“Before we moved here, I had friends ... We had a group of three families, we were together at the weekends and on holidays. But then, I moved to a new place, no one saw each other as frequently. We had our own lives...perhaps this way of thinking comes from this environment.” - My grandmother Nadezhda
“Mailbox44” is a visual exploration of my grandparents’ town, living behind the wall and the idea of Soviet “closedness”. The notion of secret closed towns has been present since the mid-1940s, throughout the Cold War period and the nuclear period. My grandparents were recruited to be a part of one such community, arriving from Nizhny Tagil, Russia in 1975 with their two children in the hope of a better life. When I was younger, I spent my summers in Mailbox44 with my grandparents and cousins who still live there today. Recently, my cousin and I started to discuss some of the obstacles the younger generation is now facing. He expressed that leaving this closed environment and beginning adulthood in a larger city had been a lifelong dream.
This piece, however, delves into exploring one specific facet of this story—isolation. It portrays the youth living within the closed town, in isolation even more exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which resulted in the uprise of previously unimaginable barriers, both physical and emotional, separating individuals, communities, and countries. “I often go to see my grandmother in her village,” says 17 year old Polina. “This year I didn’t get to see her. I was unable to video call her, as she is not technologically advanced as we are.”
Despite their remoteness, small Russian towns have been badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic since March 2020. I spoke with ten young women and men between the ages of 17 and 18, who live in Mailbox44, an isolated previously classified nuclear town. Their words and images open a dialogue around distance learning, social isolation and mental health within an environment which for years has already endured seclusion and double boundaries to the outside world. We are more interconnected than ever, but also seemingly ever dispersed - practicing social distancing and online learning through our devices.