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Arkhangelsk - the edge of land and life

My trip to Arkhangelsk in February 2020 can be considered my first journey exploring Russian territory during a typically severe Russian winter, which made me endure harsh weather conditions and freezing cold temperatures whilst I attempted to wander and photograph. I had before in Rybinsk, a city much closer to Moscow and during a not so cold period, taken a short journey to see a bit more of real Russian environment. However, as I learned later, that was not yet a winter experience.

Arkhangelsk is a city located up north, close to the White sea and already almost inside the Arctic circle. Historically, this city was founded in 1584 with the purpose of being a vital seaport for the Russian Empire, being that centuries before populations had been living in the area and trading with sailors coming from England, Sweden and so on. It is nowadays also the capital of the oblast ­of Arkhangelsk, an administrative state occupying an immense area inside Russia, stretching down from the north limit and reaching far inside the interior. As it would be easy to imagine, most of this land is uninhabited and covered in great part by wild nature, which is one of the reasons why tourists from other parts of the country and also from abroad come visit this region.

Unfortunately, I could not afford spending not even a week traveling. Not that money was a problem but time was something I didn't have much. Being also a teacher in Moscow, with a monday-to-friday 8-to-5 job, all I managed to do was ask for a Friday off and combine it with the weekend. It is absolutely not enough to see in detail the main attractions of Arkhangelsk but I still plead to say that the tour across the center of Arkhangelsk and along the riverbank, as much as the day I spent seeing the forest reserve park at the limits of the city, were doubtlessly sufficient to get me comprehend how extreme life was in that part of the world, considering that I come from a tropical country. While I would walk down a main avenue and feel tortured while having to hold my camera and watch carefully to find the frame I wished, there would be a woman pushing on a stroller with her baby, walking in a slow pace and behaving as someone I could only imagine do so if one were near the beach in Brazil during summer time. Besides this mom, I saw yet on the bank of Dvina (important river with delta to the White sea, on both sides of which the city of Arkhangelsk sits) about more than a hundred people, of all ages, dancing to traditional songs and either dressed in typical clothing or carrying decorative flags to celebrate the Maslenitsa festival, symbolizing the end of winter and beginning of spring. Yet as I managed to watch all that and take pictures, standing near the frozen river was such a sacrifice. A strong wind was blowing towards the bank and dropping the thermal sensation drastically. I literally had to turn my back to the wind every minute and wait a few seconds to recover breath, otherwise it would be too painful to have such a powerful blow of cold air coming inside my lungs.

Seeing the forest side of Arkhangelsk was a more pleasant experience once the wind in that area was practically unnoticeable compared to what there was on the shore. I went to a forest reserve park called Malaya Karelia, which is by the way the denomination used for that region regarding environmental aspects. The reserve park is quite big and has a long route for sightseeing, with pathways across groves and leading up and down over slopes. Featuring the thick forest are several houses built in old wooden Russian architecture, included in these a church, right ahead of the straight path coming from the entrance. In the houses one can find souvenirs, toilets and even small cafes where, predictably, are served typical Russian dishes. The most remarkable impression I took from this occasion were the sights, mainly looking from the higher spots, where I visualized fairytale scenarios of dark pine trees standing neatly with huge and vast blankets of clear white snow spread everywhere else, added a gentle snowfall going on while I gazed over all that. It was simply fascinating to follow those ways and see such sights unfolding as if it were endless.

Despite the astonishing memory that one might have after such an experience, these days a city such as Arkhangelsk suffers the sad process of emigration from its inhabitants. People don't find this city good enough to provide them with jobs and moreover the cold there during winter is seen as unacceptable if one considers the possibility of moving to somewhere warmer. In face of the concept of good life cultivated in our contemporary world, the beauty of Arkhangelsk lifestyle sounds like something unreal. Besides these challenges, the oblast of Arkhangelsk was recently the subject of discussion, as certain projects of creating trash deposits in some of its villages were waiting for approval.

The thing which apparently is kept unseen when one travels to a place with natural barriers such as Arkhangelsk is the unlikely existence of deep culture, authentic tradition and own lifestyle developed under a condition which for most people is cruel, even if we consider just spending a month there as mere visitors. Personally, this is my main concern when I have the chance to travel to a Russian town in deadly cold temperatures. That is, while I have so much difficulty to walk for ten minutes to take photographs or even go buy some bread in the supermarket, instead people have in these areas developed all aspects of their lives and are so rich in art, intellectual and literature heritage. People are able to create such an affect for their hometowns in spite of natural characteristics that seem totally unsuitable to someone living somewhere in South America for example. I hope therefore that, although not so impactful, yet I will be able use my photographs so to have people gain a bit of the same look over Russia and appreciate this fascinating power contained in the culture of this country.

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