- Interview by
- Owen Hatherley
The architecture of Soviet Ukraine in the Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev years has, rather unexpectedly, become a minor cult in recent years, with numerous publications, photobooks and Instagram accounts – and blockbuster TV series, like Chernobyl – documenting the public buildings of that era. Soviet Modernism, Brutalism, Postmodernism – Buildings and Structures in Ukraine 1956-1991 (Osnovy Publishing), by the historian Ievgeniia Gubkina, from Kharkiv, and photographer Alex Bykov, from Kyiv, is something much more ambitious, a history of these structures and the ideas and the economics behind them. Tribune spoke to the pair about their work, about how they came to document this architecture – and what, if anything, can be done to save it from an extremely unsympathetic economic and political environment in the present day.
Why as writer and photographer did you decide to collaborate on a book about this specific period in 20th century Ukrainian architecture – as opposed to, say, the avant-garde of the 1920s or the Stalinist classicism of the 1930s-1950s?
I think that it was our position as activists. We really believed and thought two or three years ago that we could change something, that we were able to protect our heritage and protect these objects that we loved so much, which we were involved in heritage protection movements around. We thought and we still do, that this was the most vulnerable period. These objects, in my perception they appeared like victims, and I wanted to help those victims, though of course it’s buildings, not people, but I wanted to protect them. They were victims of the economy, of their functions, and maybe of politics. Another point was my personal scientific interest, because at the time I really didn’t understand that period. I didn’t understand what happened, why it looked like it did, and why it was being demolished now. A lot of questions, and I wanted somehow to understand them. I didn’t like the interpretations of other authors, critics and researchers, and I didn’t like the ideas of wider society of what we should do with that heritage. I wanted to construct my personal opinion about that. I had that investigator’s passion to discover, because it was something new for me, like all those 19th century ethnographers who wanted to dig up ruins. I thought it would be a nice experience, but it became a very traumatic experience. Writing that book made me a very traumatised person – I’ve had to have a year and a half of psychotherapy (laughs).
I came to science or to criticism from people who are fans of interwar modernism, so my dissertation was about the Kharkiv Tractor Factory, the interwar avant-garde, and all of that socialist planning. So for me it was exactly a question about what happened later. All the professors when I was a student said that all of that concrete stuff was stupid, and then it was a sign that if those people said that something was worthless and meaningless I should go there. I had quite a lot of opportunities to write about Constructivism, which is a relatively privileged topic, of these Communist or socialist experiments in empty space, and I’ve been working on a book on Kharkiv which is mostly on Constructivism. But this work is something that nobody understood here.
Once I went to Jenia’s lecture at the Architects House in Kyiv. It was in 2014-2015. Jenia was talking about atomic cities. I was struck and creatively in love with Jenia from the first point. Her breadth of subject, passion and excitement were what I was looking for in my interest in soviet Modernism. The fact is that 5 years ago this topic was interesting to a very narrow circle of people, unlike today when it has become fancy and part of pop culture. In Kyiv, it was a party for up to 6-7 people. And to get to know some crazy person from Kharkiv, talking about atomic cities throughout Ukraine, with a great emphasis on the city of Slavutych, was fresh air for me. That evening, I realized that I was not alone in this desert.
Therefore, the next day I wrote to Jenia and offered to meet with her. In memory of our meeting, I presented her with a copy of the architectural magazine Object, where there was my material about Edward Bilsky (one of the most famous Soviet architects in Kyiv). We got into a conversation and realized that we have a lot to say to each other and had even more desire to do something together. At the end of the meeting, we ironically thought that it would be great to make a book together throughout Ukraine. A proposal from the publishing house Osnovy appeared a couple of years later and we gladly accepted it and started working on the book.
Personally, this period was interesting to me because in my subjective opinion, objects from this period were more expressive and attractive than the rest of the architectural landscape surrounding me. But there was practically no information about this period of architecture, at that time, when the Soviet avantgarde and Stalin’s classicist style of architecture were very often appearing in books, magazines and at exhibitions. The incomparable joy of my own discovery moved me further in the study of this topic. From libraries and flea markets, I turned to a personal acquaintance with architects, then there was a desire to update this topic in society. I believe that our book is proof that the mission in this sense has been completed.
I also forgot to add to the first question that I started shooting these objects for several more reasons. Firstly, because they are rapidly being rebuilt or demolished, and photographing them is one of the real ways to preserve the memory of them. Secondly, is that many objects are known in Kyiv, but in Ukraine as a whole this period is practically not studied. Therefore, this is one of the main values of our book – the first comprehensive study throughout Ukraine.
What about the types of buildings you document in the book? Do you find different both from what was happening in western Europe at the same time and in Ukraine today?
Something like socialist typologies? All that socially oriented infrastructure, kindergartens, resorts, kitchens, factories, all of that sort of socialist heritage and socialist facilities is there. One specific thing was that there was a huge amount of these buildings, a question of quantity, compared even with neighbouring Belarus. We didn’t expect it to be so huge. I think that’s something to do with economics – even in small villages, you can find these objects, and they’ll be quite good.
There were differences in decades after 1991, and we can’t generalise it as all one period. There was one thing in 1999, when I was a schoolgirl, and it was absolutely different in 2005 and absolutely different now. Until around 2004 the town landscape was still dominated by these social buildings. And as for the effects of the market, at first it was rather a small market, not huge corporations like it is now. I remember there still being factories with steam and stuff and an actual proletariat. These things have changed, and most of those socialist cultural or public functions have just – maybe in the Netherlands or Germany you see more of these buildings than we have, because of the privatisation process here, which is huge and wild. Take for instance a House of Culture, which in the Soviet period would be built on what is now very expensive land in the heart of the city. Now, these are absolutely vulnerable because we have no legislation to protect them, and they’re vulnerable to a very corrupt bureaucracy and to oligarchs. That is the change. Even if people do decide to protect a kindergarten, a resort or a House of Culture, they have no ability to make decisions, and nobody asks them to be part of the decision-making process. That’s our major problem as conservationists – we try to popularise and explain and share information with ordinary people, but ordinary people are not the decision-makers here.
Ukrainian architecture, and especially its part of the Soviet period, is often an attempt to repeat or catch up with world experience. This trying was not always successful, for various reasons, which in turn makes our architecture attractive. For example, the ideas of the 60s about cosmic space flights were on the agenda all over the world, so the forms of flying saucers (UFO) were obvious in architects’ minds all around the world. In general, I believe that Soviet modernism is the platypus of world architecture (continuing to develop the idea of Venturi and Scott Brown about buildings as ‘sheds’ or ‘ducks’). It started as a part of world culture, with the conscientious avant-garde, connected to the first wave of modernism in the West, but it was then developing behind the iron curtain, cut off from the rest of the world, according to its own laws – and this makes it attractive. The modern architecture of Ukraine continues a stupid and senseless attempt to catch up with world experience.
Jenia, you write in the book about a project of ‘demodernisation’ in Ukraine since 1991. What does this mean for the architecture and townscape of Ukrainian towns and cities?
I see first of all here an economic change. Architecture has followed this. I’m not sure if we can call this a ‘transition economy’, and I don’t like that term. I don’t think it reflects the reality in Ukraine, and that’s why I used the term ‘demodernisation’, exactly because of what has happened with architecture. I meant that in quite an emotional way, with all that ‘de’ – denying, deconstructing, demolishing. It means denying and demolishing all the achievements of the modernisation process – including in that even the modernisation that took place before the Soviet period. We’re denying all modernisation in this country, and it appears as a conservative or archaic turn. We can feel and touch that in architecture. In this case architecture can open up the scale of the problem, its physical appearance and the specific colours of the drama that is behind that.
One year before we published the book we went to Transcarpathia, to Uzhgorod and all these Carpathian resorts – all these children’s camps and sanatoria, by car. We were so shocked – it was like Che Guevara in Latin America (laughs). We met people, we discussed projects, and all that infrastructure was just demolished or ruined, and you felt the pain of all that demolished infrastructure. The scale of the problem is so huge. It was a feeling of locals that they shared with us, and the main feeling was pain, a huge and physical pain to observe that. A loss of something that was yours, but is not yours anymore. It’s not demolished because ‘people don’t like modernism’. No. It’s demolished because of the privatisation of the 1990s, and because some oligarchs don’t want that building to remain. It’s a loss of your capital, your memories and your modernisation.
Are there particular regional variations in this architecture within Ukraine (eg between Crimea, Transcarpathia, Galicia, Donbass, etc), and in the context of the Soviet Union itself? Do you see it as particularly Ukrainian or as particularly Soviet, or both?
To be honest, I really wanted and tried to find differences, as there is in Armenian modernism or Baltic modernism of the time. We did everything to find that and we didn’t. Maybe my surprise was that there aren’t many differences between modernism in Russia and modernism in Ukraine. I wasn’t very satisfied with this result, and wanted something specific, and maybe why that is we’ll discover in the next book. We did find out some national features, and of course it was mainly in Western Ukraine, in Galicia and especially in Ivano-Frankivsk, which is a very interesting region. In the Soviet period they called this ‘Hutsul Modernism’, from the Hutsuly culture locally. The Carpathian resorts are also interpretations of this Hutsul style. We can call them national features, we can call it regional modernism or even Postmodernism. Ivano-Frankivsk had a good economic situation in the 1980s because it discovered oil, so there were quite a lot of modern buildings in this Hutsul or ‘Ukrainian’ style. The question is why they were allowed to build in this type of architecture and why others were not allowed. We made a lot of speculations about this, I think possibly it’s a colonial question with the relation of Western Ukraine to the central institutions.
A surprising place where we found some regional features was Zaporizhia, which is traditionally modernised, urbanised, industrialised territory with the Dnieper Dam DNEPROGES, and all that Soviet stuff. I think maybe it’s because they had no architectural university, and sometimes it’s better to be outside the outskirts of formal control and censorship, so architects there were more able to produce something unusual than in Kharkiv, which had three universities by the ’80s, all of which had schools of architecture, and which were very much in the circles of the bureaucracy. So they made a very interesting Museum of Cossack Life in Khortisiya Island in Zaporizhia, with really interesting cafes, museums and restaurants a in Cossack Baroque-influenced style. This was quite a rich area at the time because of the industrial sector, and had the memory of the independent Cossack past, and maybe even of Anarchism (the region was the centre of the Anarchist ‘Free Territory’ from 1918-1921 – OH).
There’s another very interesting local architectural school which people have been very reluctant to talk about both in the Soviet period and after it, and that’s the Jewish group of architects. This was around Avram Miletsky, who of course is a core person in Ukrainian modernism in general. I initially even left Miletsky out of the book at first because his work is so well-known, but my conclusion after all that mapping and research was that he really was our best architect, he was our star. He produced something like an informal school of architecture, which had a specific narration of architecture, a discourse, that is somehow connected with Holocaust issues, which was something very important for him.
In your text Jenia, you talk about the way that recent western photo-books and other sources (I guess Instagram, where there seem to be about a hundred accounts just on Soviet modernism in Ukraine, and the Chernobyl cult are good examples) treat these buildings in a very colonial way as ‘ruins’ inhabited by ‘aborigines’. Did you feel a need to set the record straight in this book?
Oh yeah. It was my sarcastic joke, and it wasn’t intended to hurt anyone, but it came from my personal trauma as being a mediator between being a mediator between western people, First World people, and my country. You know, sometimes that was a very painful experience, and we need to discuss how we should treat other people’s heritage. I’ve felt so many times that people were tourists who wanted to exploit us for entertainment, and to exploit our poverty. I remember guiding people – I don’t even remember who they were, some were from the USA – around the Kharkiv Tractor Factory settlement. We were at the dormitory for workers, who are very poor, and are in very bad condition. People there are abandoned in all their social problems, and they are degraded. And I remember we stood there at that dormitory, and looked at this building, that just looked like poverty. And then one window opened, and a guy screamed at us – ‘you are not in a zoo’. I remember feeling ‘oh my god, what am I doing? I should stop.’ It was not shame, it was guilt – where is my role here of being a Ukrainian, left-wing scientist, treated from that window as the person leading these people round like it’s a zoo? I really think we need to approach this in a different way and do this with people rather than at them. Now, I’ve just stopped.
What effects have the revolution of 2014 had on the public perception of some of these buildings? It seems to me that the civic movements of that time have fed both into the wave of ‘decommunisation’ and also (to a much lesser extent) into movements to preserve, say, targeted Soviet mosaics, or buildings like the ‘UFO’ on Lybidska Square in Kyiv. Do you think things are changing here? I was very struck on a visit in the summer to see how Kyiv River Station’s mosaics are now treated as a hipster/tourist draw rather than a source of shame, for instance, with people drinking craft beer in it and so on. It’s treated as a cult for young fashionable people and as a source of national shame at once.
To be honest I’m quite sceptical and pessimistic. I understand there are a lot of activists still trying to preserve this and I respect them, but I can’t continue to trying to change something that can’t be changed. We were and are hitting false targets. The real target group is not society or ordinary people or intellectuals, as they’re not the decision makers, it’s the oligarchs, business people and the corrupt bureaucracy. The question is always ‘what do we do next?’ It’s always going to the city council or an oligarch, and when you do, all your sophisticated research and ethical arguments will be ignored, or they’ll just say fuck you. I don’t believe in ‘soft power’ here, it doesn’t work. Maybe Ukraine can be interesting more widely because it can show how such methods don’t work. We should find other ways to preserve what we really want to preserve. Our tools aren’t working anymore – maybe they never worked.
I think that the situation is ambivalent. On the one hand, the decommunisation propaganda further strengthens the negative attitude towards everything connected with the Soviets. But at the same time, this architecture among young people is becoming more and more popular. Maybe because they don’t have their personal associations with the USSR times and everyday life. They see in this architecture exclusively forms and geometry, without memories of Soviet realities. Activist movements like #savekyivmodernism and @florian_witneses have raised the issue of protecting the architectural objects of this period. Unfortunately, in a wide circle of people this architecture is still has no value, and they can’t even imagine that these could be new architectural monuments. Terrible thermal (isolation) upgrades, rebuilds, and numerous repairs do not take into account the original project designs.
As for the mosaics on the River Port, I could say that there they only perform an imaginary decoration. The owners of the River Port wanted to restore them with tiles from a hardware supermarket, without even thinking that this is a piece of art of the second half of the 20th century. Our attempts to convey to them the idea that they own unique objects was unsuccessful. As for the other citizens, they’re coming to the River Port exclusively to eat, and after being well-fed it could be possible they’ll raise up their eyes and see these monumental art artifacts on the wall, belch and then have a beer. It’s consumerism!
On which note, could you tell Tribune readers a little about the campaign over the Artem monument, a giant hilltop 1927 Constructivist statue of a workers leader in the Donbass, by the sculptor Ivan Kavaleridze, which is threatened by ‘De-Communisation’. Awareness of its importance is being raised by plaster models that you can buy of the statue.
This was organised by (the art project on Decommunisation – OH) DE NE DE, and I am glad to be part of this party. In my opinion, DE NE DE is one of the most important movements in the modern culture of Ukraine. Well, Kavaleridze is an indisputable classic artist of Ukraine. And making attention to the protection of his heritage is supposedly part of the state programme of Ukraine, which unfortunately is happening only from the bottom up. Creating sculptures and other merchandising is the easiest and most obvious way to tell the masses about their own culture and history. After all, as it is written on the pedestal of the Artem monument: «the sight of unorganised masses is unbearable for me!»