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The Winters That Were

As another winter melts into spring, the masterful Russian photographer Alexander Petrosyan has shared with RFE/RL moments from the long, cold months in St. Petersburg. From the city's delicate golden spires, to its grimy back streets, Petrosyan always manages to present images that are as fresh and bracing as the winters he portrays.


A street dog wading through floodwater next to the frozen River Neva. Petrosyan remembers her arriving "just for a moment" before disappearing as the sleet grew more heavy. 
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A street dog wading through floodwater next to the frozen River Neva. Petrosyan remembers her arriving "just for a moment" before disappearing as the sleet grew more heavy. 

Fresh snow and morning light above Palace Square. Petrosyan is famous for his rooftop photographs but coy about how he gains access. When he spoke to RFE/RL, he would say only that it is done "mostly illegally and sometimes at great risk."
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Fresh snow and morning light above Palace Square. Petrosyan is famous for his rooftop photographs but coy about how he gains access. When he spoke to RFE/RL, he would say only that it is done "mostly illegally and sometimes at great risk."

Vasilevsky Island, in the center of the River Neva, is where the newlyweds come to have their pictures taken. You can pay to release a dove, maybe pose atop a white horse. When Petrosyan visited, he found this scene. He told RFE/RL: "There weren't enough weddings that day and the bear wasn't in demand. To somehow sweeten its bitter fate, the owner gave the bear a drink."
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Vasilevsky Island, in the center of the River Neva, is where the newlyweds come to have their pictures taken. You can pay to release a dove, maybe pose atop a white horse. When Petrosyan visited, he found this scene. He told RFE/RL: "There weren't enough weddings that day and the bear wasn't in demand. To somehow sweeten its bitter fate, the owner gave the bear a drink."

Two dogs particularly unsuited to the snow of St. Petersburg. Petrosyan says his work in winter is dependent on the weather. "Snowstorms or mist, there are less things happening on the street than in summer, so the weather becomes more important."
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Two dogs particularly unsuited to the snow of St. Petersburg. Petrosyan says his work in winter is dependent on the weather. "Snowstorms or mist, there are less things happening on the street than in summer, so the weather becomes more important."

Russians are remarkably relaxed about being photographed, but Petrosyan says he has had the occasional confrontation. Once a man attacked him and a friend with a set of gym weights. "He then tried to sick his dog on us. Luckily, the dog was too lazy and we were able to get away."
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Russians are remarkably relaxed about being photographed, but Petrosyan says he has had the occasional confrontation. Once a man attacked him and a friend with a set of gym weights. "He then tried to sick his dog on us. Luckily, the dog was too lazy and we were able to get away."

Street dogs playing on a frozen canal in the center of the city. 
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Street dogs playing on a frozen canal in the center of the city. 

Petrosyan says it would be impossible to ask permission of each person he photographs. "You need to shoot quickly. If I was asking permission each time, the moment would be lost."
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Petrosyan says it would be impossible to ask permission of each person he photographs. "You need to shoot quickly. If I was asking permission each time, the moment would be lost."

Winter mist flowing on the River Neva as a tugboat heads to sea.
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Winter mist flowing on the River Neva as a tugboat heads to sea.

A couple walking on the frozen Winter Canal in the city center. Petrosyan said this picture came at the end of a long, unsuccesful night shooting a snowstorm. He was on his way home when the couple walked out from a bridge beneath him. Petrosyan remembers the moment as "unexpected and beautiful, like a dream."
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A couple walking on the frozen Winter Canal in the city center. Petrosyan said this picture came at the end of a long, unsuccesful night shooting a snowstorm. He was on his way home when the couple walked out from a bridge beneath him. Petrosyan remembers the moment as "unexpected and beautiful, like a dream."

A worker clearing snow from a rooftop opposite Kazan Cathedral.
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A worker clearing snow from a rooftop opposite Kazan Cathedral.

On one of St. Petersburg's changeless avenues, Petrosyan captured this image of a woman dressed in period costume.
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On one of St. Petersburg's changeless avenues, Petrosyan captured this image of a woman dressed in period costume.

As well as his work capturing the quirks and oddities of his city, Petrosyan is also a master of capturing the postcard beauty of St. Petersburg, often from angles no one else has photographed.
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As well as his work capturing the quirks and oddities of his city, Petrosyan is also a master of capturing the postcard beauty of St. Petersburg, often from angles no one else has photographed.

The end of the night in central St. Petersburg
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The end of the night in central St. Petersburg

Boats cracking through ice on the River Neva.
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Boats cracking through ice on the River Neva.

Of this picture, titled "Maiden," Petrosyan remembers seeing the woman on a tram. "When we began to talk, she told me about her life, her difficult fate... To somehow comfort her, I asked to photograph her. Eventually, she asked me to buy her a beer and this shot was made."
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Of this picture, titled "Maiden," Petrosyan remembers seeing the woman on a tram. "When we began to talk, she told me about her life, her difficult fate... To somehow comfort her, I asked to photograph her. Eventually, she asked me to buy her a beer and this shot was made."

It's only in the coldest winters that St. Petersburg's frozen canals become safe to walk on. Petrosyan captured this scene of a musician taking a shortcut across the ice in 2014.
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It's only in the coldest winters that St. Petersburg's frozen canals become safe to walk on. Petrosyan captured this scene of a musician taking a shortcut across the ice in 2014.

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