Photo 51

Like threads of DNA spiraling in ladder formation, Russia’s reliance on corruption for its basic functioning is both commonplace and breathtaking. Starting this project, I knew I did not want the aggressive expressions of it; I could avoid ostentatious nightclubs, would not need to listen at keyholes, nor to sniff out connections with criminals. Really, all I needed was Russia itself. And once I got to St. Petersburg and Moscow, to little towns in Karelia and the Urals, it took no more than a drive or a walk to see it manifested everywhere: the grove of birches banded delicately with crime-scene tape; the crew setting up the Scarlet Sails festival; even a lone car driving down a curving road at night.

Most people don’t acknowledge this, but corruption in Russia has become its own institution, upon which all other institutions run. Without the patron-client transaction, business and education, police and military, medical and judicial operations, don’t happen. With time, it got so I couldn’t pass anything—a building, a traffic intersection, an abandoned farm—without becoming hyper alert to the way it embodied corruption’s creep into every organ of civic society. In a way, my sense of alertness was a mirror for the paranoia and arrogance that weaves corruption so thoroughly into the logistics of people’s daily lives.

While this state of affairs has always ruled, since Putin, government’s grip in all arenas has made it so that corruption is now coded into the entire state and civic apparatus. It’s no wonder everyone wants to work for the government: salaries aren’t the reason—their guaranteed enhancement is. The country is now run by a criminal-corporate syndicate with Putin at the top.

What I’ve come to define as corruption goes beyond any one act and points to the acceptance of the whole system of it. Things that are not normal—bribing, beatings, adultery, cronyism, negligence, chauvinism, lying, and the cynicism of elected officials—are borne as normal.

There’s a joke Russians tell: "The city is great, it’s just that this neighborhood is bad." My aim for this work is start a conversation about why this is funny. How is it that Russians think themselves exempt from the problem of corruption, with everything being government's fault? One way of talking about it is with pictures; I think of Photo 51, the breakthrough X-ray diffraction image shot in 1952 that provided researchers with a way to model the structure of DNA. To me, Photo51 signals photography’s power to draw out what is latent and make it visible. I want to employ this power and begin to identify corruption’s warping effect on Russian society’s DNA.

On the day of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration to his controversial third term as Russia’s President, two men take a bus to work in the Republic of Karelia. Their place of employment, seen in the background, is the Segezha penal colony, where Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of the Yukos oil company and once Russia's wealthiest man, was serving a 13-year prison sentence for tax evasion, money laundering and embezzlement. He was considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

Just outside the ”closed city” of Snezhinsk (Chelyabinsk Region), a group of teenagers marked off their camp site with caution tape. Severe limits on private property in the Soviet Union made Russians prone to staking and fencing off anything they deem their own. Even years after the fall of the Soviet Union, such paranoia still governs much of daily life.

A fishing net is pulled out of the foamy waters of the Izhora River, one of the Neva’s main tributaries, just outside of St. Petersburg. While they admit they would not swim in it, local residents ignore the fact that the river is one of the most polluted in Russia – numerous sewage drains channel untreated waste into it from nearby factories.

Timber yard in Karelia. Russia's numerous forests are cut down at an alarming scale with most of the timber exported. The timber industry is worth around 20 billion dollars per year, however illegal logging is immeasurable. This yard is said to belong to Yelena Baturina, once Russia's richest woman and wife of former Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov. During his rule her company was one of Russia's biggest construction companies.

A security guard in the Konstantinov Palace in St. Petersburg, one of President Putin’s official residences. The palace was built in the 18th century, fell into disrepair, and was then reconstructed in 2001 with “donations” apparently demanded from private companies, which are acknowledged on a gilded plaque inside. The renovation began shortly after Putin's inauguration to his first term as president. Now, for a price, anyone can rent it out.

A gas line elevated above a street in a village in the Urals. Russia holds the world's largest natural gas reserves, provides half the world with gas, and yet half of the country's population has no gas lines. Most of the villages lack not only gas, but also running water with people living not very different than a hundred years ago.

In the Russian Republic of Karelia, a family celebrates May 9th―WWII Victory Day―as their patriarch, a one-legged amputee, watches from the car. The nearby monument commemorating the fallen reads, ”No one is forgotten. Nothing is Forgotten.” While this phrase has become a national post-war slogan, in reality the extraordinary number of MIA’s has never been officially acknowledged. The rocky hills and forests of this and neighboring regions are still littered with thousands of unburied dead, whose remains were never identified.

A gas line elevated above a street in a village in the Urals. Russia holds the world's largest natural gas reserves, provides half the world with gas, and yet half of the country's population has no gas lines. Most of the villages lack not only gas, but also running water with people living not very different than a hundred years ago.

A mural depicting a palace on a building in one of the poorest neighborhoods in St. Petersburg. Most of the residential buildings in this neighborhood are composed of communal flats, a relic of post-1917 revolutionary Russia. Dozens of families, each family crammed into one room, share one apartment with a communal kitchen and bathroom. In St. Petersburg still thousands of people continue to live in such conditions.

Two young immigrants from Central Asia look out of the window of a shop onto the Neva River in St. Petersburg, where a fireworks display is taking place. Millions of them come to Russia looking for jobs and most of them stay illegally, facing continuous threats both from police looking for bribes and nationalists.

An official garbage dump, located near a main highway in Karelia, stretches for miles. Local officials claim there is no money to install trash bins, not to mention more efficient waste processing, and appeal to the neighboring Finland for financial help. Despite such dumps and numerous illegal dumps, the regional slogan is “Karelia is all about nature.”

Couples enjoying themselves at one of Moscow's exclusive night clubs. One night out can easily cost a few hundred dollars in the city, with very few being able to afford such a lavish lifestyle. Yet these clubs are popular, as it is customary for men to entertain themselves away from their wives during the week.

A young man beats a woman on a Moscow street, while police and bystanders look on without intervening. Moscow's Anna National Center for the Prevention of Violence reported in 2012 that a third of Russian women suffer domestic violence and that it kills as many as 14,000 of them each year -- around four times more per capita than in the United States.

Sidewalk on the Garden Ring, the circular avenue around central Moscow. Sergey Sobyanin, Moscow’s new mayor and a President Putin loyalist, made the reconstruction of the city’s historic streets his pet project for which millions of dollars in funds were allocated. Unqualified migrant workers were hired to save on labor costs while the difference was pilfered. Metal plates patch up defects in the brand new pavement.

Crews working on the set of the Scarlet Sails, a traditional celebration in St. Petersburg marking the end of the school year in June. This famous event draws millions to its spectacular fireworks and numerous music concerts. For years, Scarlet Sails has been marred by allegations of cronyism and misuse of millions of public funds.

A window of an abandoned mosque in the village of Muslyumovo. This village was on the banks of the Techa River in Russia's Urals, which for many years was a dumping ground for lethal radioactive waste from the Mayak nuclear complex, located less than an hour's drive from Muslyumovo.

On a tree trunk in a forest outside Medvezhyegorsk, Republic of Karelia, hangs a photograph of one of the countless political prisoners who died at this mass execution and burial site in the late 1930s. The Russian government has made no effort to recover or identify the individual remains of the Gulag inmates who are known to have perished here. Now many people think of Stalin not as a dictator and murderer of millions of his own people, but as a strong leader; Putin’s current government supports this reputation.

A cemetery in Kronshtadt, a former island fortress and traditional seat of the Russian admiralty, houses the remains of naval officers from the last three centuries. The town is clearing the old graves to make room for new ones. Unless, that is, relatives of the buried are willing to pay to keep their loved ones’ graves.

Windows of this dilapidated apartment block in St. Petersburg are covered with steel plates. Officially, the building should be vacant but unofficially hundreds of illegal migrants are housed in it. Mostly from Central Asia they come to Russia looking for work. Because these men don't have work permits employers pay them meager wages and treat as slaves, while the police harass them for bribes.

A traffic policeman stands in his booth at an intersection. Police (and public officials) constitute the most corrupt state institutions in Russia, according to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer for 2010-2011. Because police so routinely sell their power, drivers regularly tuck money in with their documents when they are pulled over. In fact, at every intersection of citizen with state, an envelope of money smooths the process.

Bychiy Island on the Neva River has long been home to a children’s ecological school and student yacht club. It is now being developed
into a private, $100 million judo mega-complex, headed by Arkady Rotenberg, President Putin’s childhood sparring partner. Putin, a black belt in judo, serves as the club’s honorary president.

Several granite tomb stones stand in a shop at a cemetery. The burial business in Russia is one of the most corrupt ones. People have to pay thousands of dollars for good land plots, appropriate burial ceremonies, and for commemorative monuments.

A car flashes its headlights on a highway. For centuries Russia was known for its lack of good roads and nothing has changed today, despite the government claiming to spend billions on improvements. Most of the money allocated for building and maintaining roads ends up in personal coffers of bureaucrats.

A woman, a new recruit's mother, stands at the entrance of a St. Petersburg enlistment center, waiting to cast a glance at her son. Recruits from this center are sent to serve in various regions, as far as Vladivostok, and few parents get to see their sons regularly. Hundreds of soldiers die in accidents or commit suicide every year, about a third from hazing.

The window of a shop reflects a mobile jail, such that the store name, Vertu, looks like a license plate on the truck. Vertu sells luxury mobile phones, encrusted with diamonds or rubies, with golden or platinum cases and is quite popular among the country's elite. The mobile jail, an Ural truck, is used by riot police to lock up and transport anti-Putin demonstrators.

Sailors guard a door to the command center of the Navy's Baltic Sea Fleet. The Russian military is still a source of national pride—but most parents do everything they can to exempt their sons from doing the one-year compulsory military service because of widespread, often lethal, hazing.

Military medical personnel at a Saint Petersburg’s main enlistment center take a moment of rest from examining incoming conscripts and deciding which are fit for service. Military service is mandatory for all healthy young men between 18 and 27, but draft avoidance is widespread. For those with cash to spare, bribery of these doctors is the most expedient means of securing an exemption from service.

A centuries-old pavement in Kronshtadt patched by slobs of asphalt. Here in St. Petersburg, in prime tourist destination, just like in the rest of the country, government spends very little on restoration and upkeep of historical monuments and buildings. Instead they are allowed to crumble to be replaced by replicas and sold as prime real estate.

Rafik, 62, stands on the street where his home once stood in the village of Muslyumovo, whose residents were evacuated six years ago to New Muslyumovo, a mile away. The village was on the banks of the Techa River in the Urals, which for many years was a dumping ground for lethal radioactive waste from the Mayak nuclear complex, located less than an hour's drive from Muslyumovo.

A boy plays on the embankment of the Moscow River. The street next to it has been cleared of traffic by the police in anticipation of an official motorcade. Especially in Moscow, drivers face daily road closures for several hours while the President, the Prime Minister, or some visiting dignitary, speeds through the deserted streets.

A wheelchair-bound amputee holds on for balance as he ascends an escalator. Moscow's metro system, like much of the country, is not equipped for access for disabled people. There are very few elevators in the system, and many stations lack ramps on the stairways. Most of the transfers between stations are connected only by stairs and, generally, at least one flight of stairs leads from street level to the Metro entrance.

Russia’s Chelyabinsk region is home to a number of industries that service the military, including the “strategic industries” now-infamous Mayak nuclear complex, which dumped waste into local rivers. The area was closed to foreigners until 1992. It has since been deemed one of the most polluted places on Earth.

A barb-wired fence surrounding Admiralty Ship-yard in St. Petersburg, Russia's most famous ship-yard. Hundreds of ships were born at this wharf during the Tsarist and Soviet times. Now, very few leave its docks while workers' salaries are regularly late because of problems with funds as the Defense Ministry is not paying its bills.

Charred remains of a house in a village Komarovo just outside of St. Petersburg. Houses are routinely burned there, especially of those people who refuse to sell out their property. Land prices have considerably risen in that area, and this property is a good investment opportunity.

An ad for buying drivers licenses and medical sick-leave certificate as well as other official documents is painted on a sidewalk. Such ads are splattered everywhere. While it is possible to obtain all of these documents through a normal route, it can take days and lots of nerves, so the majority of people prefer to pay a company, which acts as an intermediary between a person and a bribed official in charge of the needed document.

A Nazi symbol “14/88” originating from a phrase used by white nationalists and from Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf is painted on a building wall in central St. Petersburg. Membership in fascist and neo-Nazi groups has become a common pastime for thousands of youth. Highly organized and very violent they attack anyone who looks different, killing and injuring hundreds of people each year, while the police and prosecutors prefer to ignore the problem.

Hotel door facing a beach on the Gulf of Finland near St. Petersburg. It is not clear how the owners were allowed to build this at a nature preserve, and why they chose a metal door with a peep-hole, more appropriate for an office or a sinister gangster hangout than a welcoming hotel.

A tourist attraction near St. Petersburg. Though this giant head, said to be 200 years old, and a little water source next to it are quite popular, little is done for maintenance or cleaning. The woods nearby are littered with garbage from hundreds of people walking through.

A classroom at an abandoned vocational school in a town of Segezha in Karelia. Students at this school used to learn various skills useful for working at the local paper plant. Most of the town's residents worked at this plant, but after a number of buy-outs the plant now employs less than 2 thousand people, and most of the town's residents are now unemployed.

Embankment of the White Sea – Baltic Sea Canal, also known as Belomorkanal in Russia. Opened in 1933 it was constructed by GULAG inmates with about 100,000 of them perishing during construction. Today only a dozen or so boats pass through it daily, as it is very shallow – inadequate for most sea-going vessels. Despite its almost abandoned state, it is still considered a strategic object, off-limit to photographers and journalists.

A tapestry hanging in one of the halls of the Konstantinov palace. While built in the 18th century, it became one of the Presidential residences just a decade ago, and was reconstructed to resemble its former glory and luxury. Replicas of old furniture and decorations are everywhere, with rumors of golden toilets still circulating.

Happy workers are marching towards a better tomorrow on this bas-relief in Medvezhyegorsk's city hall. A former GULAG headquarters this building now also houses a market and a number of other local businesses. Thousands of people have perished in that area of Karelia, their names are still unknown, their remains are still unidentified in mass graves. In today's Russia many people think of Joseph Stalin not as a dictator and murderer of millions of his own people, but as a strong leader, and this message is supported by the current government.

Paint spilled on one of the main Saint Petersburg streets. The city is Russia's top tourist destination, and yet the streets are cleaned irregular, buildings' facades are crumbling, and traffic is horrid.

Paint spilled on one of the main Saint Petersburg streets. The city is Russia's top tourist destination, and yet the streets are cleaned irregular, buildings' facades are crumbling, and traffic is horrid.