Southwestern Russia with a Leica Monochrom and 35 Lux by Daniel Zvereff


Southwestern Russia with a Leica Monochrom and 35 Lux by Daniel Zvereff

His website is HERE

My mother was 21 and attending university in Leningrad when she met my father, an American.  She was studying English and he was studying Russian. They were married shortly thereafter. In the beginning, she hid her marriage plans from her parents. Her brother even went as far as to hide the wedding rings in a locker at a train station. Her family, having heard all the horror stories of what could happen to their daughter in the West (including being sold into slavery), did not approve.

Eventually, when the administrators at her university learned of her marriage to an American, she was expelled; she was followed around by the KGB, including on public buses and into cafeterias. In 1981 she began to gather all of the proper paperwork in order to be granted permission to get a Soviet exit passport — it took one year. The most difficult hurdle was needing her father’s signature in front of a notary to allow her departure from the USSR. It was her pleas and then, finally, a bottle of vodka she purchased him that convinced him to at least visit the notary. Struggling heavily with the thought of consenting to his daughter going into the unknown, he signed the form, but then he stormed out of the notary and told her she had tricked him into going there. In August of 1982 my mother boarded an Aeroflot flight to Canada where my father would meet her and take her to her new home in San Francisco. As a result, her brother, Sasha, lost his job in Moscow and was sent to the army where he would clear forests in a remote region of Russia for two years as punishment.


When I was 6 years old, I lived in Los Angeles and loved Ninja Turtles and Peter Pan. I have a vivid memory of jumping into our apartment’s swimming pool without water wings on my arms and sinking to the bottom peacefully before being rescued. It was then, in 1991, that the Soviet Union collapsed. Everything in Unecha fell apart. All the major processing plants were disassembled and sold. The railroads that led to what is now the Ukraine and Belarus fell to the same fate. If you could steal– you stole, which added to the high murder rate. The money that my mother’s family had saved disappeared, but they were just able to feed themselves from their small family farm-plots called dachas. Twenty years later, as the economy and private sector have stabilized and increased, some of the plants and production facilities are running again, albeit as shadows of their former selves.




It has been three decades since my mother left Russia, and now I am 27 years old. This is my fourth trip on the night train from Moscow to Unecha. I have lucked out: this train is newer and has AC. My Uncle Sasha, who now travels around Russia and inspects the wheels and undercarriages of trains, picks me up at 5 AM from the station. We don’t say much because my Russian is not very good. I rest for a few hours and wake to the smell of fried fish. Lunch starts with a shot of vodka, then fried fish, potatoes, and cucumber salad. After the meal ends, I am full of food and a lot more vodka. We step outside into the cool afternoon and walk towards my grandmother’s apartment, the same one my mother and uncle were raised in.




As I walk around Unecha, I wonder about what it is about this place that feels so nostalgic to me. I can’t help but think about all the events that took place in order for me to be here as a stranger: the Russian revolution and WWII ( which sent my father’s side of the family first to China and then, finally, California) and my mother’s chance meeting with my father. I don’t feel like I am of this place, but I also don’t feel completely severed from it..




My grandmother’s apartment is small and railroad style, having been fitted with a gas heater, toilet, and running water only in the last decade. It is a museum of our family. Every single space on the wall is covered with photographs of her children and grandchildren. There are photographs of me that I’ve never even seen. In an instant I can see my entire childhood and young adult life. Even though she wasn’t there for it, she watched me grow up.




Sasha can barely stay awake inside her apartment. It is dark and warm in a comfortable way.  I can’t stop yawning myself, so we go outside to wake ourselves up. My grandmother looks up at the sky, sizing up the clouds and the weather, deciding if she will take an ancient soviet bus to her small farm-plot in a neighboring village where she plants garden vegetables and herbs. We walk to the bus and ride it to my uncle’s house where he and I get off and she continues on alone to her farm-plot.




Three days later I pack my belongings and hug my grandmother for what may be the last time. My two uncles walk me to the train station.  Fueled by my impending departure and some vodka, our interactions are lighthearted: we crack jokes in a mixture of broken English and Russian.


I board the train in the few minutes before it departs.  As it sits still,  you can only just stare out the window at one another and wait. There is then a big jolt, and the train slowly starts creaking forward. I quickly look at Sasha and he looks back– we both smile and nod goodbye, both happy and sad.

Daniel Zvereff

You can see his website at


  1. Absolutely beautiful. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story.

    I’m a big fan of your work. It is photography at it’s best, which means it let the viewers imagination go far beyond the picture frame.

  2. You are a lucky man, having escaped that family of Russian alcoholics! And what a terrible town with busses that fall into pieces. Your Russia would scare me to death if only I were not Russian myself. I am 32 and I live in Russia Samara, that is why I can only laugh over your frightening unrealistic essay. May be you shouldn’t drink this much of vodka next time you go shooting. Might help you to get a little more true looking report.

    • Right, he should have checked with you first to make sure everything he is describing is correct. Let’s see, your age makes you a perfect witness for the events that took place in the early 80’s and 90’s in the town you’ve never been to and in the lives of people you’ve never met!

  3. Very interesting, enjoyed your website even more. Have to agree with comments above: your analog images work better with the sketches and illustrations. The MM images shown here feel overly dark and vignetted, even the ones shot in daylight. Not sure if the dark tone adds anything to the images, they have a melancholy as they are!

  4. Fantastic story and beautifully captured moments – really transported me through your visit to another world!

  5. Outstanding piece of work. I lived and studied in Russia in the sixties and your essay and pictures bring back vividly to me the Russia and the Russians that I knew. Keep up the great work!

  6. Why aren’t your story, photographs & journals on NPR already??
    Thank you for sharing, great art works on your site!!

  7. Thank you all again for the comments, I really do appreciate everyone here taking the time to read the story. As I am still in the early stages of learning how to write and photograph It’s really great to hear so much feed back both positive and negative.

    In regards to some of the negative comments, please understand this story is in no way a representation of Russian people as a whole. Russia is unbelievably vast with many different cultures and would require many years of photographic research to properly capture it.

    This story is simply about what my own family lived through in order for us to be where we all are in life at this point in time. They are true accounts. My focus was to photograph the journey, my family, and the environments that they live in. I have traveled here every year for the last four years, and have a pretty good handle on the town of Unecha, and stand behind that what I have captured is within honest measure.

    These are photographs of children playing in front of my uncles apartment building, and the bus my grandmother rides every day in the summer. The train station my uncle picks me up at and the home of my grandmother and her neighbors. To me it’s a story of family and what it takes to reconnect. Maybe to some people it looks like a dark part of Russia and thats fine, but I find the people to be just as hospitable if not more, than major cities like Moscow where wealth (and fashion?) is more prominent. It is my family and the life they live, I am proud to be one of them.

    Thank you all so much again.

    • Daniel NEVER apologize for your work. When you put yourself “OUT THERE” there will always be those that snip at you. Your work is part of you and it’s up to you weather you want to allow the negative comments to affect you. I speak from experience and I’ve had considerably more then my fair share. I’m inclined to share a quote that is a favorite of mine, it goes

      ” Nothing is more exhilarating then to be shot at without result”
      Winston Churchhill.

      Keep up the great work.

      PS I also loved the moleskin books on your website.

  8. excellent ! compelling in a way that i didn’t care what kind of equipment you were using and in retrospect wondered why you even bothered to mention them in the title . . . . your tools were transparent against the backdrop of your words and images in a way that is never is when the camera and lens and straps and cases etc. are more the focus of ones attention than the life thats going on around us ………

  9. This is one of the most beautiful and poignant photo essays I’ve seen here. Thank you for sharing it.

  10. Very funny. The last photo shows a nice smile and what looks like a bit of vodka. Perhaps the photos after this one showed the enjoyment.

  11. Pure propaganda, i sick of it. Go to Russia now, and open your mind take color pictures, and enjoy LIFE.

    • Propaganda? I would like to politely disagree:There’s warmth, love, and real life in the photos and the narrative — a personal journey through time to discover one’s family roots. A beautiful, nostalgic piece.

    • Propaganda? I would like to politely disagree:There’s warmth, love, and real life in the photos and the narrative — a personal journey through time to discover one’s family roots. A beautiful, nostalgic piece.

  12. I really enjoyed your story and writing. Your descriptions along with the superb photographs made me feel that I was living your story for myself which in my humble opinion is the mark of a good photo journalist. Thank you so much for sharing your story and your work.

  13. Vodka! for breakfast ? that’s horrible! I’m a russian too, but never drank vodka during my breakfast.
    And vodka as a deal-maker??That is not totally true.. It was way way back in 19’s , and even then most smart people preferred money, not a drink…. And look at russian people now.. they’re dressed well, they look good, they have taste and style… Why not to put some words about “bright side of the moon” … Russians are not “gloomy – doomy ” any more…. From your story (plus your bw photoes) it sounds like you just visited a concentration camp…

    • i guess he can not his change his own story, can he?
      please condence you’re ownexperiences in a well written story and add some wonderfull photo’s.
      Looking forward seeing it and enjoying it as much as I do this
      Frank from Holland

  14. Love the photo of the guy with the Smena. Made me laugh to think you took a photo of an $8 camera with an $8,000 (not including the lens) camera. My how things change.

  15. Looks like great use of Moleskine notebooks, not to mention the pics.

    Somewhere I must have missed those “St Petersburg” types and instead there was the vastness of Russia to swallow up lives and generations.

    Black and white certainly created a feeling of desolation and stoicism.

  16. Quite a nice photos and review. Still a bit sad that you’ve focused mostly on decay and dark side of Russian province. Though it could happened possibly because you’ve been living in the US since childhood, likewise I’ve been living since my childhood in Russia.

  17. Love your art work in the little books on your Journal page 🙂
    Very Castenada…

    Are you based in San Francisco?


  18. Just a lovely narrative. You’re a talented writer, as well as photographer. Clean, direct, emotional, mature. I greatly look forward to your work in the future.

  19. Great story, straight from the heart. Pictures have a lot of character and complement your story very well, bravo!

  20. Thanks hugely for sharing. Very moving, which was quite surprising. Normally doesn’t happen looking at photos here. Clearly a combination of your heart-felt narrative and photos that matched so well. At the end it seemed to me that I had seen this in the black and white publication, Lenswork. It certainly would fit easily into that publication. For all I know you’ve been featured there already. If not there, then New York Times magazine. It’s a universal story made real and timely. My wife is Korean and we too met at a university. The reaction of her parents was not initially a happy one either, but nowhere near as drastic as your parents at that time in Russia. I suspect your mother could write a good book about it. Here’s the web site for submitting a portfolio to Lenswork. Hard to see why they would not want it. Let us know if anything comes of it. I will probably come back from time to time and look at this again.

  21. Wow, there is something about the tonal rendering of the Monochrom that fits the run-downess of these places to a T. A happy-snappy consumer point & shoot would have given a completely different vibe, and would have missed the decay and greyness.

    Awesome little photo essay. Text and images complement and support each other.

  22. words and pic’s in sync ! very impressive. Nicest paragraph is about seing the pic’s of his growing up and realising that in that part of the world he has been visible without having been there ever before.
    Respect !


  23. fantastic story and images. Really one of the best story-montages that I have read recently. Great stuff, Daniel, and I hope to read and see more from you!

  24. Thank you everyone for your comments, I really appreciate it. It couldn’t have been done without my mother and my uncle who were letting me bug them about their past in order to get all the information!

  25. Hi Daniel, i’m following you from quite some time now and just love your work. Inspiring and touching every time. Keep on ! I think i prefer your work with film a bit better (there is more soul with the texture you find with films i think), but anyway it’s always such photography !

    • Thanks Pom, I agree I also tend to prefer the grit in film, although the main problem lies in scanning and developing while on the road- after being on the road for 3 months without a scanner I wouldn’t be able to post these stories. Nor carry enough film to do so (I am a one backpack kind of guy) so the freedoms of digital in this respect are nice. But I have my Rolleiflex with me and have been working on several 6×6 projects, but it will have to wait until late september to see that!

  26. What a wonderful story, and ofcourse pictures. I have visited your site and the combination of pictures, text and drawings are great. By far the best private entry I have read on Steve’s site.

  27. Very nice narration and very nice photos. Photos that speak to the soul. I remember when I was in Moscow during February 1991. The misery was something beyond imagination. Then I discovered how the cultural and religious bonds work. Being a Greek and Orthodox I had something like lassaier-passé. I deeply admired the stamina and the dignity of the people. Despite the crumbles everybody was reading, mainly literature.
    I have not been to Russia since then, but I am so glad you made this trip back to your roots.
    I wish I was there.
    Best regards,
    Dimitris V. Georgopoulos, Athens, Greece.

  28. Great story and pictures. Because of all the talk about vodka and trains this write-up reminds me of a book called “Moscow to the end of the line.”

  29. Not sure which is the better, the text or the pictures! A truly superb journey with your memories. Thank you.

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