For the very first time, we explore the hidden histories of spaces that have not been documented visually before. The zine has become a place, where we join our two projects and have a visual conversation, using our documentary photographs, written text as well as archival materials given to us by our families. We record the personal stories of our family members, who have lived through the challenges of the Greek Civil War and the Cold War. This way, our aim is to examine the past and its impact on the two locations, whilst visualising the effects these events have had on the communities in Greece and Russia.
Despite focusing on different conflict periods, our works are connected through a deep interest in family heritage and look into the complexities of the way an environment has shaped the identity of its people. In 'Revisiting the Roots', we show the stories we have documented in the homeland of our families, which has inspired both of our projects.
How did you begin the work on the zine 'Revisiting the Roots' as a collaborative process?
Kristina & Michaela: In January this year, we started In Conversation With - a platform for photographic discussions with the aim of sharing our work and getting other artists involved. Through our recent projects, Mailbox44 and Where The Wildflowers Grow we both explored the themes of family spaces and hidden histories and using a similar photographic aesthetic. When viewed together, to us, both projects evoke a similar dialogue and visual pattern.
As such, came the idea of physically placing both projects in one format that encompasses our related, yet contrasting stories. The self-published zine, Revisiting the Roots was a place for us to combine our photographs and lead a conversation between each other, which made us discover more about our family stories.
Does each project exist individually? If yes, could you tell us a bit more about each one of them?
K&M: Yes, they still do exist as individual projects. At first, both of our works were made on our own but then we joined them together in the zine to further elaborate on the themes that we have explored.
M: Where the Wildflowers Grow visually examines a site in northern Greece that used to be inhabited by my ancestors, before they were forced to leave it behind, and never returned. The project focuses on the period of the Greek Civil War (1946-1949) and its aftermath on the environment as well as the communities living there. The conflict is often marked as the beginning of the Cold War, as it was between the monarchists and communists, both supported by the Western countries or the former Yugoslavia. Through this work, my intention was to discover the homeland of my family and attempt to understand this past event that caused thousands of displacements and migrations to countries around the world.
The series portrays a rural village, hidden in a mountainous area of northern Greece, in which the past continues to play a significant role in shaping its current state. A part of my family originated from this location and used to live there until they were forced to leave their home behind, and never returned. This is a journey through their homeland, documenting a landscape that was affected by the Greek Civil War in the past.
The Greek Civil War is marked by some as the beginning of the Cold War. It was a conflict between the communists and monarchists in Greece, which resulted in significant damages to the environment and displacements of many individuals, especially children. Until now, the aftermath of the civil war remains rooted in some of the country's landscapes and communities. My grandmother was placed in former Czechoslovakia by the communist guerrilla troops in the spring of 1948, and her family members became scattered around the world. A large number of migrations, both voluntary and forced, took place from the village of my family before, throughout and after the Civil War - causing the present-day site to be almost uninhabited. Delving into the history of the environment, showing the remnants of past conflicts, the work examines the complexity behind the notion of home.
It is said that the regions of Macedonia, Epirus and Thrace were the epicentre of the conflict, thus through this exploration, my intention was to familiarise myself with the land that used to be inhabited by my ancestors as well as to attempt to understand its history.
K: In Mailbox44 I discuss how in Russia, the phenomenon of secret closed towns has been present since the mid-1940s, throughout the Cold War period and the nuclear age, prompted by the two world wars. The regime of secrecy was created to house a military-industrial complex within the walls of each of these towns. Secret towns were positioned in various geographic locations and were non-existent on Soviet maps.
Secured by a concrete wall, in the past, these closed towns might have resonated a feeling of privilege, safety and comfort.
They provided all the luxuries people could ever dream of: a theatre, schools, sports complex, ski slopes and more importantly, food and complementary accommodation. A permit (propusk) was required to access each town, restricting entry for the general public. They were seen as utopias which people dreamed of living in, but never knew existed.
My grandparents were recruited to be a part of one such community, arriving from Nizhny Tagil, Russia in 1975 with their two children with the hope of a better life. Through my photographs of their town, I explore the notion of Soviet closedness through documenting family members and locals who still live within this enclosed environment. Mailbox44 questions how this particular environment has shaped and impacted the mentality of its residents from its past until this day.
When did you become aware of the nature of this project as being a collaborative one?
K&M: We first started thinking about it around the time when we began to plan our final MA degree exhibition in November 2019. We used to discuss our ideas together ever since the research stage, so we became quite familiar with the concepts of our projects. We edited, sequenced and had countless feedback sessions together that enhanced our ability to work collaboratively. Looking at everything we have done, we realised that our process of decision making is similar, both when curating our installations and designing our self-published books. Everything else began to happen after that…
From "Revisiting the Roots" Zine by Kristina Sergeeva & Michaela Nagyidaiová
Where do you find the stories of your families interesting the most?
M: When it comes to Kristina's work, what has always really interested me about Mailbox44 was the ongoing effect of a closed environment on her family members and other individuals living there. As an outsider, I wonder what were the implications on the community behind these invisible "closed" borders, having to live in such a secret and anonymous location.
When working on my project, I was very intrigued by how one specific historical event has caused so much damage to numerous families, including my own, as well as the environment they all once called home.
As a result of the conflict, my family has never properly lived in the same household again, which pushed me to examine the effects of the Greek Civil War on the land and communities.
K: Whilst looking at Michaela’s work, I am intrigued that she travelled to discover an environment to form her connection with the land her family originated from. She has delved into the complexities experienced by her close and distant family members in an attempt to understand the past and in a way to reform relationships. Michaela has documented the aftermath of the land which has changed her family relationships forever, yet when I observe her work, I feel incredibly moved by the way she has chosen to capture it.
My interest in Mailbox44 sprung from my curiosity about my summer vacations in Russia, where I would visit my grandparents in their closed town. I never asked about the reason behind needing permits to enter or why there was a border around the perimeter. Similarly, my family never elaborated further on this topic due to the past secrecy, but even today the topic is not widely discussed due to the strict regime that was implemented on the mentality of those who still live within this environment.
What do these two different conflicts occurring in different periods in two separate countries have in common for you? What were some of the commonalities that you discovered between the effects they had on your families?
K&M: Both of us explored places we were never fully familiar with. Michaela has visited her family's homeland for the first time when photographing the project, trying to comprehend the history, the culture and perhaps see what could have been if only her family had remained there. Even though Kristina has visited the town of her family before, she has never felt completely immersed with the culture and community living there. In a way, we have always been intrigued by our family heritage and how the different political situations influenced our own identities and identities of our parents.
Similarly, both of these topics have always been taboos in our families. No one decided to open them up and try to understand how Michaela's grandmother ended up in the former Czechoslovakia in 1948 or what life in the town was like during the Soviet regime, compared to life today, where Kristina's family members continue to live.
Can you elaborate on your perception of the different ways in which political systems attempt to shape people's living environment in order to influence their identity from the point of view of your family histories? The visual narrative of the book flows so seamlessly, so maybe you could tell us what similarities you discovered between Greece and Russia in this aspect.
M: Ever since my family had to leave their homeland behind, their movement was pretty much directed by the political situation. For example in my grandmother's case, she was moved from one children's home to another in the former Czechoslovakia, as those were the government regulations. She experienced four different children's homes, before finally being able to make her own decision to move to Bratislava as an adult, where she lives until today. What I'm trying to say, is that this continues to happen even in our contemporary society, people are being separated from their families and displaced because of political systems in their countries or because of conflicts.
Just a single conflict and political situation has completely shaped my grandmother's identity and her life forever.
K: Closed towns had a specific regime put in place which was to be followed by all residents who were living within the premises of this environment. Closed towns were at the heart of creating geopolitical tension between Russia and the United States as the mission was to create a nuclear bomb. Due to the secrecy of the nuclear power plant during the Cold War period, the residents were subject to signing certain documents which prohibited them from discussing where they lived and why they lived there.
The whole regime and system were based on creating fear within the mentalities of the residents which has remained the same until this day.
The town was fitted with politically charged typologies which enabled the residents to feel equally at home and equally estranged in the environment they were living in.
K&M: The discovered similarities between Greece and Russia showed that ordinary people were the ones influenced the most in both situations. Similarly, our family members were to an extent quite cautious to share the details of their lives, as their situations were unusual... they were the subjects of very specific and challenging periods of time in both Greece and Russia.
But of course, the two countries are extremely different. After the Greek Civil War, the communists and their guerrilla armies were defeated mostly because of the support from the US, as they didn't want to see more spread of communism in Europe. In Russia, as we know, the situation was the opposite.
Kristina Sergeeva (1997, RU) is a Russian documentary photographer, born and raised in the Middle East, and is currently based in Dubai. Her interest lies in telling visual stories about hidden histories, family, spaces, environments, and secrecy.
Michaela Nagyidaiová (1996, SK) is a documentary photographer based between London and Bratislava. Due to her interest in personal stories and projects, she often works with themes that rethink the notions of home, migration, the aftermath of conflicts and family roots.