Knowing where you came from, where your roots lie, who your ancestors were, and what they possibly might have endured getting your family to where they are — questions that many children of immigrants will have gone through. A universal, yet incredibly individual experience. This urge of knowing those who’ve come before us and telling their story, making sure that they’re not forgotten, it’s one that often won’t let go. A story that fights to get told. This particular sense of storytelling is what Daniel Zvereff beautifully showcases in his photography, his work traces the emigration story of Daniel’s family — how his grandfather escaped the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and first immigrated to China, before being forced to leave again, this time to the Philippines, and finally settling in North America. Daniel’s images not only demonstrate a deep understanding of interpersonal relationships, but they are also an incredible example of his abilities as not only a storyteller but as the keeper of his own family history. While the photographer continues to travel through Russia, China, and countries that in the past were unwillingly made a part of the Soviet Union, he connects with people through his work and documents the finding of his own roots. Because the work of being a good storyteller, first and foremost encompasses being a good listener. Truly hearing what people are sharing with you, what the landscape pushes you to see, rather than what you’d like to see. Daniel Zvereff’s ongoing series is an awe-inspiring piece of work that spans continents and generations. One that will only increase in its scope. Here, the photographer speaks about his travels and work in his own words.
“My mood was grave. I was troubled by the fate of my wife and son, who were left behind in Minusinsk, and by the fact that I had to leave my motherland. I remember, as if it were yesterday, that my torment grew worse when we started ascending into the Sayan Mountains. When we reached the mountain pass, my torment turned into pain.”
— Excerpt from Yakov Zvereff’s Memoir. Summer of 1920.
Our perception of reality is defined by the events unfolding around us, and how we interpret them develops the qualities of our character and personality. Although they are truly individual experiences, these events can affect the course of future generations’ lives as well.
Let me explain.
I, Daniel Zvereff, am a first generation American.
When I was a kid, my father would tell the story of our family’s escape from the Bolshevik revolution in Russia of 1917. To escape the chaos of the internecine warfare that engulfed the Russian landscape, my great-grandfather fled south by caravan from Siberia through Mongolia, braving starvation and roving bands of marauders. Shortly before reaching the Mongolian capital of Urga (Ulaanbaatar), as luck would have it, my great-grandfather separated his family and a small group of people from the caravan and went ahead, thinking a smaller group would attract less attention. Although detained for a short period, his group was released to continue their journey. Shortly thereafter they received word that the caravan they’d just left was attacked by Chinese irregulars and that everyone in it had been killed. Although my great-grandfather and his family lost all of their possessions, which were with the main caravan, they survived the rest of the journey and eventually settled in Peking (Beijing), living and prospering there for over 30 years. My great-grandfather founded businesses in China; my great-grandparents were married there, and everyone in the family spoke fluent Mandarin.
At the end of WWII, the victory of the communist forces of Mao Zedong over the Nationalist forces of the Western-backed Chiang Kai-shek and their assumption of governmental power in China made it untenable for any foreigners (European, Russian, or otherwise) to stay in China. Europeans were easily repatriated to Europe, but, although it was always the intention of every Russian refugee living in China to return home to Russia, the Soviet government had no use for the “traitors” who had fled Russia during the revolution and sat out World War II. When Chinese communist forces were about to approach Peking, my family got on the last train for foreigners out of the city, taking only what they could carry, later travelling by boat to a displaced persons camp for stateless refugees in the Philippine island of Tubabao, where they lived for a year or so before being accepted into the United States, landing in San Francisco.
As a new American family, we combined Russian, Chinese, and American traditions into our daily life: we played Mahjong with the family on Thanksgiving, and my mother would bake me traditional cakes known as kulich during Russian Orthodox Easter.
As I matured into an adult, and the process of self-awareness and a search for purpose took hold, it became clear that my identity was partially defined by this puzzling foreign history embedded in me. Even though these events transpired a long time ago, and far from my home in America, they lived in the back of my head, like an unreachable itch, or a book with missing pages.
When I was 24, to scratch that itch and fill in some of those missing pages, I flew to Moscow. Together with my Leica M6 and a lot of Fuji Neopan 1600 I embarked on a 4000-mile voyage of discovery on the Trans-Mongolian railway to retrace my family’s epic journey and see firsthand some of the places they could have passed through, thus creating my own memories and incredible experiences that I, too, could pass down to friends and family and other future generations.
Since that first trip, I became obsessed with this new potential, and in the last decade have visited Russia and China somewhat regularly. Through my existing family members on my mother’s side, who still live in Russia, I have been able to hear their memories as well, slowly compiling this abstract puzzle into a family mosaic.
During these trips I also visited other countries, which were previously unwilling parts of the old Soviet Union, to better understand communism’s corrosive effects on these countries and to witness original and long-suppressed indigenous cultures rise through the cracks of the aging brutalist Soviet social architecture.
The beauty of these journeys is that although they start out like a shot in the dark, over time they take on a marvelous lucid form of their own.
I am only getting started. The written memoirs of my great-grandfather Yakov still need a lot of translating before I can truly go on, and I still need to see Tubabao, the Sayan Mountains in southern Siberia and Mongolia, and many other places. Believe me, I will continue to explore these lands, learn about the people that inhabit them, and, if I continue to be as fortunate as I have been, I will continue to learn about myself and how I came to be the person that I am.
To find out more about Daniel’s photography, please visit his website.