By Alexis Pazoumian
André Frère Éditions, 2020
It’s rare to find a book that truly startles you, takes you out of the here and now, and transports you to a different world. Yet that is precisely the effect that Alexis Pazoumian’s latest book of photography Sacha had on me. The French-born Pazoumian traveled to Siberia, first to Novosibirsk then to the small city of Yakoutsk where he has distant relatives who moved from Armenia. Yakutia is a frigid region of the world where it is difficult to survive, but it is rich in diamonds, gas and other natural resources. The author then travels even farther north to a tiny village of the Even people, the last reindeer herders in Siberia where he meets with a remarkable man by the name of Sacha, a handsome loner who becomes his guide into a world where most of us would find it difficult to survive for even a day.
It’s rugged land covered in ice and snow, with temperatures that can dip to -50 Celsius or colder, where your skin burns on contact with the air, where you must walk over frozen lakes as you hear the ice crack underneath your feet and where packs of wild wolves may attack at any time. Sacha is a character straight out of fiction who has decided to live a thousand miles from the nearest city in almost complete isolation. He has learned to train, eat and sell reindeer; once a year he sees his friend Rusla who tends a herd and lives even more isolated in the deep woods.
Sacha is also a daring and adventurous tale of snowmobile rides across a thousand miles of open snow where one cannot see several feet in front of one’s own nose. The book also provides an anthropological study of the region, as well as an intimate look at a dying way of life; dying because many Evens and other indigenous peoples of the region have begun to abandon their traditional lifestyle in order to live in urban centers in relative comfort; dying because of what we humans in other parts of the world have so callously done to the planet. As Pazoumian duly notes, Russia is the country whose temperature has increased the most in the past decade, with some experts expecting a rise in almost eight degrees Celsius by the end of the century. As the snow begins to melt, old trails are submerged, tundra disappears and the reindeer starve…as do the wolves and humans and the rest of the food chain. There is also the terrible danger of permafrost thawing, which leads to the collapse of roads and landslides and threatens to release millions of tons of toxic gas into the atmosphere, thus accelerating the greenhouse effect.
Pazoumian also makes us privy to shamanistic festivals, reindeer races and feasts of reindeer meat that include entrails, bowels and eyes! His accompanying text is as beautiful as the pictures. But what remains after finishing Sacha and viewing Pazoumian’s delicate black-and white photos is the almost indescribable beauty of the land and the inner peace the Evens seem to have mastered so far away from what we consider civilization. Drinking vodka with a rare visitor or alone in a tent in the middle of the tundra, reading and sketching, or working all day cutting wood and tracking reindeer merely to survive, Sasha and Rusla seem truly content. From Sacha the man, we learn that happiness does not come from material wealth or technological progress, but from inner contentment and living in unison with nature. As the world around us spins into ever-increasing chaos, it’s a lesson that we in the west might do well to heed.