Heidi Hollinger in focus

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Post Glasnost Russia has seen its share of controversial expats: spies, missionaries and even criminals on the run from the law back home. But Heidi Hollinger is the first and only of a kind. Born in 1970 to a Finnish mother and stockbroker father (a nationality in itself), Heidi came to Moscow in 1991 to study the language. In 1993, already fluent in Russian, she found herself taking pictures at a loud Communist Party meeting. For many years, she was the talk of town – a kind of the Rosa Luxembourg of ’90s. As a young Canadian expat moving in extreme nationalist and communist circles, she was certainly a novelty.

But then, she was also the ever first wild goose of a celebrity photographer, working where most Russian women don't dare to go. She broke the rules about depicting the Russian political elite, always pushing them as far as she could to get the right pictures.

Her photographic skills, her charm and perseverance took her into the closed inner circles of oligarchs and politicians. But her work ranges from private jets and presidential planes to the drunken homeless. She has also become the target of speculation and abuse from the yellow press. Now, nine months pregnant, Heidi is in Montreal. LifeStyle talked to her about her coming child, Russia and life.

When's the baby due?

The baby is due tomorrow [Dec. 6]

And may we ask, will you be a single mother? Are you angry, or scared about that? Do you expect the father to play a role at all in raising the child?

I will be a single mother, but hopefully not for long. I don’t expect the natural father to take part in the upbringing. Our relationship has unfortunately ended, but perhaps for the best. No matter how much I love the Russian people, I can't say that I want a Russian male influence on my child. Russian men have many wonderful qualities, but there is a downside. Russian men for the most part are extremely jealous, patronizing and self-centered. They may act gallant on the outside, but they are not compassionate nor are they understanding of women's needs. As far as bringing up a child is concerned, their disciplinary measures can be quite harsh and outdated. In short, compared to the average Western man, they are not very civilized. After nearly 10 years of living in Russia, I say this with some conviction.

I am not angry or scared. I decided to have the baby on my own. Besides, I have a lot of support. For starters, my parents are excited to finally be grandparents. Also, I have four wonderful godfathers – the Russian pop band Na-Na, who are my close friends. They call me every day from Moscow to Montreal to see if their godson, Luka, has been born.

Do you plan to come back to Russia with the child?

I am planning to come back to Russia with my baby in the spring. I have become too attached to stay away for longer than that. There are a lot of expats living in Moscow with children, and they all rave about the great nannies and baby activities in the city. What I am worried about most is the horrid pollution and psycho drivers.

There is a sense of surreal about Heidi in the role of a mother. You are one of those people who has always seemed to be a teenager. Have you changed? How has the pregnancy changed your thinking and attitude?

A Russian friend once said that people's perception of you is within yourself. So, I suppose, I must be perceived as a teenager since I still see myself as a kid. But, of course, the pregnancy has completely changed things. The baby makes you aware of your responsibility. Fewer tusovkas, more sleep, less jogging, more yoga. It's an all-round calming factor. I am much more efficient and focused. I think having a child opens up a direct path to fulfilling goals by knowing what is important in all areas of one's life.

There were all those political close-ups. For some years, it seems you have been able to get close to every politician in this country. How did that happen?

I went up to the politicians and asked them if I could take their photo. No one refused. I later gave them copies, and they saw I was credible. Perhaps it appealed to their vanity. They let me shoot more, sometimes in the most unexpected situations. A lot had to do with being communicative, but it was also a matter of timing. In the early ’90s, Russian politicians were seeking an image for themselves. The black-and-white politburo pose was out and they were ready to try something different. In 1994, Vladimir Zhirinovsky was at the height of his fame and did almost anything to attract attention. I asked him to do a torso shot; he decided to pose in his underwear. Last year when I photographed Dmitry Ayatskov, the governor of Saratov, in his office, he asked me what he should do. I told him to sit on the floor. He did. Vladimir Putin asked me how I managed with such enormous photo equipment when he posed for me. I said, "Here, you try," and he began to shoot me. It helps to be insistent and also if they have a sense of humor.

Did you have any political beliefs. We know you were close to Victor Anpilov. Are you still political?

I never stated my political beliefs to the politicians, but they all thought that I was on their side. For five years, I photographed Communist street demonstrations. Sometimes a babushka would see my big Canon camera and Western attire and start shoving me and curse me for being an imperialist. Then another babushka would recognize me and say: "Hands off, 'eto nasha' (she's one of us)." Every year on May Day, Victor Anpilov invites me for shashlik with his family. It has become a tradition. He calls me his faithful comrade. His political ideas may be way off, but he is one of the most committed and passionate people I have ever met. His kindness and intelligence contrast sharply with the regular press depiction of a violent looney. I share political beliefs with reformers such as [Boris] Nemtsov, [Irina] Khakamada and others who seek the right blend of a market economy and social justice.

In this male-dominated society, how did you manage to get so far, so fast? Did you have to make compromises that you regret.

I think that in any society, the trick to surviving in the workplace is to have a strict work ethic. I could sum it all up with one word: perseverance. Photographing high-ranking politicians wasn't easy. It took thousands of phone calls and faxes mixed with a lot of persistence, begging, coaxing, shmoozing, hoping and luck. For instance, it took a whole year to convince [Grigory] Yavlinsky to come to my studio. I called [Boris] Berezovsky every day for three months before he acquiesced. But I photographed Governor Titov within an hour of calling his office. Compromises? Never. "Rabota, rabota" and more "rabota."

Do plan on continuing your career as a photographer?

I consider myself lucky that I love my work. I definitely want to stay in this field for the foreseeable future.

I remember being on a photo shoot in a meat factory in Samara during the 1996 presidential election campaign with [Gennady] Zyuganov. While the Communist leader was inspecting the machinery, I met eyes with a factory worker, a girl my age who was mechanically chopping meat, and bones and thought: Am I ever glad that I am doing exactly what I am doing.