On the shores of Lake Svetloyar in northern Russia, an ancient legend responds to people’s eternal quest for meaning and enlightenment. With his photographic series “Svetloyar,” photographer Jewgeni Roppel takes viewers on a journey into the Russian soul…

For Russians who are open to the mystery and allure of legends and fables, the city of Kitezh is a magical place, sunken below the surface of Lake Svetloyar. Often referred as the “Russian Atlantis,” the story goes that Kitezh faced an existential threat from marauding Mongol hordes in the 12th century. Rather than succumb to the invaders’ torches, the brave citizens chose to transform their city into a lake, protecting it from destruction.

The name of the lake, Svetloyar, is derived from the Russian word “Svet,” for light and world. Though the myth has since been disproved, the tale has nevertheless inspired a range of works, from paintings, references in pop culture, and opera to video games and more.

More recently, photographer Jewgeni Roppel has sought out his own artistic interpretation of the Lake Svetloyar narrative. Beginning with this wondrous tale, he brings to his images a welcome re-enchantment, while also weaving in important social observations about his former homeland.

“With the prevailing political ideology shattered after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a blank space was left in Russian society,” explains Roppel. “This gap was slowly filled as people took on alternative systems of belief, sought out new spiritual leaders and rediscovered ancient myths.”

One of these is, of course, Lake Svetloyar and its hidden city. What had become an almost forgotten pilgrimage is now experiencing a resurgence of meaning. Roppel, who has explored the relationship between people and sacred sites before in his project “Magnit,” chose this site for his latest exploration. Aware of the legend since childhood, Roppel finally decided to travel there in 2015, immersing himself into the stories of people who have witnessed spirituality or supernatural phenomenons on the shore of the lake.

“Using metaphors and symbols, I wanted to translate the experiences of people I met there into images.” He says. “The aim of my work is to help visualize what they imagined, felt, or saw. To make their yearnings tangible and visible to the eye.”

In the beginning, Roppel’s photographic method followed a documentary approach: after all, the lake as a setting exists in the real world, and so do the subjects of his portraits. But from this truthful beginning, Roppel pushed further into artistic interventions, creating fictive, imaginative photographs which capture what people have experienced on the shores of Lake Svetloyar.

One woman, for example, told him about her calling to move to this area because she firmly believes that she had lived there in a past incarnation. Another one of his protagonists is convinced that if you only sit long enough under the trees by the lake, it will start communicating with you. This compulsion references a widespread belief that water is a gateway to the other side.

Even the Russian Orthodox Church has acknowledged the inexplicable power of Lake Svetloyar by building a church there. Normally, such legends are too esoteric for the Church, but in this case, they believe there is something holy in this place. In their interpretation of the myth of Kitezh, the settlement was founded by Christians. During the attack, their prayers for rescue were answered by God, who placed the city at the bottom of the deep lake. This miracle left the heathens stunned, and was followed by the shimmering appearance of a white, cathedral dome hovering above the water. Even today, some people will tell you they have heard the bells ringing under the waves…

As for Roppel himself, he can’t prove that supernatural elements exist at Lake Svetloyar, but he can re-create them through his photography. Ultimately, his interest is less on the visual than it is on the invisible: what is it about this place that triggers something so specific in the psyche of people? “If you visit and listen to these stories, you begin to empathize with their experiences. Slowly, the legend itself starts to influence you. Of course, that all depends on how open you are to it…”

—Magnus Pölcher

“Svetloyar” by Jewgeni Roppel is currently on view as part of the exhibition “Gute Aussichten Deluxe. New German Photography After the Düsseldorf School,” showing at Haus der Photographie, Deichtorhallen Hamburg until May 21, 2018.