My grandmother is preparing herself for the trip. She had to give her cat to a grandson, who is living in the countryside, because it got sick in the new apartment without the option to go outside. (Aliona Kardash) Curtains in my grandmother’s house that she made herself. She did a lot of handicrafts until she began to have health issues as her hands and eyesight worsened. (Aliona Kardash)
In 2018, there were about 10 million more women than men in Russia. The numbers are even more astounding when you look at the group of people ages 65 and older — there are almost two times as many women as men. Men are dying younger from alcohol-related diseases, insufficient health care, or hard and risky work, while their widows are getting older alone, becoming an archetypical Russian grandmother — babushka.
My story is not unique. I’ve never seen my grandfather, but my grandmother was always near to me, at least near for Siberia; I was able to reach her village in four hours by bus.
Maria Antonovna Olkhovskaya turned 90 in August. She has three daughters, six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Her life was extraordinary but her circumstances were not unique.
She was born in a small hamlet in the Siberian taiga. Being a war child, she suffered through hunger and hard manual labor. She went to four years of school and when she was young, she worked in a sawmill and in a stokehold; she took care of everything at home. She kept 10 domestic animals at the same time as a huge vegetable garden.
I started to photograph my grandmother four years ago, when I realized that I wanted to keep a visual memory of her and the beautiful world she had created around herself. At that time, I couldn’t imagine that this story would have a twist so late in her life.
In the winter of 2017, my grandmother got very sick for what seemed like possibly the last time. In the spring, she gradually got better. But for our family, it was clear that she couldn’t live so far from the city anymore and take care of the house, where there isn’t even running water or a proper heating system. In the autumn, as a widow of a World War veteran, she received money from the Russian government to buy an apartment for herself. In December, she moved to a city for the first time in her life. Her new one-room flat, which she jokingly calls “a castle,” is located in Tomsk, a city with roughly half a million inhabitants. Here, she has had new experiences from something as simple as a bath to as flustering as a visit to a shopping mall, with the overall blessing of being able to see her family more than ever.
My grandmother and her oldest daughter Vera are singing a song while celebrating my grandmother's 86th birthday. Vera is the only one of her three children who didn’t move to the city and stayed in the same village. This makes my grandmother sad sometimes, because she didn’t want her daughters to have the same life that she had. (Aliona Kardash) My grandmother having dinner. In Obskoye, where the sun goes down around 4 p.m. in the winter, there are only three lanterns for the whole village. (Aliona Kardash) A bookcase with pictures and presents from her grandchildren. Every morning and evening, my grandmother comes to this bookcase and wishes good morning and good night to each of the portraits. (Aliona Kardash) My mother takes a portrait of her three older siblings off the wall to pack it up for the road. She never got to know her oldest brother, who died as a child of tick-borne encephalitis. (Aliona Kardash) In the winter of 2017, my grandmother got very sick. All of her three daughters gathered in Obskoye — even the middle daughter from Krasnodar traveled 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) to be there. After a month and a half, my grandmother began to recover. But it was a signal that she could not live so remotely without proper medical treatment anymore. (Aliona Kardash) Everything my grandmother took to her new life fit inside the minivan of her oldest grandson. (Aliona Kardash) My grandmother sits in her new apartment on a new bed, which her grandchildren put together two hours before her arrival. The drawings on the walls are from the children of the previous owners, and my grandmother plans to replace them with a wallpaper of birch trees. (Aliona Kardash) My grandmother, at 88, takes the first bath of her life. (Aliona Kardash) My grandmother explores a local shopping mall in Tomsk. She was very curious to see this brand-new world but now vows to never go there again. She got dizzy from all the neon lights and glass, and her shoes were so slippery that she was afraid that she would fall down. (Aliona Kardash) One of her daughters, a granddaughter and a great-grandson drink tea in my grandmother's kitchen. She now receives more guests than ever before, because it’s possible to reach her by public transport. (Aliona Kardash)
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