The former territory of the Soviet Union is blessed with a wealth of natural resources: Russia alone boasts over 850 million hectares of forest, the world’s largest reserves of natural gas and the second largest reserve of fresh water. However, there has been little effort in the region to preserve this abundance of natural heritage. The Russian government’s environmental policy has even been described my some pundits as “de-environmentalism”: since the advent of the Yeltsin era, the Environmental Protection Agency has been closed and a raft of ecological legislation has been nullified, the government preferring unfettered exploitation of Russia’s gas, oil and metal deposits to drive economic growth and create a huge amount of wealth for its avaricious oligarch class.
Nonetheless, the effects of environmental damage are being felt more and more acutely. The impact of the environment on Russia’s awful life-expectancy rate has been highlighted by commentators such as biologist and activist Alexei Yablokov, who asserts that, between 1995 and 2009, 2.5-3 million deaths would have been avoided were it not for “dire environmental conditions.” At the same time, however, there are many people in the CIS who, be it through choice or by necessity, lead lifestyles which exert a minimum of impact upon the environment. It is these issues that British photographer and environmental consultant Matthew Webb tackles in his exhibition Carbon Journey: Low-Carbon Livelihoods in Russia and the CIS.
The exhibition presents a series of black and white photographs dispersed throughout the rooms of Pushkin House, alongside captions explaining their relevance to the project, sometimes with quotes from the local people depicted. The locations portrayed range from inner-cities in scorching summer heat to the snowy, barren scenery of some of the most isolated places in the CIS region.
Many of the exhibition’s most striking images capture the beauty of the region’s landscapes, especially the many photographs of Olkhon island on Lake Baikal, replete with snow-covered rock formations, steppe and taiga, though we are constantly reminded that all of this is under threat: an image of a Soviet-era block of flats is included to highlight the inefficiency of the district heating systems used to keep them warm, while a picture of growing suburban sprawl on the outskirts of Almaty shows how human settlements continue to spread into the wilderness.
But there is also more hopeful content: we are presented with images of people running and cycling across the frozen Lake Baikal to raise awareness for the importance of fresh water, while several photographs document the hundreds of pagans who each year trek to the forests surrounding Moscow to celebrate the annual maslenitsa spring festival in a natural setting. There are also reminders that solutions to our modern problems can be found in the rusticity of traditional lifestyles: Kirghiz shepherds ride on horseback across a bleak landscape, demonstrating a great ability to survive with scant physical means, while an image of a traditional yurt is displayed alongside text pointing out the natural cooling mechanism of its intricately interwoven layers of fabric. There are also depictions of more familiar methods of ecological protection: a busy recycling plant in Moscow, Soviet-era solar panels in the Almaty valley and a pioneer of eco-tourism in Belarus.
The fact remains that the countries of the CIS, like the rest of the world, have a long way to go in giving the issue of environmental change the status it needs in public discourse and government policy-making. This exhibition shows that, while the problems are manifold, there are people in this region who, whether they are aware of it or not, can provide insights into a more harmonious way of living alongside nature.
Matthew Webb’s Carbon Journey is on display until June 27th at Pushkin House, 5a Bloomsbury Square, London, WC1A 2TA. Open 2 pm-6 pm weekdays. Free admission.
Matthew Webb is giving a talk on his work at Pushkin house on Monday 23rd June, 7:30pm, details and tickets at: http://www.pushkinhouse.org/events/2014/6/23/carbon-journey-talk-by-matthew-webb