Raffaele Petralla

2017 - Ongoing

Arkhangelskaya, Russia

Restricted military area of Mezen. 300 km from Arkhangelsk and few kilometers from Polar Circle.

In this hostile territory, where environmental and climatic factors make everyday life hard and strenuous, computing errors in the trajectories of satellites from Plesetsk’s Cosmodrome become an unexpected resource. About 1500 km North of the launch base, between forests and tundra, there is a populated area of about ten villages.

Inhabitants of this area, who base their own survival on hunting and fishing, are used to build daily life objects - mostly sledges and boats called “raketa”- with the collected fragments of space rockets. They even make illegal business of the internal components as gold and titanium.

Recovery operations take place during the winter, in which the river beds freeze and makes roads more easily passable with sleds and cars.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the most important space base was Bajkonour, now belonging to the independent Kazakhstan: after the second half of the 90’s, Russia has increased the launches from the Plesetsk base to avoid paying the rent to Kazakhstan. For many years this spaceport was kept secret. Only in 1983 the Cosmodrome was officially mentioned for the first time in the national press of the USSR.

From Plesetsk many of the navigation satellites, the weather satellites, and the majority of the military satellites are launched for a wide range of purposes. Since 1997, more than 1,500 launches took off from this site. At launch, each satellite is supported by four propulsion rockets that, disengaging when it reaches orbit, finally fall on earth: according to the official trajectories, fragments should land in the Arctic regions because poorly populated. In many cases, however, they affect the most populated areas in the South.

A highly toxic chemical compound called Unsimmetrical dimethylhydrazine is used as a propellant. According to the local testimonies, many cases of cancer are occurring in the area.

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  • Mezen restricted area. A rocket debris recycler shows an energy accumulator taken from a rocket.
    There are hundreds of accumulators in each rocket. They are covered in gold. Gold is extracted from each one, melted, reassembled and sold by weight.

  • Dolgoshelye village. Mezen restricted area. Dimitri and Misha, looking at the horizon beyond the Kuloi river, where last time they had seen a falling rocket.

  • Mezen district. Arkhangelsk Oblast.
    Sovpolie village is inhabithed by 150 people. During the winter people move by raketa sldeges or by horse-drawn carragies. There are 15 dogs in the village that live free and to which the inhabitants give food because in winter they protect Sovpolie from the aggression of hungry wolves.

  • Arinka Shuvaeva, 23, has finished her studies at Arkhangelsk, the area's largest city, and now lives in the village of Dolgoshechlye. She told that life in the area is so extreme, falling rockets—and the materials they bring—can be seen only as a benefit.

  • Alexandr Shorovky, officially woodcutter. His main source of income comes from rocket recovery. From it he recycles and resells every part. On television the photos of when, for the first time, he found a rocket in the tundra. Dolgoshechlye village. Mezensky district.

  • Byechye village. Olga is seen in the garage of her house looking at the extreme tip of the rocket. This is the part of rocket that can yield more income than all the others. It is made of titanium and is sold for 900 rubles per kilo.

  • Plesetksy district. Arkhangelst Oblast.
    The monument of Plesetsk city at the Plesetskaya railway station that is situated about 800 km northeast of Moscow. This railway station is a terminus to Cosmodrome's railway system and is essential for the transport of missile components.

  • Arkhangelst Oblast. A family on the pier waiting to embark on the banks of the Mezen river.

  • Sergey, 47, is seeing after working on a boat.
    He works as fisherman with his “Raketa” boat in the summer and as an hunter in the winter.

  • Kimzha village. Arkhangelst Oblast. A charming settlement flanking the Mezen River, the village of Kimzha was named one of Russia's most beautiful villages in 2016. Since the 1960s, dozens of rockets have fallen into the forests surrounding Kimzha.

  • Anton, 13 years old, stands near a rocket part in the village of Dolgoshelye, one of about 10 communities just below the Arctic Circle where residents scavenge for space debris.

  • Alexander Shuvaev, who makes rocket-based boats, working in his yard, full of different kinds of rocket debris, in Dolgoshelye. He also build sleds and agricultural tools such as hoes and scythes.

  • Mezen restricted area.
    A part of a rocket bearing the mark "Progress" lies in the garden of a house in the village of Dolgoshelye.

  • Sovpolie village. Mezensky district. A heap of old agricultural machinery and rocket debris lies in the center of the village. It would be too complicated and expensive to dispose of this type of waste due to the difficult accessibility to the site.

  • Dolgoshelye village. Restricted area. Lidia Vasilievna. Since her husband, hunter, began to recover rockets, they decided to take a house in the village and no longer live as nomads in the tundra. Her dress has been made by her and is composed by the hair of four different animals: foxes, dogs, squirrels and dears.

  • Sovpolie village, Mezen district.
    On the main road stop a horse tied to a sled whose bases are attached pieces of dural, material recovered from a rocket debris. This material allows sledges in these villages to slide better on ice and snow.

  • Sovpolie village. Arkhangelsk Oblast.
    Sasha Loktevi is seen in his house with his son. He works as horseman, his entire life evolves around the horse business. All the sledges - that the horses pull in this area - have the underlying parts made with pieces of rocket.

  • Bychye village. Mezen restricted area. A bride and her parents on the morning of the wedding. The relatives of the groom are waiting outside. Only after some rituals typical of the Orthodox tradition, they will be allowed to enter the house to participate in the wedding preparations.

  • Pavel Popov, 46 years old, is going to dig in the snow with a hoe made of a piece of rocket to extract a rocket that he had seen fall last summer. He tells that, when a rocket falls, they first see an orange trail fill the sky, then they hear loud roars and sometimes the window panes tremble.

  • Byechye village. Mezen restricted area. A fisherman on his "Raketa" boat has just moored with his sh load. He lives alone in a village of 4 inhabitants, 10 hours of sailing from the village of Bychye. During three days of navigation he reaches the villages on the river to sell his catch and then starts the trip back home.