New East Digital Archive

How one photographer uses fairytales to capture her Russian hometown on the brink of ecological disaster 

“There is now a wasteland where I used to walk as a child. Houses and schools stand ruined. I wait on the edge of this wasteland as if on the coast, and sing a lullaby to the sea.”

Written by artist Ekaterina Balaban, the ending of Fairytale About the Perm Sea is a lament for a shifting landscape. Balaban grew up in the town of Berezniki, a town with a population of approximately 150,000 people in the Ural mountains. She eventually moved away to St Petersburg, then Moscow, and in her absence the town went through a rapid transformation.

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Berezniki has been a site for mining potassium and magnesium salts since 1934, and the industry is having ever more significant consequences on the area. As a direct result of mining, the region’s first sinkhole appeared in 1986, swallowing 21,000 square metres of nearby forest. A second appeared in 2007, taking in 150,000 square metres of the city, filling up with water until it resembled an expansive lake. By 2020, the number of sinkholes had increased to 10.

Sinkholes are the result of both negligence and specific features in the Earth’s geologic structure. Successive officials and industry leaders have left Berezniki’s depleted and abandoned mines empty, rather than filling them in. As a result, underground water penetrated the mines, where it dissolved salt within the earth, eventually causing the ground to collapse.

“Four years ago, I came back to Berezniki and walked around town. I saw abandoned and semi-derelict buildings, fences, and signs which warned us of “danger zones”. In place of my old school yard and childhood playground, there was just a hole in the ground. That’s when I had the urge to somehow express this encounter with my hometown, which has suffered an environmental catastrophe,” Balaban remembers.

The image of the city that she has created is both beautiful and haunting. We see half-collapsed buildings, the rough edges of wide sinkholes, deserted landscapes, and cracks which cut through flower-patterned wallpaper, all juxtaposed with images of gentle sea corals and an old nursery rhyme from the photographer’s childhood. The project captures an existing environmental disaster through the prism of an individual response — the sensation of loss and being unable to escape the overwhelming power of nature quietly lying beneath your feet.

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“My idea for the project shifted from documenting the disaster to trying to find an explanation, or at least a theory, which would help me make peace with what has happened. I went from blaming the people who have caused this destruction, to the realisation that nature and the respect it demands is at the centre of this story. That’s why the fairytale is such an important part of the project.”

Balaban’s story, which accompanies the images, evokes the ancient Perm Sea. It existed around 285 million years ago, and stretched from the cold Arctic Ocean to the Caspian Sea. Movement of the earth’s crust divided the Perm Sea into lagoons, which dried up with time and left enormous stocks of salt, resulting in the area’s deposits of potassium and magnesium salts.

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In Balaban’s version, however, the sea falls asleep and turns to salt under the ground — but is awoken by humanity’s greed when people arrive to take the salt away. “The power of nature’s response to people is mesmerising. [To create these sinkholes,] water dissolved salt which is over 250 million years old. It was as if the sea had woken and people had to come to terms with ancient history. I was interested in telling this story, if not from nature’s point of view, then at least through the prism of nature’s interaction with society,” the photographer says.

Balaban previously studied sociology, but says that photography is “the most interesting way to study communities and environments”. Fairytale About the Perm Sea combines photographs and videos of the sinkholes, archival photographs taken by miners inside the vaults, and fragments of research of history and geology of the Perm Sea. “I was very inspired by the findings of a Soviet scientist, Nikolai Chudinov, who studied prehistoric microorganisms preserved in the mined salt. I lived in Berezniki for 17 years, and these bacteria, viruses, and seaweed have been there for over 250 million years”.

Balaban is continuing to use her work to examine nature and ecology. In collaboration with journalist Andrey Yakovlev, she recently created a project on a waste disposal site in the Moscow region, looking at its environmental and economic impact, and the eco-system of people and animals which has formed around it.

“I want to move away from the straightforward and often finger-pointing rhetoric of eco-activism. I am interested in creating artistic stories about the interaction of people and nature,” the photographer says. “Nature is much tougher than us. I tell this story through images because this is my medium.”