In Search Of Islands

Oksana Yushko

2015 - 2019

While life in the megapolises boils, the Volga River slowly brings its water downstream.

The concept of counterurbanization is now popular in many countries. Simple living has become a mainstream idea. Climate change is a public concern. In today’s world, people can choose.

In 2014, I made my way to the Volga river, and my friends, Elena and Vasily, became the first characters in this long, life-changing journey along its banks.

They moved from the big city to the rural area by the Volga river, and started a new life close to nature, building their new world instead of working for someone else in the city. I followed them with my camera.

A number of people have chosen this other way to start a new life in the countryside, discovering volunteering, reviving national heritage and crafts, farming, working in greenhouses, and building eco-villages. They have their own idea of a recipe to change the world, they try it out themselves, look for new senses, follow their own dreams, and take small steps towards their goals. Romantics and hard workers, those people became my inspiration, as did the great river.

And the river connects them all, like a mother taking them under her wing, like a road, a path to freedom.

The decision to move from a big city to a rural area has become a modern reality, though it is nothing new. One of the motives behind it is a change in values, from consumerism to ‘green’ living, from the rat race to a life in harmony with nature. In the 19th century, the philosophy of simple living advocated by Russian writer Leo Tolstoy became popular. Many Russians left the cities and went out into the wilderness in search of freedom. And these stories were echoed round the world - Tolstoy’s ideas were followed in many countries. Each story is different, but they all have much in common.

The world we live in is not black and white, but rather balances between the two edges, in a changing palette of colors. People in big cities are eager for harmony, but very often the future is hidden behind the skyscrapers, the path is erased by the tires of cars driving by. “We can see the horizon here”, says Elena.

The transformation of people’s perception of themselves and their future goals has become essential for many who choose this other way, and vital for building a sustainable and meaningful future. Greener approaches to living are becoming part of many people’s everyday life after the city. Many people reject consumerism, high social status and financial stability for the sake of moral and spiritual values and better health. They have decided to return to long-buried hopes and dreams. They want to build their own new world, and their search for their own islands takes them to the Volga River.

Rivers have existed before us and will go on living after us. Time passes like rivers flow by. Rivers teach us to go with the flow, to avoid obstacles, to be open to everything new. There is always a way out.

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  • The Volga river, the longest in Europe, is often referred to as Mother Volga. A central character in 'In Search of Islands' project, it is rendered through dreamy wide-format photos.
    I photograph along the Volga River because it is a central symbol for numerous people, connected to many legends and the setting for great books, poems and paintings. I am looking for my characters leaving big cities and settling their new life along the Volga river. Those, who are in search of their own 'islands', a new life, are shown in square images.

  • Elena Naumova was born in Moscow. She had a successful career at a bank, traveling a lot across the country and abroad. Elena was on vacation along the Volga River when her car broke down not far from Uchma village. A man from the village, Vasily Smirnov, came to help her, and they ended up falling in love. They married in two years, and Elena moved to the Volga river.

  • Alexander Mozolevsky with his daughter and children from the nearest village have lunch in their new home by the Volga river, where he and his wife Olesya moved several years ago from Moscow.

  • A black stallion, a gift to Olesya from her husband Alexander, was one of the reasons to relocate. Alexander Mozolevsky has built an open-air village museum, Olesya named it ‘Tygydym’, the Russian way of mimicking the sound of galloping horses. The couple have put all their dreams and ideas into the project, building a farm landscape, welcoming tourists, bringing knowledge and preserving history.

  • Lyubov sings a lullaby to her son Lev before sleep. Lubov Vilyanskaya and her husband, Alexey, used to live in Moscow, working in a big headhunting company. Several years ago, they left the city and their well-paid jobs for a tiny house on Yurshinsky island on the Volga River.

  • While others flock to cities for better salaries and life, people living in Lesnya Polyana eco settlement do the opposite. Instead, they are looking to find things close to their hearts. They believe living closer to nature helps them to raise healthier and smarter children.

  • Maryam lives in Lesnaya Polyana eco-settlement with her family. She pretends to be sleeping while playing with other children in the forest.

  • A view from a trailer house not far from Pereslavl. Its owners, Alexander Zurbagansky and Selena Ray, left Moscow to travel around the world in it.

  • Valeria Bazhan and Polina Kosenko in a field near the settlement of Molodezhnoye near Tver. They both together with their husbands moved from big cities to the countryside to start a new life.

  • Lubov Vilyanskaya and her friends on a top of a navigational range marker, Yurshinsky Island. Living far from big cities they find different pleasures on their day off.

  • Men help to bring bags from a boat after reaching the mainland from Yurshinsky island on the Volga river in a stormy weather. Lubov Vilyanskaya and her husband, Alexey, left Moscow and settled there several years ago. The island was formed when the river was dammed for a hydroelectric station. In summer, the ferry travels twice a day to the island from the mainland. But from autumn till spring the navigation stops.

  • Several years ago, Mikhail Bazhan bought 15 hectares of undeveloped land by the Volga river. Mikhail, a lawyer, and his wife Valeria had their own home, car and a stable income, but they didn’t enjoy their life. Mikhail resigned from his job in the city, sold everything he owned and started building a house on their new land, learning from YouTube tutorials.

  • After settling their life by the Volga river Mikhail Bazhan builds a community of like-minded people. All of them want to live simple, ecologically sound lives and share their resources.

  • Lyubov Vilyanskaya and her son Lev returning home in the field on Yurshinsky Island. Lyubov and her husband, Alexey, moved there from Moscow several years ago. Since childhood, Alexey had dreamed of sailing and having more freedom. Now they have found their dream on the island. Lubov and Alexey believe living closer to nature helps them to raise healthier and smarter children. But they didn’t just want to return to nature. They are seeking a totally different quality of life, in which they follow their dreams, learn through their mistakes, and become even bigger optimists.

  • Roman with his children Ramir and Mira playing at home. Roman and his wife, Yulia, moved from Kazan to eco-village Lesnaya Polyana by the Volga river several years ago. While others flock to cities for better salaries and life, they did the opposite. Instead, they are looking to find things close to their hearts. They grow vegetables, make wooden toys, sew linen clothes and live the life they choose themselves.

  • Alexander is enjoying a rainbow after the rain. He and his wife, Polina, moved from Tver to the rural area by the Volga river several years ago.

  • Valeria Bazhan, and her friend Polina Kosenko picking up willow-herbs in the field. Valerya went after her husband Mikhail Bazhan to live by the Volga river several years ago. Polina also shares her husband ideas, she and Alexander live in the village nearby. Valeria and Polina help their husbands, make natural cosmetics and herbal tea, which they sell online. They have also opened a small shop in the village and is now considering to start a hair salon.

  • Leonid and his friends joined the community of Mikhail and Alexander recently. All together they help each other to build their houses. They follow the American futurist Jacque Fresco principles of a resource-based economy.

  • Olesya and her husband Alexander Mozolevsky, middle-class lawyers from Moscow, moved to the Volga River several years ago. They were completely fascinated by the people they met in the countryside, and how much knowledge they could share about Russian life in the past.
    Life has stood still for almost a century here. People can build houses as they did a hundred years ago, and they know a lot about crafts. Olesya and Alexander want to keep this knowledge building an open-air museum by the Volga river.

  • Lyubov Vilyanskaya returning home in the field on Yurshinskiy Island. One of her dream is to start a lavender farm on the island.
    Rivers have existed before us and will go on after we die. Time passes like rivers flow by. Rivers teach us to go with the flow, to avoid obstacles, to be open to everything new. There is always a way out.