The post-Soviet order: cities after the fall

The post-communist city is a murky political space, writes Kieron Monks in a review of Owen Hatherley’s book on the region.

The post-Soviet order: cities after the fall

The post-communist city is a murky political space, writes Kieron Monks in a review of Owen Hatherley’s book on the region.

What are you left with after two dreams die?

The people of the Soviet Union were promised utopia, and when the USSR collapsed it was to mark a new era of freedom and prosperity.

In The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Space, the author explores shadows cast over the post-Soviet era. Travelling through 11 of the 15 former Soviet countries over a period of several years, Hatherley, an architecture critic with a long affinity with the region, finds a patchwork of dictatorships, oligarchies, corruption-blighted pseudo-democracies, and timid attempts at a new liberal order.

The 600-page book is part travel guide, detailing the most striking features of each city, and part attempt to wrestle with the contested legacy of the Communist experiment. Hatherley is keen to bust myths around a region that is shrouded in stereotypes, such as the idea that this vast land mass containing countless ethnic and cultural identities could ever have been a mere totalitarian monolith in which ‘everyone was either a perpetrator or a victim,’ stripped of their humanity by a vast, unfeeling bureaucracy.

The Soviet imprint

The author acknowledges that many of the stereotypes contain a grain of truth. The Soviet Union may not have been a monolith, but whether Hatherley is in Ventspils or Nizhny Novgorod, Kiev or Tbilisi, the recurring and regularized hallmarks of Soviet central planning are a dominant presence.

The ubiquitous Kruschevsky apartment blocks - products of the largest-ever experiment in mass-produced public housing - the military-engineered metro stations, the Houses of Culture that served as one-stop shops for art, music, and cinema, and mighty public monuments are reminders of how deeply the system touched the everyday lives of citizens.

Freshly-independent states have taken different approaches to this physical heritage but much of it remains intact – with adjustments. Murals of heroic ironworkers and cosmonauts in the aspirationally-Western, ostentatiously Capitalist cities of Georgia and Ukraine are harder to find beneath adverts for Western consumer goods. Shopping malls have been constructed under the main Soviet squares of Almaty and Minsk, undercutting the original grandeur.

Kruschevskies in Latvia have been given fresh paint jobs and individualized entrances. In Kiev, the same prefabricated blocks have been given a makeover and branded ‘New England’. Moscow is taking a more disruptive approach with plans to demolish thousands of the blocks as part of a modernization drive.

Soviet planning tended to focus construction on the outskirts of cities, leaving the centres relatively uncluttered. This convention is being challenged by developers wishing to take advantage of prime-location real estate, although these ambitions are held in check where cities are attempting to acquire or retain UNESCO status for historic areas. Moscow has managed a fudge of sorts by adding new floors to listed buildings.

The treatment of Soviet symbols, statues and monuments offer insight into the varying directions of travel. Baltic states, which suffered under violent occupation and then annexation, underwent a swift and thorough purge of Soviet iconography as part of their rapid transition to becoming business-friendly EU members.

In Belarus, the ‘land of eternal Sovietism’ that continues to receive subsidies from Russia, statues of Lenin are common landmarks. Russia’s major cities tend to use symbols of the revolution for a touch of authenticity while the surrounding areas fill up with new consumer attractions and luxury apartments. In Ukraine, a surge of nationalism has informed a drive to replace Soviet statues – in some cases replacing them with figureheads of the far right.

Hatherley also finds a space between iconoclasm and fetishization for gentle mockery. In Zaporizhia, Ukraine, Lenin wears the local football team’s kit and Stalin’s henchman Sergey Kirov holds a new baton in front of the House of Culture.

Transition to...dysfunction

The end of Communism has generally not marked the onset of democracy.

The Baltic states may have managed the smoothest transition to a form of liberal democracy, although Hatherley notes that nationalism is the dominant ideology. These countries offer citizens greater democracy and civic freedom than is available elsewhere in the region, as well as higher living standards with the benefit of oil wealth and EU funding for public projects.

Hatherley suggests the region has also benefited from skilfully harnessing Soviet education and engineering infrastructure to deliver success stories such as the reinvention of ‘E-Stonia,’ the birthplace of Skype, as a tech hub.  

Elsewhere, mutant hybrid models of government have taken root. In Belarus, the repressive dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko is given a fig leaf of legitimacy through the continued provision of cheap housing and some social protections. Moldova combines elements of democracy with extreme kleptocracy. One-eighth of the country’s GDP went missing in 2014, while much of the population lives in abject poverty. Russia holds elections but sits between Qatar and Zimbabwe in 164th place in The Economist’s Democracy Index.

Greater economic liberalism has not led to greater social liberalism. Hatherley documents the struggles of activists in Ukraine, one of the few post-Soviet states with an activist culture, hemmed in by a repressive government and an ascendant far right. He describes attending a subversive exhibition in Kiev that detailed torture of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych’s opponents, before it came to an abrupt end when smoke bombs crashed through the windows. Kiev is rare among former Soviet cities in that LGBT events can be held openly, but these are typically opposed and attacked by far right groups.

Neither are citizens granted much say in shaping their cities. Grassroots groups in Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg are campaigning to save much-loved public spaces from developers but appear to be swimming against the tide. The Strelka Institute in Moscow has sought to build popular participation in urban development, but the authoritarian nature of the Russian state is frequently demonstrated, such as in a sudden, brutal purge of street kiosks.

Waking up

The rise of the nationalist right across the region is a recurring theme that stalks Hatherley’s book. He sees this partly as a reaction to the two-fold failures of first Communism and then liberalism after its collapse. Patriotism has come to dominate politics in many of the post-Soviet states and a new cast of demagogues are taking advantage.

Hatherley finds some encouragement in the rare pockets that are not disillusioned, where people continue to dream of forging some form of utopia. In Minsk, students talk about separating ‘Sovok’ – uncritical loyalty to the regime – from the Union’s worthwhile heritage. In Armenia, he finds an enduring model of proletarian luxury at the Sevan resort. In Kyrgyzstan, activists have created a ‘Queer Communist Manifesto’ that calls for emancipation through a wholesale sexual revolution.

But these are niche experiments, Hatherley acknowledges. This is a region that has largely woken up from its dreams.