When Evgenia Arbugaeva recounts her childhood in Tiksi, a port town in the Russian Arctic that touches the Laptev Sea, she speaks in fantastical terms—of an aurora borealis that hovered like “a big green breath frozen in the heavens”; of ice fishing with her father, the two of them dragging home a nelma that could barely fit inside the bathtub; of walks home from school during polar night, the Arctic’s season-long twilight, while celestial lights cast “bits of blue, yellow, and pink” across the tundra.
“As usually happens with memories,” she says, “they started to transform into very surreal images that I started to question—you know, whether it was even possible these kinds of things existed in the world. Is this town really like this, or was I just making it all up?”
When it thrived—if such can be said about a village in the Arctic Circle—Tiksi was home to 12,000 people, many of whom worked at the seaport, the handful of scientific-research stations, and military bases nearby. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 1991, nearly all government infrastructure dissolved, and the bases, stations, and seaport shut down. Tiksi’s economy, as with most of Russia’s, collapsed. Stores ran out of provisions. An exodus began. Both of Arbugaeva’s parents were teachers. Her mother, Irina, taught literature, and her father, German, taught biology. He also kept a zoo of unlikely specimens for students—a small alligator, a swan, some snakes, spiders, and more. After the collapse, schools remained open but teachers went unpaid. The Arbugaevs knew their odds were better improvising in Yakutsk, where they had met and married, than if they stayed in Tiksi, so they boarded up the house and left, bringing eight-year-old Evgenia, her baby brother, and what reptiles they could carry with them.
Evgenia grieved for Tiksi, her imagination cut off from the spectacular landscape that fed it. And as she matured through the experiences of city life, her memories of that landscape seemed less reliable. Was the nelma that big? Was the borealis that green? Her parents assured her that it was all true, but a nagging sentimentalism stuck with her, something irresolvable and visceral, a feeling of “an absolute freedom, moments of pure happiness and wonder” that her parents’ assurance never quite satisfied. Being her father’s daughter, she decided to prove these memories empirically.
A small Arctic seaport that loses more than half its resources and population is doomed to suffer. Tiksi’s scars of abandonment—of buildings, of stations, of leaning, rusted ships—attest to its long odds at the seventy-first parallel. Today its population hovers around 5,000 people; food and other staples arrive sporadically by helicopter; inflation is so high that eggs are sold one at a time. In October 2012, the Ministry of Defense closed Tiksi’s airport because of its damaged runway, severing the town’s last connection to mainland Russia. When boilers broke that winter, hundreds of residents went without heat for weeks, with outside temperatures reaching -56 degrees Fahrenheit. Finally, Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev intervened, and in the process berated the ministry for “putting the existence of a whole town at risk.”
Arbugaeva first returned to Tiksi in 2010. She was shocked, she says, by how decrepit the town had become. “The place was a nightmare. My heart was broken. I was walking alone on the streets crying.” With no choice but to make the best of it, she set about photographing through the wreckage, framing her childhood “through this layer of decay.”
Shooting along the shore, she happened upon a mother sitting by a bonfire with her daughter, a thirteen-year-old named Tanya, throwing stones into the sea. The two of them were lamenting the departure of a brother and sister who’d just left to study in cities farther west and who would likely never return. “I took just one picture of them that whole trip,” Arbugaeva remembers. “And then I came back to New York. I looked through all my pictures, and the photograph of Tanya was the only one that seemed interesting. The rest was just kind of a disaster. So I went back and found her.”
In Tanya, Arbugaeva discovered a doppelgänger of her childhood self. Both of them shared an obsession with outer space, both idolized Jacques Cousteau. And both of them possessed intense imaginations nurtured by their parents.
“Tanya’s very different from other kids her age,” Arbugaeva explains. “Her parents work hard to preserve her childhood. My dad did the same thing. He is absolutely a dreamer and an eccentric, and I feel that Tanya’s parents are similar in that way. They try to sustain a sense of wonder in her. My parents were, and still are, very much in love, and Tanya’s family is the same. They care about each other a lot. When I visited their home, I instantly felt it.”
And if that sense of connection wasn’t enough, there were other reminders of a lost life. “When we lived there,” Arbugaeva says, “people were given tickets by the government, and on the tickets it would say carpet or coffee machine or loaf of bread, and you went to the store and got what you needed. So everybody would get the same carpet, the same coffee machine, the same coats. When I visited Tanya’s house, they still had all the things I had when I was a kid.”
Arbugaeva’s story is familiar—parts of it, at least: a rural childhood interrupted, followed in turn by a nostalgia for the lost woods (or plains or beach or, in this case, tundra). It’s also easy to understand how what happens to us before adolescence can seem dream-bound, especially if the backdrop for those memories is exotic. What is startling is that the exotic is here at all, conjured up in a place we would otherwise dismiss as monochromatic and barren, a brilliance hidden in one of the coldest places on Earth.
“It’s important to understand that this place is not a fairy tale,” Arbugaeva adds. “It’s quite a problematic place. This is just my vision. But it was also such a treat to be there, in this emptiness, especially after leaving New York with all its visual clutter. You go to Tiksi and just take a breath.”