Photo project

Fortress Man: Almaty Hermit in Sanat Ongrbaev’s Story

Kazakh photographer Sanat Ongrbaev spent a day with 66-year-old Uncle Vania, who has been building a fortress near Almaty for 33 years.

Sanat Ongrbaev Age 32

Lives in Almaty (Kazakhstan). Has been doing photography professionally for the past three years. Before that majored in mining engineering, mined silver and worked as a mine director. His favorite photographers are Egor Voinov, Max Avdeev, William Eggleston, and Trent Parke.

At the foothills of Trans-Ili Alatau, on the left bank of Aksay River, 20 kilometers from Almaty, there is a place that has long become a tourist attraction, a phenomenon of human genius, which you can visit if you get out of the city during the weekend. This place is called Uncle Vania’s Fortress.

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Ivan Plotnikov, born in 1949, is a construction worker, or to be more exact, he used to be one in the past. For 33 years out of the 66 years of his life Ivan has been building a fortress. Just because.

— My father was a geography teacher here in Almaty, he was super educated, knew six languages. He was a White Guard officer, you know. He was pardoned, and after the war he ended up here. And he loved architecture very much, my father (Vania says “arch-itechture”), of middle ages, of the knights. Books and those kinds of things. And my mother, to make him happy, starting from when I was about seven years old and could read well, was shoving these books at me and making me read them. And for me — well, I was little – if my parents were happy about it, I was happy about it. I didn’t understand them at first, and later all I read was about knights and fortresses. And later, when I was in prison, I read another book, called “The Basics of Marxist Philosophy” – it’s a good book, too, a smart one.

Ivan is eager to talk about his conviction, his story is agitated and unclear. He has two versions, one of them outdated: he took a sawed-off shotgun and attacked a bank, there were only five rubles there, but the cashier managed to press the panic alarm button; the second, more realistic one, which is also confirmed by his neighbors, where he severely beat up a man in a drunken fight. Ivan was sentenced to four years, he spent one year in prison and three years in a mental hospital.

— I loved the rush, you know, I had hot blood, I wanted everything – clothes, shoes, girls. They did not admit me into the army, so I didn’t know what to do with myself, and then I messed up one guy.

Then – the prison, which was ok, it was liveable, and then they scheduled a medical examination and transferred me to the mental hospital, and there it was screwed up. I was given medication that made me want to croak. But it was there where I understood that I need to build the fortress.

I need a fortress, I can’t do without one, I need to have a fortress of my own. This is Meaning. Like my own home on Earth. When I was released from prison, my mother was dead, and my father was left alone. He was angry because of the fortress, so not to upset him I went to be a laborer at the construction and assembly directorate, then I became a concrete worker, which also means I studied a bit, and I was of course reading books on architecture, too. In 1981, I buried my father, and in 1982, I started building.

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— I needed a good, flat place, it had to be by the river, otherwise where would I get the material from? And away from people. I started in two places and they chased me away, after that I found this place. I made a footbridge over the river, and it seemed nobody would drive me away from here, so the game was on. I have a drawing, like it should be, I took it from two books. Four bags of cement a day is my standard, I have to do this much. I used to do five, and before that — seven or eleven, but it is hard for me now. I laid my fortress in five rows, everything like it should be — arches and loopholes, now I need to finish the Eastern tower, and then we’ll see. What do I earn my living with? I used to have a disability pension in USSR times, and I had some of my father’s money left, now I have the pension, too, and people help, when they crowd here on the weekends.

Ivan categorizes people into two groups: just people — aged below 40, and Party people — everyone else. Despite his class origins, Ivan has a certain adoration for the Communist party:
— Lenin and Stalin are two grand individuals, two emperors, only that they were from the Party. It’s only that Stalin turned from Lenin later on, and started listening to some ragtag. That’s why he went mad. And Lenin was a smart cookie. He was just like Richard the Lionheart, only from the Party.

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— I have two walls, a roof and loopholes left to build. I stocked up on big stones in the past month, now I only need smaller stones for cohesion — then I make cement — and game on. The fortress is about 18 meters high and 25 meters wide.

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— Arches and windows, they all are just like in the real knight castles, I have checked with the books — angles, plummets. I need two more years to finish the eastern part. And then it’s done, the full circle. What next? I’ll climb up a tower and will cook-a-doodle-do from there about my greatness — he laughs.

A friend from a dacha settlement came to visit Ivan, it’s the friend’s birthday today.

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Ivan likes to drink. He gets drunk fast. He becomes impulsive, talkative, even angry.

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It was July heat, and the owner of the fortress got tipsy quickly.

— What are you looking at, are you eyeballing me? I’m the knight here, got it? The emperor! I built it in spite of all architecture, in spite of it! Built it on my own, alone! With my own hands! And what did I get? Let me show you how the fortress decorated me! — He quickly takes off his shirt and trousers, unwinds the grey cloth that covers his groin, so that the massive groin hernia becomes apparent.

Now you know how one has to work? Can you do the same? Strain your balls? There is no freaking way you could do the same! And I can — and that’s why I don’t care — neither about this hernia, nor about all the architecture!

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Ivan got sober as fast as he got drunk. He withdrew into himself and avoided conversation. He only smoked one cigarette after another.

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Then he took a bag of cement and made more solution:
— Alright guys, it’s going to be too hot soon, and I need to do two more bags. I’m off to work.

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He didn’t do much work that day. Guests started coming. Aksay Clove, where the fortress is located, is one of the favorite recreation spots for Almaty citizens. Most of them have made it a custom to climb up Uncle Vania’s fortress.

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As the sun goes down, Ivan is packing up to go to the city.
— In the summer I usually go home twice a month — to shower, receive my pension, and, well, to buy some cement on the way back, if someone gives me a lift. In winter it depends: I stock up until December, bring cement and various materials, and after the first snow I stay in the fortress until February or March. I fire up the potbelly stove, heat water on it — it’s ok. The volume is small, though — one or two bags of cement (a day), but it’s harder to work in winter.

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Drawings, Soviet magazines, books on architecture and architecture history, cigarette butts, lighters, ashtrays constitute the apartment of Ivan Plotnikov.

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— This the princess, the gal of my dreams. I didn’t have a big piece of paper, so I drew her on the mirror. I didn’t have it easy with them women. When I was young they ran away from me, when I started to build the fortress, different women came, but later in life I just didn’t need them at all. The fortress took everything. And children — I never thought about children.

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