“We are haunted by a ghost, the ghost of Communism.”
Communism was one of the dominant political ideologies of the 20th century. At its heart lay a particular world view with its own conception of economics, social order, history, architecture, and art. With the Soviet Union as its most important center, its influence spread all over the world—from Central Europe to Central Asia and beyond.
Like in other totalitarian regimes, the point of art and architecture in Communism was representing the absolute power and invincibility of the state through its overwhelming dimensions. This leitmotiv runs like a red thread through the manifold forms of Communist art and architecture—whether that’s Modernism or Socialist-Realism.
Buildings and monuments were erected not only for their functionality but in order to perpetuate the state’s presence in society. Monuments honoring the official version of history in open spaces contributed to the embedding of the views of the establishment. The monstrosity of utilitarian Communist high-rises represented the monolithic concept of the collective. Monuments, buildings, and even large-scale construction projects as well as planned cities can all be seen as public representations of state power and the ideological infallibility of Communism—which Milan Kundera termed “Communist Kitsch.”
The aesthetic legacy of Communism can be seen in many places beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union and its satellites behind the Iron Curtain, in formerly aligned or non-aligned countries alike. This legacy can take many forms, from monumental triumphalism to derelict squalor, and can be observed in just as many different places and objects.
I recently asked seven of my favorite bloggers out there to share with me the one place that best represents the legacy of Communism to each of them. They are some of the most knowledgeable when it comes to this subject, so make sure to check out their blogs to discover other fascinating destinations!
Concrete and Kitsch | Sary Mogul, Kyrgyzstan
While I very much wanted to go the route of the Soviet monolith for this collaboration, I think it’s similarly important to discuss some of the less glamorous vestiges of Communist history as well. High in the Pamir mountains, in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, lie several towns that defy cultural tradition and agricultural practicality. One of these, Sary Mogul, is an important jumping off point for treks in the region, particularly to Kyrgyzstan’s Peak Lenin, I found the city (village may be more applicable here…) fascinating as a standalone destination.
There was no precedent for permanent living in the high altitudes of Kyrgyzstan’s Alay Valley. Instead, the area south of Osh and north of the Trans-Alay tributary of the Pamir Mountains was left solely to the most intrepid of Kyrgyz – typically bringing their herd to graze in the jailoo (pastureland) during the warmer summer months, and returning to the relatively warmer climate of the less dramatic altitudes at other times of the year.
Sary Mogul and other towns in the region, including Sary Tash just to the east and Murghab over the border in Tajikistan, were built by the Soviets in an attempt to collectivize the nomadic peoples of the high Pamir. As the Soviets worked to connect Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s southern city, with more remote parts of the Soviet empire, these towns sprung up to support those traversing the Pamirs from north to south, as well as to stifle the roaming of the indigenous Kyrgyz and Tajik peoples. And thus, towns like Sary Mogul were born.
Sary Mogul today, nearly thirty years past communism, exists in limbo. There are still several hundred-people living there, mostly making their livings either by subsistence farming (though not much can grow above 12,000 feet) or in tourism. We were only there a single night, staying in the only guest house in town. But for whatever reason, its existence captivated me – its neat rows of one-story mud houses, free-roaming cows and pigs, empty market, and curious people. Sary Mogul is a relic, hanging on to a communist-manufactured system that is no longer either relevant or practical.
Kami and the Rest of the World | Soviet Architecture in Warsaw
As you might know at the beginning of 20th century Warsaw, the capital of Poland, was called Paris of the East. As you also might know 90% of Warsaw was destroyed during the WW2. The time of the reconstruction happened to be when Poland got into the Soviet influence zone and while the Old Town was rebuilt to resemble the look from before the war, the rest of the city got a completely new look. The best and probably most known examples of the Soviet architecture in Warsaw are Palace of Culture and Science and Constitution Square. The Palace of Culture and Science was a gift of the Soviet nation to Polish people. The construction has started in May 1952 and was finished a little bit over 3 years later. Looking at the pictures from that time it’s hard to believe the Palace was actually white!
This highest building in Poland is home to numerous cultural and business institutions, like museums, theaters, cinemas or concert hall; you can also get to the 30th floor to see a spectacular view of the city. On the ground level the interior is full of sculptures being the best examples of the Soviet art. They represent various cultural institutions, working class or friendly nations sharing Soviet values. If you look closely you might even find a young man holding book with works of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Even today the Palace is often called “The Russian Wedding Cake” or “Stalin’s syringe”.
If you were in Riga and saw the building of Latvian Academy of Sciences you will find Palace of Culture and Science strangely similar… Constitution Square was the second most important project of the Warsaw Soviet development. It’s one of the biggest squares in Warsaw, designed as the finish point of the 1st of May marches. The surrounding buildings show the best example of the Soviet architecture in Warsaw and when you look closer you can still find sculptures of the working class, so typical for those times. The square got its name after the Soviet Constitution that was introduced on 22nd July 1952, that’s also when the grand opening of the square took place. These days it is one of the last remaining major Soviet places that you can still admire in Warsaw.
Kathmandu and Beyond | Soviet Chisinau
For me, one of the standout places where, architecturally speaking, the legacy of communism still rides high is Chisinau in Moldova. A devastating earthquake in 1940 followed by the onslaught of World War II, meant that acclaimed Russian architect, Alexey Shchusev (he of Lenin’s Mausoleum and the Kazansky railway terminal in Moscow fame) pretty much had a blank canvas when he was appointed to oversee the reconstruction of the city after its Sovietisation.
Soviet redevelopment of Chisinau continued right up until 1991, the year Moldova obtained its independence, but the heaviest years of construction were undoubtedly the 1970s when more than one billion Soviet rubles were allotted by the motherland for up-and-coming building projects. Not surprisingly, therefore, it is architecture from this era that dominates the Moldovan capital more than any other.
Chisinau is a small city and even a quick whizz around its centre will reveal some wonderful examples of Soviet-era architecture. The towering Moldtelecom building, which is located just behind Central Market, for example, dominates the city’s skyline and even within the confines of the market itself it’s hard not to miss some fine ’70s-era concrete structures. Nearby, Government House and the National Palace Concert Hall are also worth checking out and I especially liked the National Bank of Moldova, which is about as Post-War Modernist a building as you can get!
There are also a number of hotels worth searching out: the Chisinau Hotel is a fine example of Stalinist Empire style architecture while opposite, the now-abandoned National Hotel was once the city’s Intourist hotel – in other words, the best in town.
Chisinau’s two most impressive communist-era structures, however, are located a little away from the city centre. No former Soviet city would be complete without its state circus and Chisinau’s, which was once state-of-the-art but is now in a state of abandonment, stands in splendid isolation just across the other side of the Bic River. Getting inside the building is difficult these days but it is still worth the walk out of town to view it from the outside and on the way there you will pass the Soviet Memorial to Communist Youth and the very Soviet Hotel Turist.
Finally, the other building that caught my imagination was the Romanita Tower. Designed as a social housing project in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Romanita is visible from quite a few locations in the city (it was once the tallest building in Chisinau), but actually locating it is a little difficult. You may need help from the friendly marshrutka drivers in Central Market plus you’ll have to walk a bit but, in my opinion, it is worth the effort in order to get a close-up view of this cylindrical hulk.
Truth be told, Chisinau hasn’t got a whole load of conventional sights but that keeps it under the mainstream tourist radar and for fans of Soviet-era architecture, the city’s got plenty to occupy your time.
The Picktures | Mother Armenia
One can’t overlook her while in Yerevan. Mother Armenia, locally known as Mayr Hayastan, rules the downtown. You will see her from all over the city. The monument is truly massive with its 22 meters, 51 including the pedestal.
I was always intrigued and infatuated by her presence – the courageous lady with a sword and a deadly serious face we know from so many other Soviet monuments. She personifies Armenia and symbolizes peace through strength.
I’ve been fascinated by the concept of Mothers of Nations in general. On one hand, Soviet Union depicted nations as a song of the past, trying to make social class a core of their people’s identities. On another, the empire let their republics erect monumental statues of personifications of, guess what, the nations. We can find one in Kiev, one stands in Tbilisi, one rules over Yerevan.
Mother Armenia is not the first statue that stands on the hill above Yerevan’s center, a little up from the famous Cascade Complex, and, last but not least, in the very heart of Victory Park that is full of Soviet tanks to this day. It also seems to be a quite popular date spot for high school students, which never ceases to surprise me.
There used to be a guy there before. No, he wasn’t even Armenian. And yes, it indeed was Joseph Stalin. There is more to this story. Mother Armenia occupies the same pedestal the cruel Communist ruler was thrown away from back in 1962. Rafael Israelyan, who designed the pedestal, wanted it to be a truly unique one, so he shaped it as a traditional Armenian basilica to honor the Christian traditions that have been alive and well in South Caucasus since the 5th century.
Not only a dose of nationalism, but also the forbidden fruit of religion, all dressed as a socialist realistic aesthetics. It beautifully shows that communist legacy in faraway Post-Soviet lands is often way more complex that people were taught to think on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Remember, socialist realism or not, Armenians have always had their unique style that knew its ways into Soviet-approved pieces. In my humble opinion, it ages quite well, too. Come to Armenia to meet the Mom!
Megan Starr | Soviet Abkhazia
I have ventured to several cities and countries that were once under Communist regimes and could write stories for days about my travels to the places. However, one place really comes to mind when I think about how the past meets the present and that is the promenade of Sukhumi, Abkhazia. I went to Sukhumi back in 2013 and the memories of the promenade and the residents enjoying life on it still linger in my mind.
The promenade is imaged by men playing dominoes and chess (the world domino championship has actually been held in Sukhumi in years past), stray dogs running along the emerald waters of the sea, teenagers creating impromptu photoshoots on rusty and abandoned buildings and ships along the shore, and the many palm trees swaying in the comforting winds of the Black Sea. Behind the promenade, one’s senses will be assaulted by the incessant smell of shashlik on outdoor grills. Despite not being an avid meat eater, there is something so delectable about that smell. Beyond the shashlik, one will find copious amounts of abandoned buildings (nearly half of Abkhazia’s buildings are abandoned) and weathered Soviet mosaics.
Abkhazia is plagued by its quest for recognition around the globe and their struggle for true independence can be felt even along the promenade. I don’t know what the future holds for Sukhumi or even for Abkhazia, but my time on the Sukhumi promenade will always be ingrained vividly in my mind and will always remain one of my best travel memories.
Coffee and Cleveland | The Moscow Metro
There is something extraordinary about Soviet architecture. With it’s larger than life sculptures and buildings and intricate detail in design, you can’t help but think, “Do I live for the country or does the country live for me?” Many people who visit Moscow can find themselves in one of two camps: they either love or hate the grandiose size and intricacy of Soviet architecture. I happen to find myself in the first school of thought, which is why I fell in love with the Moscow Metro.
Conceived in 1931 it only took four years for the first station to open in May of 1935. It was celebrated as a technological and ideological victory for Stalinism and was welcomed with parades and concerts. Ideology and authority play a major part in communism, and the metro was no exception to this. Visitors to the metro can’t help but gawk at the over-the-top designs in many of the metro’s 206 stations.
As someone who is fascinated with anything early 20th century and mesmerized by the story of the Titanic – a ship meant to exhibit the technological advances and aristocracy of it’s day – I was immediately enthralled by the Moscow Metro’s grand staircases and art-deco interior. Statues and murals of people fighting for and supporting the motherland was a concept that was slightly foreign to me as well. The United States has its share of patriotism, as any country does, but nothing to the scale as seen in authoritarian regimes.
To be fair, I haven’t ridden the subway in New York, and I barely remember the “L” in Chicago, so I can’t comment on how the compare to the Moscow Metro. Maybe the fact that I can’t remember anything about the “L” is evidence enough of Moscow’s extraordinary metro system. I’ve lived in Russia for two years, and I still have not come across anything as marvelous as the metro system.
Between Distances | The Soviet War Memorial of Berlin-Treptow
The definition of “Eastern Europe” is at best elastic, but regardless of where we set its borders, Germany is never included in this amorphous collective. If we refer to “Eastern Europe” as the countries behind the Iron Curtain though, then we can’t forget the former East Germany.
The German Democratic Republic was for decades the westernmost satellite of the Soviet Union, and East Berlin was a Socialist capital through and through. Mementos from that time are still present in the former territories of the First Workers’ and Peasants’ State—from the abandoned Soviet military bases that litter the countryside to the monumental buildings on the former Stalin Boulevard.
Berlin holds a special place in Soviet cosmology as the site of the final battle against National Socialism. The Soviet Union commissioned three massive monuments to honor its soldiers that fell in the final battle for the city—and as a reminder of its military might. Out of this three monuments, the one I find most impacting is the one in Treptower Park. The central monument in East Berlin, it is also the largest Soviet War Memorial outside of the former Soviet Union. Dedicated on May 8, 1949, this large memorial is also home to 7,000 fallen soldiers.
The solemnity of the place stands in harmonious contrast to its overwhelming dimensions. This monument, quintessentially Soviet, is extravagant in its accented triumphalism. The gate to the monument is formed by two giant Soviet flags made of red granite. Each flag is guarded by a kneeling, mourning Soviet soldier. The centerpiece of the memorial is the statue of a Soviet soldier symbolically holding a baby on its left hand, and a sword on the right. The soldier stands atop a crushed swastika, making this image iconic to the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany—in fact to such an extent that it is even found in a Soviet mosaic in the Moscow Metro. The statue alone is 12 meters high. Flanking the way to the statue are sixteen stone sarcophagi, all bearing engravings of typical Socialist motives and quotes of Stalin in gold letters. Each sarcophagus represents a Soviet Republic. Why sixteen then? Because the monument was finished before the Karelo-Finnish SSR was dissolved in 1956.
The Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park perfectly embodies the multifaceted legacy of Communism, and is one of the must-see sights of Berlin.
The Bohemian Blog | Buzludzha
I first saw it in summer. I was visiting the national monument in Shipka Pass, a stone tower raised on the site of Bulgaria’s bloodiest battle along the path to independence; but my gaze was distracted, drawn towards the distant disk shimmering on another mountaintop east along the ridge.
Pointing over at the strange concrete saucer, I asked my Bulgarian friend what it was. Just some old Russian thing, he said.
That was ten years ago; before the world found out about Buzludzha. Back when Bulgaria was still allowed to pretend it wasn’t there. But now the monument is an international celebrity, with features in CNN, The Economist, and all the rest… it’s getting difficult for Bulgaria to ignore it anymore.
In 2015 I met the Buzludzha monument’s architect, Georgi Stoilov, for an interview.
“This saucer,” he told me, “this intergalactic saucer echoed popular themes of the era… cosmic, flying saucers.” The interior meanwhile was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, so that the monument’s design reached both backwards and forwards in time: a galactic, post-earth palace.
Foreign visitors come in their droves now, and especially in the summer – just like it used to be after the monument’s grand opening in 1981, when the building (some claim) received as many as a hundred pilgrims every hour. The saucer was built to serve ritual Party purposes, but it was open to the Bulgarian public too as a celebration of national art, architecture and as a museum to social advancement. It was Stoilov’s idea that the construction be funded with citizen donations: so that it couldn’t be seen as a burden on the state, on unwilling taxpayers, but rather as an expression of national co-operation.
It was the Communist Party, however, who branded the monument with a star. Georgi Stoilov’s original sketches show a red lion glowing from the tower, Bulgaria’s national symbol atop a monument by Bulgarians and for Bulgarians; but the Party chose instead a symbol of communism. That same red star would eventually doom this monument to ruin.
The Buzludzha monument was closed after the 1989 collapse of Bulgarian communism; and it remained closed, untouched for most of a decade. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, when Bulgaria elected a conservative government intent on erasing the legacy of communism (the same government who blew up the neo-classical mausoleum of ‘First Leader’ Georgi Dimitrov in Sofia) that the guards were dismissed, and the Buzludzha monument was abandoned to the elements.
As Bulgaria slumped into economic crises, desperate citizens returned to Buzludzha to withdraw their previous donations – in the form of marble, copper and steel. Other vandals came, no doubt, simply for the chance to give communism one last kick in the guts.
Today the building rots, its murals fade, and Bulgaria’s politicians are afraid to save it for fear of being labelled communist sympathisers. This unique monument to Bulgaria – hijacked by the Party to serve as a monument to communism – has now become instead a monument to communism’s fall.
Hope you enjoyed this virtual trip through the Communist world! What monument or building best represents the legacy of Communism to you? Share your answer in the comments below and add your individual perspective to ours!
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