The goats pictured here are new. One, Yuri bought as a girlfriend for his troublesome goat, hoping he’d calm down. The little one is the child of the two, he thought he might eat that one, but, he feels sorry for it as well. Another female was brought over to Yuri’s house temporarily, but then, the owner didn’t have place for it and said It’s a gift to you, keep it!
Now the these three are out of control. They run and jump all over the place, including over the bonnet of my rented car. The people at the rental were puzzled by how I could scratch the bonnet like that.
Yuri hoped that there would be some use from the goats, but, only recently did he learn how to milk the females. Now, whenever he catches a female, he has coffee with goat milk.
Many Belarusians and Russians are obsessed with banya. I must admit, I loved it too, though, it’s much better in the winter, when it is cold outside. In this photo Yuri getting steamed (massaged and hit) with a besom made from branches and leaves of a birch tree. It’s extremely hot and serves a similar function to a massage.
As with a lot of my visits to Braslav, this one felt like it ended too suddenly. Coincidentally, it seems that just as I left, the weather got better.
On the way back to the capital city – Minsk, we saw a river with horses grazing nearby. The scene reminded of how beautiful Belarus can be. It never grabs you like a lot of the countries I’ve seen, but, it does have a subtle beauty that is uniquely its’ own.
In just a few hours I went from beautiful scenes of nature to this. High-riser apartment blocks which would probably make the residents of US projects and those of Australian Housing Commission cringe. The apartments are small and oppressive. They’re suffocatingly hot, placed so closely to each other that you get other people’s smoke through the windows and hear them having sex at night.
These buildings are a part of who I am too. They used to depress me even while I was a child, especially in winter, when you’d have grey buildings against a grey sky, with grey-brown, half melted snow under your feet. I used to dream of far away places, with sun and exotic animals. Perhaps it is because I was brought up in this kind of environment that I wanted to travel so obsessively as an adult.