Boardwalks and Greenery

Owen Hatherley, The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Space

Repeater, 240pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781912248261

reviewed by Samuel Gregory

The post-1991 narrative surrounding the Soviet Union is as fixed as that country’s command economy. For right-wingers, it represents the last gasp of resistance to the market’s supremacy and the dawn of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’, which proclaimed capitalist democracies to be the final form of human government. For many on the left it embodies a betrayal of Marx’s ideas, a perspective summarised by Owen Hatherley, who describes how the Union was seen as ‘an albatross, an embarrassment for the global left, where the Great Idea was tried and failed.’ In his new book on the architecture and urban spaces of the former Soviet Union, Hatherley challenges this reductive viewpoint in favour of a more nuanced assessment of the country’s physical legacy.

As with his recent Trans-Europe Express, Hatherley’s book is a travelogue of sorts, encompassing cities, towns and places spread across the former USSR. While predominantly focusing on architecture, urbanism and planning, Hatherley’s great skill has always lain in his ability to draw popular culture, political theory, history and economics into these subjects, helping readers to understand not just what a place looks like and how it works but why it looks and works that way. In his new book, Hatherley applies the same technique whilst seeking to demystify the vast swathes of the northern hemisphere that for much of the last century fell under a culture alien to our own.

Between Kaunas, the second city of Lithuania, and Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek, Hatherley frequently upturns much of the received wisdom concerning Soviet planning. Yes, there are windswept squares (such as the Ala-Too Square of ‘staggering size’ in Bishkek) and eight-lane highways that continue to maintain a stranglehold on cities like Moscow (and for that matter, Birmingham), but this is only one side of the story. For in the latter half of the Union’s existence, Soviet planners created the kind of humane and generous public spaces that we associate with liberal western democracies as frequently as they built neo-Stalinist boulevards and bureaucratic buildings full of empty bombast.

In Dnipro in southern Ukraine, Hatherley finds a pedestrian river embankment ‘carved out under Brezhnev’ in the early eighties to be an ‘unexpectedly lovely public space’ with boardwalks and greenery, while in Minsk he visits a ‘leafy suburb’ of two-storey socialist realist housing, right in the inner city. In comparison with the UK city of Leeds, the largest city in Europe without a rapid transit system, every Soviet city which grew to a million or more inhabitants was gifted a metro system by Moscow. Without exception, these were – and are to this day – solidly constructed and well-used transport networks, with generous, often palatial stations and fares that remain inexpensive today. Most still form the core of their city’s infrastructure: a tangible and valuable legacy of the Brezhnev era’s ‘Really Existing Socialism’. Hatherley makes a convincing case that, despite its flaws, the Union’s command economy excelled at providing its cities with comprehensive infrastructure and universal mass housing, often from a standing start.

Contrary to the popular image of grey Soviet monoculture, Hatherley shows how cities like Yerevan and Almaty feature a diverse range of architectural styles, with their 20th-century buildings often following the Soviet diktat: ‘Socialist in content, national in form.’ Over the course of the book’s journey Hatherley familiarises us with a distinct set of Soviet typologies, such as the imposing River Terminals, the neoclassical Opera Houses and the circular Wedding Palaces – a type of building that exists nowhere outside the former USSR except – perhaps not coincidentally – in 1970s Sheffield.

Then there’s the curious strain of Soviet postmodernism – described by Jonathan Meades as the ‘Leonid Brezhnev Plays Las Vegas school of architecture’ – that formed the first significant wave of avant-garde architecture in the country since the constructivists. This flourishing creativity churned out building after building, with the likes of the organic Gaudíesque 1984 variation on the Wedding Palace in Tbilisi, or the same city’s jaw-dropping and gravity defying Ministry of Highways from 1975, eclipsing anything in the West. Early Soviets weren’t just committed to the new architecture of the Narkomfin. Across the Union – most noticeably in Saint Petersburg – amid the supposed tabula rasa of the Bolshevik revolution, Hatherley finds a commitment to the preservation of historic city centres that will be familiar to anybody who has visited Prague (and unfamiliar to anybody who has visited Nottingham).

None of the 15 countries frequented by the author has emerged better off after the free market liberalisation of the 1990s. In Tbilisi, the breakdown of city planning has seen old blocks of flats from the Khrushchev era mushroom with entire new wings built slapdash onto the side of the old, like a Kowloon Walled City of Eastern Europe. A new form of gangster capitalism has muscled in on spaces that Soviet planners designed to be enjoyed by their citizens, with down-at-heel shopping malls appearing in public squares and kiosks cluttering the entrances to metro stations. In Moscow, new developments such as the spectacularly ugly Patriarch Building have upgraded the Stalinist swagger of the Seven Sisters for the newly enriched mafia class. It even includes a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s unbuilt tower on the roof, as if mocking the very idea of wanting to build a better society.

Throughout Hatherley’s survey, a tantalising series of ‘what ifs?’ emerge in unlikely places, alternative forks in the road where the Union could have taken a different path. What if the Bolsheviks had embraced the socialist-futurism of the constructivists, rather than railroading its architects into the dead end of socialist realism? What if Gorbachev’s reforms hadn’t been sabotaged – would the USSR have enjoyed the renaissance of architectural excellence suggested by its buildings of the late-seventies and eighties?

Back in Bishkek, at the end of his journey, Hatherley sifts through the remnants of ShTAB, a research group advocating for Cosmic Queer Communism, a heady variant seeking to overcome the limitations of work-obsessed, patriarchal Soviet communism. Their ‘Utopian Bishkek’ project – a kind of psychogeographical overlay on the Brezhnevian city – emphasises the resistance to the Soviet strain of communism from queer and feminist groups in Kyrgyzstan, culminating in Queer City, ‘a series of kaleidoscopic montages showing ten sites in Bishkek related to the history of the LGBT movement in the year 2047’, transforming the city into a ‘continuous Brutalist disco.’

Groups like ShTAB consist of people who weren’t blind to the flaws of the Soviet system, but who recognise that the crony capitalism that has flooded the former USSR since 1991 has been an unmitigated disaster. In his examination of the values of the Union over its lifetime, through the buildings and public spaces it created, Hatherley’s book is a timely reminder that although the state may have long been dissolved, many of its principles and ideas are more relevant now than ever.