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Along Russia's Shores

The soul of Russia should be located somewhere along the banks of its rivers - the Volga, the Neva, the Oka - since Russia's development was so closely linked to the waterways. For centuries, the great rivers were the main trade arteries, whether it was fish, furs, black caviar, grain, coal or oil. These watery thoroughfares - from North to South, from East to West - were the lifelines of the country. And while technological progress has created new form of transport, the river still epitomises a Russian tradition. Inland waterways sent people to the seas and oceans but Russia has not become a significant maritime power, despite the fact that it colonised the coasts along the borders of its empire. At the end of the 1940s, the Soviet Union, still weakened by the Second World War, tried to rebuild itself, using previously untapped resources.

As a part of this policy, Stalin's government decided to transform the the Far Eastern borders of the vast state - including the island of Sakhalin and the Kamchatka Peninsula - into a regional centre for fishing intended to feed the entire Soviet Union.

To defend the state and the new industries in the region, the navy and army were bolstered along the eastern frontiers, both in numbers and with equipments such as nuclear submarines. At the same time settlements, villages and cities were planned and built to accommodate new arrivals who were relocated from other parts of the Union with promises of well paid jobs and other social provisions.

Today, the region is beset with corruption, both locally and from further afield in far away Moscow. Aggressive competition from Japanese, Chinese and Korean fishing fleets is encroaching on the once unchallenged dominance of the Soviet fleet and old territorial disputes, both on land and at sea, are being reawakened by newly confident powers.

All the while, Moscow bureaucrats continue to set fishing quotas that bear little resemblance to economic and ecological realities. Fish stocks are dwindling and there is hardly any official oversight to rectify the situation.

The Russian Federation, the rump of the once mighty Soviet Union, shows little interest in the Far East's people or environment. Consequently, infrastructure is being neglected and being left to rot, showing up the region's shortcomings compared to its Asian neighbours and other, wealthier parts of the Federation.

Thousands of fishermen and their families who settled in the Far East during the era of Soviet colonisation after the Second World War have became hostages of the circumstances and the decline of the state. In some ways, however, these people have spent their lives on the sea and many are unwilling to surrender the freedom and romance this has given them.

The first set of images in this series was taken on some of Russia's great rivers - the Volga, Neva and Ob rivers - and in the Far East, on Sakhalin, the Kuril islands and the Kamchatka peninsula in 2007. In August and September 2008, the focus shifted to the Russian North, along the White Sea coast, the Baltic and parts of the Black and Azov Seas. All of these are to some extent scarred by having been boosted during the post-war Soviet drive for economic development followed by decades of neglect since the collapse of the Union.

The resulting photo story looks at the lives of people living in what were once proud and industrious parts of Soviet Russia - from fishermen and other mariners to rural people and their villages. These are people who lives have been shaped by rivers and seas. Their future may well depend on the very same rivers and seas they have come to love and respect.
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