The big picture: memories of a rural Russia untouched by time

·2-min read

The photographer Nadia Sablin left her home in St Petersburg in 1992 when she was 12 years old and moved with her family to the US. Sixteen years later, she returned to the city she grew up in, and to the village of Alekhovschina, where she had spent her childhood summers with her aunts. That six-hour rural ride to an older Russia, and to the house her grandfather had built, returned Sablin to the magic of her past. “The house smelled of pine cones burning in the samovar and my aunty’s blintzes.”

Over the following decade, she returned to Alekhovschina every summer, entranced in particular by the children of families who lived there, who played in the same rivers and forests that she had done, like characters in a half-remembered fairytale. Sablin’s pictures from the village, collected in a new book, Years Like Water, capture that return. They view a world that has hardly been touched by modernity, through a child’s eyes, the child she had been.

This picture, the boy and girl following their grandmother up the wooden staircase, stands as something of a metaphor for the whole project, in its sense of wonder and foreignness and recovered memory. In 2018, Sablin moved to the village for a whole year. To stave off loneliness, she writes in her book, she spent many afternoons having tea and talking to the older members of the choir, people who had known her grandfather, a blind veteran of the war, whose “gnarled hands” she recalled touching her face, “seeing me”. The choir members shared her sense of a very present past. “When I walk down the path by the river,” one of them told her, “I can feel my great-grandmother walking along with me on the same path. We are separated only by time.”

  • Years Like Water by Nadia Sablin is published by Dewi Lewis (£35). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply