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INTERVIEW: The perplexing pursuit of memories

In her book 'The House That My Grandfather Built,' Russian photographer Xenia Nikolskaya talks about how traces of places, buildings and documents could influence already formulated memories

Dina Ezzat , Monday 3 Aug 2020
Xenia Nikolaskay
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"My mother had always wanted to repeat the 1953 journey to the mainland of the [then Soviet Union] that she had made with her parents, [for those] were the happiest memories of her life… [In 2012], we followed that route together to see places she dreamt about and people she used to know.”

This is how Xenia Nikolaskaya explained the trip that inspired her recently issued photo book ‘The House That My Grandfather Built,’ which serves as a homage to the memory of her maternal grandparents Greogiry Mikhaelovich Nikolaskaya, whose name she carries instead of that of her biological father, and Olga Sergeeenva Grancheva, whose strength “was strong enough to defy the oppression that [Joseph] Stalin” exercised throughout every day of his rule, Nikolaskaya said in an interview with Ahram Online this week.

On 5 March 1953, Stalin died and Xenia’s mother – who is also called Xenia and was 11 years old at the time – joined her family on a return trip to the mainland, just out of Leningrad, to end close to two decades that the Nikolaskays had to spend in Siberia. Greogiry was a political prisoner, dubbed an “enemy of the people” for having had insisted on preaching at church under the USSR rule, and Olga as a highly awarded geologist who had found a way to join Greogiry by making use of her degree from Leningrad University’s department of geology.

Upon their return, due the money that Olga had saved and to the joint yearning of both Olga and Greogiry to have some privacy after having lived in the shared Gulag settlement in Kolyma, the couple decided to build one of the Finnish houses that were common for the time and place.

This is the house that the elder Xenia and her daughter had lived for long, and it still serves as “the summer house” that brings them together every year.

From that house, in 2012, the two Xenias took a plane to regain the terrain of the mother’s childhood and the traces of the two grandparents that had passed away respectively in 1975 and 1982.

The photo book of less 100 pages is predominantly ‘pictures over text’. There are photos of the Nikolaskaya family albums – of Greogiry and Olga in Siberia in the 1930s and with their daughter during the 1940s.

There are pictures of “the house that grandfather built” in black and white as well as in colour – with the mother appearing as a child and later as an older lady. There are pictures of an old doll and an old tapestry that used to be in the church where Greogiry used to preach before being sent to the Gulag, and which, upon his return, he found at a consignment shop and chose to buy it and bring it home where it is still hanging on the wall of the same house.

The new photos were taken during the ‘retour trip’ that brought the mother, Xenia, back to a land that is only known for horrors, but that in her mind is only known for lovely childhood memories.

“I think the adults have gone out of their way to shield the children from the horrors of the surroundings, but I also think that the brains are very curious in the way they work to formulate the memories; I mean there was nothing particularly pretty [apart from the scenery] that we found when we got back,” she said.

“It might be about the need of the mind to create a jolly picture of an otherwise unpleasant setting or it might be about one’s yearning for one’s childhood,” she added.

Putting a distance between oneself and one’s past, the photo-author argued, might at times help create an opportunity for one to revisit the past with more neutral spectacles. But then again, she acknowledged, it might not work. After all, she said, her mother came back with no big revelations from this trip.

Not when they were in Kolyma and not when they took the train back to the mainland for seven consecutive days had the mother reconsidered the “very happy memories of her childhood” that she always spoke to her daughter about.

Still, the author-photographer argued that it is always important for people to try to find how things really were even if they continue to remember them differently. This, she said, is why it is very important to go through archives and old photos.

When in Siberia, obviously, the two Xenias went to the archives and did a bit of digging.

Xenia Nikolaskay

Photocopies of some of the documents that were found there appear in the book – along with the little text.

The text is a ‘shared’ writing between Xenia’s own remarks and the translation of some pages from the memoires of her own grandfather that he typed to avoid the hand-writing difficulties that were imposed on him by the trembles of his parkinsonism.

The memories have a very down-to-earth style, an “almost telegraphic style” about the horrors of the Gulag, with text about the many exestuations of political prisoners that would sound like a tractor machine.

Apparently, these were not the things that haunted the memory of her mother about those years. Nor was she haunted by the fact that when she went to school. She had to remember that if she was asked if she liked her mother more than Stalin that she had to promptly reply that she loved Stalin more than her own mother.

“After all, the horrors of the times of Stalin were not something that people spoke of at all until 1985 when [Mikhalil]Gorbachev came to power; it was such a big relief in the 1960s when [Nikita] Khrushchev came to power, but still there was no way that the horrors of Stalin would be spoken of,” the author-photographer said.

Xenia Nikolaskay

Today, she added, there is still a new round of “the tricks of the memory,” as “some people yearn for the years of the Soviet Union – them being maybe under the spell of the [current political propaganda] or just under the pressure of [economic problems] that make them long for years when people had stable salaries.”

So, in many ways, she argued, people don’t always remember things as they happened or that they happened at all.

The photographer-author is dedicating the book to her mother – with a very significant quote from Lawrence Durrell: “Could anything as rich as memory be a cheat?”

“The House That My Grandfather Built” is Nikolaskaya’s second book. Her first, “Dust,” came out in 2012 and was about some of the beautiful, old and neglected pre-1952 buildings.

Architecture, she argued, is like memories – “it has its way of telling a story in one way or in another.”

“The architecture of the Third Reich at its time was perceived as a symbol of power – with such big statement constructions; but today this is not the story they tell,” she said.

“Architecture goes hand in hand with power; they are built and demolished upon a political decision – but when they live, they could tell different stories to different people,” she added.

Both ‘Dust’ and ‘The House That My Grandfather Built’ are telling a bit about the stories of the endless cycles of hope and disappointment associated with political changes. They are both in English.

Xenia Nikolaskay
Xenia Nikolaskay by: Alexei Kostromin

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