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A plea by Tamara Stoffers.
Soviet-art is more often considered an instrument of politics than a full-fledged art-movement. The state decidedly was the biggest commissioner of visual art within the USSR and consequently artists had to succumb to the doctrine of officialised art; socialist realism. State dominance over society also visibly influenced architecture and the design of public space. Because of its subjection to communist ideology, the visual heritage of the Soviet Union is still subject of current heated political debate. Despite their homogeneous ideological background, the creations brought forward during this time were very diverse in visual expression and media. These remnants of the past certainly cannot be condemned as worthless now that they are stripped of their original context and function.
My fascination for the subject began six years ago when I found a book about Moscow, published in the 60s, in a thrift-shop. It presented an entirely alien reality and thus sparked my curiosity. I wanted to understand the atmosphere of the photographs, learn more about daily life in the USSR and observe to what degree the book was a genuine reflection of reality. Initially, I assembled an archive consisting of information, images and objects. Ultimately, the Soviet-Union became the underlying subject for my activities as a visual artist.
While traveling to Eastern-Europe I was particularly surprised with the richness and peculiarity of Soviet heritage in Ukraine. However, I quickly noticed that my fascination for these historical artifacts was not shared by politicians and also raised eyebrows amongst locals. After learning the Russian language, I studied both historical sources and recent publications on the reflection of cultural identity through public space. Consequently I gained more insight into contemporary discussions, which resemble the Dutch debate about adequate presentations and approaches of the Golden Age. Our view of the past is in constant flux, and we constantly ascribe different values to the products that it bequeaths to us. It is relevant to observe the consequences of leaving cultural heritage unprotected when history conjures up conflicting emotions. In this article, I will give insight into the particularities of the visual inheritance of the Soviet Union. To paint a complete picture, I will begin by describing the doctrine of the Soviet Union’s official art: socialist realism.
The core purpose of socialist realism, as it was initially defined in 1934, was to “represent reality in its revolutionary development”. 1 Socialist “realism”, however, was rarely an accurate representation ofreality. Art was realist in form, easily comprehensible and strongly narrativistic. The themes that artists were encouraged to explore were limited. This resulted in idealized images of farmers and agricultural products, the romanticization of labor and the invention of heroes suitable to represent the ideals of the communist party. All things considered, art presented “reality as it should be” 2. It dictated how people should work towards the future and consequently how prosperous it would become. Art played an important supporting role in forming the consciousness of the citizens in a way appropriate to the ideals of the communist party. The characteristics of socialist realism appear within literature, painting, photography, film, music and even design.
Art’s main purpose was to inspire people to contribute to the development of the new communist society. In order to achieve this, it had to be omnipresent and approachable. Consequently, it attained a prominent role in public space. The visual characteristics of art varied strongly with the rule of different political leaders. The visual language that was more familiar within the West originates from the 60s and 70s. This was a period of relatively widespread freedom and optimism. Three years after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev denounced the glorification of the country’s previous leader. It was the beginning of a new era, later referred to as ‘the thaw,’ during which new liberties unraveled within outlets of the creative sector.
“If you try to control your artists too tightly, there will be no clashing of opinions, consequently no criticism, and consequently no truth. There will be just a gloomy stereotype, boring and useless.”- Nikita Khrushchev 3
The pompous Stalinist architecture that was dominated by classicist influences was eventually replaced with socialist modernism, a style that prevailed until the collapse of the USSR. Many extraordinary monumental projects were executed in which the construction materials that were used often remained externally visible. A concrete flying saucer balances on the roof of an institute in Kiev, while buildings with asymmetrical suspended roofs and architectural objects with impractical experimental shapes gained popularity. Some peculiar examples are a cross-shaped pharmacy, a brutalist crematory and the ‘House of Furniture’ in Kiev, among others.
The architectural design of housing did not show much diversity, with apartment blocks being built according to a standardized design. It was a reaction to a large shortage in housing, especially noticable in the rapidly expanding cities. For the first time, flats were raised out of industrially premade parts that were produced elsewhere. Even complete readily installable bathrooms were delivered to the building sites. The apartments’ interior layout reflected spatial efficiency, with an emphasis on reducing wasted space. A big innovation were the modest kitchens each apartment was equipped with, whereas many people were formerly dependent on the services of public canteens. The first wave of five-storey paneled apartment buildings from the 60s is especially widespread. Identical dwellings built in big quantities cover the regions from Warsaw to Vladivostok. They were built in so called micro-districts, where all conveniences that residents might want to make use of are within walking distance. The districts were separated from each other by major roads. Within the areas, apartments were distributed free of charge, based on the citizen’s placement on a long waiting list. The size of the apartment a family was eligible to be awarded was decided proportional to the household’s size.
It is common in living areas to see mosaics, applied to the blind walls of an apartment block to provide decoration, or on public buildings to communicate their function. Schools were adorned with artworks depicting young pioneers proudly gazing in the distance, equipped with books and doves of peace. The sides of houses were embellished with floating sputniks and astronauts. In the market hall broad horizontal mosaics presented proud collective farm workers juxtaposed with compositions of abundant harvests. These works strongly reflected the Zeitgeist, in which much value was attributed to scientific innovations and in which political pride was expressed regarding the increasing ability to meet basic consumption needs of citizens.
Some domains remained unaffected by strict rules or standardization, such as the design of bus stops. Creators eagerly made use of their creative freedom, which resulted in unique bus stops that are loosely based on contextual, environmental elements. Christopher Herwig started capturing an impressive variety of bus stops while traveling through the former Soviet republics. 4 The designs range from clean futuristic concrete shapes to strongly decorative, colorfully adorned objects. These often appear in unexpected places, like remote areas or near small villages.
Despite the ‘thaw,’ the subjects of public artworks from the 60s to the 80s were still in conformity with the ideals prompted by socialist realism. There was an increase of artists that addressed themes such as space travel, science and the fraternity of peoples.
During the later years of the Khrushchev era, the urban landscape of low apartment buildings was diversified by adding taller standardized residential buildings of similar design. Later, the percentage of high-rise blocks increased. Their designs were coded with serial numbers, that also served as denominators for common citizens. From the 70s onwards, the exteriors of these houses were increasingly covered in glazed ceramic tiles. Commonly applied colors were azure or brown. Some designs that stemmed from the 80s were continued to be used after the collapse of the USSR.
The end of the USSR
In 1991 the Soviet-Union officially collapsed. The previous republics often made harsh, sudden transitions to free market economies. This caused a lot of chaos and also reverberated in the image of public and civil space. People were suddenly able to trade unrestrictedly, which gave rise to large amounts of private businesses and small shops. A striking visual change in public space was caused by the unregulated placement of commercial advertisements. This occurrence remains persistent today as part of a phenomenon described in the literature as “savage capitalism”. 5
There have been many changes, yet a lot of things have also remained since the fall of the USSR. The same old trams and buses still commute through many cities. In larger residential areas, the same gray panel buildings still dominate, from which civilians temporarily escape via long escalators when traversing the extravagant metro platforms that have been brightened up with marble inlays and brass. Even the interiors of provincial schools, libraries and hospitals largely remain unchanged. The ‘Palace of culture’ still is the social heart of many villages and plump ladies wearing flower dresses still sell pulp fiction from the same wooden street corner kiosks.
Many unique and remarkable modernist buildings from the late Soviet Union have not withstood the ravages of time. Not having been recognized as architectural monuments, they are unprotected against neglect, defacing adjustments or even demolition. This threat is largely rooted in the privatization which took place during the 90s. Many public buildings are centrally located on commercially valuable soil. Because of corruption within the bureaucratic system, investors have more influence than local citizens who urge the preservation of these buildings and public facilities.\
In addition, it has been problematic for preserving the remnants of the Soviet Union that the architectural and artistic heritage are always assessed as a conglomerate. When the past is condemned, the remaining architecture and art in public space are automatically attributed a negative association. In Ukraine this is especially palpable since, upon the revolution of 2014, the Poroshenko government defined the whole period of 1917 to 1991 as a political repression by a communist totalitarian regime. In May 2015, laws have been adopted focusing on actively eliminating symbolism from the Soviet period. 6 This results in the removal of monuments that connote perished ideals and the permanent covering up or destruction of mosaics in a disastrous wave of iconoclasm.
The criminalization of symbols and the judicial censoring of history, by framing the whole period from 1917 to 1991 as a crime against the nation, enforces a radically one sided approach towards the past. Within politics and media, a clear oppositive position is being taken in and subsequently communicated to the people through various media channels; the remnants of the socialist totalitarian regime are a stain upon our national history, the desperate situation of which we have to completely extricate ourselves from. Art and architecture stand defenseless.
The importance of preservation
The Soviet era was a period of over 70 years which had a permanent far-reaching influence on the culture of the former republics. The ideological dogmas have raised generations that lived according to these values and ensured the country’s continuous development under these conditions. The architecture of the Soviet-Union can indisputably be considered as heritage. It exhibits an important interchange of human values over a span of time, or within a cultural area of the world. Both public art and architecture also bear witness to a unique cultural tradition or civilization that either lives on somewhere, or has completely disappeared. 7
In the Soviet-Union communism was elevated to an ideology of religious significance. Its buildings could be interpreted as churches, spaces that bring people into contact with the higher ideals and that encouraged them to pave the way towards an idealist future. Though the communist ideology lost its relevance, and whereas many despicable deeds have been carried out in its name, the underlying values it propagandized still cannot be considered immoral or obsolete. The architecture is a reflection of the appreciation for science and technical progress. Art brought attention to fraternalism in collaboration, the equality of the sexes and fore fronted the beauty of the mundane. Looking at socialist-realism and socialist-modernism from this point of view, it is not the least bit offensive. Within the current societal context this art movement does not have the power to fulfill its
intended function and lead society to communism. (Similarly, the presence of a crucifix does not turn an atheist into a believer.) The images on their own do not form a threat to the stability of the current political system, threat comes from the power attributed to the ideas the images or objects represent. A true risk for disruption stems from the societal dissatisfaction about contemporary reality.
The majority of the infrastructure and architecture of Ukraine was built during the Soviet era, when the population in the cities was growing exponentially. When walking through the cities the attentive, well versed spectator observes a historical continuity. The heritage of the Soviet-Union is an inescapable part of the surroundings and it forms the cornerstone of current developments in the cities. It should be approached free of political judgement, as creations that have both autonomous visual and functional qualities independent of their original context.
Today a generation of young adults, uninhibited by personal memories of the Soviet past, looks at the architecture and is able to approach it and appreciate it based solely on unique visual and expressive characteristics. Various publishing houses and activists brought up the topic of Soviet art in public space. DOM recently published a book about the mosaics threatened by the process of decommunization, 8 books by FUEL show sanatoriums 9 and metrostations10. Osnovy also published a comprehensive and informative book about Soviet architecture in Ukraine after 1955.]efn_note] ‘Soviet Modernism. Brutalism. Post-Modernism. Buildings and Structures in Ukraine 1955-1991’, Alex Bykov, Ievgeniia Gubkina, Osnovy Publishing, 2019 [/efn_note]
Also within contemporary art the visual language of the USSR, the interpretation of history and the changed context of socialist-realism are substantial topics. In this article, alongside artists from the past, I presented contemporary artworks based on this subject.
To me, as an outsider and artist, the Soviet Union and its unique visual language are extensive and endlessly inspiring subjects. For six years on end it has held my undivided attention. The Soviet era presents itself as a time of inefficiency, unfulfilled good intentions, naive visions of the future and the desire to trust human kindness despite it not being omnipresent. It is a very humane history about wanting to contribute to the development of something greater and about slowly losing ideals.
While studying the USSR, I started to personify the subject. Much like every life, the history of the Soviet Union is layered, complex and full of contradictions that all reflect on the products of that time. The history deserves to be studied and cannot be judged univocally. It demands respect for the conditions that formed its personality and the complex chronology of actions that sprang from it. It is important to both shed light on the improvement of living conditions of citizens as well as the extreme repressive methods used to contain them. The visual heritage of the USSR plays a part in creating historical awareness. It could play a part in instigating an interest towards the past and culture of the Soviet Union and her individual republics in an intriguing and approachable manner. Needless to say, history can be condemned, but it cannot be denied or erased by destroying her artifacts. It is much more constructive and future-oriented to make Soviet inheritance a conversational topic, and to acknowledge and respect it.
After six years I still feel I only scratched the surface of the topic of art, politics, history and culture of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, my collector’s mania has transformed my home into a timemachine to the 70s, in which visitors think themselves in a communal appartment in Leningrad. My room provides a fertile ground for my activities as a visual artist. From here I work on an ongoing series of collages based on images of the USSR, of which the majority has been displayed last year in the Lumière Center for Photography in Moscow. During conversations with visitors they emphasized the relevancy of my subject and encouraged me to use art as a means to create space for personal depoliticized conversation about the past.
I hope to induce curiosity towards endangered Soviet-art and architecture in Western-Europe, before it is doomed to live on immaterially in mere documental form. In my imagination my contribution adds to the revaluation and the preservation of the visual inheritance of the Soviet Union. But if there is one lesson that I have learned from studying the past, it must be that the initial dream bears little resemblance to what the future has in store.
Edit by Kees Muller.