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Exploring the Great River

Munich-based photographer Dennis Baburov tells the story of the modern Volga and people living along its banks.

Dennis Baburov was born in Ivanovo and has always had great affection for Russia’s greatest river. Here, the photographer discusses his interest in challenging discoveries as well as the immigrant experience, which he wants to use for his new project.

I was born in Ivanovo and spent time there most of my life. As a kid I encountered the Volga many times: my most intimate and intense memories are those of visiting a summer camp in Plyos, which sits on the riverbank just 70 kilometers away from my hometown. It was the time of my coming-of-age, and since then the Volga has been very dear to me. In 2013 I decided to tell a story of this great river, once praised in bylinas and fairytales. After looking for historical sites and beautiful landscapes on the internet, I dashed across the region documenting them. 

Mostly I was interested in the visual aspect, which is quite spectacular when you start exploring the Volga. Its riverbanks are often hilly and picturesque, and have particular allure for me as I grew up among the fields and steppes and always feel drawn to higher altitudes. I also wanted to find out more about the everyday life of people living in the Volga region’s smaller cities. I consider myself an introvert, so hitting the streets of an unknown town and talking to its residents has always been challenging. Photography is my hobby, but, at the same time, the camera gives me access to the lives of others, which I wouldn’t have otherwise.

One of the most impressive stories that I heard was that of Moldovan migrant worker. After leaving all the friends and family of his hometown, he moved to Plyos and has been living there for many years, doing various menial work. I had never encountered such people before but had always been interested in what drives them. What makes them change their life so drastically, immerse themselves and exist in a foreign culture? At the time I didn’t know, of course, that I would imitate his journey and move from my hometown to Munich. 

Although this Volga series is a work in progress, I have logistical difficulties with finishing it – for obvious geographical reasons. Now I am thinking of turning the project into a comparative study of riverside life in Germany and Russia. For example, the mountain river Isar flows through Munich and is an integral part of the city’s daily life: children swim in it, people rest or fish on its banks and sail its waters. However, these activities are heavily regulated when compared with the carefree lifestyle on the Volga’s unkempt banks. I tried to show these differences in my photos – the way I have witnessed it.