Despite the fact that rural areas make up a large part of Russia's six and a half million square miles territory, small village communities often remain unseen. Most people move to big cities in search of work and better perspectives, and villages, deprived of infrastructure and state funding, are left to steady decline. At the same time, life there doesn't stop. Russian photographer Olya Ivanova is one of a few people who captures contemporary life of the remote communities.
Ivanova started visiting villages all over the country in 2009 while working as a photographer for a Russian magazine. She instantly fell in love with the atmosphere. "There is a special feeling of freedom, mainly due to the way of communication, totally different from customs of the city," she explains. "There are no strangers, everyone is involved. The relationship could be anything but formal, estranged, cold. At times there are real dramas and intrigues but everyone cares about everyone else. I discovered a closed community of people living the life completely different from mine, so my key interest was to capture it from the inside.
"In 2013 I was invited to an expedition to Vologda region, to a small village on the bank of the river," she continues. "It's a very beautiful place with thick forests, fast Northern rivers, tough people. It took about six hours driving from the nearby town Vologda. If you don't know the place it's extremely unlikely you find it. I was lucky to live with the locals, go mowing with them, make pancakes and look after their children. A year later I came back there to shoot on my own. I didn't have to look for the topic: I was lucky to see the village day, a holiday which is celebrated in villages all over Russia on different summer days."
The village day turned out to be a great opportunity to capture the community life and observe its social arrangements. On this day all the young people, children and grandchildren, who work in cities come back to the village. "It is a holiday of your native place; your roots, family, and ancestral home. Everyone's preparing in advance getting excited about what are they going to wear, drink and do," Ivanova says.
"Everyone is laying a big communal table [to] drink and eat, dance to live music and then fight at the local disco. The centre of the holiday is the House of Culture, a local social establishment which is like a bar, nightclub, and theater at once. In the House of Culture people prepare sketches and performances, songs, poems and comedy. On the stage you could see all kind of people: local politicians, [the] poet Katya who works in the shop in the nearby town, aunty Ira with an accordion and fake moustache…"
While observing and photographing the party Ivanova realized that most of the work was done by women. Men were mostly absent, and the few that she encountered didn't like to be photographed. "Men refuse to perform at the village day, dance, cook or help organize the holiday. It is perceived as weakness. Women come to the celebration in leopard print dresses and high heels while men turn up wearing shapeless tracksuit bottoms with a bottle of beer in the pocket. But there are still five brides for every groom so they are welcome."
Despite the fact that Russian society is still very patriarchal, women in the village turned out to be the real pillars of the community. They were doing most of work—at home and in the village— and exerted real social power. "A village woman is very often a head of the family. The well-being of everyone in the family depends on her: she's taking care if everyone is well fed and healthy, and looks after the house. Men try to pretend out of habit that they hold all the power but usually they are totally dependent on their wives," Ivanova says.
The stronger presence of women in the community is partly determined by the demographics: Male life expectancy in Russia hardly reaches over 65, and a lot of men leave villages to find work. All the factors contribute to the unlikely invisible matriarch at the heart of a society obsessed with masculinity."I haven't studied the statistics but it really seems that there are more women in the villages. Men are often away working, travelling to earn some money at building sites or long distance truck driving. Often men die before 50 because of alcohol abuse," Ivanova explains.
"There is also a theory that after the Second World War when a lot of men died in the battle, the attitude of lonely mothers to their sons became particularly gentle so they grew up infantile and weak. Cheap alcohol, corrupt and violent army service, high level of aggression, driving with no seatbelt—all these factors don't contribute to men's life expectancy."
After years shooting in rural Russia, village women remain Ivanova's favourite subject. Her heroines are of different ages and professions but all of them are part of the archetype illustrating perfectly the woman's role in Russian society—or at least what's expected of them. "[A] village woman is strong. She can do almost everything by herself, she doesn't really need a man for house work or raising children," says Ivanova. "She does all the supposedly men's work: mow, carry heavy logs, chop wood.
"She works a lot but never complains. She has a very big heart, loves her own and other children, help neighbours and relatives. But she still dreams of a strong man. At the village disco all the ladies in leopard print dresses and high heels sing along to their favorite hit: 'Oh what a man, I want to bear your children, your sons, and your daughters.' This seems to be men's only function."