Our unfamiliar backyard

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Photos & Text: Svetlana Bandurka

My backyards trip fell on August. This is a nice, warm time, summer holidays. The sun is shining, and things should be really humming in the backyards. I am doing a research work, I have to find answers to some questions. What are they like, today’s backyards? What are their similarities and differences? Are they disappearing or transforming? Does it depend on the district they are located in?

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Research Question

Irkutsk yards: special world or only the area around houses?

The first backyard I went to is located in a modern apartment complex, it is less than one year old. It is cold. Concrete. Faceless. Well, it does have a face, but I didn’t like it. Although it had everything: benches, volleyball and basketball courts, swings and something else for kids. And yet, kids were missing. I felt pity for a lonely boy who seemed to be locked in this space of sport playgrounds. One could see that he was bored hanging around these street lamps decorated with painted grass. He didn’t find the place welcoming or nice. Me neither. This was not my backyard. Let’s go further.

Dvor (usually translated from Russian either as “backyard” or “courtyard”) is an inside common area surrounded by apartment buildings or houses. Such open space is usually used for parking and recreational activities, mainly by those living in the area.

Now that other, old backyard, which didn’t seem to be special. Its decoration consisted just of a hand-made mushroom – a stump and an old washing pan painted in red – but this is the place I would like to come back to in autumn to see a carpet of colourful leaves, and in winter to enjoy the graphic art of the trees and old stairs. This was pleasant to my eyes.

And suddenly there was a surprise: a picturesque footpath brought me to… Saint-Petersburg. The same arched passageways; the sound of steps echoes in all corners of the backyard; pigeons and a local cat were hiding under a car. I had almost forgotten that there is such a passage-backyard in Irkutsk. I got stuck for a while here. Liked it. A special atmosphere. Very photographic. I would even say cinema-photographic.

The backyards of the wooden houses and low-rise buildings are special. Here one can feel life and see that for people living in this area the backyard is not simply the territory adjacent to the houses. It is their space, and to strangers it might even appear hostile.  It seems to me that the more central the district, the more unfriendly is the backyard. And I see why: too many strangers – people, cars – are trying to get in. That’s why it fences itself off in all possible ways, using chains, cartons, fences. It is hiding its inhabitants from the eyes of strangers.

Backyards of the Khrushchyovka-apartment buildings. They are closer and more understandable to me. Perhaps because I spent my childhood in such a backyard. But they are different as well. This one is welcoming, that one is not. Why? Why does one backyard find an emotional echo within me, and the other not? I don’t know. Maybe it is the swing? An old, creaky, iron swing. And the sky above this swing would fall down on you. I remember them. This is from my childhood. From my life. Or a sandpit in the form of a mushroom. To me, it conveys a warm feeling as well.

It is here, in these backyards, that one can meet aunt Sonya, grandma Vera, uncle Kolya – such people who give individuality to the backyards. Aunt Sonya is taking care of trees and flowers, the rose of grandma Vera is 15 years old already, and old car tyres are used for sunchoke beds. Uncle Kolya even has a pigeon-house. And no one wants to think what will happen to these backyards once this enthusiastic soviet generation will go away. Well, such “orphaned” backyards do already exist. Valentina Nikolaevna said once, ‘I am the only one left from our people. The others are just tenants’.

Backyards can also talk. No one seems to be there, but we can see (and read) that Masha loves Sasha, Varya is upset, road sweeper Farid is missing his homeland. The backyard is talking to us, just slightly opens a door into its life. Maybe the key to it is stored in apartment 85?

And, of course, the cars, they are the backyard dwellers. The higher and more modern the house is, the more cars there will be in its backyard. What else can a backyard offer to its inhabitants? Just a parking space and a little place in the centre, furnished with standard slides and sandpits for toddlers and proudly called playground. Maybe nothing else is needed? Maybe it is just a carry-over from old times – I mean all those questions and screams coming out of the windows, such as ‘Vovochka, it’s time to come home!’, ‘Kostya, cut out and get some kefir!’, ‘Palych, what do you think of a dominoes game right now?’

Time is running, the world is changing, backyards are changing as well. Who knows, maybe one day, later, one will be able to enter a backyard, to sit down with a book from a backyard library, to read on an information desk that a son was born to Katya and Misha from App. 35, and Petr Ivanych from App. 7 will celebrate his jubilee in two days.

Summer time is holiday time for backyards. It is calm, almost deserted. That is how it appeared to me today. Tomorrow it may be different, and it might be really humming here. And where I felt sadness, there will be fun, or the other way around.

And so it turned out that it didn’t work out with my research. But I have understood one thing: to know whether or not a backyard is alive, one has to live there. To see it in the morning, in the evening, during the day, in the night, in winter and in summer. Only then one can understand what it is like, the backyard. This backyard. And another one has a completely different life. And, by the way, let the swings remain. Even the creaky ones, because when I hear swings creaking, it means this backyard is alive.