St. Petersburg prides itself on being the cultural capital of Russia. From grand museums and galleries, cathedrals, to luxurious shopping centres – the city is truly a perfect balance between being modern and historic.
However, Alexander Runov (@runovvv on Instagram) has a unique eye for this metropolitan landscape – he captures the authenticity of the city, beyond the advertised sights.
Alexander, who’s 30, has lived in St. Petersburg since the age of seven, he was born in the resort town of Sochi, located in the deep south of Russia. Though he did not formally study photography, he was able to turn this hobby into a part-time job.
“I got my first camera in 2015, at that moment I didn’t know what or how I wanted to photograph. Now I use a Nikon. I only realised that I had an interest in architectural and street photography two years later, in 2017,” Alexander explained.
Inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is known as the pioneer of street photography, Eugene Atget, an architectural-documentary photographer, and photojournalist Walker Evans, Alexander told us that the works of these artists encouraged him to pursue both architectural and street photography.
His Instagram @runovvv has a rich collection of original photographs featuring iconic architecture and the lives of everyday people.
With close to 7,000 followers from all over the globe, Alexander gives the online world a taste of Russian life, and he is always happy to answer and discuss any questions from his followers.
Alexander’s forte is capturing Plattenbau-styled buildings that were built in Soviet times. These buildings are usually known as ‘commie blocks’, and are not common just in Russia, but in many Eastern European countries.
His work has been featured in the city’s gallery and notable Instagram pages such as @streets_storytelling and @brutopolis.
In the Soviet Union, urban planning was centred around building many apartments in a short space of time to ensure that everyone had a place to live; since St. Petersburg is the second biggest city in Russia, it can be easily explained why it is tightly packed with these high-rise living spaces.
The tall multi-storey apartment blocks were generally built during the Brezhnev Era (1964-1982) and were meant for bigger families of five people, as they were more spacious than the Khrushchyovka buildings, which were typically four stories high, and contained apartments that commonly had only one bedroom.
Every New Year’s Eve, a beloved Soviet comedy movie The Irony of Fate is shown on Russian television. A story about a drunken Zhenya who ends up accidentally flying from Moscow to St Petersburg, which was then called Leningrad.
But the catch is that Leningrad also had a street called 3rd Builders’ Street, and the apartment blocks looked exactly the same. So, he ends up in someone else’s home because even the front door key fit the lock.
The movie perfectly explains Brezhnev-Era architecture; how the apartment buildings had the same uniform look in all cities – in true communist style.
One of the most iconic Soviet buildings found in this city is the Central Research Institute of Robotics and Technical Cybernetics, built in 1968, the supreme “tulip” shape remains one of the most recognisable buildings in brutalist architecture.
While some may disregard the appearance of commie blocks; however, Alexander’s vision transforms them from bleak to something mysterious and nostalgic.
Capturing architecture requires thorough planning, as small details such as lighting and position can greatly affect the outcome.
“I often decide beforehand what building I’m going to be photographing, and in what angle. Sometimes I even returned to the location several times, as things like weather can distort the shot,” Alexander tells us.
“My favourite time to photograph is during the twilight hours, as the city’s atmosphere becomes somewhat special, which attracts me as a photographer. Especially, during the summer, when we have white nights,” Alexander said when asked about his favourite time to shoot.
Aside from the busy streets filled with loud cars and rushing people, there are hidden serene locations that one wouldn’t think are located in almost the centre of St. Petersburg. Residents visit them to wind down; some go fishing, and others just spend time with their loved ones.
St. Petersburg is filled with cathedrals and churches, as half of its population practises Russian Orthodoxy. Almost every person is within a walking distance of a church, as this city has close to two hundred places of worship, according to TripAdvisor.
As an artist, Alexander uses street photography to convey people’s everyday life; to capture them in their true emotions.
Inspired by street photography even before he began shooting, two years later after buying his professional camera he was ready to capture strangers.
“For me, street photography is an opportunity to bring out the extraordinary in everyday moments. I want to make the audience feel as if they are present capturing the surrounding atmosphere. At first, I would take photographs from afar, because I was nervous about how people would react. But with time I understood that to get raw and captivating images, I had to be close to the subjects,” Alexander said.
“With time, I started understanding people better, because I was able to analyse social interactions and their reactions through my photos. It made me think about how we fit into society and how we present ourselves to the world. To my surprise, most people don’t pay attention when I photograph them. If I notice someone is uncomfortable, I simply explain to them why I’m doing what I’m doing and if they are not okay with it, I delete it,” he added.
Alexander shared on his Instagram that he holds a degree in Psychology, which he thinks helps him to create profoundly captivating photographs that evoke deep thoughts.
In recent years, Russian culture has received attention from Western countries through fashion and general pop culture. Though many are interested to see what is happening beyond glamour and wealth, and Alexander’s photographs fill that curiosity by telling a story of authentic everyday life.
Tourists may be familiar with St. Petersburg through the famous 1990s period, famously portrayed in the highly regarded movies Brother and Brother 2. In recent years, the Soviet-esque style has been popular in Western fashion. Followers of i-D magazine may have seen the feature fashion video exploring ‘Post-Soviet Generation’, which was partly filmed in St. Petersburg.
Kiosks are a big part of Russian culture and have been since the Soviet times, they are often led by older women and have an interesting mix of items for sale. Anything from snack foods, bus tickets, beverages, toys, magazines, pastries, religious memorabilia, CDs, and stationery.
Some kiosks operate 24/7 and there is always one placed near a bus stop, which makes them immensely popular, especially as a large percentage of residents do not own cars.
Anyone who has been to St. Petersburg will tell you that it is extremely tempting to buy a snack or a drink whilst waiting for the bus. For around 300₽ (£2.89) you can buy a bottle of Pepsi Cola and two meat pies (known as piroshki).
Aside from busses, St. Petersburg is famous for its luxurious metro system, the interior is decorated with pristine marble walls, timeless art, and delicate chandeliers. Many describe it as “stepping into a museum”.
Alexander captures real-life moments featuring many different types of individuals, he explains that the way someone’s expression turns out on a photograph can say a lot about the photographer. “I found that the more open you are to people, the more open they will be to you, which allows the whole story to be told,” he said.
The Western portrayal of Russian babushkas (grandmas) is fairly accurate – seeing babushkas gossiping outside of apartment blocks is a common sight; generally, they are friendly and love to engage in a conversation with strangers. From many experiences, they like to reminisce about the old times or talk about their pets.
There are many playgrounds in the outskirts of the city, to make sure children have a safe place to spend time with their friends. It is quite normal to see children from the age of seven independently playing outside, as at that age they start school. For younger children, school finishes at 2:00pm and after their homework is done, children entertain themselves until their parents return from work.
As St. Petersburg is located in the north of Russia, the temperatures fall extremely low. Because of this, the city has a lot of winter activities to offer, such as ice skating, sledging, which is popular amongst children, as well as outdoor hockey and skiing.
Markets can be found in the outskirts of the city, and they are highly popular amongst the residents, as people are keen to support local sellers. Life can be relatively expensive in St. Petersburg, so markets are a great place to shop for fresh vegetables and fruits grown by farmers. Unique, yet affordable clothing can also be found, and some sellers may even agree to barter.
Some vendors sell their goods outside, the older generation is known to sell knitted clothing, such as socks and gloves. During warmer seasons, flowers and pies with tasty fillings are a popular choice.
St. Petersburg is particularly popular amongst young people, as this city is full of opportunities. Acting as a bridge between Russia and Europe, there is an essence of creative freedom. Students love it as they can travel to Europe in less than 4 hours, by car or train. This city is packed with various chic clubs and hangout locations marketed towards young people.
When we asked Alexander how he would describe St. Petersburg to someone who has never been before, he replied: “For me, St. Petersburg is the city of contrast. The classical and Art Nouveau architecture of the city centre contrasts sharply with the architecture of the Soviet era, which prevails in the periphery. In central you can find all sorts of interesting people, and in residential areas, you’re more likely to find people who ‘fit’ the Russian stereotypes.”
Currently, Alexander is working on a new project, which will be announced soon.
You can follow Alexander on Instagram: @runovvv to find out more and see his full collection of photographs.
All images courtesy of Alexander Runov via Instagram