Since the contested election in Belarus, I’ve been riveted, as perpetually fascinated by these European locales. In watching coverage of the protests, as well as a few older documentaries, it finally occurred to me that Minsk (where I passed through during USSR times but didn’t stop) retains so very much of that old Soviet feel that it’s uncanny.
In short, always be suspicious of perfectly clean urban areas. They’re more Disney-fied than real, and usually for all the wrong reasons (and I’m no fan of Uncle Walt, mind you).
Imagine my delight in this …
Minsk: Owen Hatherley on the world’s most complete, and most surprising Soviet city (The Calvert Journal)
Whether hostile or complimentary, all accounts of Belarus will mention the extreme Sovietness of its capital, the equally extreme cleanliness and lack of commercial pollution and/or vibrancy. This leads to some interesting errors. Historian Andrew Wilson, in his otherwise convincing critique of the Lukashenko regime, The Last European Dictatorship, describes its dominant style erroneously as Brutalist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Minsk is arguably the greatest neoclassical European city of the 20th century, with most buildings in the city centre resplendent with colonnades, baroque archways and romantic skylines of spires, obelisks and heroic sculptures, all on an axial plan integrated with landscaped parklands around the river Svisloch. This is the direct result of one of the least known episodes of the Second World War — the intensity of resistance in Soviet Belarus to the Third Reich. It deserves to be as well known as that of Poland or Yugoslavia, but isn’t, largely because it isn’t useful to anybody much, save perhaps Lukashenko’s unpleasant government.
… and by extension, this.
Melancholy of obsolete futures at (The Critic)
Alexander Adams on Soviet Brutalism and where to read about it
Brutalism has seen a surge in interest among young people keen on bold uncompromising Modernist design. Whole books of moody photographic studies of concrete buildings are snapped up by fans of urban life and retro design. A crop of new books explores the Brutalism of socialist states.
While Constructivism and avant-gardism in fine art came to prominence during the October Revolution, it was suppressed in favour of Socialist Realism by the mid-1930s. In architecture more adventurous forms and materials persisted, although in the minority. Under Stalin there was a degree of stylistic conformity and austerity, yet adventurous architecture was not seen as “bourgeois formalism” as it was in art. Following the death of Stalin in 1953, historicism receded and a greater variety of art, design and architecture (including Modernist architecture) became possible.
While supposedly for the masses, many of the showpiece constructions were moribund from the start: inverted ziggurat hotels that were barely occupied and shopping centres with few consumer goods to offer. Much of this architecture was completed less than a decade before the economic and political collapse of the Eastern Bloc.
In postcards, gargantuan apartment buildings — veritable terrestrial ocean liners — tower over public spaces, making miniatures of two-tone buses and Trabants. Third-Worldism (also called the Non-Aligned Movement) was a political position of the mid-century decades that apparently offered advantages of alliance to states that pledged to remain equidistant between socialism and democratic capitalism. In practice, most post-colonial states in Africa, South America and South Asia following Third-Worldism did turn to the two superpowers, which provided strategic assistance in return for favourable trading status or military co-operation, thus forming indirect and unstated alliances rather than outright ones.
These are the books described in the article. I can’t afford to buy them all, but I wish it were possible. Come to think of it, I just might, anyway.
Consumer Culture Landscapes in Socialist Yugoslavia – Lidija Butković Mićin, Nataša Bodrožić, Saša Šimpraga
East German Modern – Hans Engels
Imagine Moscow – Deyan Sudjic, Jean-Louis Cohen, and Richard Anderson
Soviet Metro Stations – Christopher Herwig
Architecture in Global Socialism – Łukasz Stanek