Finding the true North in Russia – UnCapitals Tour 2015


As most of Western mass media is obsessed by the notion of Putin being a new tsar, the Russians a menacing threat to world peace and what not, there exists a reality in the periphery outside the realm of straw men, spin doctors and red herrings. In this reality people live, exist and create irrespectively of power politics and propaganda. I travelled to the North and discovered a glimpse of what periphery can and could mean, if even just for a flickering moment in time.

Text and photos by Alexander Viken, (Vova Nootk, Russian grafitti artist on the above picture)

«Armed with cameras, pens, spray cans and prying eyes, we roam directionless the streets of Apatity, to us they lead to nowhere. We spend hours in a youth community centre, trying to create something meaningful in the intense hours we have at our disposal this weekend. What is there to create really?

We have thrown ourselves into an artificial situation, but at the same time we all feel a direct familiarity with each other which would not have come about had we met under normal social circumstances. Here we are all intimate strangers.»

As the flight for Kirkenes descends for the landing I wake up marvelling at the fantastic landscape with myriads of small lakes and pathways in-between small rocks, surrounded by the vast unforgiving sea. This is something else, I think to myself.

Cold, yet open, the immediate feeling of being freed somehow lands on me as I take my first steps on the airport. Kirkenes is a place where apparently nothing happens. The host of my hotel whose family seem to run most things in the small town, tells me that they prefer it that way, calm and relaxed. The binge drinking of other northern outposts in Norway does not seem to be as publicly prevalent here, even at midsummer people gather around the bonfire, mostly drinking some soda or other non-alcoholic beverages, there is not anything resembling a party, just an atmosphere of being caught in the frames of some slow motion picture, or rather a dream, as the midnight sun never sets and the deserted small town seems like something that does not exist for real.

I wander the beautiful night and the narrow streets without meeting anyone but shrieking seagulls.

Now, looking back as I write this I reflect upon this small town of Kirkenes being a bridge for dozens of non-European migrants crossing the border by bike everyday, travelling through Russia and Murmansk to the land of milk and honey in the form of a seemingly abundant welfare state. Periphery understood as geographical isolation is an illusion in the global reality of 2015 and onwards into the foreseeable future. People follow the streams of capital, however remote. People eat sushi in Kirkenes as well.

The land of the midnight sun, yeah. But although I enjoy being no one here in somewhere in a town that dies after midnight, this is not my goal or my end station. I am going east.

Next stop Apatity.

The initiative UnCapitals Tour, initiated by mainly Russians in the Barents region, is meant to bring together young creatives, artists, musicians, film makers, photographers and the likes in the Barents region, to explore and be inspired by the remoteness, the periphery, being outside of the middle of something.


Kirkenes from the air and in the street at night

A group of art students and I are huddled together in a maxitaxi driven by Alexander Vasilevič, who will take us over the border. He is the kind of warm and friendly figure you wish was your father, strong and compassionate with stories to tell about his family and motherland. He puts on a DVD with the history of the city of Murmansk which we will pass through, and even though I do not understand a word, the dramatic images are telling, about the immense struggle behind this stronghold of the north, and like all Russian history, it is about war, pain, losses and victories in an immense scale foreign to us Westerners, history in Norway does not hold much weight in comparison.

As we cross the border the landscape soon changes from the more familiar scenes of Norwegian nature to vast and solemn landscapes that seem to last forever under a mighty, almost threatening sky. There is a graveness to the landscape which in a way evokes the cliché or prejudice that you can not ignore your own insignificance here. These huge desolate areas are only dotted by old run down military installations, cold war leftovers, and then suddenly small but densely populated towns, most of them attached to some army base, which seem to be duplicated every 200 kilometers or so.

But I like it, this is a landscape where you can also forget yourself. And perhaps become aware of someone or something more important.

We make a stop in Murmansk, which suddenly appeared like a Fata Morgana on a distance. As it is thoroughly planned like a larger city it appears to be much bigger than it actually is. Here we meet several of the other participants coming from Murmansk and nearby.

Then we drive, and we drive, through something that during some stretches seems like a post-apocalyptic dystopia, a Martian barren landscape with what seems to be some nuclear processing facility which as we drive suddenly disintegrates into wilderness and vast lakes. Half awake, half dreaming, I hear the historical accounts read by what sounds like a Russian actress on Alexander’s DVDs, images of beautiful Russian fantasy women mixes with historical images of fisheries, air raids, valiant Mother Russia fighting the aggressors – and Mother Nature passing by in 80 km/h.

Our destination is something that resembles a scout camp or the sort of place you would go for a weekend field trip , it is situated outside of Apatity by a lake so large it resembles a sea. Huge mosquitoes love our Western blood, but the welcome by the young organisers is warm and we are treated to a generous meal together with people from all over the Barents region, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Russian Karelia, as well as the lot from Murmansk we arrived with. We do not know each other from before, so there is actually a lot to talk about into the small hours.

Apatity, we are set to discover Apatity, a place almost as foreign to most Russians as it is to us. A Soviet industrial remnant, grey and dreary, fascinating in its concrete monumental monotony for outsiders, for those to which these post-industrial hardships are unreal.

Founded as a part of Stalin’s deportation and eradication program of the kulaks, the independent peasant class in the former Soviet Union, its history can not be said to be a merry one. But people live here now, this is someone’s hometown.


Picture above, from the camp on the outskirts of Apatity, outside of the Apatity factory plant, Apatity street views and Norwegian filmmaker and musician Carl Christian Lein Størmer

Apatity is a city dedicated to the extraction of the natural mineral apatite, which is mainly used to produce phosphate used in the fertilizer industry. But like most heavy industrial cities of yesteryear, this one is also slowly dying as work has become more and more scarce. Snow-clad mountains and hilltops rise on the northeast of the city, lending the cityscape with the industrial fumes hovering something hopeful.

To the people here we are strangers, in the real sense, this is no place for tourists, and as we like well fed scavengers revel in the ruins of abandoned concrete factories, the inhabitants seem to watch us with more resignation than friendliness. It is as if they sense that to the young artists they are nothing but a canvas, or rather a scenic display where they are the extras in a play they never will watch. But the boys of Apatity are alright, vibrant and wild, like boys should be.

As we revel in the remnants of Soviet industrial might and progressive urban planning, we are aware that this is not the reality for the people living here, we just find the angles that interest us and underline them, but to the people here this is nothing special, nothing of particular worth.

Armed with cameras, pens, spray cans and prying eyes, we roam directionless the streets of Apatity, to us they lead to nowhere. We spend hours in a youth community centre, trying to create something meaningful in the intense hours we have at our disposal this weekend. What is there to create really?

We have thrown ourselves into an artificial situation, but at the same time we all feel a direct familiarity with each other which would not have come about had we met under normal social circumstances. Here we are all intimate strangers.

The Swedish guys, the musicians from Petrozavodsk, the photographers from Suomi, the quiet students from Norway, the talkative Australian freelancer, the graffiti artists from Moscow, the sweet organisers, we all become some sort of organism with a common purpose to observe and to collect, something out of nothing.

Apathy in Apatity, created simultanously on an Ipad of samples exclusively as we sat waiting, there and then

«Horse-riders use blinkers, you know, to make horses fearless. To block “periphery” is some kind of trick in the “science of success”. But is the success a result? I don’t think so» – Ilya Egorov

This is apparently the periphery of the periphery, being here at a place no one outside would really know about, in the north, one of the most scarcely populated parts of the world, to us it is unknown, to them it is the whole world like any place you call home. But as we observe, most people do the same things these days, and we are not that much different anymore, though whether that really is good, is another question.

Periphery thrives in the absence of capital. There is thankfully not much idle talk about “what do you do”, probably the most boring and predictable mind numbing oral exercise there is. The propagated notion of the huge divide between East and West as a sort of permanent human condition has no resemblance to the reality we share in the here and now, we are offspring of the North.

Being situated or born in a remote northern city or region has a quality as opposed to being born in a metropolis, but it is not unambiguous, as in the global realm most share the same pop cultural references, so what truly is on the outside remains on the outside.

The alternative electronic duo Love Cult from Petrozavodsk in Karelia find it just as natural to participate in a Siberian event as having a concert in LA or Berlin, or here.

Periphery is a state of mind in the global realm. Not necessarily an opposition to a centre, but a different angle.

The centre fluctuates.


The concrete factory, a boy from Apatity playing fervently, the Moscow based grafitti artist Vova Nootk’s sketchbook, snow in the concrete factory

«Periphery is what’s outside of my mind’s focus, what interests me mostly out of curiosity. What’s outside of my imaginary sphere of a few thousand kilometres, and when those spheres of people’s interests from different countries overlap and people have something to do together – that’s great.» – Anton Filatov

In the night, back at our lakeside camp, I make a field recording of Elle Kokkonen together with the musician Ivan Afanasyev of Love Cult. W are standing on a pier by the lake out in the wind and rain. She sings a tune she made inspired by the day in Apatity, the concrete, the grey matter, it is like a howl in the wind, strong and vulnerable at the same time. The lyrics are a unique blend of English, Finnish and Lappish. The tiny being that she is, fills the void for a moment while the waves break.

The last day of UnCapitals we leave for Kirovsk, a former Olympic village and winter resort high up in the mountains. The atmosphere is strikingly different, from the suffocated environment of Apatity forgotten by the world at large. The air is refreshingly raw. The concrete buildings have a certain beauty here, as they hold the ground stubbornly underneath the cloudy cold peaks. People here are instantly more cheerful and relaxed, this is still a fairly popular spot for winter sports and seems to somehow have reconciled with the shadows of the old Soviet past and its demise, being more than a relic, but at same time a stylistic admixture of different stages of Soviet urban planning.

At a space more resembling a building site, we have a sort of final party and concert, I and a trio of UnCapitals participants stay true to the environmental cause and get plastered on organic vodka, immerse ourselves in cold electronic rhythms at the roof top of the region Murmansk Oblast, and engage in long talks and discussions about the state of the world, the state of the party, the state of us, and me until the words mean nothing and being everything.

This is not some ghost of the Soviet Union, this is young people trying to cope with the same uncertainties as everyone one else under the northern midnight sun, finding their own pathways in an unknown future territory.

In the grizzly cold morning after I wake up after one hour’s sleep as one of the organisers friendly, but persistently threatens to leave with the bus unless I get my sorry ass up and ready – which I do, amazingly enough, in a whiff. We all travel in silence at first, then we all loosen up feeling that certain bond you can only do after intense experiences in a short time span, we share something nameless and stateless.

On the rooftops of Kirovsk in the middle of the night, Guro Grønvik Møller and Anton Filatov


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The Concrete – Elle Kokkonen improvises outdoors by the lake in the rainy and windy night, all in one take

UnCapitals is perhaps not about more than this, which is a beautiful thing:

Creating a short spark, an impulse of having shared the experience of being human, revealing the possibilities of creating something out of nothing. A nothing which happens to be the context of the Barents region and in that sense we can for a moment feel that we all are citizens of the North, a country stretched over the polar circle, with our pasts converging to a future, a possibility to shape things, small or great, even if just for a flickering moment on the blank shores of time. And that is enough for me.

But I am not going home across the border, with a sense of both emptiness and fulfilment I leave the rest of the crew in Murmansk, which is going to be my intermediate home in the north for some more days.

Part II will follow soon: Me and Alyosha under the Murmansk midnight sun

Read about the UnCapitals Tour here:

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