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HomeContentsOnline exhibitions > Simon Roberts: Motherland

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Simon Roberts

In July 2004, Simon Roberts began a year’s journey across Russia. Starting in the Russian Far East he travelled through the Siberian provinces, up the Kola peninsula and across to Kaliningrad, before heading down to the Northern Caucasus, the Altai Mountains and along the Volga River. He covered over 75,000 kilometres, making pictures in over 200 locations and creating one of the most extensive, comprehensive photographic accounts of this vast country by a Westerner.
Motherland is meant as a visual statement about contemporary Russia, fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union. The photographs are an attempt to counter some of the photographic representations of Russia that focus on collapse and deterioration – with their emphasis on the consequences of Russia’s turbulent past as opposed to the possibilities of its future – without sidestepping the realities of Russian daily life.
In this series, intimate and revealing portraits of contemporary Russians show us a diverse people, united by a sense of common identity and connected by a shared love of ‘the Motherland‘, while breathtaking landscapes reveal the complexity and uniqueness of the country.
The photographs address the notion that Russians see beauty where an outsider might only see decaying apartment blocks or featureless landscapes. Whilst acknowledging their country’s deficiencies, Russians nevertheless believe their native land to be a remarkable and exceptional place. They convey an optimism about their country, an optimism borne of more than just patriotism. They see Russia as home, their rodina, and they see its landscapes and people as being unique – set apart, spiritual, resilient, even holy. Russians carry with them an innate sense of the history of ‘the Motherland’ and, through it, feel inextricably connected to one another. This nebulous spirituality, this Russianness, is elusive yet all pervasive.
Spending a year there allowed for a sustained engagement with Russia’s landscapes and people. Unconstrained by either the time frame or the specific agenda of a photojournalistic assignment, Simon was able to respond spontaneously. The sheer magnitude of the country and the unusually large distances he covered, in turn allowed for a greater sense of conceptual and aesthetic comparison.
The resulting book, published by Chris Boot Ltd in March 2007, follows Roberts’ journey chronologically (using a map of his journey as its contents page). The photographs are accompanied by key quotes by literary and political figures that have shaped Russia‘s modern identity, illuminating the historical ideals of Holy Rus and the concept of ‘the Motherland‘, as well as Roberts’ own extended informative captions. The book’s introduction by Russian literature expert Rosamund Bartlett provides a context for the photographs, by presenting and discussing the concept of ‘the Motherland’ within Russian history.
Motherland should be read as a footnote to the current debate about Russian identity during a time of major geo-political, economic and social change. Ultimately these images are a celebration of Russia, aiming to deepen our understanding of a country and its people. 



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