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Women And Modernity: Photographing Ethnic Minorities In Russia


Alsu Kurmasheva, a journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Tatar-Bashkir Service, was stunned by images of Tatar women she had seen taken by Russian photographer Sergei Poteryaev. She proposed the two join forces to develop a series of portraits of women of Russia’s other ethnic minorities in an effort to explore the topic of cultural identity.

One year on, the collection has expanded to include the Mari and Bashkir women of Russia’s Volga region, and there are plans to approach the Chuvash community. They have never met, but Poteryaev and Kurmasheva’s combined fascination with unique cultures has resulted in delicate photo stories that have captured the world’s attention.

“I have always been interested in different ethnic groups living together in such a big country,” Poteryaev tells RFE/RL’s Pressroom. “By watching them I am trying to understand myself: to what extent am I Russian? How am I connected to my ancestors?” Although his photos are exclusively of women, Poteryaev explains that they are about everyone in the country and beyond. “I want to ask the audience the same question: who am I and what do I feel? The project touches universal values.”

Russia’s Tatar community, at almost 5 million constituting Russia’s largest ethnic minority, has lived behind the rural Ural Mountains for over a thousand years. Its identity, Kurmasheva says, is challenged by mixed marriages, economic hardship, and changes brought with modernity.

I want to ask the audience the same question: who am I and what do I feel?

After seeing Tatar women praying in a mosque, Poteryaev was inspired to use the tulle curtain that separates the women from the men in their portraits to represent a border imposed by societal burdens, Russia’s dominant Orthodox religion, and the group’s conservative family traditions. The Bashkir series is a colorful mélange exploring the meaning of freedom for women in Bashkortostan, and the Mari collection, depicting the inhabitants of the Volga region’s Mari El republic who some refer to as “Europe’s last pagans,” delves into their centuries-old rituals in forests they regard as sacred.

Kurmasheva, of Tatar origins herself, says the photos reveal the tension members of minority groups experience between feelings of shame and pride, and the pull of tradition and modernity. She describes a Kremlin policy of Russification, stretching back to Tsarist times, that continues to marginalize the Tatar, Mari, and Bashkir communities, impinging on their customs and squeezing their languages out of schools. But she insists that “what is kept for centuries will be kept forever,” regardless of modern influences.

Poteryaev is dubious about any fixation with the past. Although the portraits document their subjects in traditional dress, he says, “tradition doesn’t mean old.” He believes that equality among individuals, rather than “archaic patriotic teachings,” provides the basis for strong families, and says the question animating the series is, what makes a woman modern? “In the evening when it’s dark and quiet, you close your eyes and think about it.”

A Tatar woman, Bashkir girl, and Mari woman (left to right) pose for each of Sergei Poteryaev’s portrait collections
A Tatar woman, Bashkir girl, and Mari woman (left to right) pose for each of Sergei Poteryaev’s portrait collections

Sergei Poteryaev is a freelance Yekaterinburg-based photographer specializing in documentary photography and multimedia. His works have been exhibited in Russia, Lithuania, South Africa, Malaysia, Australia, Switzerland, Romania, the UK, Bulgaria, Italy, Guatemala, China, Slovakia, Austria, and the Netherlands.

Alsu Kurmasheva has worked for RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service for almost 20 years. She reports on issues within the Volga Tatar, Bashkir, and Crimean Tatar communities, with a focus on human rights and the relationships among Tatar groups.

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