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The Book Column : George Avetisyan : Motherland. Far Beyond the Polar Circle


“This is the story of a city built on the bones of Soviet prisoners.” In Motherland. Far Beyond the Polar Circle, Latvian photographer George Avetisyan blends the past with the present to narrate the history of Igarka, a Siberian city whose wild and enchanting nature almost makes you forget that seventy years ago, this snow-bound territory was the stage of a deadly decade.

Located 163 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, Igarka was founded in 1929 for the needs of the timber industry. Twenty years later, thousands of prisoners were deported to the region. Branded as “enemies of the people,” they became victims of the Gulag, the Soviet regime’s system of forced labor pushed to extremes. In this region, the deportees worked on the railway project connecting Igarka to Salekhard. Most of them would die of hunger, exhaustion, or cold – in winter, temperatures hovered around -40 degrees.

A significant number of these prisoners were of Latvian origin, including George Avetisyan’s family, whose grandmother was deported to Igarka in 1941. His mother was born there in 1952. The photographer wanted to pay tribute to his family’s taboo history and to all those who shared a similar fate, whether they succumbed to it or managed to survive. Following his grandmother’s journey in 1941, he took the train from Moscow. As the landscapes gradually disappeared under the snow outside the window, it intensified the feeling of unease about an uncertain future. He concluded the journey by plane to Igarka, as the railroad project never materialized.

Upon arrival, armed with a “Salut,” a medium-format Soviet-made camera, and a lens as “unreliable as the Soviet system,” George Avetisyan met the locals. They are oriented towards the future. The photographer listened to their hopes: the revival of the railway project, the ambition to become an oil capital, a resurgence in agriculture or of the timber industry, the end of strict regulations surrounding fishing, and more. He portrayed them at home, in interiors laden with patterns so characteristic of Russia.

Under some portraits, a QR code leads us to a video. In front of the camera, eight women form a colorful group, lined up to sing the song “Oh Varenka, Varenka” to the sound of the accordion. From Igarka, these voices pierce the often inherent silence of contemplating a book and the muted silence of  the snowy Siberia “that holds a dark and silent history and freezes testimonies in time”: after leaving Igarka, the photographer’s grandmother never spoke of that period again.

George Avetisyan’s entire work pushes the boundaries of the photographic book, enriching the experience with numerous elements. The reader does not just flip through pages. In an archive box, various documents are found – photographs, a map of the Soviet Union, a letter from his cousin discussing his family’s history, a document from the KGB, a diary, and newspaper clippings – before finally accessing the book.

This mix of formats allows him to give a political dimension to his personal history: “The Russian regime continues to use the same methods. Over a million people have already been deported from temporarily occupied territories to the Far East in Siberia. It is essential to raise awareness of this history through a multidisciplinary process of research and compilation.”

In the 1940s, thousands of political prisoners died during the construction of a railway line linking Igarka to Salekhard. A few dozen kilometers from Salekhard lies the prison in which Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was imprisoned following his campaign against president Vladimir Putin. He died there on February 16. History keeps repeating itself.


George Avetisyan – Motherland. Far Beyond the Polar Circle
Published in July 2023 by Milda Books
237 x 285 mm
Silk-screen printed linen box and cardboard hardcover with section sewn open spine Swiss binding
Photobook / 120 pages
In all good bookstores and online

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