New East Digital Archive
Summoning the ancient spirits of the Urals

A native of the Ural region, photographer Fyodor Telkov has always been interested in the complex identity and the many faces of Russia. In 2014, together with photographer Sergey Poteryaev he travelled to the northern regions of Russia and the Mari El Republic to capture the small nations under threat of being swept away by the oil industry. His most recent project Skazy (the archaic Russian word for “tales”) dives deep into the spiritual origins of the Urals: a blend of myths, legends and traditions colliding on the border of Europe and Asia.

“The main part of the region is the Ural mountains which spread for 2500 kilometres, from the Arctic Ocean to Kazakhstan. The first people appeared here thousands of years BC. In the Middle Ages it was a melting pot of pagan, Muslim and Christian cultures. From the 17th century the Urals became the industrial centre of the country. The region was completely colonised by Russians, and the factory civilization became a new layer in the history of the Urals,” Telkov explains.

The photographer was interested in how the myths of the past are layered with signs of contemporary everyday life: large factories and busy cities next to ancient mountains and mystical forests. He believes the stories those mountains and forests have to tell inevitably get under the skin of the Urals’ inhabitants.

“Almost every image is either a reference to a certain mythical or historical narrative or an illustration of emotional connection to these stories. The bear, for instance, is a very important cult animal for the Mansi people. And a mask I photographed was used for the ancient ritual of bear games,” says Telkov. “A portrait of the woman in kokoshnik (traditional Russian headpiece) is a reference to Pavel Bazhov’s tales, such as The Queen of the Copper Mountain. The sculpture of a seated Jesus is something unique for the Ural region: Orthodox Christianity forbids sculptures but this was an exception to allow a transition from idols to icons. The project also features a lot of photographs of nature — forests, mountains, rivers — as the faith in the nature’s power was crucial to the pagans who populated the region before Russians.”

Telkov’s photographs exist in the distance from reality he captures: the haze and deep shadows create a dimension for the mythical figures to live and breathe in. “I used black and white to create a fictional atmosphere. I also wanted the project to reference the aesthetics of an archive, old photographs, so the viewer would have a sense of time,” Telkov adds. Skazy builds a fragile link between the past and present and reflects on the complex history of the Ural region: not from the outside, how we’re used to seeing it, but from within.

Photography: Fyodor Telkov
Interview: Anastasiia Fedorova

Read more

Dreamscapes: summoning the ancient spirits of the Urals

Steppe by steppe: photographer Tomer Ifrah’s journey around Azerbaijan

Dreamscapes: summoning the ancient spirits of the Urals

Night visions: welcome to the darkly seductive world of photographer Christina Abdeeva

Dreamscapes: summoning the ancient spirits of the Urals

Edgelands: portraits of the Russian north