Last fall, a mismatched duo of Russian and American photojournalists (Paul Richardson and Mikhail Mordasov, who had never met in person before) took a 6000-kilometer road trip from the frigid shores of the Barents Sea to Sochi, Russia’s southernmost tip on the Black Sea. It was a collaborative photojournalistic project uniting journalists from two different generations, from two vastly different cultures, with two very different world views. 

Our goal was to view Russia from the ground, to collect powerful images and honest human stories that offered a more subtle, complex picture of the “other” – which for Americans today is often still Russia. The trip captured over 3000 still images and dozens of in-depth interviews with Russians from all walks of life.

It was deep-dive, embedded journalism, and the primary output of the project was a 200-page oversized coffee-table book (“The Spine of Russia”) that includes, among other things, photo portraits of 43 “heroes” we interviewed in depth, alongside each person’s answer to our charged question: “Do you consider yourself a patriot, and if so, of what and why?” Here are a few of their varied responses to this question.

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Vladimir Simonov, 61, Krasniye Stanki village. Feldsher (primary care physician)

“I don’t get it, why a patriot? I’m a typical person, doing his work honesty with respect to his people. Whether this is a patriot or not, I cannot say.”

Vadim Markelov, 52, Petrozavodsk. Businessman, producer of barbells and weight machines

“I am not ready to give some sort of high-falutin answer. Patriotism – what is it? Love for one’s country, we love it; the government, not so much, because we can distinguish between the two. We love the place we live, and all of those who surround us. This is a fact. But what patriotism is, I don’t know… I just don’t know what patriotism is, truly. That is all.”

Ilona Isayeva, 25, Kandalaksha. Deputy director of a children’s art school

“A patriot of my country? No, I don’t think so. A patriot of the North, yes. It is difficult to explain, but if you ask someone who has returned here, he will praise it. It is easier to breathe here, it is more peaceful for me here. This is where I live and marvel and I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

Mark Smirnov, 42, Kirovsk. Boxing trainer in a children’s school for sport

“Training and educating children is a diversion for rich people. One must feel like a patriot. How can we not be patriots if we live in the place we were born?”

Valentin Svatovoy, 50, Petrozavodsk Owner of Valentine’s bakery

“Unequivocally. There’s no need to shy from this. I am a patriot of the land where I live, because I am proud of what was done before me, and I need to do things that those who come after me will be proud of.”

Igor Drozdov, Village of Matrosy, Republic of Karelia. Roadside berry seller

“Whattya mean? What’s this about? A patriot of berries? Or a patriot in general? Depends on what you mean by patriot. There’s all sorts. I won’t answer that question. I don’t even know. How can I be a patriot? No, I don’t even know what that means. All of the patriots have died off. All that’s left are us survivors.”

Leonid Baluyev, 47, Novaya Ladoga, Blacksmith

“I am not a patriot. I am a Jehovah’s Witness. I serve God.”

Yakov Somov, 31, St. Petersburg. Co-founder and general director of Lektorium MOOC project

“In general, it’s rude to ask a person if he is a patriot or not. I am a patriot of public education. But does that mean I am a patriot? I don’t know. I work in my country, I work for it. I also work for the whole world. Yes, I am probably a patriot. In my circles, it is not proper to ask someone if they are a patriot or not. You either do good work, or don’t do good work. I do good work for my country, including for the place where I studied. I graduated from this school in 2000, and have been working here for seven years. And so I am investing in the children who study here. And I work with the teachers who teach here. You’ve caught me off guard. You have, probably, a very well-formed question here.”