You Can Visit Paris, Berlin, and Warsaw … In Russia
Most people wouldn’t expect to see the Eiffel Tower rising out of a field in rural Russia. Yet there it is, towering over the dirt roads and metal rooftops of a village called Paris. It is one of 32 communities named for cities in Europe, and Roman Makhmutov is documenting them all in his ongoing series Euro Integration.
Most of the villages and towns sit in the southern Ural Mountains in western Russia. People started settling them in the early 19th century, and named them for cities or regions where Russia had won military battles. Paris, Russia, commemorates the battle in 1814 that sent Napoleon into exile. Balkans, Russia, draws its name from the Russo-Turkish War that ended in 1878.
Makhmutov grew up in Magnitogorsk, which is west of Paris. He never thought much about the town, or others named for European locales, until a road trip through Italy last spring. Even as he snapped one photo after another, Makhmutov realized he hadn’t spent any time documenting his homeland’s unique qualities. “I realized that Russia itself is a much more interesting subject to be explored with a camera,” he says.
In June, Makhmutov did a little online research and embarked on a six-day tour of 17 villages that took him across 820 miles of countryside. He started in Fere-Champenoise, named for the French city where French and Cossack soldiers crossed swords in 1814. It ended in Warsaw, consecrated after the November Uprising in Poland. The road trip lead him to all sorts of discoveries. “Some roads were great, some were weathered, and some were so awful that one could drive no faster than [10 mph],” he says.”“But you feel absolute freedom—you can just drive off-road wherever and whenever you want, no fences, no boundaries, no restrictions.”
At each location, he stopped his Audi A6 to explore on foot. He was surprised to find the villages more modern than expected. Sports centers and shopping malls sat amid farmhouses and relics of the past. “You can find houses built in the Tsar era next to Soviet monuments next to modern imported cars,” he says. “I tried to capture all of this to see how they all fit in one surrounding, in one place.”
Makhmutov usually placed his tripod-mounted Nikon D810 on the trunk of his car for a high POV. The sweeping perspective brings to mind old landscape paintings and conveys the same quiet drama, with small figures amid washed-out terrain. He later tweaked the images to emulate the look of film and highlight quirkier details like the airplane mounted outside a shopping mall or a garage door mural featuring a Soviet-era tank.
It’s tempting to search for visual clues in Makhmutov’s images that link the villages to their namesakes. But unlike Paris and its ersatz Eiffel Tower, most lack a tribute to their European counterparts beyond a small plaque or monument commemorating a battle. No one in Fere-Champenoise, for instance, has any particularly special interest in France. “People just live their lives, and from time to time joke about it,” one local told him. “They say, ‘We are the French who live in our own France.’”
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