“You think I live here alone? Look at those hills, each has its name, its character. I can call them my best friends. A deer started to come here every night; it has a sleeping place nearby. And foxes, hogs and bears come as well. I’m not afraid of them. You know a bear won’t touch you until you touch it. But a man can do you harm just for nothing. An animal understands a man better. If you do good to an animal, it will never forget it. But a man can. Once a bird sat down on my shoulder, and I felt that it was my greatest distinction.”
The sentiment is expressed by one man among many who, for various reasons, has intentionally retreated into the remote wooded areas of Russia and Ukraine to live in solitary. They are the hermitic subjects in photographer Danila Tkachenko’s haunting “Escape” series.
“For three years, I was looking for people who had completely decided to abandon public life and live alone in the wild. I traveled to 20 different regions of Russia and Ukraine, including Altai, Urals, Siberia,” Tkachenko tells In Sight.
Tapping into a network of journalists, friends of friends, the Internet and other resources, Tkachenko spent weeks collecting information about anyone who may have sought to disconnect themselves from mainstream society to live as lone travelers, hermits and foresters.
“I am concerned about the issue of internal freedom in the modern society,” Tkachenko states. “How feasible it is when you’re surrounded by a social framework all the time. School, work, family — once in this cycle, you are a prisoner of your own position, and have to do what you’re supposed to. You should be pragmatic and strong, or become an outcast or a lunatic.”
Some of the men retreated because of the emotional toll of having lost a loved one to death. Others to escape the guilt that consumed them even after having served their prison sentence. And some simply to tap into a harmonious bliss so richly afforded by observing nature in its element. Some of the men work as farmers, and others as hunters, carrying and using only what is necessary and nothing that is superfluous. Hidden within lush woods, their homes, constructed from twigs, dirt, hay, tree trunks and branches, have become chameleon-like fixtures blending into the landscape.
“Typically, the average person I encountered lived for some 10-15 years by themselves already,” Tkachenko writes. “I was wondering what happens to a man who has been living for so long outside of society. I have noticed that these people were very open and were like children with their spontaneity and free manner of communication, speaking freely what is on their mind and tongue. I brought some of them food as present, and there have been cases where some refused to communicate with me. If contact was possible, I spent at least one day with them and asked to take their portrait. I used to tell them about what was happening in the world, and sometimes I helped them with the housework.”
Note: To preserve their privacy and anonymity, Tkachenko has opted to not document any information regarding the names or locations of his subjects in the photos.
“I went away after my wife’s death. She might have been saved, but no one gave us money. During the first two years, it was kind of hard. Once, in winter, I woke up with frozen fingers. Had to chop them off. Then I got used to it. Each of us must have the courage to survive. So I gave myself an order: Survive! And surviving means living! I feel much better here. I don’t like people, don’t like talking to them. Wherever you go, people chase you and try to impose their disgusting ways of life on you and force you to join their gloomy and absurd community. There, a man makes himself a mechanism. Rules for everything. The man himself is eliminated. Robbed of his living soul. Yet they call themselves progressivists.”