Is there such a thing as a “Russian face”? Intent on documenting the various different facial features of the world’s largest country, we spent an afternoon couch-hopping with six individuals originally hailing from the region, hearing stories of migration, thoughts on modern Russia, and how their heritage translates in to their everyday lives.
Photography Toon Aerts
Born and raised in Vilnius, Vladimir lived in Riga, Moscow and Warsaw before moving to Belgium about thirty years ago. He finds it hard to pinpoint the essence of Russian physical attributes, but definitely recognizes distinct characterial traits such as a strong dose of nonchalance and a tendency not to take futile matters too seriously, along with a great sense of curiosity and appetite for knowledge. If his long hair and Rasputinian beard may give away his origins, he feels his most Russian feature is without doubt his complete devil-may-care attitude towards life.
Although she has lived in Belgium since she was ten years old, Nina is firmly rooted in her Russian heritage. Like many of their compatriots, her parents fled the country after the revolution, settling in Prague, where she was born. When the Communist regime spread its wings even further, they migrated further West to Belgium, as political refugees. A head-hunter for foreign corporations who wish to establish themselves in Russia, she spends one third of her time there and loves their generosity and true sense of hospitality. On a professional level, she points to Russians’ lack of initiative and fear of responsibilities, their fatalism being a direct consequence of the authoritarian regime that prevailed for decades.
Born in France, Vadim is only one-third Russian, although his close relationship with his grandmother – who was from Slavyansk – has forged his strong bond with the country’s culture. Fascinated by her tempestuous life, working in camps and later fleeing the country, he even wrote a biography about his grandmother when he was younger. He remembers growing up with traditional cuisine and the Orthodox Easter celebrations being a way bigger deal than Christmas. Inheriting a lot of pre-war books from his grandmother, he incorporated a heavy portion of their images in his artwork. His most Russian traits are definitely his name, melancholy and way of partying.
Dima was born and raised in Chernigov, Ukraine, and came here three years ago, after his mother married a Belgian. Born in 1988, his passport states that he is Soviet, which he fully identifies to. Even though he returns to his homeland once a year to see his family, he has no plans of moving back there. He doesn’t miss much, save for the general post-Soviet spirit and open-mindedness, although he does sport a tattoo on his arm that spells “tenderness” in Cyrillic. An act of sweet nostalgia, all of his memories from home being linked to the tender moments of his childhood that he wants to remember.
Having lived in Belgium most of her life – she was ten years old when her parents left Russia during the perestroika – Pauline doesn’t feel any particular sense of belonging. If anything, she considers her most Russian attribute to be her lack of tact, and one she likes the least. She did develop a skill for spotting two things in the streets: Ladas (her father used to buy second-hand models) and fellow Russians (from their walks to their haircuts). That said, she hasn’t seen much of both in the last ten years. The cars have all disappeared and as for her compatriots, their singularity has faded since the country opened up.
Originally from the Caucasus region, Lily has been living in Belgium by herself for the past eleven years. Born in Gudermes, a Chechen town, her bold move was prompted by the problems resulting from the perestroika. She hasn’t returned there yet, due to passport issues. She doesn’t really miss her homeland that much though, having found a new life here in Belgium – she socialises with many Russians from the local community. She recognizes Russians when she sees them, but has a hard time figuring out exactly how or why, reminding us that there is not one typical Russian face, but as many as its various regions.