Russian photographer Oksana Yushko discusses her work highlighting mixed marriages during the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
By Skyler Inman
Mixed marriages are nothing new to Oksana Yushko. Though she is now based in Moscow, Yushko actually grew up in Ukraine, born and raised in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city. Yushko’s parents met at Kharkiv State University, where they both studied chemistry. Her mother, Engelina, is Russian, and her father, Viktor, Ukrainian; when they married more than fifty years ago, they formed a union that was, to everyone at the time, utterly normal. The ‘mixed’ nature of the marriage, Yushko says, hardly merited mentioning.
Kharkiv, located in what is today the northeastern quadrant of Ukraine, is only a forty minute drive from the Russian-Ukrainian border. But besides the city’s proximity to the Russian Federation, the mixing of families was simply a fact of life in the Soviet Union—especially between Russians and Ukrainians, the two largest ethnic groups.
But following the fall of the USSR and Ukraine’s subsequent national independence, Russia and the European Union began a tug-of-war for influence in Ukraine. Tensions came to a head when President Viktor Yanukovych strayed from Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties to Moscow. Shortly after Yanukovych’s announcement, the widely-covered Euromaidan protests began. When the peaceful protests turned violent following government suppression in early 2014, Parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from his position, and pro-EU president Petro Poroshenko was elected in his place.
That same year, Yushko’s husband, Artur, moved from his native Ukraine to Moscow to live with her (the couple, both of them artists, had met at a photography workshop in Romania the year before). Around that same time, the push-and-pull of Russia and the European Union reached a new height. In March of 2014, Putin announced his country’s annexation of Crimea, a peninsula that joined Ukraine to Russia.
Following the annexation, and the subsequent militia-led uprisings in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern regions, social media was aflame. Russians and Ukrainians no longer saw themselves as neighbors, Yushko says; all of a sudden, they were enemies.
Yushko thought of her own parents, Engelina and Viktor, and of their 50-year marriage, which had never been political. That’s when the idea for Familia was born: an ongoing photographic chronicle of mixed Russian-Ukrainian families. Since Yushko’s project is about showcasing the coexistence and love, the first photograph of the series was of Yushko’s parents in their home in Ukraine. Despite the fiery rhetoric on social media, the reception of her work was immediately positive.
Here, she sits down with TYG to discuss her experiences during the conflict, her own family, and the future of Familia.
TYG: What was it that motivated you to start the project?
Yushko: The crisis between people. I always say the most difficult thing for me was when my friends became enemies of one another—they had nothing to do with politics, they just saw things on social media, reading the news, watching TV, and they became very aggressive. I remember very clearly, it was in the spring of 2014, after Crimea, and the level of aggression was very high. I think people just hated each other. I visited my parents in May of 2014, and it was just… an instant idea that I had. I asked them if I could photograph them, and they agreed. And that was my first photograph. I didn’t think of it as a project at the time. But I put the photograph online and I made my statement and put it next to it. If I were a journalist, I would have written something much longer to go with it, but I’m a photographer. So I posted it, and I just said: Look at them. My mother is Russian, my father is Ukrainian. They never talked about politics before, and I hope they never do. So of course, they also care and they want to live under peaceful skies [in Kharkiv], but I think they could be a model for other people. And suddenly, unexpectedly—like I said, there was lots of aggression from people on social media, so I never thought it would be like this—there were so many likes, reposts, and shares, and they wrote, “Yeah, it’s true. Let’s do this together.” And they started to invite other people to participate in this kind of project. And I thought, “Well… Yes. Let’s do it.” So I asked my friends to share [the post], and if they knew other similar families, to ask them to participate. And so it became… my duty… and so I would take photos for it as often as I could at that time, because I understood that it was important. And [subjects] started to call me, to write me…. It was published worldwide, and during that half a year [after the first post] there was a lot of interest.
TYG: During the spring of 2014, when tensions were at their peak, what kinds of things were people saying?
Yushko: I try not to remember, but I know that it was just very ordinary things—people stopped being friends. Even, like, you know… When this project became a project, it was most important for me to move people beyond that level of thinking, where they say ‘this is white, and that is black.’ Because it’s not like that—it’s a mix of situations, of cultures, of opinions, of people’s thoughts, of bits of propaganda. There are so many [layers] to what was going on that it’s very difficult to say things are black and white, love and hate, this or that. And I know that it’s worked. I heard for example that there was a couple that had almost divorced—not because of the conflict, but because they had different opinions about the conflict—and when you have different opinions but can’t get to the truth, the fighting just goes on forever. So they are both living in this apartment that they rent, it was a difficult economic situation as well [at that time], and they were about to divorce, but they couldn’t just move out of this apartment. So they stayed to live together, but in different rooms. I was told that after they saw the project, they began to think about things differently, and they vowed to stay together. I was impressed, really. I’ve received many very positive opinions from people from abroad, because I think it’s very easy to have an opinion when you read the news, or watch TV, especially when you live very far from the conflict and that’s all you see. So when these people, too, see the project, they start to think differently about the whole situation.
TYG: So how do you find your subjects?
Yushko: Mostly through friends, but sometimes when I’m out on assignment I’ll ask around on my own. Sometimes the discussions come to political things, and I’m very open about these things and am happy to talk about the project. Once, when I was on assignment in the Russian Far East, maybe 400 km from Blagoveshchensk [a city on the border between Russia and China], where I landed, I was photographing a woman who was giving birth to her first child. And while I was waiting for her, I was talking to the doctors in the hospital. They told me that they had a woman who had come from Kiev, Ukraine, and was married to a Russian guy who was native to the town. I immediately asked around to see if I could photograph them. Her name was Tatiana, his was Sergei, and they had also met during university at a nightclub.
TYG: When you’re working on this project, what’s it like to photograph your subjects? Most of the time, you’re meeting them for the first time and you’re in their homes with them. It’s pretty intimate.
Yushko: Yeah. I don’t really think of the project like a project, you know? It’s not like crazy, beautiful photography. It’s a statement I need to make. That’s why I don’t spend that much time with each family—three, four hours at most. And I come to them, I just talk to them, I ask how they met, what their life [is like], why they moved [from Ukraine or Russia]. Most of the time I photograph them while we’re talking; it’s not staged photography.
TYG: Do you avoid talking about the conflict during these visits?
Yushko: No, not at all. Sometimes, I’ve been asked how they can live together if they’re from different parts of the conflict, right? But I say that if they live together, and if they agree to be photographed, I think they don’t have very different opinions. And I think that’s why it’s easy to ask them about the situation, actually.
TYG: We’re just now beginning 2016, but 2014 isn’t that long ago. What’s the situation like now? Are things still very tense between people?
Yushko: I think now it’s much better. First of all, it’s much better from the Ukrainian side. You know, I’m not very professional about politics—I couldn’t [call myself] an expert—so I’m just telling you what I feel. But I had a huge exhibition in March or April in Kiev—so almost a year ago—and even [then], it was much better than two years ago. And I expected that when we came, because it was a collaborative project comparing the situation in Chechnya to the situation in the Donbas region, that people would be aggressive still, but they weren’t. They were just interested to see what it was like on the other side. And now, at the beginning of 2016, I think it’s an even better situation. Before, [people] just needed one person to blame—either one person or just ‘the Russians.’ And as I told you, it’s not a black and white conflict; there are many, many different things happening at once. Now, people don’t just blame the other side, they blame their own government. Right now the political situation in Ukraine is just a disaster. Also, [Ukrainian] friends stopped thinking of Russians as enemies. I don’t think there was as much aggression from Russians towards Ukrainians, of course, because the conflict was happening in Ukraine, not in Russia.
TYG: So you think that most of the anger was due to the fact that these people were there, on the ground, witnessing the conflict?
Yushko: I do, but also from Ukrainians who lived abroad but had friends, relatives, colleagues, who were close to the conflict. And also I think it’s from social media keeping people very tense. The people who suffer, who live in the Donetsk region, they don’t want the conflict to be in their area. They want peace. They want to stay [in their homes]. It’s not that they want to be in Russia or in Ukraine, they just want things to calm down. In the end, that’s what people close to the conflict wanted.
TYG: The first photograph in this series is one of your parents, at home in Ukraine. How did they meet?
Yushko: They studied together at the University of Kharkiv. My mom was born in Russia, and then because of my grandfather—he was a military man—their family travelled a lot. After the Second World War, they decided to stay in Ukraine. It was just easier for the family, and because [Ukraine] was in the USSR, her father was moved there for work. [My parents] were born in 1936 and 1937… So of course they were very young during the war. Now we have this title for [their generation]: the Children of the War. They’ve been together now for 50 years.
TYG: I would imagine that in the USSR, it was fairly normal to come from a mixed Russian-Ukrainian marriage.
Yushko: Yeah, sure, in that period we were all mixed. You would hear stories all the time—somebody went to go live here, went to study there—it was such a big area. Sometimes you can find a diaspora of people: Kazakh people living somewhere in Central Russia, or for example, after deportations, many Chechens used to live in Kazakhstan…It’s all because of our history that we have this mixing.
TYG: Were you very concerned about your parents in 2014 when it was very intense?
Yushko: There were several situations when I thought that I would need to go to Ukraine and take them out immediately. I remember that there was some news in the press [during the summer]—on BBC, I think—that some Russian vehicles had crossed over the border with Ukraine. And it wasn’t true, actually. I remember because later it was written that they were going in the direction of Ukraine, but they didn’t cross. From the Ukrainian side, it was immediately stated that this caravan was destroyed by artillery. But it didn’t even exist!
TYG: So there was lots of misinformation?
Yushko: Exactly. And I read this late at night and immediately I said to myself that I needed to go tomorrow to Ukraine and take my parents out. I called them the next day and checked with them to see what they had heard on the news.
TYG: They never wanted to leave? They wanted to stay?
Yushko: It wasn’t so bad in their region. In Kharkiv, there was one major explosion at a rally [in 2015], but that was it. During that period, it was kind of safe. I checked all the time—my hand was always on the phone.
TYG: On your website, you list Familia as an ongoing project. When do you think it will be complete?
Yushko: When things were very tense, I was very deeply involved. It’s not that way anymore—I mostly do assignments and personal projects—but I think I’ll keep working on this project until… it’s over for me. But it’s not. Nobody is interested anymore, [except for] the people who live there—they still have these blasts, these guns… It’s not like the conflict is over. People still suffer. They don’t have [jobs]. So I’m still working on the project. And that’s the other thing. I didn’t go [to the Donetsk region]. I feel I’m too involved in this conflict. I need distance.
Familia can be found online in full at www.youok.ru/, alongside the artist’s other work.
Skyler Inman is a junior English major in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at email@example.com.