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Demolishing Soviet Modernism

After 1917, modernist architects in the multicultural south of the Russian Federation attempted to build a new society with bold design – but today, their buildings are being dismantled along with the Soviet past.

‘Architectural heritage is not protected in post-Soviet spaces. That is to say, architectural heritage of all styles—classicism, eclectism, art nouveau—everything is being completely destroyed,’ says the Ukrainian architect and researcher Evgeniia Gubkina. This is a conclusion shared by Artur Tokarev, a Rostov-on-Don-based academic whose architectural guide to the works of the Soviet avant-garde in the South of Russia was recently published by DOM.

‘We personally undertook eight expeditions through the south of Russia… The total extent of [which] came to more than 40,000 kilometres,’ Tokarev and Igor Bychkov write in the introduction to the volume. The researchers looked at areas of the South of Russia which were part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) between 1922-1941, such as the oblasts of Rostov, Volgograd (then Stalingrad), Stavropol, and Krasnodar, as well as ‘the Crimea’ (sic).

Outside of this, they also visited the autonomous republics of Kalmykia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachevo-Cherkesia, North Ossetia, and Chechnya. A non-Russian reader (and probably even a Russian one) could use some context here – particularly when it comes to Russia’s North Caucasus republics, which have a fraught history, and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014 (or ‘integrated into Russia’, as some Russian politicians have put it).

Crimean wind-electric station, built 1931.

What are these places like, and what happened there? Why are some of them particularly off the map? The book doesn’t say. And the use of the term ‘expedition’ carries orientalist associations, particularly when referring to journeys through ethnically diverse territories which were once colonised by Russia.

Yet Tokarev and his colleagues have done a painstaking and useful job, collecting information that hadn’t been collected before. ‘It’s the tragedy of post-Soviet science,’ says Gubkina. ‘No one has collected data, so researchers are not able to interpret it.’

Tokarev and his team stumbled upon many buildings by chance, while driving. In Volgograd, they were surprised to discover some modernist buildings right in the centre of town, which had been spared during the battle of Stalingrad. In the North Caucasus, Google Maps didn’t work well, which made their quest harder.

It’s quite exhilarating to tour the South of Russia, holding this book in one hand, looking up places with the other, and to read about buildings located in cities or towns one has never set foot in, or might have visited for reasons that had little to do with a hunt for avant-garde Soviet buildings – tourism by the Black Sea, reporting trips in the North Caucasus, visiting a friend and her young baby in Tuapse, crossing Rostov by train.

It turns out there’s a perfectly round residential building in Taganrog (a port city in Rostov oblast). And a beautiful House of Soviets in Makhachkala I didn’t know existed when I visited (it’s now a teaching building belonging to Dagestan’s Agrarian university). Also extraordinary are the remains of a maritime weapons factory built in the Caspian sea, 2.7 kilometres from the shore, in Kaspiysk, a satellite city of Makhachkala.

Monument to the 10th Anniversary of the Capture of Crimea. Built 1930, now demolished.

Of course, each building is linked to a specific function—workers’ clubs, houses of culture, NKVD buildings, hospitals, bathhouses, sanatoriums—to a political rule and a way of life that have now disappeared, the ideals of liberation and bleak authoritarianism all jumbled up together. It’s strange to look at the photo of an arch still standing in Novorossiysk, which says: ‘We shall build our own world! A new world!’, or at the nearby ‘creche of proletarian cement factory’, while wondering why there’s no state-funded childcare for young babies in the country where one lives.

‘Constructivist and modernist buildings are particularly vulnerable,’ Gubkina says, ‘as they usually represent a social or cultural function.’ Speaking about Ukraine, she adds: ‘We lost a lot of social functions last year.’ Tokarev, who is passionate about constructivism in his home city of Rostov, has been involved in activism to protect some Rostov buildings from destruction or disfigurement for years.

His first book, only available in Russian, is a guide to avant-garde architecture in Rostov. Most Russian buildings of historical or cultural value are not listed for protection by the Russian state, but now anyone can write to the cultural heritage protection department to ask that a building be listed. The book is meant to provide ammunition for such requests – which might come to explain why it’s so silent on historical and political context.

But preservation seems to be a losing game. Natalia Melikova, who runs the Constructivist Project in Moscow, says that officials working in departments tasked with preservation ‘have negative associations with constructivism. They see these buildings as utilitarian boxes. They are more into architecture which they can understand as architecture.’

In the book, the majority of photos of avant-garde buildings are old black and white images. And when comparing the old and new photos, it’s clear that often, little remains of the original structure and original style of the building. In fact, the authors have found that ‘the smaller a city or a town and the investment in it, the better is the condition of its historical architecture.’ They stumbled into buildings in pristine condition while visiting more remote locations, such as a factory kitchen in the small town of Tikhoretsk (in Krasnodar oblast), which residents knew as ‘the stolovaya near the station’. Similarly, a hospital in Neftegorsk (in Samara oblast) has survived almost unaltered, and one could maybe walk down a wooden corridor into the past, potted plants included.

The House of Soviets in Makhachkala.

Elsewhere, modernist buildings are disappearing fast. Speaking of her hometown of Rostov, journalist Maria Pogrebnyak says: ‘Most historical monuments look bad. Restorations are done without any consideration. There’s no desire to respect the architecture of the past and to show it to who will come after us. No one cares. I often think that in twenty years’ time I’ll come and visit my city and won’t recognise it.’

I wish that more of that sombre reality, which sees the authorities and construction companies collude to erase ancient buildings and build 25-storey blocks of flats in their place, had made its way into the book. Tokarev, who when speaking to the press is very vocal about the conflicts on preservation in Rostov, the state of the city centre, and how little the current legislation works, is well-placed to write about this.

At times, the lack of context feels particularly odd. A final section of the book focuses on buildings which have been destroyed and includes a series of residential and public buildings in Grozny, Chechnya. One line informs us that ‘almost nothing of the development of this period has survived.’ I guess the reader is expected to know that Grozny was destroyed during the two Chechen wars.

This also applies to Crimea, whose history is so often erased. ‘Sometimes, not to see politics in society is more or less okay, but sometimes it becomes damaging,’ says Gubkina, whose family has recently lost a house in Crimea because of a recent law prohibiting foreigners from owning land in most of the peninsula. She authored an online Encyclopedia of Ukrainian Architecture, including a video on ‘Crimean Tatar modernism – an architectural project that did not happen’. The video provides some fascinating background on a large-scale project of reconstruction of the Crimean southern coast headed by leading constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg, which never saw the light of day.

The House of the Soviets in Elista, built 1928-32.

This south of Russia guide is certainly a work of love, but throughout the book, one can’t help but wonder what the people who inhabit or use the buildings described would have to say about them, and how decisions taken about these buildings could affect them. As Gubkina puts it: ‘I think what happens is that people are not stakeholders in the decisions that are taken. They are not the ones who decide whether a building will be destroyed. Going to the city and seeing that one more building has been destroyed is really very painful. It’s painful to see that they’ve destroyed what was yours.’