in this article for phmuseum.com, Annalisa Natali Murri tells the story of a Kazakh woman who moved to Cuba harbouring dreams of becoming an opera singer, only to be faced instead with state accusations of espionage and continuous remote psychological inspection.
Born in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, Natalia N moved to Cuba about 25 years ago from the USSR to be reunited with her husband in Ciudad Nuclear (Nuclear City), while hoping to chase her dream and work as an opera singer. She arrived on the island when the USSR was dismembering, and Cuba was entering the great crisis. Divorced almost immediately, she found herself lost and trapped hundreds of kilometres from La Havana, in a sleepy artificial city built with Soviet-style blocks, guarded by the remains of what was to be Cuba’s first nuclear power plant and now paralysed in a dimension out of space and time.
Due to the isolation in which she found herself living, she has been accused of being paranoid and she was diagnosed with a mental illness. Natalia, in contrast, reveals her true story with great lucidity. Hers is the story of a foreigner, with an open and unscrupulous mind, who arrived in a hostile and suspicious place at the wrong time.
You have worked in many different countries outside of your native Italy. How did you begin working in Cuba?
I went to Cuba for the first time in 2010. At that time I had recently dedicated myself to photography, but I remember I was immediately impressed by the out-of-time atmosphere that you could breathe on the island – its mysterious charm linked to a distinct past and its ideologies, and how this filtrated from everyday life in every corner of the island.
A few years later, in 2015, the resumption of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba presaged that there would be a very significant change for the country, which would open new horizons and prompt a series of very important reforms. It was then that I decided to go back there, with the intention of documenting the Cuba that was likely about to disappear, the legacy of the ideals of freedom and revolution, the tangible and intangible signs of the political ideology, propaganda and links with Soviet socialism: all that has determined much of the history of this country in the last century.
I knew it would be a relatively hard task: I didn’t want to focus on easy stereotypes but rather venture inside the island’s past and portray it from a different, more intimate perspective. I, therefore, did a lot of research to find out what could be the most meaningful marks left by the strong bonds between Cuba and the former USSR. It was then that I came across a small article on the internet about the “romantic diaspora” and the story of Soviet women married to Cuban men.
I became aware of the special education programs that were established between the two countries, and of the huge number of Cuban students that moved to the USSR to study and graduate. I suddenly felt a shifting point of view on the people and I wanted to create tangible connections between ideals and reality, superstructure and personal stories, collective and individual memories. That was what moved me to work on my first essay on the subject, La Nieve y la Flor, which aimed to intimately depict the strange brotherhood between the two Socialist countries through the eyes and memories of those women who decided to migrate to Cuba for reasons of love.
N., Who Came in From the Cold, is your second project based in Cuba and linked to women from the former USSR who migrated to the Caribbean island. Could you talk about how you learnt about Natalia’s story?
When I was working on my first project, La Nieve y la Flor, I teamed up with a group of Cuban anthropologists who were interested in the same topic from a sociological and statistical point of view. They helped to introduce me these women in La Habana, Alamar, Holguin, Pinar del Rio, Ciego de Avila.
I didn’t know about Natalia’s story then, and after having met her and talking with her, I realised she was somehow not a part of the network these former Soviet women created to support each other. I got to know about Natalia a few years later while doing some research on the remains of the nuclear reactor in Cienfuegos, and on the small town of Ciudad Nuclear.
In 1976, in the middle of the Cold War, the Soviet Union planned to build a large nuclear plant in the Bay of Cienfuegos, which was never completed, and with it an artificial residential city to host Soviet and Cuban engineers, scientists, translators, workers, and their families just nearby the plant. While I was documenting this other form of Soviet heritage on the island, I read about Natalia who was still living there, and I suddenly decided to leave for Cuba to try to meet her, although, I was not quite sure what I would find, or if I would ever even see her.
Fortunately, I managed to find her (most of the people living in Ciudad Nuclear knew about “La extranjera, la que canta” or, more sadly, “la loca”). My idea was to construct a second chapter of my work about the romantic diaspora, but what I knew about Natalia was the little information that I had managed to find online, from short articles and a brief video interview from a few years before. In these, Natalia herself discussed her life as an immigrant singer and the difficulties that, like everyone then, she had to face especially during the special period in Cuba. But from that, nothing leaked out about her real drama, her constant daily struggle with her ghosts, as I would discover later after talking and creating a good connection with her.
Why did you decide to focus on the topics of love and migration in a city that is almost long forgotten by this generation?
Although this topic refers to a past time, in which the situation and geopolitics were very different from how they are today, I think that talking about migration in terms different from those we are used to today can be an interesting point. It was a migratory phenomenon in all respects, which involved important numbers of people (we are talking about thousands of women who emigrated between the 1960s and the early 1990s), but driven by love.
I found it very interesting, especially looking at how Cuban society is changing very quickly today. Many values have been lost, and the new generations find themselves lacking more than ever strong reference points, suspended between a cumbersome past in which they no longer recognise themselves, and a future that has yet to come and that is slow to emerge in a clear manner. I wanted to highlight how, beyond the circumstances and the historical contingencies, the love for a man or a woman, for a country, can, in a certain way, be the basis for the self-determination of every individual, therefore carrying a positive message.
Even though you say in your statement that Natalia has a mental condition, you have portrayed her as a strong character. Was this a conscious act while working on her story? Could you delve into more detail and how long you spent working on her story?
Since we met, I’ve spent almost a month paying a visit to Natalia everyday. I was housed in nearby Cienfuegos, and every morning I would take the ferryboat crossing the bay, taking me to Ciudad Nuclear to visit her, or I would wait for her in the main square in Cienfuegos, a place where she sings in a small cloister after visiting the church early in the morning.
To me Natalia immediately seemed to be an extremely strong and fragile woman at the same time. Some Russian emigrants in Cuba whom I got to know have compared their situation, their character, to the first flowers of winter, the snowdrops, which bloom from the snowy frosts. These are extremely fragile and tender flowers, with a delicate scent, but strong enough to overcome frost and sprout in the snow. Natalia is exactly like that. Surely her most fragile aspect is not what emerges at the beginning, because life in a difficult place like Ciudad Nuclear has certainly forged her character, making it more solid against all the difficulties, such as loneliness and disillusionment, which she has had to face over all those years living there.
Her strong Christian faith has always helped her to build the armour that is protecting her from what surrounds her. Despite this, her great strength starts to show cracks and sheds light on all her tender humanity when we look at her story as a whole, at her disillusioned dreams, at her unfulfilled hopes, which she tries to keep alive, transporting them in her own world, which not everyone can see or understand. I wanted to show both sides of Natalia’s character, her strength and her delicacy, that is what makes her so special, trying to embody in my pictures her own world, and let people dive into it, without necessarily finding a logical path to move through.
Annalisa Natali Murri is an Italian freelance photographer currently based in Bologna. Her personal projects are mainly inspired by social issues and their psychological consequences. In 2012, she received a POYi Award for her Cinderella project. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.
Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.