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Saturday 19 October 2019

Photo Essay

Hiding from Baba Yaga

In Siberia, the descendants of Old Believers live in defiance of modernity 

By Nanna Heitmann

For centuries, the banks of the Yenisei River have been visited by nomadic people – criminals, escaped serfs, apostates and adventurers who have joined together at its banks and roamed deeper together into the vast wild Taiga.

Flowing from the Mongolian border across Russia to the Arctic Ocean, it is here that Old believers, a sect of the Orthodox Church that still follows traditions from before the church’s 17th-century reforms, fled to the lonely banks of the Yenisei to escape the persecution of the Russian Tsar and later the Soviets. Under Stalin, the region became a place of exile and forced labour. With the fall of the Soviet Union, infrastructure collapsed in the remote regions of Russia, including many parts of Siberia.

In recent years, the population of the Yenisei region has declined. Young people are drawn to big cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg, with those left behind stuck in cycles of isolation, unemployment, and a lack of medical care.

Vaselisa in the village of the Old Believers. Her parents are both deaf and dumb – and are the only unbelievers in a village that lives strictly according to centuries-old rituals.

Biologist Nikolai Putinzov has the largest collection of insects and amphibians in the Tuva area, near the Mongolian border. Local biodiversity is under serious threat from Chinese companies mining gold in large quantities. 

Yuri in front of his self-built home. “I am a simple worker. Nothing keeps me in the city. All my friends are in the cemetery. Drugs or alcohol. Here the air is clear and not dirty from all the coal dust in the air.”

Yuri built his hut on a dump so he can feed his 15 dogs with what he finds there. 

A large number of fires spread through forests in Siberia this summer. Here, the forest is burning not far from the city of Minusinsk.

A former ballerina, Sofia has been dancing in a local striptease club for six years, after an injury kept her from performing in the Krasnoyarsk State Theatre.

An item from biologist Nikolai Putinzov’s amphibian collection. 

A traditional horse race in the Tuvinese National Festival in the steppe. The horses and their riders cover a distance of 30km, and horses often die in the intense heat. 

Valentin, who injured his head when he dived into a pool of water during the summer holidays.

In Tuva unemployment is very high, and alcohol consumption and the use of synthetic drugs have become major problems. The capital of Tuva, Kysyl, is considered one of the most dangerous cities in Russia.

Valentin describes himself as an anarchist ecologist. Even at minus 50 degrees, he sleeps by the fire, outside, in his small tent.

Khuresh is a type of wrestling and is the national sport of the Tuvan Republic. The fighter who first touches the ground with any part of his body except his feet or hands, loses the game. 

While waiting for the bus, Aida-Cai (‘daughter of the moon’ in Tuvenese) is sleeping in the summer heat, when temperatures can climb to 50 degrees. In winter, it can drop to minus 50 degrees. 

The hydropower plant Sayano-Shushenskaya – the largest in Russia and the ninth largest in the world. Here, the water power of the Yenisei is harnessed.

Tuvan shamans in front of a fire ceremony in the steppe. During the ceremony, spirits are asked for protection and healing.

An old model airplane, one of the treasures Yuri has found on the garbage heap on which he lives.

Driving through the Sayan Mountains, the road passes through 500km of forest. 

Evgenii with his rat Barclay, a pet he bought immediately after watching the animated film Ratatouille.

Ballerina Julia dances for five hours a day at the Academy in Krasnoyarsk.

A small ferry boat is the only connection to the village of Old Believers, Erzhey.

A landscape in the Tuvan Republic – with Shepherd Yuri’s hut.

Shepherd Yuri on his horse.

Fire at a landfill site in Tuva.

A young Tuvan girl. 

Vaselisa at her favourite swimming spot in the village of Erzhey. 

The welcome sign at the settlement Buren-Chem, in the republic of Tuva in south Siberia.

A farmer sitting in front of a shop on the highway south of Minussinsk.

Horses at the Yenisei River.

A worker at harvest time at a farm in Tuva. Here, they mainly grow melons, cabbages and cucumbers. 

Ferryman Alexander transports locals across the river in his boat.


Nanna Heitmann is a German/Russian documentary photographer based between Russia and Germany. Her work has been published by Time Magazine, Le Magazine du Monde, De Volkskrant, Stern Magazine, and she has worked on assignment for outlets including the New York Times, Time Magazine, and The Washington Post.

She has received awards that include the Oscar Barnack Newcomer Award and the Ian Parry Award for Achievement.

She joined the agency Magnum as a nominee in 2019.

All photographs by Nanna Heitmann