Made of Steel

Russia is a liquid place.  A place of change despite how solid and rigid it may seem in its ways.  As it melts and reforms, the regions and people change, going both forward and backward in time, from stop to stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

During the Soviet Era, over two thousand towns and cities were built. Each town serving an unique purpose, comprising of one fourth of the country’s population. Some towns were built for manufacturing nuclear power, others for smelting steel. Some cities were closed and secret with deceiving names depicting false locations, others well known and open for visitors. Most families were assigned a city, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, these families had no option but to stay. Handfuls of these towns had factories that were sold to individuals, keeping doors open, while others were abandoned completely. Workers did not know where the materials came from and where products went to, and when jobs were lost and moving proved impossible, former factory workers settled down. These factory workers became the local farmers, the bee keepers, the rabbit breeders. Going back in time, many of these towns with promising futures for families now they rely on their own hands and soil. In the last 20 years since the Soviet Union has collapsed, the people had to become stronger and self-reliant.

For months, Christine Armbruster backpacked back and forth across Russia.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union came a massive destruction of documents. Armbruster worked with project partner Tree Gore from the ground up to find the names of these towns, then they had to ask around to find out where they were, as modern maps don't include them.  There are still secret towns, with secret histories that many Russians don't even know about themselves.  Towns with radioactive rivers and histories so unreal they wax folklore. Hitchhiking from small town to small village, they found the hidden 1/4 of Russia.  The ones who used to make steel, but have since become Made of Steel themselves.

The Trans-Siberian Railway is a place without time. The whole system runs on Moscow time, and with eleven time zones and nearly 24 hours of daylight in the summer, it is hard to have any concept of day or night. Stops, food carts, and all services run by Moscow standards. It results in a restless journey, sleeping when tired, but mostly awake and getting to know everybody in the cart with you on your week long journey.

The Trans-Siberian Railway is a place without time. The whole system runs on Moscow time, and with eleven time zones and nearly 24 hours of daylight in the summer, it is hard to have any concept of day or night. Stops, food carts, and all services run by Moscow standards. It results in a restless journey, sleeping when tired, but mostly awake and getting to know everybody in the cart with you on your week long journey.

Classic Siberian landscapes.

Classic Siberian landscapes.

Portrait of a boy on a train headed in the opposite direction. Somewhere in the middle of Siberia.

Portrait of a boy on a train headed in the opposite direction. Somewhere in the middle of Siberia.

The market in Kamskie-Polyani, mostly empty like most of the city. Kamskie-Polyani was built for 140,000 with a nuclear reactor as the main economy. It was to be a sister city of Chernobyl. During construction, the Chernobyl meltdown happened and the factory halted production, leaving the 35,000 who had moved to the region to build the city jobless. Currently about 20,000 people live in this city with infrastructure for 140,000, leaving much of the city to look like a ghost town.

The market in Kamskie-Polyani, mostly empty like most of the city. Kamskie-Polyani was built for 140,000 with a nuclear reactor as the main economy. It was to be a sister city of Chernobyl. During construction, the Chernobyl meltdown happened and the factory halted production, leaving the 35,000 who had moved to the region to build the city jobless. Currently about 20,000 people live in this city with infrastructure for 140,000, leaving much of the city to look like a ghost town.

Metallurgist Day is a celebration of the factory workers, a leftover celebration from the Soviet Union.

Metallurgist Day is a celebration of the factory workers, a leftover celebration from the Soviet Union.

When officials come to Krasnouralsk only the main road is fixed. The officials come in and out of one road, see one square, and stay in one place. In these specific locations, flowers are planted and hot water is guaranteed. The rest of the city remains as it was before and as it has been for years.

When officials come to Krasnouralsk only the main road is fixed. The officials come in and out of one road, see one square, and stay in one place. In these specific locations, flowers are planted and hot water is guaranteed. The rest of the city remains as it was before and as it has been for years.

Remains of the nuclear reactor in Kamskie-Polyani, abandoned before construction was complete.

Remains of the nuclear reactor in Kamskie-Polyani, abandoned before construction was complete.

Taxi driver in Kizyel.

Taxi driver in Kizyel.

Kitchen interior of a Russian Orthodox Church, Krasnouralsk.

Kitchen interior of a Russian Orthodox Church, Krasnouralsk.

Resupply food stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It is not uncommon to meet people on the train who are there for a week of travel. Many will bring big picnics of food. There is a food cart spastically open as well as a hot water tap with the only potable water on the train. Other than that, many flock to the food carts during short stops in the various towns, where families make full income or old ladies supplement their pensions by selling hot homemade goods to passerbys. 

Resupply food stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It is not uncommon to meet people on the train who are there for a week of travel. Many will bring big picnics of food. There is a food cart spastically open as well as a hot water tap with the only potable water on the train. Other than that, many flock to the food carts during short stops in the various towns, where families make full income or old ladies supplement their pensions by selling hot homemade goods to passerbys. 

Traveling zoo keeper and a monkey from his boxcar zoo exhibit. The zoo included: A Siberian tiger, Siberian wolves, two bears, a monkey, and a peacock. The baby bear had only 3 legs because the wolves got ahold of it when born.

Traveling zoo keeper and a monkey from his boxcar zoo exhibit. The zoo included: A Siberian tiger, Siberian wolves, two bears, a monkey, and a peacock. The baby bear had only 3 legs because the wolves got ahold of it when born.

Interior of a carpenter’s home in Otolik. Otolik and Baikalsk need one another to survive. Otolik is the artistic community, Baikalsk is a town based around one paper plant. One is the industrial backbone, the other is the creative force keeping it alive.

Interior of a carpenter’s home in Otolik. Otolik and Baikalsk need one another to survive. Otolik is the artistic community, Baikalsk is a town based around one paper plant. One is the industrial backbone, the other is the creative force keeping it alive.

Ganya is from Krasnouralsk, a town built around one metal smelting factory. Once a booming city with great importance during the USSR, the town has decreased in numbers and slowly crumbled. The factory remains open but there is a constant uncertainty for how long.

Ganya is from Krasnouralsk, a town built around one metal smelting factory. Once a booming city with great importance during the USSR, the town has decreased in numbers and slowly crumbled. The factory remains open but there is a constant uncertainty for how long.

When harvest comes, the babushkas (grandmothers) of Kamskie-Polyani get together and go from home to home helping harvest and preserve the large garden plots necessary for survival in this town without an economy.

When harvest comes, the babushkas (grandmothers) of Kamskie-Polyani get together and go from home to home helping harvest and preserve the large garden plots necessary for survival in this town without an economy.

Shop owner during Metallurgist Day in Krasnouralsk. 

Shop owner during Metallurgist Day in Krasnouralsk. 

A boy standing outside of his home in Krasnouralsk.

A boy standing outside of his home in Krasnouralsk.

The garmonica player in Kamskie-Polyani, Tatarstan, Russia.

The garmonica player in Kamskie-Polyani, Tatarstan, Russia.

Kitchen of a summer home in Russia. In larger cities in Russia during the USSR, many were given a summer home (dacha) to grow their own food and have a place outdoors despite living in a crowded city apartment building. These dachas were vital, allowing a space to grow and store food for the winter.

Kitchen of a summer home in Russia. In larger cities in Russia during the USSR, many were given a summer home (dacha) to grow their own food and have a place outdoors despite living in a crowded city apartment building. These dachas were vital, allowing a space to grow and store food for the winter.

Waiting in the summer heat for the train.

Waiting in the summer heat for the train.

A man sets up his fishing pole under a bridge in town.

A man sets up his fishing pole under a bridge in town.

A man sharpens his sickle in the field outside of his home on a summer night. He lives off his land in Kamskie-Polyani, growing and preserving everything he needs for survival. In addition to his garden, he keeps bees and uses the honey to trade for rabbit meat or other goods with his neighbors.

A man sharpens his sickle in the field outside of his home on a summer night. He lives off his land in Kamskie-Polyani, growing and preserving everything he needs for survival. In addition to his garden, he keeps bees and uses the honey to trade for rabbit meat or other goods with his neighbors.

Sitting outside of their country home.

Sitting outside of their country home.

A teenage girl and her mother stand at their fish booth in Baikalsk. Their family has worked at the local papermill on and off for years. They fear it closing down because it is their livelihood, selling fish on the side to help pay for their daughter's further education. She hopes to be a pilot one day.

A teenage girl and her mother stand at their fish booth in Baikalsk. Their family has worked at the local papermill on and off for years. They fear it closing down because it is their livelihood, selling fish on the side to help pay for their daughter's further education. She hopes to be a pilot one day.

A young boy stands outside the backdoor of his school in Krasnouralsk.

A young boy stands outside the backdoor of his school in Krasnouralsk.

The life-expectancy for men in Russia is 64.2 years and for females is 75.6. Men have a 25% chance of dying before the age of 55 (though now it is expected to be about 33% in 2017). Old women are in abundance, but it is rare to see an old man walking around the streets or on the bus. (Facts by Pew Research and the New York Times)

The life-expectancy for men in Russia is 64.2 years and for females is 75.6. Men have a 25% chance of dying before the age of 55 (though now it is expected to be about 33% in 2017). Old women are in abundance, but it is rare to see an old man walking around the streets or on the bus. (Facts by Pew Research and the New York Times)

Children play by Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world.

Children play by Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world.

Interior of a school in Krasnouralskk.

Interior of a school in Krasnouralskk.

 
 

Exhibitions and Publications.

’17 Huck Magazine, Web Feature, London

’17 F-Stop Magazine, Web Feature

’17 Dodho Magazine, Web Feature, Spain