New East Digital Archive

The last frontier: photographing the final days of winter sun in the arctic town of Chersky

27 December 2016

The restricted town of Chersky is situated in the Siberian Arctic, 4,500 km from Moscow. In its heyday it was a wealthy settlement — explorers, scientists and miners moved here during the Soviet Union to dig up diamonds, gold and pre-historic creatures. For decades the snow and darkness buried with it the town’s origins as a Gulag labour camp known in the 1920s as Nichniye Kresty. Today, like many of the secrets found on its grounds, this remote hamlet with a declining population is hidden from the rest of the world.

Barcelona-based photographer Anita Licis-Ribak moved to Chersky from Riga during the 1980s, after her father began working for a major Arctic construction company. “Originally the plan was to stay there for two to three years, but eventually we stayed for five years, until I graduated from the high school, and from the music and fine arts schools there. Our plan had always been to come back to Rīga. We returned in the summer of 1986, upon which I took up architecture studies at a university in Riga,” Licis-Ribak says. Though she had not returned to Chersky for nearly two decades, she remained curious about the isolated place where she spent her teenage years. “My father who had always wanted to re-visit Chersky, after our departure, never got to fulfill his desire during his lifetime. This desire to go back was one of the few things that united me and my father. So in a sense, I also felt an obligation to complete this trip for him, after his passing,” she adds.

“There are no roads leading to the town, and it is only accessible by small turbo plane”

She finally returned to Chersky in December of 2014 as a photographer. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the town’s population has shrunk from 13,000 to 2,500. Accessing it has become more difficult. “The town is still closed, entry is allowed only with special permit. There are no roads leading to the town, and it is only accessible by small turbo plane (the closest city is 4.5 hrs away by plane) and by the Kolyma River.” In addition, it has lost much of its amenities. “Many of the modern apartment buildings that were constructed during the 1980s and early 90s boom stand abandoned, and of those that are inhibited, many lack basic necessities, including electricity and running water. There is very little left in terms of services — no hotel, no cinema, no restaurant, and no airport to speak of. The only remaining school has shrunk, and runs with very little resources. The teachers’ office is set up in what once was the bottom of a swimming pool of a daycare centre,” she describes.

However, not all has changed for the worse since Soviet days: “One thing that caught me unprepared, and actually made me cry (and feel silly), was seeing fresh fruit on the shelves of the small grocery store. This was something one could only dream about back in the 1980s.”

Where Land Comes to and End. Postal Code 678830, captured in the few hours of winter day light, shows people quietly getting by despite fraught and freezing conditions. This view of Chersky is very much informed by the photographer’s own happy memories of the place: memories of seeing the sun appear as a red dot on the horizon after long polar nights, her passionate music and art teachers, collecting cowberries and catching salmon in nets on the Kolyma river during the short nightless summers to last through the long winter months. “One day, my father brought home a whole tusk that he and his colleagues had uncovered on a construction site (they would burn huge bonfires in the permafrost, in order to install pillars for the building support, and would occasionally chance upon incredible finds such as this one). I will never forget the stench, and the beauty of this tusk, lying on our living room floor,” the photographer recalls.

One thing that remains unchanged is the reality of isolation. Built on permafrost, Chersky is surrounded by frozen taiga, tundra and mountains. “It occurred to me why Chersky would be a perfect place for banishment. Besides the forbidding climate, there is simply no place to run. There are no roads leading out; the closest city is thousands of kilometres away,” she says.

Text: Liza Premiyak
Image: Anita Licis-Ribak