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‘Ideas imposed by those in power, loosely prepared’ Belgian photographer Aurélien Goubau on his trips to Murmansk, inspired by a project to put giant mirrors in space
Between September 2021 and February 2022, Belgian photographer Aurélien Goubau made a series of trips to Murmansk, Russia. Knowing little about Russia, its politics, or its people, and inspired by a radio report he heard about the Znamya project, in which Russian scientists sought to light up the northern sky through giant mirrors in space in the 1990s, he set off to use Murmansk’s near-perpetual darkness as a metaphorical lens through which to explore the lives of the city’s inhabitants. And while his original intention was to discover contemporary Russia from a “naive perspective,” the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine both forced him to reckon with Russia’s realities and imbued his own Znamya project with new meaning. Nonetheless, Goubau says that his attitudes towards the people he photographed has not changed, even if his attitude to the country as a whole has.
On Belgian radio, I stumbled upon a story about Murmansk, a city that experiences prolonged periods of darkness each year. The journalist drew parallels between present-day Murmansk and a fascinating project from the 1990s, wherein Russian scientists attempted to illuminate the country’s northern regions using a colossal space mirror. The project, known as “Znamya,” achieved limited success, with the light lasting only a few minutes, before its eventual abandonment.
The Znamya project
The Znamya or “Banner” project was the name of an ambitious program to launch a giant mirror into space that would reflect the sun’s rays back towards earth, thereby lengthening the day and increasing worker productivity.
The idea of using mirrors in space was first proposed by Hermann Oberth, a German scientist, in 1929. NASA and the Pentagon were also said to have explored the idea, but it was the Soviet Union, and then the Russian Federation, where this idea began to be realized.
The project began in the 1980s under the direction of Vladimir Syromyatnikov. Syromyatnikov had previously worked on the the Vostok program (which put Yuriy Gagarin in space), but he is best known for his docking mechanism designs, many of which are in use on the International Space Station.
The first demonstration took place on February 4, 1993. Leaving the Mir Space Station at around 8 pm Eastern U.S. Time, the device unfurled a space mirror 65 feet in diameter. Lasting eight minutes, the mirror sent a two-and-and-half-mile-wide beam of light across Europe and the Atlantic Ocean.
Nikolai Sevastyanov, a ranking project engineer said, “The reflector was a big success because it proved the concept was right. Now we must seek support to build one of bigger size.”
The second and slightly larger Znamya 2.5 was deployed on February 5, 1999, and had a diameter of 82 feet. However, the test failed after the mirror got caught and eventually ripped on an antenna.
There would be no Znamya 3, and Syromyatnikov went back to working on docking mechanisms until his death in 2006.
In 2019, Andrey Chibis, the governor of Murmansk region, proposed another project to light up Murmansk. In his version, an artificial sun installation would be placed on top of the Gorelaya mountain in Murmansk. The project did not come to fruition.
Driven by curiosity, I embarked on multiple trips to Murmansk between September 2021 and February 2022. My goal was to immerse myself in the night alongside the locals, exploring the significance of darkness, the lives of its inhabitants. The objective of the project was not merely to visually depict the ambitious endeavors to combat the darkness, but rather to utilize this narrative, along with the essence of the night itself, as a metaphorical lens through which to explore contemporary Russia.
What I found compelling with the Znamya project was that the significance of the idea surpasses the actual implementation of the project. I recently came across a fascinating article in The Financial Times that delves deeper into the subject of the Russian Arctic, and the lack of economic viability in certain towns. The journalist, Kathrin Hille, claims that “The idea of mastering nature is very much part of Russian identity, as is the myth of conquering the Arctic.” That sums things up for me.
Let’s consider another example: During Josef Stalin’s reign, the Soviet Union endeavored to conquer the Arctic. Stalin issued orders for the construction of an east-west railroad line north of the Arctic Circle, now known as the Dead Road (Salekhard-Igarka Railway). However, this project was poorly executed, encountering issues such as inadequate materials, insufficient planning and the need to lay tracks in swampy areas. Consequently, the project remained unfinished (just like Znamya).
Once again, the emphasis lies on the idea rather than economic rationality and its implementation.
Throughout my stay, I was guided by encounters inside the heart of Soviet-era apartment blocks. These experiences revealed a profound connection between the Russian people living amidst Murmansk’s darkness and the night itself. Paradoxically, the absence of light acted as a filter, allowing me to grasp what truly mattered: family, religious life, love, and friendship. The city’s backdrop, characterized by Soviet architecture, harsh external conditions, and snow, faded into the background, enabling me to capture the meaningful fragments of life. These images confronted me with the diverse facets of the contemporary Russian population, its history, mysteries, tenderness, vulnerabilities, and dreams.
I stumbled upon the protagonists by chance, whether on the streets, in cafés, or through connections with people I had previously met. Typically, I would initiate the conversation myself. I am straightforward, immediately mentioning that I am a photographer working on a project in the region. I appreciate the clarity it brings regarding my identity and purpose. Consequently, I consider it a participatory project as people willingly welcomed me into their homes, becoming integral to the narrative from that point onwards. Although I don’t speak Russian, I quickly learned to introduce myself and pick up basic words, which made a significant difference. When my vocabulary ran out, we resorted to using Google Translate for our discussions, which proved to be highly efficient. I captured screenshots of our various conversations, and at times, the translations were quite amusing.
From my very first night in Russia, it became clear to me that I needed to spend time staying with the people. I would often stay for one night, and sometimes up to five nights. This was important to me for several reasons. Firstly, it took time to gain people’s trust and be accepted into their intimate moments. Secondly, I believed that staying in people’s homes was the only way to truly portray the individuals I met in an honest manner. While Russia is visually captivating with its unique landscapes, architecture, and pastel colors, I wanted to focus on highlighting the people rather than just the surroundings. Coming from Belgium, I also noticed that people seemed closed off on the streets, perhaps due to the weather or a deeper cultural tradition. It was only in their homes, in the living rooms and kitchens, where people truly opened up, and that’s where I wanted to be. The night was very important for me because I felt the night was the time that people were really themselves.
To establish trust, I begin by being completely honest about who I am and what my intentions are. In addition to that, I am very open when interacting with people. I invest a great deal of myself in these interactions. Furthermore, I believe that my effort to speak the language as much as possible and my sincere interest with people's stories actually piqued their interest in sharing them with me. This mutual exchange of information greatly contributed to building trust between us.
When I initially started the project, I had very little knowledge about Russia. I simply took a visa, packed my backpack, and set off. Throughout my three trips, I undoubtedly gained good insights into the country's history and its people. However, it was only during my last visit, coinciding with the onset of the war in Ukraine, that I truly became aware of the country I was in and its international relations. It was at that moment when the metaphorical darkness became apparent to me.
I believe [my limited knowledge of Russia] enabled me to prioritize the people over the background story. It allowed me to spend time with people without directly associating them with the current government’s ambitions. Exploring a place with limited prior knowledge allows for a very spontaneous perspective. In doing so, the small and ordinary stories become much more captivating and intriguing to me compared to the broader context, which requires a deeper background understanding. We can draw a parallel to how a child looks at something. A child learns through personal discovery and is fascinated by what they encounter without judgment. In that sense, a child’s perspective, or in this case, my perspective, is naive, but I think also honest. Inexperience may provide the opportunity for greater honesty, I think. This naivety also allows for a very personal and subjective viewpoint to emerge.
Therefore, I can say that I commenced the project with a rather naive perspective, but I concluded it with a deeper understanding of Russia. While the initial capture of the photographs may have been somewhat naive, the subsequent editing process, which took place in the following months, was influenced by a more knowledgeable approach.
According to my observation, the war in Ukraine followed a similar pattern [to Znamya]. The decision to engage in the conflict was made by a single individual. The objective was to quickly invade Kyiv and overthrow the elected government of Ukraine. However, due to the lack of preparation and miscalculations (and many other reasons of course), the endeavor did not succeed.
To me, the Znamya project, along with other projects during the USSR such as the Salekhard-Igarka Railway and now the war in Ukraine, exhibit a comparable pattern: ideas imposed by those in power, loosely prepared, and/or lacking in financial resources and/or organization, resulting in project failures. The idea has precedence over its (economic) feasibility and rationality.
Perhaps my limited knowledge of the country played a role in allowing me to capture certain aspects in a certain way, though I cannot be certain. With that being said, my increased awareness of Russia's history and recent imperial tendencies does not impact my thoughts and opinions about the individuals I encountered. I make a clear distinction between the people and the regime. Although my attitude towards Russia has shifted from naive to a more informed perspective, my attitude towards the individuals with whom I shared the darkness of the polar night remains unchanged; friends are still friends.
However, because the brutal invasion into Ukraine began shortly after my last trip, I had to mention the Soviet past while presenting my work, it felt mandatory to me. I needed to give the project more historical background that I wouldn’t have given otherwise. However, it didn’t affect the selection of the images very much. I remained true to myself (true to the naivety and honesty) and included images solely related to the encounters I had. Certain pictures, such as the one featuring the military monument with planes from World War II, were intentionally chosen and included in the project to establish a connection between the country’s history, the night, and its people.
[My increased understanding of Russia] changed my perspective on the original Znamya project. I can now loosely draw a connection between the Znamya project and the ideologies of both the USSR and the present-day Russian government, including the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Even if I had a more comprehensive understanding of Russia as a whole, I still believe I would have chosen to undertake a project inspired by Znamya. I eagerly await the opportunity to work in Russia once again, whenever that becomes possible.
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