Artist Lena Tsibizova is a maverick by nature. Having lived most of her life in Moscow, she
often feels confined to the boundaries of the city: enormous as it is, its streets bear too
many personal reminders to allow for unbiased wandering.
In an urge to escape, she headed to Kuvandyk, a decaying industrial town in Orenburg, a
region in Russia’s southern Urals bordering Kazakhstan. She arrived with a double mission:
to document the quiet life of this half-abandoned place on camera, while capturing the
essential joy of journeying through music. The result is a beguiling photo story set to a
captivating soundtrack — a project that invites listeners to both contemplate their own
worlds and feel the giddy energy of unimpeded movement.
The town of Kuvandyk took shape in the 1950s to provide homes for workers at the South Ural
Cryolite Plant, one of the two factories in Russia that worked to supply the needs of the
rapidly-growing Soviet aviation industry. Cryolite, a white mineral needed to weld aluminium,
was essential for a nation taking to the skies. But when the USSR collapsed and the plant was
closed down, Kuvandyk faced ruin. Besides mass unemployment and despair, a larger ecological
catastrophe was unfolding. It soon became public knowledge that the cryolite plant had been
siphoning off chemicals and dumping them into nearby lakes for years, poisoning both water and air.
Sadly, Kuvandyk is not unique. There are hundreds of semi-abandoned factory towns in Russia,
and Tsibizova probably would not have heard the story of Kuvandyk if not for her partner, the
Moscow-based producer Piper Spray. The musician grew up in the area and invited Tsibizova to
visit his hometown. The idea of a decaying town amid velvet hills immediately attracted the artist,
as did the chance to connect with Spray’s native land. The pair left for Kuvandyk in May and
stayed for two weeks photographing the contrast between the eroding industrial space and the
serene and soothing landscape. They would often hike more than 30 kilometres each day, as there
were no roads to reach some of their shooting locations by car.” It might sound exhausting but I
actually found those long walks really calming and liberating,” says Tsibizova.
Nature is captured vividly in Tsibizova’s photos, but the beauty is not without its own subtle wounds.
The stillness of Kuvandyk’s landscapes hides a deeper trauma. Tsibizova ventured inside the
abandoned cryolite factory, but was quickly spotted and escorted away from the site by security
guards, who remain on site despite the factory’s closure. Leaking cryolite has led to heightened
fluorine levels in the air around the factory, although not to dangerous levels. Swimming in the
nearby lakes, however, remains hazardous. Previously, a dedicated ranger was responsible for
keeping people, birds, and animals away from the poisoned water. Now, however, that position
has been made redundant, and the area away from the factory site is open to the public. There is
currently no information on local regeneration plans or soil monitoring.
Today, following the environmental disaster and the mass exodus of residents, only a handful of
people are still trying to survive and grow food in Kuvandyk. The city’s already dwindling
population has fallen by a third in the last decade. Tsibizova met some of the few people still
living in the town, among them Misha, a young man growing tobacco and brewing brazhka,
a type of sweet low-alcoholic beer.
Yet despite its harrowing history and difficult future, walking in Kuvandyk’s lush green hills felt
both soothing and empowering for Tsibizova. Long walks turned into a form of meditation,
allowing for the flexibility, clarity, and freedom of mind that she so longed for. Tsibizova’s
photographs showcase the beauty of the area, while the music brings forth the silent joy of simply
being there, amid an ecosystem that is badly hurt, but still undefeated. “The photographs
represent space; they are like stops on the way,” says Tsibiziova. “Meanwhile, the music is the
movement bringing those stops together.”
*Original article online at https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/12931/kuvandyk-ecocide-russia-z