Alexander Shevtsov, gifted architectural and interior photographer, shares with us pictures of the haunting House of the Soviets in Kaliningrad, an unfinished brutalist symbol of the final years of the USSR
This article was written before February 2022 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Greyscape stands with Ukraine.
The House of the Soviets is built on the site of Königsberg Castle in the eponymous city renamed Kaliningrad following WWll and its absorption into the Soviet Union. The battle for the city is emblematic of the defeat of Naziism and the sacrifice of the Soviet people. But the building, designed by Yulian L. Shvartsbreim, was abandoned unfinished in 1985 when money ran out as it subsided on its inadequate foundations. It was meant to be monumental like Oscar Neimeyer’s Brasilia instead it represents in concrete the feebleness and decline of the Soviet Union’s driving force. Nonetheless, the House of the Soviets nicknamed the “Face of the Robot” as it looks somewhat like a giant, buried robot only its face showing above ground, is regarded with great fondness by the people of the city and far beyond.
Alexander was born in Moldova but spent much of his 1980s childhood at Baikonur where his father served at the Cosmodrome, the heart of the Soviet space programme and now central to international cooperation in space exploration. After graduating as an electrical engineer, Alexander moved to Kaliningrad, the former city of Koenigsberg, in 2004 and began his career as a professional photographer.
We asked Alexander what attracted him to the House of the Soviets?
Alexander told us, “Along with the Cathedral, the House of the Soviets is the dominant work of architecture in Kaliningrad, so I just couldn’t pass it up. The building is filled with Soviet-era spirit. Massive, monumental forms, its facade resembling the head of a giant robot buried in the ground up to the neck.”
What was your first impression?
“I still remember very well the first time I saw the House of the Soviets. I was walking along Leninsky Prospekt from Victory Square and suddenly this colossal structure began to appear around the turn. The grey concrete, blackened with time, the empty window openings – it looked like something alien, like some alien spaceship that had fallen in the middle of a quiet city. It was both frightening and mesmerizing.” In 2005 some cosmetic work was done and the windows were glazed.
Is the House of Soviets in ‘good condition’ or does it need renovation? Does it have protected status?
“I have heard opinions that the building is in a relatively normal condition and it is possible to complete and put it into operation. The local press published articles that the administration of the Kaliningrad region will move to this administrative building after the completion of repairs. There isn’t any information available regarding its protected status. A few years ago there were discussions about the need for its demolition and the restoration of the Royal Castle on this site.”
What does it look like in its surroundings?
“Currently, the House of Soviets is painted in light blue. The nearest residential buildings and administrative buildings, during the reconstruction, received new facades in a modern style. Thus, now the house of Soviets and the surrounding space look quite harmonious.”
Almost in passing, Alexander mentioned that he spent his childhood in Leninsk better known to the world as the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the base central to the Soviet space programme from the 1960s. With the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, in 1957, the technological look and feel of the Soviet space programme became central to design in the 1960s. We asked Alexander to tell us about his childhood in this remarkable and unique place and he also sent us the following photographs taken with his first digital camera. We think they are an incredible personal and historical record.
“My life in Baikonur during the Soviet era did not differ from an ordinary Soviet childhood. I went to school, attended the society of rocket modellers at the Palace of Pioneers, where my friends and I glued gunpowder-powered cardboard models of missiles, and then launched them. None of my rocket ever took off successfully :)”
“Cosmonautics has always been near, and probably therefore perceived as something ordinary. Only those who worked there could get to the territory of the Cosmodrome. Occasionally visits were organised to launch sites, control bunkers and a small Cosmonauts museum located at the “Gagarin” launch pad number 2.”
Soyuz, Proton and Zenit
“Thus I visited the launch pads of the “Soyuz”, “Proton” and “Zenit” launch vehicles and, with my father, I flew by helicopter to the telemetry stations of the “Energia-Buran” project.
One day I went up to the top of the tower of the dynamic test bench. The elevator wasn’t operating. I was one of the few “tourists” permitted to climb 72 meters to the top using the staircase. Towering above the flat, desert plain was an unusually shaped grey concrete and metal giant structure. Huge parabolic antennas, thick cables, and conduits extended beyond the horizon… It was like being inside a science fiction novel.
Rocket launches took place between 30-70 kilometres (depending on the type of rocket) from the city. At that time, I could walk with friends or sit at home in the kitchen, drink tea and suddenly see a bright glowing dot in the sky rising and a white smoky trail stretched behind. The shape and slope of this track showed whether the launch was going well or if there were problems.”
“The most spectacular launches were the “Energia” rocket and the “Energia-Buran” system. I was 9 and 11 years old then. I remember how I climbed on the roof of our panel five-story building and sat there, waiting for the first launch. It was night time and already dark. Suddenly the sky to the north lit up as if it were dawn, turning pink and orange. From there began to rise a cluster of four purple stars and one in the centre. And then came a low, powerful roar. I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like it again.”
“On April 12, 1991, during the Cosmonautics Day Parade a huge AN-225 “Mriya” plane with “Buran” flew over my street. In December 1991 the USSR collapsed. The financing of the space programme was significantly reduced, changing everything. People began to leave the city en masse.
In the winter of 1993, we already had power outages, heating, gas and the water supply were often turned off. I remember how my classmates and I took turns warming up near the radiator in the entrance of the house, while one of us stood in a long queue for bread which was sold twice a day, morning and evening in a single booth near the city bakery. There was a limit of two loaves per person.”
Camera – what do you use?
For commercial photoshoots, I use a Nikon D600 or D3300 and a bunch of professional lenses, but the rest of the time I shoot on simple Chinese smartphones: Xiaomi Redmi 3 and recently switched to Xiaomi Mi 8 Lite.
Difficult question, because I always liked to read/ Stanislaw Lem, “Solaris”. Now I’m trying to read it in the original. Sometimes Polish makes me cry!
The same problem as with the question about the book!
“Stalker” By Andrei Tarkovsky.
Well worth a visit if you’re in town
All photographs copyright Alexander Shevtsov