The Former Soviet Bloc: Shifting States, Changing Perceptions

Mon, 5 March 2018
kiev-creamtoriumCrematorium (A. Miletski) in Kiev by Frédéric Chaubin

This article appears in Volume 22: The Design Issue

“Today, culture is everywhere,” remarks the photographer and journalist Frédéric Chaubin. “Heritage lists are getting bigger and bigger. Everything is explained, everything is understood and – in some ways – everything is getting tasteless. But I had the chance of facing an enigma when I was travelling a couple of years ago in Georgia, where I bumped into some extremely strange buildings.”

Having photographed these strange and space-age goliaths, Chaubin was seduced by the idea of uncovering more of them, scattered and hidden throughout the former Soviet Union. He went on to capture more than 90 of these buildings across 14 former republics – the results are documented in his recently released book, Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (TASCHEN). “When you face ruins,” he confides, “you are facing cultural skeletons. In fact, in one sense I was facing stuffed birds, in that they looked alive, but were already dead. Close in time, of course, but already very far away – in some way out of time.”

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Built between 1970 and 1990 when the Union itself was decaying, these monuments to chaos reflect a time when architects were acting on impulse. Each architectural eruption represents a frantic attempt to grasp a fading dream, and often showcases something of a painterly approach – expressionist, perhaps surrealist. These stacked blocks of concrete foresaw the visions of dystopian videogame designers, and in their otherworldliness tend to resemble grounded UFOs.

As much as these bold works of creativity mark the fizzling, frenetic embers of the USSR, they also represent the cultural renaissance that has gripped Russia and other former Soviet states over the course of the past decade. Moscow has become a city that feels more liveable than ever before, and from Estonia and Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan and Ukraine, former Soviet socialist republics are thriving under new cultural directions.

Art and architecture, music and theatre, lifestyle and living – culture might be “everywhere”, but the boundless invention that helped to create the enigmatic buildings captured by Chaubin is now fuelling a fresh wave of creativity, and helping to unshackle the region from visitors’ preconceptions.

Moscow, Russia

With some estimates placing Moscow’s population as high as 17million, the capital of Russia – and the former Soviet Union – is vast in scale, yet remains off the radar thanks to its reputation as a place where post-truth propaganda and secrecy have tended to obscure the bigger picture.

However, billionaire philanthropists have been helping to hit reset on the city’s cultural agenda, with staggering projects such as Strelka, an institute in the new vanguard of the creative arts and urban thinking, as well as the Rem Koolhaas-designed (and Roman Abramovich-bankrolled) Garage Museum of Contemporary Art and the vast overhaul of the once-tired Gorky Park, now an epicentre of life in the capital.

The cutting-edge Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art, with its studios, shops, theatre and visual arts space, represents the sort of self-sufficient cultural outpost that is offering a rawer alternative to big-money venues such as Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. Style-conscious bars, restaurants and concept stores are also popping up across the city in abandoned warehouses and industrial spaces. Zaryadye Park – a new urban sanctuary conceived in collaboration with the designers behind New York’s High Line – is the city’s first new park in about 70 years, and will host interactive exhibitions and installations in its media centre and its concert hall.

When it comes to culinary innovation, the chef Vladimir Mukhin’s White Rabbit restaurant currently holds the 23rd spot on the esteemed list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and à la mode hotspots such as Sempre and Fahrenheit are always filled with Muscovite scenesters. In a city of contrasts, these are just the sorts of places that are redefining people’s expectations.

Baku, Azerbaijan

As it turns out, Azerbaijanis have been taking part in rap battles since medieval times. Suppressed during the Soviet period, the “meykhana” gained popular acceptance in the 1990s as the fall of the Union saw western influences flood into the country. However, poets had been exchanging disparaging verses in meyhanes – bars where wine, raki, vodka and beer are served up alongside meze and traditional cuisine – for centuries, with freestyle face-offs forming an integral part of the country’s cultural heritage.

You may not have known that Azerbaijani poets predated Run-DMC by many centuries, just as you probably weren’t aware that the country’s national sport – chovkan – is played to music. Like many countries between the Caspian Sea and Asia, Azerbaijan has been swept up by the Borat effect, an ancient cultural legacy reduced to a funny voice and a donkey joke.

However, Azerbaijan’s quirky contemporary architecture is giving the country some serious design credibility, with a nod to 21st-century futurism.

Designed as a sweeping rebuttal to the blocky, authoritarian edge of Soviet Modernism, Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center is something of an ethereal wonder that even the experimental architect herself dubbed “ambitious”. Its undulating curves act as a beacon of intent amid a flurry of newly built projects for this corner of the Caucasus. Hadid’s oscillating edifice joins the LEDcovered Flame Towers (the city has a long history of fire worship) and Socar Tower, an expressionist skyscraper that swirls 686ft into the air, in confirming Baku as one of the cities most capable of rivalling the outrageous aesthetics of the Soviet Union’s dying days. Uncompromising and contentedly odd, it’s a must-see for design-minded daydreamers in search of singular sights.

Kiev, Ukraine

Nowhere in this region can the rejection of Soviet principles be felt with such profound zeal as in Kiev, where the student protests that sparked 2014’s Maidan Revolution were symbolic of a youthful ambition for a different future. Ukraine’s “Revolution of Honour” may be far from achieving the resolutions its protagonists envisioned – and Russia’s subsequent annexing of Crimea still leaves the country teetering on the edge of war – but the cloud that creativity lived under in the years of corruption and Russian influence that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union has lifted.

From leading international artists invited by groups such as the peace-awareness initiative ArtUnitedUs to liberated young Ukrainians acting independently, the streets of Kiev are looking more and more like Berlin’s, as sublime street art crops up in every corner of the city along with independent art spaces, all-night parties and avant-garde theatre projects. The PinchukArtCentre brings in work from names like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei, while Ulichnaya Eda has grown to be one of Europe’s largest regular street-food events, incorporating a design-led “urban market”.

Anchoring the city’s party scene, Closer began as a series of summer techno nights in 2013. Weathering the revolution and emerging as one of Kiev’s most important cultural venues, it’s a club at heart, but also hosts talks, screenings, workshops and exhibitions. Many Soviet relics remain, including absurdist constructions such as the Ukrainian Institute for ScientificTechnical and Economic Information, Kiev Crematorium and the Salute Hotel. However, contemporary Kiev style filters its complicated past through an Instagram-friendly lens. Concept stores, speakeasies and hip eateries such as the photogenic health-food bar ORANG+UTAN demonstrate the city’s youth’s craving to be closer to western Europe.

Riga, Latvia

(In)famous for its stag parties, in reality Riga has a cultural underbelly to rival any of Europe’s great cities. Once the largest city in the Swedish Empire, it is now a point of convergence for contemporary Europe. Its medieval Old Town, where the grandiose classicism of old-world Europe meets Art Nouveau and the kooky charm of Scandinavia, contrasts with all the moderately chaotic additions from the turn of the 20th century. Riga was awarded the role of European Capital of Culture in 2014, and the city has been flourishing ever since.

Agnese Kleina, the blogger-turned-publisher behind the internationally acclaimed independent magazine Benji Knewman, pinpoints 2009 as the “big-bang moment” for Latvia, the point when fashion bloggers made their name and concept stores found their feet alongside third-wave coffee outlets. A small city with a tight creative community, Riga is full of grassroots cultural venues such as Kaņepes Kultūras Centrs, an informal café-cum-club-cum-exhibition space, and Bolderāja, an events space and bookstore that takes its name from the city’s sketchiest neighbourhood.

Miera Iela (Peace Street) is a stretch of bohemian retailers, gallerists, bar owners and restaurateurs. Once forgotten, its renaissance is indicative of the wider boom in former Soviet states, while Kalnciema Quarter is a picturesque complex of 19th-century wooden buildings that have been renovated into a charming cultural quarter.

As a new generation of Latvian creatives find peace with the Soviet aesthetic that hangs over this part of the world, fusing it with an appreciation of western values, Riga’s residents harness tradition and contemporary style to create art, fashion, film, theatre and freeform culture. Small and feisty, this Baltic beauty proves that you overlook such cities at your peril.

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