Xenia Nikolskaya, The House My Grandfather Built

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2020 (here). Hardcover (22×15 cm), 108 pages, with 68 color and black and white photographs. Includes an essay by the artist. In an edition of 50 copies. Design by Amparo Baquerizas. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Xenia Nikolskaya, a visual artist and photographer, was raised in the Soviet Union and now lives and works in Sweden, splitting her time between Stockholm and St. Petersburg. Nikolskaya’s second photobook, released after 10 years of work, looks at her family history, going back to the 1930s when her grandparents, Georgiy Nikolskiy and Olga Gracheva, met and fell in love. In 1935, her grandfather was accused of being a dissident and sentenced to hard labor in Kolyma, Siberia. To remain close to her husband, her grandmother pursued a career as a geologist and joined him in Siberia shortly thereafter. He spent almost 20 years in the gulag as a political prisoner. 

On March 5th, 1953, Joseph Stalin died, and Nikolskaya’s grandparents and her mother, who was 11 at that time, started their trip back to the mainland. They returned to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), got a piece of land outside the city, and built a summer house. Nikolskaya grew up in that house, and for her it embodies her family. Decades later, in 2012, the artist and her mother took a trip back to Kolyma, to the place so critical in her family’s history. Until that trip, Nikolskaya didn’t know much about her family’s past, as “in the Soviet Union it wasn’t customary to share family lore, especially if it departed from the norm.” Using archival documents and old photographs collected on that trip, as well as her own photographs, Nikolskaya takes us on a very personal and moving journey, sharing how life under the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union shaped the trajectory of one family.

The House My Grandfather Built is a medium size book of a comfortable and intimate size. An archival black and white photograph of the house with the grandmother standing next to it appears on the cover, with the title in red placed above and the artist’s name below the image. The pages are hosted between two cardboard endpieces, with an exposed spine bound with red thread. The endpapers feature a colorful geological map showing part of the Soviet Union – it comes from the archives of the grandmother. Inside, the visual flow is closely interwoven with the writing, guiding us through the narrative. 

The story starts at the house built by the grandfather, seen as it is today. In the following pages, we discover stories and details about Nikolskaya’s grandparents. Many are photographs of objects that remind the artist of her grandfather, like the typewriter he used for writing his memoir and an old tapestry from the church where he used to serve as a priest (years later he found it at a consignment shop). Others are old family photos, which have been mixed with newer images from the recent trip back, particularly decaying buildings, road signs, the surrounding hills of Kolyma, and the barracks where the grandparents lived.

One spread pairs a recent photograph of the geological office where the grandmother used to work with an image from the mid 1950s, showing her in front of the building posing with her co-workers. Against the odds, she made a notable career. In 1951, she received the Lenin award and personal congratulations from Stalin after she found a rare deposit of tin. We also learn that the family did not approve her decision to follow the husband to a Siberian camp, and didn’t even see her off. 

Throughout the book, there are fold outs with reproductions of documents Nikolskaya dug up in the archives, including pages from the labor register, a certificate of merit, a document allowing the grandfather to return to the mainland, and a newspaper article about the grandmother’s award. Closer to the end of the book, there is an archival document confirming the rehabilitation of Nikolskaya’s grandfather, which took place two years after his death – “Case closed for lack of commission of a crime,” reads the document. Nikolskaya also clarifies that the document was requested by the grandmother, as her grandfather never thought he was guilty and didn’t need a document to prove it. It is followed by a cropped vertical photograph of the grandfather by the house, taken in the late 1960s. The last photograph shows the garden at sunset after rain, and this peaceful, almost idyllic, image, serves as a fitting ending to the book.

The House My Grandfather Built feels like a diary or scrapbook, as we move through the family photographs, memories, and documents layered with Nikolskaya’s stories and reflections. Nikolskaya didn’t have a chance to spend much time with her grandfather; he died when she was two. Working on this photobook helped her to connect to his life, and to pay tribute to the struggles and small triumphs of both her grandparents. It’s a personal ancestry project, made broader and more universal by its themes of perseverance and love.

Collector’s POV: Xenia Nikolskaya is represented by Tintera Gallery in Cairo (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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