In 1999 Christopher Wegstaff, a London engineer, photographer and traveler, ended up in Voronezh for the first time. Since then he’s been coming to the capital of the Black Soil Region once every month or two calls “fleeing to Voronezh” his way of escaping. A RIA “Voronezh” correspondent met the 70 year old Englishman and found out what made him come back again and again.
Christopher Wegstaff was born in former Great Britain’s colony India in a family of an English military man. Everyone in his family was fond of sports: his father was into boxing, brothers – into athletics and hockey, his sister was a goalkeeper in a football team. Wegstaff himself, despite his advanced age, keeps in good sports shape: he does swimming, windsurfing, plays rugby and squash (a variety of tennis). Moreover, he is an avid traveler, he’s been all over Europe. However, the Englishman has never been to the USA due to his ideological beliefs.
– I don’t like the way Americans treat people – they use them. They tell you one thing to your face and the opposite – behind your back, - Chris Wegstaff is convinced. – I’ve been invited to New York many times, but I’m not going there.
He is currently living in London and still working as a heating system engineer in a large company. In addition to that, Wegstaff is a professional photographer. In 1990s he used to work on podiums and shoot cover girls, he even was a paparazzo for a while. Now he smiles recalling himself hiding in the bushes while “hunting” for legendary singer Sting.
The Englishman has another passion – Voronezh, which to him has become the second motherland or, as he calls it, “an adopted home”. He comes to the city every month and a half or two. Wegstaff saves off days for trips to Russia working on weekends and holidays – it results in a week-long vacation.
– There are many problems in life, and people look for ways to escape them and find their own niche for happiness. I flee to Voronezh every time. This is my way of escaping, - the Englishman confesses.
Unfortunate love affair
In late 1990s, Chris Wegstaff worked in Portugal. When the Englishman was facing a choice of countries for a vacation, his friend, a famous Portuguese photographer, advised him to turn his attention to Russia, a mysterious and unknown country to foreigners.
– It may sound a bit silly now, but because we had no clue about your country we took a map, put it on the table and started pointing a pin at random. At that moment the pin pointed at Voronezh. So the city was picked absolutely randomly, - Wegstaff racalls.
For the first time the English engineer arrived in Voronezh in December of 1999. Prior to that, he stumbled upon a newspaper advertisement from Voronezh resident Victoria who wanted to meet a foreigner. It led to epistolary intercourse which soon turned into a love affair.
– I came to Russia in winter. It was very snowy, - the Englishman recalls. – Voronezh was in an awful state. Everywhere it was dark, gloomy and dirty. At that time the economy was in stagnation, and life in Voronezh was like in Third World countries. Nevertheless, I was amazed by the hospitality of Russian people. I didn’t expect getting that much attention from the local residents. Everyone wanted to know why I came here.
When Christopher Wegstaff returned to Voronezh in 2002, he saw “true progress”: buildings were being repaired, new production sites, trade centers and supermarkets were opening around the city.
– You didn’t notice the boost your city had made! When you, Russians, complain about your life, you don’t realize the taxes we pay here in England. The monthly tax I pay for my car equals to what some of make in a year, – the Englishman told.
In 2003, during his next visit to Voronezh, the Englishman decided to improve his girlfriend Victoria’s living conditions and build a house for her. He bought a land lot next door to hers, designed the blueprints of the future house. Victoria was registered as the owner. In December of 2004 the construction of the house was finished.
– Prior to that, I spent the entire summer here overseeing each construction stage. But during my next visit in December of 2005 Victoria’s attitude to me had changed drastically – she became hostile. She kicked my bags out onto the street and didn’t even want to talk. I realized that I had simply been used, - the engineer recalled.
Legal proceedings for house ownership began between Chris Wegstaff and his former love interest. You can imagine how hurt the foreigner was after investing his energy and money in the construction of the house, letting his girlfriend use his credit card. And in court the girlfriend stated that the Englishman had nothing to do with the house.
The proceedings took two years. The judge disregarded the claims of the foreigner and his lawyer, the court sided with the woman.
– The relationship with Victoria almost cost me my life. I was close to suicide, - Wegstaff confessed.
Adventures at the nuclear power plant
After such a drama, any foreigner would decide to never again set his foot in this city. But Christopher wasn’t disappointed in Voronezh – he keeps coming to the city. Another love affair with a Voronezh girl that lasted seven years helped him heal the broken heart. She and the Englishman ended up as friends.
– I would like to live in Voronezh. But it is very hard to receive a residence permit in Russia. I can’t work here since I don’t know the language. Many people ask me: how do I manage to live in Russia without knowing Russian? But you have arms, the look in your eyes, you have your smile. If you’re hungry or happy, it is written on your face – there’s no need for words, - Wegstaff explained.
The Englishman has gathered an entire archive of photos of Voronezh. Several years ago an exhibition of Wegstaff’s photographs was held at the Kramskoi Museum. Christopher’s favorite place for shooting is high-risers, and his favorite time of the day in the city is night.
– Voronezh at night is even more beautiful that Moscow, - he says.
Chris Wegstaff especially lives taking pictures of construction sites, industrial objects and modern architecture – all that is urban-industrial. He can spend up to six hours to get a great shot.
One time he took a cab to Novovoronezh to take a photo of the cooling towers of the nuclear power plant – the stacks. But he didn’t think he had to receive a permit to shoot a secured facility.
– I was impressed by the steam coming out of the towers and the shadow it casts on the nearby buildings, - the foreigner explained ingeniously. – When I was taking photos of the NPP, a policeman approached me and asked: “What are you doing?” I didn’t speak any Russian and asked him: “Do you speak English?” The policeman made a call and soon came the reinforcements: at first it was two policemen, then five, then even more. Soon I already counted 23 police officers. This story reminded me of a comedy film. No one spoke English and knew what to do with me. They were debating and arguing over something. The law-enforcement officers explained that this was a secured facility, they withdrew my camera and took the memory card out. I was released only in the evening having the camera returned to me without the memory card. In short, I got off lightly.
Trial by fire
Back at home, Christopher is not favored due to his ideological beliefs: he is said to be a patriot of Russia. His colleagues know that nothing bad about Russian can be said around Wegstaff. He even put a Gazprom sticker on his car’s window – according to him, the company invests enormous money in the development of culture in London.
– No one in the world knows anything about Russia, the Western media paint awful pictures of life here. But when you come here, walk these streets and see regular people, you legalize that you Russians are doing fine. I feel that people in Russia try to treat each other with indifference. I think that Russians are super smart on every level: from school students to retired people, - the Englishman shared.
He is confident that the 1999 Voronezh and its 2018 version are completely different cities that stand no comparison with each other. According to him, the city has grown much more clean and beautiful. But there are downsides too – unsafe minibuses and roughnecks on the roads. The Englishman noted that crossing a rod in Voronezh is not safe.
– Sometimes when you use the crosswalk, drivers start braking at the last moment – you nearly get knocked down! I want to make a video of how Russian drivers behave on the rod. When I was a school student, my sister’s friend was killed by a driver on a crosswalk. But thing like this have not been happening in Europe for many years now: if a pedestrian starts crossing the street, all drivers brake immediately.
According to the Englishman, back in England they have the same problem with bad roads. But there is no such ice-slick in London as it is in Russia – the climate there is completely different.
– When it is -6°C in London, you feel uncomfortable because of high humidity level, - Chris Wegstaff noted. – It feels like -10°C in Voronezh. I remember taking pictures of Voronezh at -23°C. My fingers were getting blue from the cold. After two or three shots I immediately hid my hands in mittens. It was my Russian winter’s trial by fire.
Another thing about Russia that attracts the Englishman is that, according to him, the echo of tolerance and political correctness, which sometimes takes the form of absurdity in the West, has not reached it yet.
– The crime level in London has grown immensely due to the migrant flow. Fancy that, nowadays back in England you cannot say “Merry Christmas!” to each other around Muslims because it can hurt their feelings. Putting up a “Merry Christmas!” poster in the office is forbidden, - the engineer says.
Water instead of vodka
The English engineer is a big fan of Russian cuisine. His favorite food is borscht and pancakes. He does not like Russian vodka – he admits that he prefers red dry wine over strong drinks. But he usually brings a quarter-liter bottle of vodka as a gift to his English friends from Russia. Once he even found vodka with an unusual name “Nobel” specifically for his anti-Russia boss with the same name.
– Since I’ve had some bad experience with vodka, one time I decided to “play safe” in a company of important Russians. I took a bottle of vodka, poured it out and filled it with water instead of vodka, - Christopher told. – When my Russian companions told me “Englishmen suck at drinking vodka”, I decided to prove the wrong and outsmart them. I poured a glass from my bottle and drained it dry. This way I drank three glasses of fake vodka. But my fraud was exposed: when there was only half of my bottle left and I was still sober, my friends realized that it wasn’t vodka. And I only wanted to be polite and trying to be good company.The editor’s office of RIA “Voronezh” thanks teacher of the Koltsov Gymnasium Yelena Tikhaya for her help in organizing the meeting with Christopher Wegstaff.