Category Archives: Cultural Heritage

Memory Politics in Tbilisi

Published in the Journal of Conflict Transformation  Feb. 2018

Identity Construction and the Politics of Memory

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought to the creation of 15 independent states that faced the necessity to construct their new identity – both internally and externally. The latter would pave the way to joining the “international community”. “To some extent, identities create opportunities and constraints for foreign policy-making, and also frame relations between countries.”[1]

The identity construction of a new state is a complex process requiring special instruments. Modern political communities use a collectively shared notion of the past as one of the main tools. Appealing to the past is a convenient instrument and resource for the legitimization of the existing political order. How the shared past is conceptualized and processed constitutes the politics of memory within a society.

In its turn, the politics of memory uses various instruments for the construction of a shared notion of the past. The official historical narrative is the principal of such instruments and is complemented, disseminated, and popularized by others. Among them, nation-wide holidays and commemoration days, school programs, national symbols, the creation of memorial sites and museums are the most efficient tools for the instrumentalization of the past and the construction of the state’s official narrative of history.

Undoubtedly, in this process those who carry out and experience the politics of memory have to deal with the heritage of the previous periods as well. “The history of most post-Soviet countries is characterized by the rise and triumph of nationalism and a radical revision of approaches to the history writing that dominated in the previous periods.”[2]Across the post-Soviet space, these revisions brought an overhaul of not only the official historical narratives but also the entire memory landscapes of the societies. This analysis looks into the post-Soviet transformations of the memory landscape in Tbilisi by re-visiting its memorial sites and monuments.

Georgia: History Revaluation

Caucasus Edition

The area of today’s Rike Park in the Soviet period. Electronic copy of the photograph obtained from the National Archives of Georgia.

Georgia was one of the first countries that gained independence from the Soviet Union. Ever since, the state is seeking to form its identity. Like virtually every former Soviet Union country, Georgia started a revaluation of history as part of this quest. The political elites had to provide a memory project aimed at establishing a new foundation narrative, or a new “story” of beginnings, bringing back the “lost” historical memory[3]. The revaluation of history manifested also in commemoration policies and the memory landscape. Before delving into the examination of memorial sites and monuments in Tbilisi, let’s look at a few milestone events catalyzing this revaluation of history.

From Shevardnadze to Saakashvili

In Georgia, due to the chaotic political processes of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, a new state politics of memory was not systematic or targeted. The ethno-political conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia followed by their independence claims as well as the economic and political crises in the country drew all efforts towards policies aimed at stability. Consequently, in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, neither attention nor resources were directed towards conceptualizing and implementing a new politics of memory.

The shaky times of the first decade of independence unfolded under the rule of one of the most prominent Soviet politicians Eduard Shevardnadze, who used to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union. This period ended with the so-called Rose Revolution highlighted by massive protests against the results of the 2003 parliamentary election, skewed in favor of political parties supporting Shevardnadze. The name of the Rose Revolution derives from the culminating moment of the protests, when demonstrators led by Mikheil Saakashvili stormed the Parliament session with red roses in hands. Shevardnadze resigned in November 2003, and Mikheil Saakashvili won the presidential elections.

The Rose Revolution

The Rose Revolution and the developments that followed marked a new direction for the independent Georgian state. The Saakashvili government made an unambiguous choice to prioritize integration with Western institutions and adoption of its system of values. As Saakashvili took the presidential office, the politics of memory emerged as the key instrument for constructing a new, modern, and pro-Western Georgia.

History was the first target of revision. The events of the eras of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were reassessed, reinterpreted, and revised. Even though since 2003 Georgia has changed 3 presidents and even switched from the presidential system to the parliamentary system, the politics of memory of the country remains sufficiently consistent. Perhaps the August 2008 war was the next milestone cementing this politics.

The August 2008 War

The August 2008 war played a crucial role in the formation of the new Georgian identity and became a catalyzer for the revision of history. The August 2008 events were perhaps the junction point where not only the relations between Russia and Georgia split into periods of “before” and “after”, but the entire Georgian politics of memory and identity.

It is true that starting from the early 1990s, Georgia’s major foreign policy objective has been balancing Russian power and influence, which is seen as key to enhancing the country’s national security. Yet this foreign policy was the result of the quest, driven by political elites, for a new national identity rather than pragmatic considerations[4]. Thus, the 5-day war of 2008 was a “logical” extension of the Georgian identity-driven foreign policy struggling to be within Western and Euro-Atlantic spheres of influence, contrary to Russia’s aspirations to keep Georgia in its own zone of influence. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the events of August 2008 reinforced this identity-driven foreign policy. The Georgian politics of identity and memory turned into a radical rejection of the country’s Soviet past and of any Russian influence at large.

One of the consequences of the war was the adoption in May 2011 of the Charter of Freedom with three main tenets: strengthening national security, prohibiting Soviet and Fascist ideologies and eliminating any symbols associated with them, and eventually creating a special commission to maintain a black-list of persons suspected of collusion with foreign special forces.

These events both influenced the emergence of a new politics of memory and were influenced by it. Moreover, their reverberations spread across the physical appearance of Tbilisi. As we view the transformations of the post-Soviet memory landscape, manifested in the memorial sites and monuments of Tbilisi, we have considered both those created in the Soviet period and those constructed in the independence period.

Soviet Memorial Sights of Tbilisi

The 70 years of Soviet rule had a huge impact on the political, economic, and cultural domains of life in all Soviet Republics as well as the countries of the communist bloc. Bolsheviks, coming to power after the fall of the Russian Empire and the emergence of another empire – the Soviet Union, started creating a new cultural heritage that would reflect the communist view on political and social structures, their meanings and functions. The memory landscape and urban environment of the Soviet Union were the direct projections of the prevailing political system and its values. And of course, Tbilisi was not an exception.

As everywhere else in the communist world, in Tbilisi too there sprung up monuments bearing the mark of the Soviet political and social system. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the meaning of those monuments and even their very construction was revised.

“[…] it is not a surprise that during times of political turbulence and change, some of the monuments gain an extra meaning and significance and become objects symbolizing or externalizing societal dynamics and changes.”[5]

The extra meaning and significance of monuments in times of political turbulence can mean both the construction and celebration of new ones as well as the destruction and demise of old ones. The early 1990’s was a period of Georgia’s release from the Soviet past and many monuments embodying the Soviet culture were dismantled from Tbilisi. The Rose Revolution and the August 2008 war brought a new wave of revolutionary changes to the urban environment of Tbilisi.

And yet, despite all the effort of the new Georgian political system to erase the legacy of the Soviet past, rather than to deal with the past, there is still political, social, and cultural memory that persists. And of course, there are still monuments of Tbilisi that date back to the Soviet times. In the new political system, these monuments gain new interpretations, meanings, and significance for the Georgian society.

We have examined two monuments erected during the Soviet times, preserved until now, and – in our opinion – significant for their social and political value. We have looked at how they have been reframed within the modern political system of Georgia and the construction of the new Georgian identity.

The Mother of Georgia Monument on the Sololaki Hill

The monument Mother of Georgia or Kartlis Deda was designed by sculptor Elguja Amashukeli and erected on the top of the Sololaki hill in 1958, the year Tbilisi celebrated its 1500th anniversary. The 20-meter-tall aluminum statue, wearing a Georgian national dress and holding a cup of wine in one hand and a sword in the other, is said to symbolize the Georgian national character; wine stands for hospitality and the sword represents every Georgian’s strive for freedom.

The notion of a “mother of the nation” and embodiment of this notion into a monument of a woman is not unique to Georgia; many states of the former Soviet Union have the very same statue. Moreover, these statues are all in the style of socialist realism hovering over Kiev, Volgograd, Yerevan, and other cities of the post-Soviet space.

Caucasus Edition

The “Mother Armenia” monument in Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Tatev Bidzhoyan.

Caucasus Edition

“The Motherland Calls” monument in Volgograd, Russia. Photo Credits: Yuliya Drachenko, taken from https://goo.gl/jMVczY.

Caucasus Edition

“The Motherland” monument in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo Credits: Maria Karapetyan.

Nevertheless, the modern Georgian society by and large does not perceive Kartlis Deda as a cultural remnant of the Soviet Union but rather as a collective image of the Georgian people. Not manifesting a specific individual, Kartlis Deda was easily integrated into the new national discourse and is supposed to be a figure that every Georgian could identify themselves with. Mother Georgia is “the most important woman in all Georgia: its protector and a standing definition to others of what Georgia is”[6].

Memorial of Glory in Vake Park

Another colossal monument erected during the very last years of the Soviet Rule, more specifically in 1985, is the Memorial of Glory, dedicated to the 300,000 citizens of Georgia that lost their lives during the years of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 and the victorious triumph of May 9 over Nazi Germany.

The then Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union Eduard Shevardnadze conceived the idea of the monument, aiming to prove his loyalty to the central Soviet government. This was an effective move since “Victory Day has become the quintessential ritual of a Soviet culture and society in which Russia – or rather, the Russian-speaking world – was presented as its epicenter”[7].

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, pursuing de-Sovietization policies, made efforts to change the meaning of the monument and the significance of the victory day itself. For example, in 2005, he celebrated the victory in World War II, and no longer in reference to the Great Patriotic War, with the US President George Bush in Liberty Square, and not in Vake Park. A further attempt to downplay the Soviet meaning of the monument was the multiple depiction of the modern Georgian flag on the lower part of the monument.

In 2011, in another move aimed at re-focusing attention between historical events, Saakashvili’s government initiated a project that would mount a new memorial in Vake Park, dedicated to the 1924 anti-Soviet riots. The site was to commemorate Kote Abkhazi, a well-known leader of the liberal nobility of Georgia, and his division that the Communist regime shot in Vake Park in 1923[8]. The installation of the monument was planned for February 2012. However, the monument was not erected. The Georgian government that came after the defeat of Mikheil Saakashvili’s political party returned the celebration of the victory in World War II to Vake Park. Nevertheless, in both official and public discourses, the celebration is said to commemorate the victory in World War II, and not in the Great Patriotic War.

Memorial Sites of Modern Tbilisi

Caucasus Edition

The cityscape of Tbilisi from Rike Park. Photo Credits: Katie Sartania.

Modern Tbilisi is a dynamic city with a multi-layer architecture. It is an eclectic mix of the medieval, the imperial, the Soviet, and the modern. The most remarkable monuments of the memory landscape in the capital of independent Georgia were constructed after the 2003 Rose Revolution. The then president Mikheil Saakashvili and his government paid a special attention to the politics of memory and symbols.

We have examined three monuments crowning the city-scape of Tbilisi and that – in our opinion – best illustrate the new politics of memory of independent Georgia.

The Statute of Saint George on Freedome Square

The statue of Saint George tops the column in the middle of Freedom Square in Tbilisi. The square itself, or rather its name, deserves a small excursion into its own layers of transformation. Its name unveils the turns in Georgian history. When Georgia was part of the Russian Empire, the square bore the name of Knyaz Ivan Paskevich-Erivanskiy and was called Erivanskiy Square. This name lasted until the Sovietization of Georgia. In the Soviet era, it was initially named after Lavrentiy Beria and later on renamed after Vladimir Lenin, with his statue erected in the square in 1956. Following Georgia’s independence, the place was renamed Freedom Square. This was the name of the square at the time of the first Georgian republic that existed in 1981-1921, between the fall of the Russian Empire and Sovietization. Despite this change that bridges the old and the new, even today, some of the older residents of Tbilisi call the place Lenin’s Square.

In the place of the dismantled statue of Lenin’s, a new one dedicated to Saint George was mounted on November 23 in 2006. Designed by the well-known Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, the monument embodies Saint George killing a dragon.

In the new political mythology of Georgia, Saint George is not only the patron saint of Georgia and its protector, it is the symbol of Georgia’s fight for freedom and independence. In this new interpretation, the defeated dragon on the monument symbolizes the imperial legacy – both Russian and the Soviet. Hence the monument not only echoes the distant mythological past but also the recent past. Moreover, as literary scholar Zaal Andronikashvili argues, it promises a future victory as well. The mythological past is projected onto the modern political context and foreshadows the future[9].

Heroes Memorial

One more remarkable example of Mikheil Saakashvili’s sophisticated politics of symbols was the opening of the Heroes Memorial on the Heroes Square in 2009 right after the August 2008 war. The 51-meter memorial is dedicated to Georgians who died in the fight against the Red Army in 1921, the anti-Soviet revolt of 1924, the war in Abkhazia in 1992-1993, and the August 2008 war in South Ossetia. Around 4,000 names of soldiers are engraved on the marble tiles of the memorial.

The Heroes Memorial not only fuses together the past events by the mechanism of analogy but also alludes to the future. As former president Saakashvili noted, the memorial is not only for the heroes who have already died for their country but for the heroes who will sacrifice their lives for the country in the future as well. In his speech at the opening ceremony, he made a clear point: “If we want Georgia to exist, we should all be ready to put on this uniform [referring to the military uniform he was wearing]; we should all be ready to take arms in the decisive moment; and we should all be ready to fall on our land and ready to inscribe our names on the empty parts of this monument. That is the genetic code and historic experience of our country and a major guarantee of our future”[10].

Earlier, in 2003, near the same square, another memorial to Georgians fallen in the wars of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was put up again following the initiative of Mikheil Saakashvili who was then the head of the Tbilisi City Council[11].

The opening of both memorials gave two specific messages made by the government of Georgia to its society and the international community. The first message is that Georgia’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity are absolute values. And the second message was about the government’s perception of who is perceived as a threat to those absolute values. The Russian support for the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s, as well as the August 2008 war followed by the recognition of their independence, contributed most to the formation of the perception of Russia as the number one foe of Georgia.

The Statue of Ronald Reagan in Rike Park

New memorial sites and monuments appeared in Tbilisi not only to mark the distancing from the Soviet past but also to mark new alliances. The relatively new statue of the 40th US President Ronald Reagan is an example of that element of the new politics of memory and symbols in Georgia. Unveiled in November 2011 near the Mtkvari River in Rike Park, the statute depicts Ronald Reagan, sitting on a bench with crossed legs, smiling, and looking off into the distance towards north, perhaps in the direction of Russia? Inscribed on the bench is one of Reagan’s remarkable phrases: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction”.

Following the pattern, Mikheil Saakashvili presented the statue as a symbol of freedom and victory over the biggest evil – the Soviet Union. During his speech on the opening ceremony of the statue he said in reference to the then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s words: “the leader of our invader state has announced that the collapse of the Soviet Union – the Soviet Union that was brought down by Ronald Reagan – was the 20th century’s biggest geopolitical catastrophe. […] While they [Russia] have restored the anthem of the Soviet Union, we are unveiling a statue of Ronald Reagan as a sign of the difference between our ideology and theirs”[12]. Referring to the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, Mikheil Saakashvili once again associated the Soviet Union with Russia only and made an attempt to distance Georgia from its undesirable past.

Dealing – Away – With the Past

A changing politics of memory is always indicative of a changing political course and is called to justify that course. In this analysis, we looked at a number of memorial sites in Tbilisi both from the soviet and post-Soviet periods, analyzing them from the perspective of the modern Georgian political system, the quest for and construction of a new Georgian identity, and the politics of memory and symbols.

The revaluation of Georgia’s past in the Imperial Russian and Soviet realms, the celebration of freedom and independence, and Georgia’s turn towards a pro-Western path of development are at the core of this politics. Some old monuments that have no hope of surviving in the new system of coordinates are demolished. Others are revised and reinterpreted into the new paradigm. Yet new ones are mounted and unveiled.

Footnotes

[1] Kakachia, Kornely. 2013. “European, Asian, or Eurasian?: Georgian Identity and the struggle for Euro-Atlantic Integration.” In Georgian Foreign Policy: The Quest for Sustainable Security, 41-53.

[2] Kirchanov, Maksim. 2017. “Politics of Memory as Historical Politics in Georgia: From Desovietisation to the Invention of the Sovietness.” Georgia Monitor. Accessed January 6, 2018. http://www.georgiamonitor.org/upload/kyrchanoff_vsu_mgimo_2017_engl.pdf.

[3] Toria, Malkhaz. 2014. “The Soviet Occupation of Georgia in 1921 and the Russian-Georgian War of August 2008. Historical Analogy as a Memory Project.” In The Making of Modern Georgia, 1918-2012: The First Georgian Republic and Its Successors, edited by Stephen F. Jones, 316-335. New York: Routledge. Accessed January 6, 2018. https://goo.gl/dHLJw3.

[4] Kakachia, Kornely. 2012. “Georgia’s Identity-Driven Foreign Policy and the Struggle for Its European Destiny.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 4-7. Accessed January 6, 2018. http://www.css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities-studies/pdfs/CAD-37-4-7.pdf.

[5] Javakhishvili, Jana. 2016. “Stones Speaking: Reading Conflicting Discourses in the Urban Environment.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 8-11. Accessed January 6, 2018. http://www.laender-analysen.de/cad/pdf/CaucasusAnalyticalDigest80.pdf.

[6] Constable, David. 2012. “Kartlis Deda: The Importance of Georgia’s Most Famous Woman‏.” Huffington Post. October 29. Accessed January 6, 2018. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/david-j-constable/kartlis-deda-the-importan_b_1776626.html.

[7] Edwards, Maxim. 2016. “Victory Day in Tbilisi.” Open Democracy. May 10. Accessed January 6, 2018. https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/maxim-edwards/victory-day-in-tbilisi.

[8] 2011. “In Vake Park the Memorial to be Installed in Commemoration of 1924 Riot.” GHN News Agency. August 28. Accessed January 7, 2018. http://eng.ghn.ge/news-4309.html.

[9] Andronikashvili, Zaal. 2011. “The Glory of Feebleness. The Martyrological Paradigm in Georgian Political Theology.” In Identity Studies, Volume 3, 92-119. Tbilisi: Ilia State University. Accessed January 7, 2018. http://ojs.iliauni.edu.ge/index.php/identitystudies/article/view/27.

[10] 2010. “Saakashvili Addresses Nation on Independence Day.” Civil.Ge. May 26. Accessed January 7, 2018. http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=22340.

[11] 2004. “В Тбилиси у мемориала воинам, погибшим в боях в Абхазии и Южной Осетии, установлен почетный караул.” Ria Novosti. February 26. Accessed January 7, 2018. https://ria.ru/society/20040226/535327.html.

[12] 2011. “Ronald Reagan Statue Unveiled in Tbilisi.” Civil.Ge. November 23. Accessed January 7, 2018. http://civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=24178%E2%80%8F.

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** All photos of this story were taken by Katie Sartania and Tatev Bidzhoyan unless credited otherwise.

*** This story is part of a series on post-Soviet transformations of the memory landscapes, memorial sites, and monuments in Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Baku.

Designing the Soviet Union

Soviet architecture had diverse and ambitious ideas for transforming the spaces people live, work, and travel in.

An abandoned Soviet-era bus stop in Chiatura, Georgia. orientalizing / Flickr

For the last few years, the best-selling architectural coffee-table books have all shared the same subject: Soviet buildings. They are part of a strange but popular cult, where the ruins of the Soviet Union are contemplated and documented as an alien landscape.Agata Pyzik, in her 2014 diatribe Poor But Sexy, describes this trend as a form of intra-European Orientalism. Books like this year’s success story — Christopher Herwig’s Soviet Bus Stops — explore what she calls an “obsolete ecology,” an irradiated yet magical wasteland, an Urbex paradise littered with wonderfully futuristic ruins. It is a seductive approach, and many Western writers (like me) have joined in.

Herwig’s contribution is a gorgeous example: page after page of bus stops, in an elegant, almost pocket-sized hardback volume, with a terrific design by the Anglo Sovietophile publisher FUEL.

But why bus stops? Because Herwig discovered that the long, straight, often potholed highways that run between the former Soviet Union’s big cities are dotted with hundreds, maybe thousands, of architecturally imaginative bus shelters.

There are none in the cities themselves — urban bus shelters are far more likely to be the sort of metal and glass canopies found in any metropolis. But tiny towns, villages, and hamlets commissioned, through processes that the two introductions to the book manage to leave totally unexplored, a series of exceptionally striking and original designs, in a raw style that combines the local vernacular (Baltic, Central Asian, etc.), concrete futurism (all jagged angles and cantilevers), and bright colors.

It’s fabulous stuff, but to paraphrase Brecht, a photograph of a Soviet bus stop tells us almost nothing about the society that brought it into being.

Tellingly, many of these hit books are made by professional photographers who have chanced upon their subjects — something Herwig shares with the French photographer Frederic Chaubin, author of the smash hit CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed. This means they don’t share the compulsion that an academic or journalist might have to include editorial condemnations of the Soviet Union.

Until recently the subject has produced little good work in the English language. Prewar Soviet architecture has been well-served with studies by the likes of Catherine Cooke, Selim Khan-Magomedov, and Vladimir Paperny, but post-Stalin design has been oddly obscure. However, several recent publications combine the innovation of Soviet aesthetics with excellent writing. There’s no excuse to just stare at pictures of incredible Soviet ruins when there are books that can tell you what they are and why they’re there.

Theory and Practice

Zurab Tsereteli — one of the designers of Herwig’s totally awesome Soviet bus stops —maintained a successful career well into the post-Soviet period. The Russian-based Georgian sculptor shifted from expressive, mosaic-clad organic modernism to a monstrous form of figurative, neo-imperialist sculpture in bronze, leaving a trail of horrors in his wake.

Moscow’s Peter the Great statue is Tsereteli’s most notorious creation, set on its own artificial island. German scholar Philipp Meuser christened this style — which combines late Tsarist, high Stalinist and Las Vegas aesthetics — capitalist realism in other words.

As editor at Dom Publishers, Meuser has been responsible for an impressive program of Soviet and post-Soviet architecture publications. In just the last year, these have included a series of city guides for the Latvian capital Riga, one of the most western of ex-Soviet cities, and for Slavutych, an extraordinary planned city in northern Ukraine designed to rehouse workers displaced by the Chernobyl disaster.

The small housing estates in Slavutych were “donated” by various Soviet republics. You can find a Tallinn Quarter, a Baku Quarter, a Leningrad Quarter and so forth, each reflecting the styles and spatial ideas of their namesake republics. The guide, from Ukrainian architectural historian Ievgeniia Gubkina, strikingly demonstrates how diverse Soviet architecture had become on the eve of its collapse.

However, other recent Dom books, such as Hidden Urbanism — on the astonishing underground palaces of the Moscow Metro — reveal a remarkable level of continuity in Soviet design. The subway stations all share a similar, space-age crypt idiom, whether they were built in 1985 or in 2005.

Another recent Dom book, Meuser and Dmitrij Zadorin’s Towards a Typology of Mass Housing in the USSR, focuses on the flipside of special projects like the Metro, Slavutych, and the bus stops. Instead, it examines the immense prefabricated house program, the largest experiment in industrialized housing ever attempted. This deadpan, obsessive-compulsive book attempts to catalog each apartment building series, which were rolled out of specialized, assembly-line factories like automobiles.

Towards a Typology of Mass Housing reveals that by the 1970s Soviet architecture had almost entirely eliminated the figure of the individual architect, who traditionally works on a specific design for a specific site. For this massive urban housing initiative, the USSR transformed architects into industrial designers, except when it came to the creation of showcase public buildings.

Some of Dom’s recent publications focus on these prestige designers — like Felix Novikov, a mercurial figure whose career included Stalinist palaces for the nomenklatura in the 1940s, Khrushchev-era mid-century modernism like the Moscow Palace of Pioneers, and neo-Persian bathhouses and bazaars in Central Asia in the 1970s and 1980s.

Perhaps the saddest of these books, Galina Balashova: Architect of the Soviet Space Program, focuses on the engineer-architect who designed the ergonomic interiors and streamlined casings for space capsules and stations. Balashova created real, constructed human environments that floated in space or rotated in orbit, but her most recent work consists of watercolors of her family in Tsarist-era military costumes. Whatever else could be said about it, Soviet collectivism made people do things that they wouldn’t have considered possible, before or since.

One of the few books in the Moscow Institute of Modernism’s series of publications on Soviet architecture to be translated into English is Anna Bronovitskaya and Olga Kazakova’s heavy volume on another prestige architect, Leonid Pavlov.

All the facets of Soviet architecture appear on his resume: he began as a Constructivist, passed through the Socialist Realist period of opulent, elite classicism, and then found his metier in the 1960s as an architect for Gosplan, the agency that officially planned the Soviet economy.

As readers of Francis Spufford’s novel Red Plenty will already know, in the 1960s the Soviet Union made an abortive attempt to computerize its economy in hopes of solving the socialist calculation problem. Pavlov designed several Moscow-based computer centers for Gosplan, using a pure, mathematical, and finely detailed modern idiom of clean lines and precisely calculated grids, sometimes integrated with abstract sculpture — a Soviet cousin to postwar America’s corporate architecture.

However, the construction industry couldn’t keep up with the pace of Pavlov’s ideas, and most of the centers were completed at least a decade after their design. By that time computers had shrunk, and the computer rooms were changed into conference rooms or left unused; an apt metaphor for the gulf between theory and practice in Soviet planning.

Pavlov’s late work, tellingly, was devoted to sacred spaces for the cult of Lenin — like the Lenin Funerary Train Museum in central Moscow or the Lenin Museum at Gorki, where Lenin lived and slowly died in the early 1920s. These designs borrow from ancient religious architecture and Miesian high modernism in an attempt to create an appropriate architectural language for a secular cult.

One historical study and one city guide — both published in the last year — provide the most interesting analyses of what Soviet architecture actually was and what (if anything) sets it apart from ordinary capitalist architecture.

The first is Richard Anderson’s Russia: Modern Architectures in History, which presents a panoramic history of pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet architecture from the late nineteenth century to the present. It starts with Victorian eclecticism, “style modern,” and Constructivism, then turns to the eclectic, anti-modernist Socialist Realism of the Stalin era and the standardized and plural modernisms of the 1960s through the 1980s, and ends with a very mixed picture of contemporary Russian architecture, dominated — especially outside Moscow — by an overbearing, unplanned, and speculative monumentality.

Whereas the book covers profound social changes, Anderson pulls out an unexpected thread of continuity, as institutions such as Mosprojekt — the municipal architecture-construction department of Brezhnev-era Moscow — reinvented themselves in the 1990s by designing horrific mirror-glass and marble edifices for the new rich.

Anderson’s book also adroitly uncovers some of the lesser-known aspects of twentieth-century “socialist architecture.” Beyond the famous icons of the avant-garde, Russia: Modern Architectures in History takes in the garden cities in Lenin’s Moscow, the oddly Finnish low-rise housing in post-Blockade Leningrad, the entirely new territory Brezhnev attempted to create through a series of planned towns strung along the Baikal-Amur Mainline, and the various imperial exports found both within the Soviet Union — in the Soviet “East” of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan — and in the imperial baroque style that represented the central power in Eastern European capitals like Warsaw, East Berlin, and Riga.

The most politicized recent book on Soviet and post-Soviet architecture deals precisely with this imperial legacy. The collectively produced The Book of Kyivwas published to mark the city’s biennale last year, largely by affiliates of the Visual Culture Research Centre (VCRC), a leftist non-governmental organization.

The Book of Kyiv works as a guide to the city by presenting a series of carefully chosen buildings, almost all from the Soviet era: a ghost mall known as the House of Clothes; a Metro station left half-finished just outside the city center; the National Museum of Ukraine, done in the Stalinist Roman Empire style; the haunting, organic Crematorium, designed in the 1970s; various emblematic spaces like the former Dzherzhinsky Square, which features a flying-saucer-shaped Institute (featured in no less than Chaubin’s CCCP) and a gigantic monument to the Cheka, only demolished last month; and various soon-to-be de-Communized mosaics and monuments.

Among the spaces that feature in The Book of Kyiv is the dramatically authoritarian, late Stalin-era Independence Square, best known by the Ukrainian word for square: maidan. The VCRC supported the 2013–14 uprising there, and combine this with a sharp critique of the Ukrainian built environment’s de-Communization, now underway through a legally enforced process of renaming and vandalism.

But what makes The Book of Kyiv a real antidote for the likes of Soviet Bus Stopsis its sympathetic account of Soviet architecture and planning, which lets equal stress fall on its failures, continuities, and successes, and trains a ruthless eye on the capitalist city, which has survived by cannibalizing the Soviet legacy, building on its interstices, slathering its public spaces with advertising and cheap commerce, straining its infrastructure, and maintaining a violent divide between rich and poor.

This becomes all the more poignant when it’s enforced on an urbanism that, for all its serious flaws made a serious attempt to create an egalitarian metropolis defined by public space, equality, and planning. It is in that contrast that you can begin to understand what that elusive thing — Soviet architecture — actually was, and what distinguishes it from capitalist architecture. Appropriately, the book is made for the pocket, rather than the coffee table.

A Mehelle Film About Urban Change in Baku

The documentary below is brought to you by Ajam’s Mehelle project, an initiative dedicated to preserving the sights, sounds, and memories of rapidly-changing neighborhoods in Central Asia, Iran, and the Caucasus. Facade is a product of two years of filming in the Sovetski neighborhood of Baku, which has been the target of a state-led urbanization campaign since 2014. A follow-up film will be released in Spring of 2018.

Produced and Directed: Ajam Media Collective’s Mehelle Project
Production Help: Javid Abdullayev and Ahmed Muktar
Music: Shebnem Abdullazade and Vusal Taghi-zadeh

“The neighborhood was one large family… Sovetski was always strong, and that’s why they want to break us.”

In the center of Azerbaijan’s capital city lies Sovetski, a historic neighborhood that was once home to Baku’s oil workers and their families. Over the course of the 19th and 20th century, Sovetski developed its own distinct identity. Self-proclaimed as the “old” Bakuvians, the residents of the neighborhood have had their ups and downs; they have witnessed political upheavals, the rise and fall of various “-isms,” and economic stagnation, but they always had a close-knit community to fall back on.

Now however, the residents of Sovetski face an uncertain future. Fueled by oil rents and foreign investment since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Baku municipal authorities and the Aliyev administration have initiated many urban beautification projects to dramatically rebrand the former Soviet industrial entrepot as a center for global capital and tourism. Over the last three decades, the municipality has renovated the Old City and the adjacent Torgova district (2008), in addition to building the iconic Flame Towers (2007) and transmuting the historical industrial Black City area into a wealthy suburb known as the “White City” (2014).

The authorities have not excluded Sovetski from their vision of a ideal cityscape. In 2014, the Baku municipality ordered “renewal” of the historic Sovetski neighborhood– their labyrinthine alleys, homes, shops, and places of worship will be replaced with a public park and major boulevard. Over the course of the last three years the people of the neighborhood have resisted through protests and demonstrations, but the bulldozers have been relentless. As of Autumn of 2017, the heart of the neighborhood has already been demolished, and new sections have been marked for demolition for the coming years. Facade is a documentary about this process.

As part of Ajam’s Mehelle project, Facade is the result of a collaboration with a number of Azerbaijani filmmakers, journalists, urban activists, and neighborhood residents. If you are interested in the lived experiences of the people of Sovetski, check out the digital map below featuring 360 video, music, and other forms of media.

Exploring Yerevan’s Oldest Neighborhood

Exploring Yerevan’s Oldest Neighborhood: History and Ethics of Heritage Preservation in Kond

By Karine Vann, a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. “She received her Master of Studies in Musicology from Jesus College, University of Oxford in 2014, where her dissertation examined the assimilation of jazz music in Soviet Armenia.
She writes about Armenian cultural heritage for Smithsonian.com.”

Published by Ajam Media Collective

“First things first… Kond might look like a ghetto. It’s not,” says Sevada Petrossian as a preface to our walking tour of Yerevan’s oldest neighborhood. Petrossian is an architect at a Yerevan-based firm called urbanlab.am, an organization that has spent the last five years working hard to garner attention for Kond. The firm has devoted many weekends to giving walking tours of this district to curious travelers, in hopes of highlighting its significance. According to Petrossian and his colleagues, Kond is uniquely situated in Yerevan’s urban fabric–both geographically and socially.

It isn’t clear how long Kond has been inhabited, says Petrossian, but the current layout has remained almost intact since the seventeenth century, back when Yerevan was a cosmopolitan crossroads at the intersection of different religions and ethnicities. The district’s name in Turkish was Tapabashi, meaning “hill top” and the word ‘Kond’ literally translates to “long” or “round” hill in Armenian. Its location on a hill has created a geographical barrier between the district and the rest of the city for centuries. On a map, Kond’s outline resembles a teardrop. caressing the western exterior of the circular main downtown area.


Map of Yerevan, outlining Kond. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

The deterioration from decades of neglect has taken its toll on the surrounding environment. Streets are crumbling, buildings appear to be sinking from their own weight, and residents’ living conditions are deplorable. It isn’t clear how long Kond has been inhabited, says Petrossian, but the current urban fabric has remained almost intact since the seventeenth century.


Photo courtesy of Karine Vann.

Despite the rough exterior, this structural neglect has actually played an important role in preserving the centuries of history in Kond. It is the reason most old buildings have miraculously avoided demolition. In stark contrast to the rest of Yerevan, Kond has not undergone any fundamental or radical architectural modifications in over three hundred years. Today, Kond hosts the most diverse array of architecture in the city.


Donning a patchwork of plaids, Petrossian himself was an appropriate ambassador for Kond. Despite his very frank demeanor, his piercing blue eyes belied a genuine compassion for the neighborhood and its residents. Photo courtesy of Greg Davies.

Within the confines of its tear-shaped borders, one can find a smorgasbord of styles–anything from eighteenth-century brick houses and former mosques turned into makeshift housing, to luxury Soviet-era hotels and half-finished contemporary apartment complexes.

The area did not develop with the rest of Yerevan for a number of reasons. In the early twentieth century, when the rest of city was being remapped according to Soviet architect Alexander Tamanyan’s master plan, Kond was left relatively untouched. Tamanyan had intended to turn it into a museum district, but because Kond was home to so many residents, before implementing any structural changes, officials would first need to have a plan of relocating the several thousand newly Soviet Armenian citizens. It was an enormous logistical burden, which was never reconciled across the entire Soviet period. State officials always planned to do something, but never did.


Dvin Hotel, in Kond, was the luxury hotel in Yerevan during Soviet times. After the collapse of the USSR, it was privatized. On Armenia’s first Independence Day in 1991, all foreign journalists stayed here. Shortly after, it went bankrupt and was purchased recently by a Canadian developing firm, was totally gutted, and remains in this state today indefinitely. Photo courtesy of Greg Davies.

The remains of a former mosque, which stopped functioning after the 1915 Genocide when Armenians from Turkey fled to Yerevan for safety. It’s said this mosque housed seventeen refugee families. Today, it houses five. The mosque’s dome was standing until 1930s or 40s. Photo courtesy of Karine Vann.

Following the country’s independence in 1991, Armenia’s new government recognized the need to do something about the district. In line with the trends of modernist urban planning that dominated the nineteenth and twentieth century, where older structures all over the world were demolished to pave way for the new and “modern,” those plans involved decimating the whole area.

Fortunately for Kond, finances were insufficient to implement such extraordinary plans, but Petrossian says that each year, one by one, he sees old buildings replaced with new ones adhering to a more ‘modern’ style strangely juxtaposed against the rest of Kond’s deteriorating, yet historic charm.


New buildings go up in Kond, one by one, which typically do not make any attempts to match the aesthetic of the rest of Kond’s architecture, which is often in stark contrast to the dilapidated, yet historic buildings that surround them. Photo courtesy of Greg Davies.

The last century has seen Kond exist in a state of perpetual inertia. But its frozen state is a double-edged sword, one which has had profound consequences in the lives of its residents. Compared to the rest of the city, the standard of living in Kond is remarkably low and anyone walking through, without knowing its history, might easily mistake it for a slum. Petrossian tells us that many families don’t have access to running water–a standard commodity for other Yerevantsis (locals) living just down the hill. Many bathrooms take the form of outdoor shacks. Much of this one would expect to find in the villages surrounding Armenia’s capital, but certainly not its kentron.

Those seeking to preserve the identity of Kond face a number of obstacles, for the issue of heritage preservation is much more complex here than in, say, the ancient ruins of an Urartian temple where humans have not lived in for millennia. “When you talk about preservation, you usually talk about freezing something the way that it is now,” Petrossian says, “But here, there’s an ethical issue. Look at how the residents of Kond are living today. It’s a living city. You’re dealing with people’s lives.”

Despite their harsh living conditions, the people of Kond are remarkably resourceful. Walking through the city gives glimpses into the patchwork of construction materials residents use to circumnavigate material shortcomings. “It’s the best example of vernacular architecture,” says Petrossian, referring to the way residents transform their surroundings to suit their needs, oftentimes repurposing everyday instruments as building materials. He even recalls one residence constructed a new balcony made out of an old van.


Living conditions in Kond are deplorable, but its residents find ways to create makeshift solutions to structural issues. The owners of this building have plugged a hole in the stone bricks with old kitchenware, steel pots and a ladle. Photo courtesy of Karine Vann.

“Public and private spaces of conventional cities don’t apply in Kond,” Petrossian warns us. Getting around the neighborhood requires walking into someone’s backyard, bearing witness to their undergarments hanging to dry within arm’s length, and sometimes even becoming active participants in the lively commotion on the streets. These unclear boundaries between public and private are what give of Kondetsis a reputation for being particularly friendly. As we walked by one residence, admiring its brick facade, a man yelled from up the street, “That’s my house, you can go ahead and go inside if you want! Help yourself!”


Photo courtesy of Greg Davies.

Today, little pathways connect the rest of kentron to the veiny streets of Kond and despite the main roads that exist, many locals prefer the hidden foot trails utilized for centuries. The city has changed, Petrossian tells us, but what’s amazing is that people’s instincts have remained the same. While this may be inconvenient for tourists seeking clear directions, it’s a fascinating window into subtle resistances to shifting ideologies expressed through urban planning.


A cobbler’s shop in Kond. The narrow door has the words ‘Shoe Repair’ scribbled in marker. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Moore.

Given that the incredible character of Kond’s residents are a result of both the centuries of regional cultural heritage, as well as the current hardships they face, what is that “authentic element” we’re looking to maintain when we talk about heritage preservation? What do you do when the same reason old buildings have not been demolished is the same reason people are living in poverty?