Soviet ★ Tours
For many, the very last place to spend precious vacation time is the vast former Soviet Union. But for fans of architecture, the old Soviet republics and states of Eastern and Central Europe are a treasure house of Constructivism and bold, innovative, dramatic and historic buildings. Greyscape has been talking to Gianluca Pardelli the founder of Soviet ★ Tours.
How did you become interested in the architecture of the former Soviet Union? What’s its fascination?
Soviet architecture is shamefully underrated in the West but luckily there are growing signs of interest and rehabilitation. The buildings are usually associated with grey and drab apartment blocks but Soviet architecture displays, in fact, a wide and diverse range of different styles and features determined by both chronological and geographical factors. The Kruschevski certainly have a place as part of social history but the USSR was not just the product of a political revolution, alongside it was a revolution in design and architecture with greats like El Lissitzky and Tatliflan, Vladimir Shukhov, Moisei Ginzburg and of Konstantin Melnikov.
What’s the history of Soviet Tours? What attracted you to the project?
Soviet ★ Tours is to me the natural and obvious outcome of my 10+ years of gallivanting around the former Soviet republics, first, as a common traveller and Soviet-era-buff and then as a photojournalist. I was born in Livorno, Italy and my studies really prepared me for Soviet Tours. I guess you can call me a Slavist (BA & MA degrees in Slavic Studies) and a journalist (MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography). My photojournalistic activity actually started well before my studies and still goes on as a side occupation of mine. I’ve also worked as a translator.
In May 2017 we launched Soviet ★ Tours as a specialist, niche tour operator running group tours and private trips around and about the former USSR, especially focussing on Soviet history, Soviet architecture and local culture. There’s not a part of the former eastern bloc where we haven’t taken tours. We aren’t part of mass tourism; we specialise in guiding people who want to experience a unique period before its memories and artefacts fade or are obliterated by new developments.
While we cope with the Coronavirus pandemic our tours are suspended but we hope that’s temporary.
We are very proud of our tours and how, respectfully, we show people the great beauties, achievements and tragedies of the Soviet period. And I think the quality of our work is recognised by the list of great companies that collaborate with us, for example, Atlas Obscura and National Geographic.
The Soviet Union used to cover one sixth of our planet’s surface. There are 15 former Soviet republics out there, with Russia (just one among the 15), being the largest country in the world. Kazakhstan’s surface covers a land area 11 times larger than the entire United Kingdom. How can I summarise the attractions? Let’s face the truth: you can find literally everything in the former USSR and it’s close to impossible to be disappointed.
We are going to interrupt at this point. There is nothing like seeing a great building in person. Getting up close, perhaps getting inside, is an unforgettable experience. So we at Greyscape is looking forward to the opportunity to collaborate with Soviet ★ Tours and create the first Greyscape tour, pilgrimage if you will, to Georgia, beautiful Georgia, to visit in person a series of incredible buildings marking the extraordinary modern history of this ancient land. For many years these buildings simple weren’t accessible to foreign travellers. OK, we must wait a bit longer, but it will be worth it.
Where do you take tour groups?
We cover pretty much the entire former Eastern Bloc plus a couple of Soviet-related destinations in Africa and the Middle East. Our most popular destinations are the countries of Central Asia, Siberia and the Caucasus, especially Georgia, Armenia, the Soviet ‘Stans and Tuva. Here is an article about our Soviet ★ Tours to Georgia from the Independent newspaper.
Are your tours basic, do the guests rough it?
Quite the opposite. We usually stay in top-category hotels or boutique establishments in large cities and then opt for traditional guesthouses and homestays in small towns and villages. Concerning food; well, remember the size of the former USSR, there are huge regional differences and the staples you will get to try in urban Latvia are quite distant from the ones they’ll offer you in rural Pamir. With Soviet ★ Tours, you experience the richness of the local cultures, their food and hospitality, the countryside and the marks left by the 70 years of communism and the years that have followed. You may be especially interested in buildings but we want you to encounter the richness of their cultural context and the people who live in that extraordinary environment and their ancient heritage.
Is there an element of voyeurism about visiting the former Soviet Union, a sort of travel porn?
The Soviet Union, through its 70-year-old history, had many lights and much shadow: a wide array of great cultural, social and economic achievements as well as a vast plethora of errors and horrors. The USSR has produced the best and the worst of real-life socialism and neither the darkest days of Stalinism nor the happiest moments of the mid-70s can summarise the Soviet experiment as a whole. Most former Soviet citizens are actually quite nostalgic for the “good old Soviet days” but nostalgia is often confused with longing for personal memories of a lost youth. Our guides are well aware of the complexity of Soviet legacy and strive to be as objective as possible, neither idealising nor demonising the multi-layered cultural, political and social heritage of the USSR.
So, tell us, which are your favourite buildings of the former Soviet Union?
There are so many, so I will choose just one building per Soviet republic: House of the Soviets (S. Petersburg, Russia); Hotel Uzbekistan (Tashkent, Uzbekistan); Writers’ Canteen (Lake Sevan, Armenia); Nizami Museum (Baku, Azerbaijan); the Soviet Sanatoria of Tskaltubo (Georgia); Hotel Salyut (Kiev, Ukraine); City Gates (Chisinau; Moldova); Republic Palace (Minsk, Belarus); Obigarm Sanatorium (Tajikistan); National Library (Tallinn, Estonia); Latvian Academy of Sciences (Riga; Latvia); 9th Forth Memorial (Kaunas, Lithuania); National Museum (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan); State Circus (Dushanbe, Tajikistan); TV and Radio Building (Almaty, Kazakhstan).
How do the tours work?
We employ local guides with deep knowledge of the culture, the history and the architecture of the places they work.
And do your travellers get a reaction from the local people?
Members of our tour groups get to meet local people. We visit such a variety of places and I’ve mentioned that we will stay in guesthouses and some homestays and we always find that we are received with curiosity about where our people come from and what interests them, a genuine and polite enthusiasm and heart warming hospitality.
What have you got planned for the future?
When it’s safe to do so we’ll resume our tours. These regions have experienced, endured, so much history and it has taken the passage of so many years before one could visit that we must be patient for a while longer. This, too, will pass and we shall travel again, enjoying first hand the magnificence and ambition, the vision and drama of what was built.
Thanks also to photographer Roberto Conte whose photographs are also featured in this article. His Instagram /ilcontephotography