Interview: Photographer Fyodor Savintsev on the aesthetics of the Soviet dacha

One of the dachas Fyodor Savintsev captured with his camera. Image: Fyodor Savintsev. From the ‘Six Hundred’ series, 2019 c - print, cm 40 x 50, edition of 10

Fyodor Savintsev is a Russian photographer with an extensive background in photojournalism, including reports for Agence France Press, the Associated Press, TIME, the New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Forbes, Newsweek, GEO Russia, Russian Reporter, Esquire, and others. From 2003 to 2006 Fyodor Savintsev was the ITAR-TASS chief photographer.

Written by: European Heritage Youth Ambassador Klaudia Chzhu

Since 2011 he has focused on realizing personal photography projects. One of his well-known projects investigates an architectural peculiarity of the Soviet dacha (a seasonal second home in Russia and in a post-Soviet space). Fyodor Savintsev documents this heritage through photography and collecting the unique stories of its inhabitants.

”I am fascinated by these stories and intend to collect and convey them as a part of my ongoing research for this project. I’d like to further investigate how it was possible that with limited financial resources and lack of visual information or aesthetic education, ordinary Soviet people found their unique ways of creative expression and went to great lengths in their ingenuity”, the photographer says.

Photographer Fyodor Savintsev

Hello, Fyodor! Could you please tell us how the passion for the architecture of Soviet dachas began? Why dachas? What does a dacha mean to you?

”The fascination with the theme of the architecture of Soviet dacha began last year when we all experienced the pandemic. Everything was restricted, our lifestyle was changed, and I had to adapt as all of us to the new normality. In this connection, I temporarily moved to the dacha of my parents where I spent my childhood. It is an absolutely unique nostalgia experience, through which I came to the investigation of dacha architecture.”

”It is only fair to mention that some dachas were destroyed or abandoned but still many remain. I started to document those buildings. This idea brought me to the mission to document Soviet Heritage through the lens of my camera. Delving deeper into the Soviet dacha theme, it turned out that this is something that is really interesting for the public audience because we all belong to this type of heritage, the majority of us have it. Above all, this theme still has not been investigated much.”

Fyodor Savintsev. From the ‘Six Hundred’ series, 2019 c – print, cm 40 x 50, edition of 10 

Could you share with us how the process of collecting material about dachas and their inhabitants is usually going? How do you structure the collected material?

”I am a documentary photographer and my research method is communication. I do not sit in archives and do not study papers. Living conversations are more important to me and sometimes they are very unexpected. I have repeatedly come across the fact that local ethnographers are not interested in the lives of ordinary residents. But I believe that the pursuits of the famous and historical figures who lived in the village cannot fully convey the atmosphere of that time. The village was formed by both prominent people and ordinary dacha inhabitants.”

Fyodor Savintsev. From the ‘Six Hundred’ series, 2019 c – print, cm 40 x 50, edition of 10

Apart from documenting the visual and aesthetic architectural features of Soviet and post-Soviet dachas, you also have an active civil position helping in the restoration of decorative and applied elements of Moscow buildings. Could you tell us more about this initiative?

”The initiative came naturally, it is obvious that my media/name as a personal brand allows me to help restore and preserve some sites financially or support them with information. I am, so to say, an aggregator of professionals. I can advise which specialists will be able to work in the best possible way with a certain site or object, and since people trust me, this is a great responsibility. I always try to choose these professionals very carefully.”

Fyodor Savintsev. From the ‘Six Hundred’ series, 2019 c – print, cm 40 x 50, edition of 10

Recently your photo project ‘Kratovo Dachas’’ was nominated for the ‘Head liner’ award in the culture and art section. In the project nominated, you raise the important topic of preserving cultural heritage through photo documentation and living stories told by dachas’ inhabitants. What is the mission of the project, and what do you plan to do if you win?

”Answering this question, it has already become clear that this award completely discredited itself. They removed my candidacy from the nomination, for allegedly cheating votes, while I was the absolute leader of the popular vote. However, if there was a win, then this is just a reason to remind people about the importance of the topic that I am working with.”

”Indeed, every day we hear more and more often about the demolition or loss of this or that architectural asset. I always tend to think that the theme of beauty is vital since people are brought up by beauty. Without aesthetics, full-fledged development of the personality is impossible.”

Fyodor Savintsev. From the ‘Six Hundred’ series, 2019 c – print, cm 40 x 50, edition of 10 

It should be noted that you are a popular Instagram user (Fyodor Savinstev has 100k followers on Instagram). How do you think engaging your audience contributes to preserving cultural heritage?

”Being a media person is a tool, and I use this tool to educate the public audience. I know many examples of how my posts were able to spread awareness and inspire people to preserve our beauty, our history and heritage. Indeed, many did not even think about the importance of this topic. Thus, through my blog on Instagram, I introduce people to different sides of our reality.”

Fyodor Savintsev. From the ‘Six Hundred’ series, 2019 c – print, cm 40 x 50, edition of 10

You are planning to create a fund for the preservation of Russian cultural heritage. Could you share how you would shape this project?

”This project logically follows my work and my passion. I repeat myself, but trust is always the key factor, so I do feel a responsibility both to people and to the architectural heritage. If my work can be useful in this theme, then I believe that everything is justified.”

Check out more of Fyodor Savintsev’s work via his Instagram or website.

About the author

Klaudia Chzhu is an art and cultural manager from Russia. She studied History at the Moscow State University, specializing in Modern and Contemporary History of Europe and America. She obtained her masters’ degree in Arts & Cultural Management from Universidad Internacional de Cataluña (UIC Barcelona) with a major in Cultural Heritage Management. Together with her master’s colleague from Iran, Klaudia defended the masters’ final project (TFM) on Saving Cultural Heritage in a time of war. After her study, she founded Art & Culture Inside, an online platform covering Contemporary Art and Cultural Heritage. Throughout 2021, Klaudia has been selected as one of the European Heritage Youth Ambassadors representing Russia and its cultural heritage.