‘Soviet Cities; Labour, Life and Leisure’
Arseniy Kotov’s insightful, fascinating photos are now curated in a single book
Born in 1988, just four years before the end of the Soviet Union, Arseniy never knew Soviet rule. His experience of the former Soviet republics, all of which he visited and photographed over a three year period, is like an exploration of the abandoned shell of the USSR no longer animated by the communist regime. He can see, as he says in his introduction to the book and as readers will discover, that the Soviet Union had great ambitions for the betterment of its people.
Arseniy’s work is not clouded by sentimentality. However, his photographs, many of them taken in the grey and unforgiving dusk or dawn, nonetheless show the range and power and beauty of the Modernist and Soviet architecture. Along with the great buildings of public culture, he photographs the vast housing blocks, their slablike walls devoid of ornamentation. There is little to distinguish one from another, one city from another is absent.
But looking at these photographs, glimpsing the warmth leaking from the myriad homes, one gets a sense of life in the Soviet Union.
Perhaps surprisingly, this frank appraisal is not ugly, Arseniy captures an unexpected beauty in these cities and barely differentiated dormitory suburbs, born out of revolution, war and a totalitarian state that exacted from its people a huge price to make the USSR.
There’s an interesting debate about how we should experience Stalinist and communist architecture. For a niche crowd, it is endlessly fascinating, if we are honest, in a very arms-length way because even if we visit we aren’t living under Soviet rule. We want to explore the landscape, savour the images, discuss the experiences of the residents of Khrushchyovka but we must have in mind the reality of life in the USSR. It’s not just endless queues for food staples or lack of choice, censorship, corruption it’s also the effects of polluting and environmentally damaging industries located close to the residential areas. For example, when Greyscape visited Nizhny Tagil, a monotown in the heart of the Urals (the expression refers to a city dedicated to one or a narrow group of industries) we were advised not to remain outside for more than 30 minutes.
What really works about this book is that we join Arseniy on his journey. We consider the striking cityscapes where the industry and housing sits. We get a sense of the sheer scale.
And what is so satisfying is seeing the Kickstarter campaign we supported last year come to fruition helping to enable Fuel, the publishers, to produce a larger edition. With thanks to all the contributors, the campaign was successful.
Check out his post, Recording A Disappearing Landscape for Greyscape for a flavour of his wonderful eye for detail.
Find Arseniy on Instagram at @northern.friend
All images the Copyright of Arseniy Kotov ©