These Unmarried Sisters Created Their Own Version Of Happily Ever After

Photo: Courtesy of Nadia Sablin.
During the summer months in Alekhovshchina, a small village in Russia, the sun doesn't set until after midnight. That's just one of the reasons the photos in Nadia Sablin's Aunties series (now a book) are so damn magical. The other? The incredible pair of elderly sisters that the Brooklyn-based photographer documented over the course of seven years. The seventysomething women are her aunts, Ludmila and Alevtina, and they still spend their summers in the tiny family cabin Sablin used to visit when she was a young child.

"If you climb Bald Mountain (a somewhat aspirational name for the tallest hill in Alekhovshchina), you can see the entire village and a fair part of the road that leads on to Tikhvin Monastery," Sablin told us over email. "Most people who travel to the area blow right through the town — there is still no hotel or café to welcome visitors. It’s a paradise for children, but there aren’t many women my age. The ones I’ve met have found some way to survive by starting their own small business or relying on a spouse working in a bigger city. Some cope by gardening and foraging in the forest in addition to their job, some drink, some play volleyball on the high school’s court."

So, how do Sablin's aunties fill their days? They've got a routine that keeps them pretty busy. Follow along as they pick berries, chop logs, and complete crossword puzzles in the gallery, ahead.
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Photo: Courtesy of Nadia Sablin.
“My father tries to pull his sisters into the present by buying them laptops and Kindles,” Sablin recently told The Guardian, “but they bravely defy him by covering the offending objects with doilies and carrying on as before.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Nadia Sablin.
"My aunts are now older and more in need of companionship, and though I found them somewhat alien when I was a child, I am now in love with everything about them," Sablin admits. "The very anachronisms and quirks that offended my childish sensibilities are what draw me to them now. But it has been hard for me to watch them melt away little by little."
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Photo: Courtesy of Nadia Sablin.
"Any time I can catch the aunts not busy with chores or watching television are my favorite moments," Sablin says. "That’s when I can ask questions. When I corner her, Alevtina will sometimes recount tales from her college years — the time she bought a secretly distributed book...the way her girlfriends played with her hair, draping it on their own heads...the time she asked everyone at her dormitory for a few kopecks so she could buy tickets for a concert...how she once fainted at the movie theater, because she was so overcome by feelings."
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Photo: Courtesy of Nadia Sablin.
"Alevtina’s life story is described in family lore in terms of sacrifice," Sablin says. "It was Alevtina who continued to hold the family together after her mother died, hosting visitors and organizing summer trips to Alekhovshchina. She had determination enough to keep her father alive and healthy well into his 80s, teach him Braille, and facilitate his activism for the blind and deaf community. She never married or had her own children, giving all her time and energy to care of her parents and siblings.

"My outlook on the world has certainly been shaped by this and other family legends, offset somewhat by my status as a spoiled only daughter of doting parents."
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Photo: Courtesy of Nadia Sablin.
"Finding the family home in Alekhovshchina exactly as I remember it from my childhood has had an incredibly powerful effect on my life," Sablin says. "It exerts an almost physical pull and if I stay away too long, my chest starts aching. I need to see that angle of light, smell the pine cones burning in the samovar, run my hand on the tablecloth I remember from the '80s. Then, I become happy again, excited to run and take photos, like an infusion of energy and inspiration."
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Photo: Courtesy of Nadia Sablin.
"My whole life I've lived in a big city — Saint Petersburg, New York, Phoenix," Sablin says. "I don’t know if I could stay in the village for a long time. Perhaps that’s an experiment worth trying in the future. I would probably come out of it an alcoholic or with a completed novel. Or both."
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Photo: Courtesy of Nadia Sablin.
"They are far too shy and self-effacing to admit to liking these photographs, which celebrate their beauty," Sablin explains. "When I talk about this work, I mainly attribute its success to my aunts' fascinating lives. They, however, see it as entirely my creation, and as such, they are proud of my accomplishment."
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Photo: Courtesy of Nadia Sablin.
"The first year, I was impressed to see Alevtina wield an axe to chop firewood and Ludmila scramble up a huge pile of discarded planks at the sawmill that replaced the collective cow farm," Sablin recalls. "These days, there is much less activity and the television takes up more and more of their attention. Their strength is ebbing and they don’t like me to see how tired they get performing actions that were once easy."
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Photo: Courtesy of Nadia Sablin.
"Now that they are less active, my aunties ask me not to take so many photographs," Sablin says. "I spend more time just watching them, my camera put away."
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Photo: Courtesy of Nadia Sablin.
"This photograph took me six years and two days to get," Sablin explains. "Whenever I’d get to the village, I would invariably be nocturnal, because of jet lag or photographing white nights in Saint Petersburg. My aunties found it hilarious that I would be just waking up when they were already returning from the forest, buckets full of blueberries.

"When I finally got it together to go with them, I spent five hours making exposures, but was completely dissatisfied with my results. The next morning, I got up early to try again and surprised them into admitting they usually go to a very different spot for blueberries, but were trying to spare me the long walk. The real berry spot was breathtaking. I think about five photos from that day made it into the book Aunties."
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Photo: Courtesy of Nadia Sablin.
“I know, of course, that everyone dies,” Sablin told The Guardian, “but when I see my aunts looking the same, in the same house, doing the exact things I remember from decades ago, it’s hard to imagine they’ll one day be gone. But they will live a long time yet – they’re still quite young.”
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