For three years, photographer and anthropologist Makar Tereshin has been traveling to the Arkhangelsk region and documenting the life of those who hunt for space metal debris around the area of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. We are publishing Makar’s short story about the unexpected consequences of space exploration, as well as his photographs from the expeditions followed by fragments of conversations with local residents.
Seven years ago, due to my interest in the temple architecture of the Russian North, I traveled around the Arkhangelsk region. It was while visiting the villages along the Onega river that I first heard about the Plesetsk Cosmodrome—my interlocutors complained about the space vehicle launches and connected them with the deterioration of the health of local people. However, according to them, in other villages in the region’s northeast which were in the fallout zones of the first stages of step rocketsSuch rockets usually have several sets of staging, each of then equipped with its own engine. As soon as the fuel in the engine is exhausted, the staging is jettisoned and falls down under the influence of gravity. launched from Plesetsk, people faced even more spaceport-related concerns. This is how I first heard about the Mezensky District, where the debris of step rockets serve as a reminder of the earth's periphery to space infrastructure and the ways in which it directly impacts the lives of people affected by the process of space exploration.
A couple of years later, on an early morning in January, I stood in a snow-covered pine forest bordering a swamp stretching between two rivers in the Mezen basin. Below, there was a large cone-shaped barrel—a “Soyuz” rocket stage, which my companion and I were slowly cleaning the snow from. When we finished, Nikolay opened the rocket body with a chainsaw and showed me the stamp on one of the engine parts, explaining that the stage had been there since 1989—it was then that the Mezen village dwellers became more frequent visitors to the fallout zonesFallout fields are part of the ground-based space infrastructure, a place where separating parts of launch vehicles land. for the purpose of collecting rocket stages . Working at the cosmodrome or forming their own brigades, experienced entrepreneurs began space metal hunting to partly provide for their families by submitting them for recycling or to use the material themselves: for example, for the manufacturing of boats, furnaces, and grave fences.
Tracing the trajectories of rocket stages and the local residents’ sudden encounters with them, I focused on the experience of hunters whose lands overlapped with fallout zones. Faced with a radical transformation of life and uncertainty during the years of the (post) Soviet crisis, they began to develop new territories for procurement of rocket stages . At the same time, brigades had to establish new orders for their extraction and form networks of interactions in a landscape that was just beginning to become familiar to them. Long weeks spent in the taiga allowed them to study rocket “behavior”—the trajectories of their fall and the places where they could look for new rocket stages after the next launch. The construction of wilderness huts and ice roads, as well as the preparation of new lands for the procurement of missiles, made settling in these territories possible.
While working on this project, I found it important to problematize the extra/terrestrial material, environmental and technological connections that ensure the possibility of a human presence in space. Attention to step rocket stages allows us to see how the development of new frontiers beyond Earth links some people’s lives to ruined landscapes. Thus, the territorial distribution of space infrastructure in the Mezen Basin recontextualizes the “wild” spaces of the North as the most suitable places for reaching Earth’s orbit.
By addressing the fallout zones, I associate space exploration not only with popular images of modernity, extraterrestrial research, or human mobility, but also with consistent pollution, and political and ecological alienation. This allows the rethinking of the exploration of space and its attendant littering of ever larger spaces as an enterprise that extends human aspirations devastating life on Earth beyond our planet. Fallout zones blur the boundaries, revealing mundane interdependencies in space exploration that do not fit the ordinary planetary (both global and local) scales. While contaminating and destabilizing life in the radius of the space infrastructure, discarded rocket stages provide new opportunities to sustain the lives of those affected by space launches.
The project features photographs that I took during field work in the Mezen River Basin and Plesetsk Region in 2017-2020. Archival images and video documentation were provided by my interlocutors who worked in rocket stages procurement teams in the 2000s. I also used photographs from the hunter V. Lokachev’s private archive. My interlocutors’ names have been altered.
Translated from Russian by Olga Bubich