Lenins of the world, unite!

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I don’t quite know what it is but whenever I have come across an old Lenin statue anywhere in the territories of the old Soviet Union I have usually not been able to resist taking a photograph. It may be it purely a matter of posterity – these things will not be there for ever. But perhaps it for other reasons – vague nostalgia for something I never had the opportunity to experience, or a sneaking regard for an idealistic yet flawed political system that had such indomitable self-belief? Another part of me acknowledges that I am drawn towards old Soviet statuary in the same way I am attracted to photogenic ruins: as revolutionary ghosts manifest in stone and concrete that serve as repositories for the recent past.

IMG_6856The countries of the former Soviet Union have widely differing attitudes to displaying representations of their erstwhile leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The new Baltic countries and those of the Caucasus region, keen to sever any lasting connections with the USSR, tend to shun them completely – most of the old statuary has long been toppled and reduced to rubble or hardcore for roads. In a few cases, like the irony-heavy Grutas Park in Lithuania, the statues have been collected together and repurposed to make a joke of the past by creating a sort of Soviet-era theme park. This comes complete with statues, barbed wire, military music and canteens that serves ‘Soviet-style’ food – dishes that feature cabbage, beetroot and, of course, vodka.  Such a move is motivated by nostalgia to some extent, but it is also undoubtedly partly taking the piss.

IMG_7900Ukraine, which once had an impressive number of Lenin statues, has got rid of up to 500 of these over the past couple of years, an ideological casualty of the civil war and perceived Russian aggression in that divided land. Currently many still remain in place but President Petro Poroshenko has recently signed a bill setting a six-month deadline for the removal of the country’s remaining communist monuments and so their days are probably numbered – in the pro-European west of the country at least.

IMG_5854Elsewhere, where Soviet-era murals are attached to buildings or just too cumbersome to remove wholesale, the offending revolutionary faces are simply scratched away. I once saw a hillside in Uzbekistan where a Lenin-shaped ghost image was left where a giant face had been erased from the landscape. Once lovingly marked out in stone, the image of the revolutionary leader was no longer needed – or indeed desired – in a newly independent country presided over by a self-elected president-for-life. I have seen much the same sort of thing in Georgia – murals of Soviet period scientific achievements in which Lenin’s face has been clumsily redacted by means of a chisel. Curiously, local boy Stalin – a far more murderous character than Lenin ever was – is still revered in some circles in that country. A museum to the ‘Man of Steel’ – more a shrine of very dubious taste – still stands at his hometown of Gori together with a statue that used to have pride of place in the town’s main square.

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Russia has long condemned Stalin’s brutal excesses but his predecessor Lenin can still to be seen in more or less every town and city the length and breadth of the land. The same can also be said for Belarus, Russia’s closest ally in Europe. Kyrgyzstan – the Central Asian country I know best – is much the same, the only only place in Central Asia where it would appear that the recent Soviet past is not thoroughly scorned. Weather-beaten statues and busts of Lenin can still be seen in most towns in the country, although these are now slowly being usurped by shiny heroic representations of national heroes like Manas and Kurmanjan Datka.

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Photographs from top to bottom (all ©Laurence Mitchell)

Lenin and bust in Soviet sculpture park, Moscow, Russia

Lenin waving at civic buildings, Yekaterinberg, Russia

Lenin in taxi-hailing mode, Irkutsk, Siberia, Russia

Nonchalant Lenin, Pskov, Russia

Redacated Lenin face on Soviet space travel memorial, Akhaltsikhe, Georgia

Lenin and friends, Russian flea market, Tbilisi, Georgia

Dynamic ‘caped crusader’ Lenin, Tirasapol, Transdniestr

Lenin the theatrical performer (note the redacted face on plinth), Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan

Lenin the thinker, Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan

Lenin points out the lofty Ala-Too mountains beyond the city (not any more though, he’s been moved and now faces the other way), Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Stoic upright Lenin with Kyrgyzstan flag, Chaek, Kyrgyzstan

Pleasure of Ruins

IMG_9714Abandoned Soviet-era hotel, Kazbegi, Georgia

“You don’t know why ruins give so much pleasure. I will tell you. . . Everything dissolves, everything perishes, everything passes, only time goes on. . . How old the world is. I walk between two eternities. . . What is my existence in comparison with this crumbling stone?”   Denis Diderot

IMG_9700Mount Kazbek and valley seen from abandoned hotel, Kazbegi

Entropy has its own beauty: the serendipitous artfulness of decay – the romantic ruin aesthetic. The crumbling stone mentioned above, quoted in Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins, refers to the classical world but the principal is the same. Like the effect of medieval cathedrals on awestruck, little-travelled peasants, ruins put the viewer in direct contact with the inevitability of time, with their own mortality and decay. Like mould growing in the Petri dish of mankind’s hubris, they illustrate the way in which the delicate interface of man and nature can perceptibly change in a relatively short period.

IMG_4567Abandoned Soviet-era restaurant, near Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia

Sometimes, there are darker violent forces at play, the guilty, flinching schadenfreude of gazing at post-conflict landscapes. More usually though, architectural ruins simply result from financial or political bankruptcy, of a national or regional ideological refit. Abandoned to nature, they stand quietly rotting before consignment to the architectural skip of failed (or rejected) narratives.

IMG_4560IMG_4561Abandoned restaurant near Mestia, Georgia

These days such sights tend to be more common in the countries of the post-Soviet world than they are in Western Europe. Nevertheless, even these are vanishing fast and I have no idea whether the Georgian buildings shown in these images from 2010 are still nobly rotting away or have been bulldozed to make way for new development. Georgia is, after all, a country that in recent years has distanced itself as much as possible from its neighbours across the Caucasus and, in defiance of its recent history, done its utmost to buddy-up with the neoliberal West. I like to imagine how these places might have looked 30 years ago: the Kazbegi hotel filled with holidaying Soviet workers; the Mestia restaurant, with Moscow apparatchiks slurping borscht and slugging vodka. Surely they must have enjoyed the view?

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Architecture without Architects

It all started more than 25 years ago when I bought a book called Architecture without Architects in a second-hand bookshop. The book, pithily subtitled A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, and authored by Bernard Rudolfsky, came as a revelation, presenting all manner of strange and wonderful vernacular buildings from all over the globe.

The book was actually a follow up to an earlier exhibition of the same name at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Within its pages were numerous black and white photographs of African mud huts, Galician stone granaries, Cappadocian cave dwellings and the tightly clustered dwellings of Italian hill towns. What struck me most though was
three grainy old photograph of titled: The fortified villages of Svaneti. Of all the fanciful structures depicted in the book, the buildings in these images looked the oddest, the most improbable of the lot – menacing stone skyscrapers set against a snow-covered mountainous backdrop. Accompanying the photos was a little text that explained that they
dated back to the 12th-century and were built and maintained by local families as defence against the ‘blood feuds and vendettas that raged unchecked’ in the region. It didn’t even say which country they were in, just ‘western Caucasus’. They were, I subsequently found out, in the Georgian SSSR of what was then still the Soviet Union.

Almost two decades later I get to visit Georgia – following the breakup of the USSR such things have become altogether easier – but it was not until my third visit to the country that I finally managed to travel to Svaneti and see the towers for myself. Svaneti happens to be home to some of Europe’s highest villages, with permanent settlements where snow lingers late into May, but the region is better known for its unique ancient culture and for its somewhat sinister reputation. Even within Georgia, the Svan inhabitants of the valley are treated with suspicion as Svaneti is usually thought of as a backward, lawless region with a reputation for brigandage. This certainly used to be the case, and until a decade ago Svaneti was a risky place to visit with robberies at gunpoint not uncommon. Thanks to a big clean-up operation a few years ago – the Georgian government is keen to develop tourism – it is now pretty safe.

Visiting Svaneti  for the first time I realise that the place I saw in Rudolfsky’s book all those years ago was a collection of villages  called Ushguli, nestled beneath high Caucasus peaks and stretching high up a valley. At 2,200 metres altitude, Ushguli is probably the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe (although currently no-go Dagestan on the other side of the Caucasus range also has contenders to the title) but it is its magnificent medieval towers that make it truly extraordinary. Some have collapsed over the years but there still sufficient to present an imposing spectacle and render Ushguli’s towers a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There has never been a better time to visit Svaneti, although things are changing fast – too fast for comfort perhaps. Following centuries of isolation – both the wheel and the internal combustion engine arrived here at roughly the same time during the 1930s – Svan villagers are starting to leave their high valleys for an easier life in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. The building of a new road will no doubt help accelerate this change and the days of unadulterated Svan culture may now be numbered. For the time being though, travelling there is still to take part in an adventure.

Bradt Travel Guides have a good guide to the country. Authored by Tim Burford and recently updated by yours truly for the 4th edition, it contains all that you need to know about Georgia – Svaneti and Ushguli included.