In the spring of 2003, three people were killed in Ust-Kut, one of the small Siberian towns. According to official sources, the leader of a local organized crime group, known as “King”, was the main target of the attack. The killers opened fire on two cars travelling along a deserted highway. They were never found. My stepfather could have been in one of those cars, because of his friendship with King. 

King “protected” many people out in the provincial town with a population of 40 thousand. His protection was based on personal authority. Leaders of criminal groups like King could stand against other bandits who threatened the ordinary people’s lives and businesses. Such protection was carried through intimidation, cars theft or arson. It demanded regular payment from the protected. My parents who managed their own business also used  King’s help. After his death, the local authorities lost their strength and influence, and the town’s life sank into stagnation. I started feeling that death was approaching. Everytime I found myself in an unfamiliar environment, I thought about all the ways I could be easily killed and analysed which places were the best for hiding. 

These feelings were shared by many. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a dark era of change fell upon Russia, largely due to the division of power amongst criminal groups. Reality was even darker than state media suggested. Those years were the heydays of crime and banditry - by 2010, 279,000 murders were recorded across the country. In small towns, banditry was especially prominent: robbery, theft and murder became common occurrences. Murders of criminal authorities were seen as inside conflicts between gangs, so such crimes, as a general rule, were not actively investigated. Although the motives behind them were well known: the Siberian forest, drugs, power. 

This series of photographs serves as a reconstruction of events. I returned to the town of my childhood where I grew up, to the house where I lived with my parents. Arrived at the scene of the murder with my camera, I became an imaginary witness of the crime, recreating the scene according to my memories, the tales told by my stepfather and other people, and the few mentions in local newspapers and crime records. Besides, I made self-portraits in my parents’ home in attempt to work through my ineradicable fear and relentless anxiety. They would often overcome me nowadays, and contrary to my desire, had turned into some kind of smothering protection.


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© 2019 by Marina Istomina

Marina Istomina