As a girl, Liliya Yamkina held a power that no other person in her clan shared—she could turn a mysterious, silent piece of paper into spoken words.
She remembers feeling important to her people. Adults would ask her to read their official documents and letters—written in Russian—aloud to them. This magic knowledge of hers was so necessary to her people that her father forbade her to attend college. Remarkable for a young woman in that time and place, she enrolled against his objections. However, she regrets the discord it caused and her parents died only a few years later.
Born in 1944, Liliya Yamkina now lives in Yar-Sale, a remote village in the Yamalo-Nenets area in Northern Siberia, where she spends most of her time at home in her apartment.
Liliya’s people, the Nenets, native to arctic Northern Siberia, herd reindeer and migrate with the seasons over vast distances. Among the Nenets, elderly men are encouraged to continue migrating with the clan while women may find themselves living alone.
The seemingly endless white landscape that once defined Liliya’s life lives on in her as a distant dream. She longs for the snowy tundra, folk tales around the bonfire, her magic being needed. Isolated, she feels forgotten. But in her apartment, she keeps a notebook in a closet, and in that notebook, she writes love songs—love songs for the tundra.
Everything I know of Liliya I know because of Oded Wagenstein—the photographer who took an international flight, then “a sixty-hour train ride from Moscow, and a seven-hour bone-breaking drive across a frozen river” to meet her and other women from her clan.
Oded studied sociology, anthropology and film at Tel Aviv University and uses photography to “explore the relationship between aging, longing and memory.” In a photo essay for The Guardian, he wrote that Liliya’s dream was to publish her songs in a magazine. Listening to the evocative, enigmatic song he’d recorded her singing, I wondered what her lyrics said.
Oded’s photographs of Liliya now, and the landscapes of her past, convey the stark contrast between her two worlds. Fittingly, in both portraits of her, she looks toward her windows—a veil between her past and present, as if remembering riding across the tundra and wind on her face.
In a silhouette, Liliya stands in a dark inner room of her apartment looking through a diaphanous curtain at interior windows of another room in which a lace curtain covers a window opening into daylight—making the intensity of longing and the power of memory visible.
In a portrait, Liliya sits at her kitchen table surrounded by a still life of lilacs in full bloom, an elaborate wall clock and an impressive magnet collection on her refrigerator door. She wears a traditional long-sleeved green gown with gold and crimson brocade and a white fur scarf at her neck. Lace curtains filter the light of that other world as it tries to enter the kitchen, and she gazes out the window as if there is no curtain, no other buildings, and she can see a long line of reindeer pulling the clan’s sleds ahead of her.
“I did not want the story to be about a tribal or ‘exotic’ group of people,” Oded commented in response to a reader. “I want it to be just about people. I believe that the struggle of aging in isolation is a universal matter we all should address.”
After my wife and I read Oded’s photo essay, she asked if there was any way I could help make Liliya’s dream a reality. I wrote to Oded the way I play the lottery every few years—expecting absolutely nothing.
Just over an hour later, he sent an English translation of the song she’d sung for him.
A Good Path
by Liliya Yamkina
Mother gave me four little reindeer and father made a sled
Snow, please stop falling
Wind, please stop whistling in my ears because I need a good path.
Ah hey, hey hey hey
My lover is waiting for me there
Ah hey, hey hey hey
My lover is waiting for me there.
Written in 2008, when Liliya was 64, she translated her song from Nenets to Russian. Igor Novikov translated it from Russian to English. Her song came to me untitled and so I chose one from Liliya’s own words. Oded says that somewhere in the world, there is a music teacher teaching children to sing Liliya’s song. I imagine the children enjoy singing the chorus—“ah hey, hey hey hey”—a call to encourage reindeer pulling the speaker’s sleigh. But among several intriguing aspects of the lyrics, the speaker references her mother, father and lover—suggesting she’s a young woman, not a child anymore, traveling with her parents’ blessings and help to meet not just her lover, but her future.
In this way, perhaps Liliya’s song rewrites parts of her own life.
Later, Oded wrote to say that Liliya agreed to send more songs by mail and answer a few of my questions with the translator’s help, but she’d become “very sick (something with her heart) and was feeling too weak to read her songs.” Therefore, because it was not a good time to interview Liliya, Oded kindly agreed to share more of his own experience in speaking with her.
Did Liliya tell you how she learned to read?
Liliya was born in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution. At that time, many of the Nenets’ children were sent to state schools to learn the Russian language. Since she told me that she was the only one in her clan who knew how to read, I guess she too was sent to those schools. She still remembers how vital and necessary she felt when she read everyone the official letters and documents they received from the authorities. She realized that her power in that traditional and patriarchal tribal system was her knowledge and love for the written word. That sparked her dream to become a teacher. After college, Liliya returned to the tundra to teach her people to read.
What was she like in person? Shy or welcoming (or both)? Quiet or talkative? Content or sad?
The first time I saw Liliya was through a narrow doorway. She looked very pale, and she told us (I was traveling with an interpreter) that she had a cold. I told the interpreter that we must leave because I did not want to bother her. I know that the last thing I want when I’m sick is people knocking on my door and asking questions. When he translated what I said, she closed the door, and I thought that was the end of my time with Liliya. But suddenly the door opened wide, and we were invited in. “She wants us to stay for tea,” my interpreter said. I’d already spent a few days in that community, and I knew it would be insulting to refuse. “Ok, but only for five minutes,” I insisted. “Then we must leave.” But as we started talking about her memories and stories of the past, she looked different—she was glowing. It seemed as if she was just waiting for someone to come and ask her to tell those stories, and those “five minutes” turned into a few hours.
In all the conversations I had in this community, longing was a dominant part—but with Liliya, it was particularly prominent. She missed nature and the migration journeys, but most of all, she talked about missing her parents. I thought about my own parents and on all those long months I was away from home, working. It made me feel sad because I knew that Liliya was yearning for something that will never be realized. I think this is a key aspect of this project and my work on aging—that sense of longing for something long gone.
Do you know if the women you interviewed ever spend time together? Do they socialize and tell stories over tea? I can’t help but wish this is so, to ease their loneliness.
Some of the women I met know each other—in fact, I came to meet a few of them following a recommendation—but most of them have problems in mobility, so they do not get to see each other often.
Studying one of your portraits of Liliya, I notice that she likes refrigerator magnets. Did you happen to see them closely? Were they random or thematic?
Thank you for this wonderful question. I was attracted to these magnets as soon as I saw them, and for me, they are an important part of the composition. They reminded me of my wife’s grandmother—who, like Liliya, had a large and chaotic collection of magnets from different parts of the world, given to her as gifts by other people.
On the one hand, I find that there is something very homey about these magnets, like pictures from a family album, with colorful scenes of vacation; on the other, I always felt that those magnets we gave my wife’s grandmother every time we traveled were a reminder of all the places she couldn’t visit anymore. I felt the same when I photographed Liliya. There is something homey but at the same time, a bit alienating. As if she is saying: “those memories on the refrigerator are not mine.”
Is there anything else of note that you recall but did not add to your photo essay?
In my last phone conversation with Liliya, she said that she “could not hear so well, and that it will be much easier if I come and revisit her.” When my interpreter explained that I live 2,715 miles away, she said “It doesn’t matter! Come and visit again and I can make us some tea.”
It broke my heart.
Because she does not have access to the outer world through the internet, I hope that Liliya will receive in the mail the printed color copy that will be sent of this essay about her life and her love song—and that a translator will read it to her, just as she once read to her clan. Liliya, if you’re hearing this: Thank you for the gift that you’ve given to other women and the world. May you continue writing and sharing your beautiful, moving, invaluable songs.
Oded Wagenstein contributed reporting.