New East Digital Archive

This Russian photographer captures the nostalgia and melancholy of emigration

Rostov native Mikhail Bushkov has lived in Zurich for eight years. His photos evoke the impossible nostalgia for the “parallel life” he left behind when he left — something ghostly but grounded in material detail

4 December 2018
Text and image Mikhail Bushkov

Rostov-on-Don is one of southern Russia’s post-industrial hubs, a bustling port town. During the country’s “wild 90s”, the city garnered a reputation for crime and a fierce independent spirit that hasn’t yet been shed, despite its hosting games during this summer’s FIFA World Cup. Eight years ago, photographer Mikhail Bushkov moved from his native Rostov to Zurich, a Swiss city whose public image —ordered and stylish — profoundly contrasts with that of his home town. His work deals with this dislocation in tender, oblique ways. Although Bushkov is fully settled in Zurich, with a son and a career, he is haunted by what he calls the “parallel life” he might have led in his Russian hometown.

Over eight years of visits to Rostov, he has taken thousands of photographs in an attempt to capture the ghostly presence of this alternative autobiography: snapshots of everyday life that are evocatively banal, a world the photographer recognises but cannot return to. Compiled under the telling title Zurich, they speak to something deeply personal but also universal to the émigré experience — nostalgia and the permanence of departure. In his own words, Bushkov here describes his childhood in Rostov, the differences between his hometown and adopted home, and the shifts in perspective that inform his work.

I grew up in an area known as Western Rostov. My wife was born and grew up in the same suburb — among small houses, trees, stray dogs. The only difference was that her street was always paved and mine only got paved about a year ago. You don’t feel like you’re living in a city of 1.5 million people there.

I remember a dog we had. He was called Foma. When he died, in the middle of winter, my father and I wrapped his body in a blanket, carried it to the highway, and buried it in one of the piles of dirty snow by the roadside. It wasn’t that we didn’t love that dog — we did. There was some reason why we did that. But I don’t remember it.

I can tell a lot of stories like this. They’re effective and make an immediate impression, especially on non-Russians. And I can tell my Rostov friends stories about Switzerland: about how kids in Zürich walk to kindergarten by themselves at the age of five, about pet shops that only sell animals in pairs so that they never get bored. My Rostov friends can’t believe that these stories are real. But the thing is, my life in Russia and later in Switzerland is not really like these stories. In Rostov I studied, I worked, I read books, I met different interesting people, I thought about things. I have tons of impressions from this everyday life, but they’re not overly dramatic. I think these impressions are somehow present in my pictures from Rostov. I hope they are.

I think that foreigners who came to Rostov during the World Cup experienced it in a much more interesting way than locals can. They had no fear. There are places in the city where I personally would never go at night, because I know too much — a passer-by was killed here 15 years ago, a kiosk was burnt down here four years ago. Foreign visitors go to all sorts of places with a pure childish curiosity, nothing bad ever happens to them. I’m sure that the Brazilians, Swiss, and Japanese who came to the city saw it in a unique way that I’m no longer able to access.

When I lived in Rostov I had a feeling that it would always be with me, that I would live my whole life in the same house with the same trees in the garden, that my parents and friends would always be around. But then I left and this feeling disappeared. Now I come for short visits and from the very first minute of each visit I know: in two weeks I have to leave, in two weeks this will be over. My walk to the supermarket becomes unique, unrepeatable. I want to remember it, to feel it, to photograph it. Any kind of conversation, any kind of encounter, even the most boring, suddenly becomes important. Because who knows, it may never happen again. Zürich and Rostov are two different universes. I’d love to have my own house, but a house in Zürich will have nothing in common with a house in Rostov. I’d love my friends and my parents to live nearby, but I can’t imagine them here. What would they do?

Text and image: Mikhail Bushkov

This project was produced during the ISSP Residency in 2018. The ISSP Residency takes place in Riga, Kuldīga and elsewhere and offers artists the opportunity to pursue their project on a free schedule using consultations and portfolio reviews. Applications for ISSP’s 2019 Riga residency are now open. You can find out more about ISSP here and read our interview with co-founder Julija Berkovica here.