New East Digital Archive

Beasts of the Northern wild: coming face to face with nature in one Russian village

26 May 2020
This article was produced as part of Russia Z’s Open Call scheme, which supports emerging writers, photograms and creatives from Russia. Click here for more information or to submit an idea for a project for consideration.

A wolf does not bite a wolf, the Latin proverb says. But it will bite a human or a dog, a fact that Anna Bernal learned all too well in Lipakovo, a former woodworking village in the North of Russia. Bernal, a photographer and researcher from Moscow, came to Lipakovo in search of a picturesque train journey. Instead, she found herself in the center of an unlikely resistance against the wolves that had started to reclaim the village land, hunting on dogs and cattle.

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Having grown-up in a big city, Bernal had always been tempted to explore Russia’s vast rural expanses, especially in the country’s mystic north. She has previously traveled to the White Sea, journeyed down the Onega river, documented the old-believers in Komi, and explored medieval wooden churches in the Karelia and Archangelsk regions before coming to Lipakovo, a small decaying village 60 kilometres away from Plisetsk, Russia’s main cosmodrome.

“At first I was confused”, Bernal recalls. “By 5:00pm, it was already pitch black outside and my host family advised me not to go out, emphasising my small size.” Yet primordial awe won over shock: Anna could not resist the call to explore the village, despite the forewarned dangers.

She interviewed different people in the village for her project each day, often walking the streets after dark, despite there being no outdoor lighting. “Your mind is overwhelmed by what you don’t see,” she says. “Meanwhile, your body is working on the extremes of sight and hearing to be able to actually see anything. You light the way with a pocket torch; you see the house in front of you, but you can’t be sure there isn’t a wolf at your back.” Bernal recalls.

By November, dogs were regularly being taken from the village as mother wolves began training their cubs. Some villagers bought metal fences to protect their animals, while others fought off the wolves themselves. One of the locals, Tatiana, chased a wolf back to the forest in only her nightgown. Bernal helped to herd her host’s dog Sharik indoors every night, taking care of an animal that looked almost like a wolf itself. Despite the villagers’ effort, many dogs were killed and the villagers would find dog heads on the crossroads..

For Bernal, the wolf siege of Lipakovo is not only a story of fear and resistance but a belated consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the local woodwork factory closed down nearly 30 years ago and people started to leave the village — including the rangers who had cared for the nearby forests — it triggered a social and economic crisis: one which would cause human and animal worlds to collide.

Bernal now sees her photo project as a way to study and document this unforeseen shift, and the consequences of a world thrown off-balance. Street lighting has recently been installed in Lipakovo in a bid to drive the wolves away, but whether the measures will work remains to be seen.