New East Digital Archive

Fenced out: a look at the landscapes that divide us

There are plenty of kitsch staples associated with Russia: balalaikas, bears, vodka. But there is another quintessential Russian staple which is often overlooked — the fence.

Russia’s fence rush began in the 1990s, when most Russians got their first taste of private property after centuries of serfdom followed by communist rule. Amid the chaos that came with capitalism’s tentative rebirth, the fence not only marked newly private property, but became a symbol of security. “In a society of fear, the fence became a way of reclaiming peace and private space,” says Kazan-based photographer Alexandra Gromova. Her latest photo project explores the complex nature of the man-made boundaries that cover Russia’s landscapes.

Despite peaking in the 90s, the great Russian fence made its remarkable comeback before the 2018 World Cup, when permanent fences were erected alongside roads, supposedly on security grounds. More fences rose around construction sites, but soon proliferated to cover public areas such as parks, squares, and even residential courtyards. Gromova felt that their presence was suffocating. “When these fences started to rise all around me, I could not help but ask myself: ‘What are we afraid of? Why are we building these barricades? The space around me was becoming more and more aggressive,” she says.

Other locals were not bothered by the quasi-fortifications, passively accepting them as part of their new reality. But Gromova saw fence fever as the result of segregation in wider Russian society. “People are more detached; there are low expectations. Amid instability, medieval instincts triumph — we are not safe as a society.”

This new, shifting landscape inspired Gromova’s photos. “I made my own fence on rolling wheels that I would carry around with me. I would clone and then delete myself from the image, and shift accents so that the fence would become the main character of the story, and I would become part of the background,” she says. “By placing myself opposite to the fence I’m trying to make my own sense and see my real self in relation to it.”

The fences in Kazan still stand. Gromova’s photos, however, expose a mindset behind a new phenomenon. “The fence draws the line between us and them, provoking feelings of alienation, paranoia, and loss of freedom. But at the same time, the main reason for building a fence is fear of the vast outside world, of everything marginal. Fear nurtures the lack of freedom,” she says.