Photographs of Central Asia’s Striking Soviet Architecture

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Soviet Asia Fuel Publishing
Circus, by G. Aleksandrovich and G. Masyagin (1976). Tashkent, UzbekistanPhoto: Roberto Conte

Soviet Modernism, and its various iterations across Central Asia, was one of the 20th century’s most distinctive architectural styles

Those who have studied the machineries of control in the USSR will be familiar with how important architecture was in promoting the regime’s societal aspirations. Monotonous and monumental, this unflinching aesthetic was designed to enforce an agenda of homogenisation, assimilation and submission.

Soviet Asia, a new book published by Fuel, reveals that the ways in which Communist ideology was translated across its architecture was, in fact, more complex than we might think. Italian photographers Roberto Conte and Stefano Perego, travelled across the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan photographing buildings erected from the 1950s to the disintegration of the Communist bloc. Their work details the regional variations of architecture in Central Asia, presenting us with familiar images of Soviet-era structures, but not as foreign eyes might know it.

At once threatening and majestic, these otherworldly edifices offer a different face of Soviet imperialism. Power-flexing forms are infused with Eastern characteristics. Cramped residential towers, imposing state buildings, and vast museums are integrated with Persian and Islamic influences such as mosaics and frescoes. The yurt-shaped roofs of the bazaars of Tashkent and Almaty nod to the region’s nomadic lifestyles and latticed facades recall the overworked surfaces of traditional rugs, evoking a sense of ornateness not usually associated with Brutalist behemoths.

These decorative inflections suggest that the regime was, in fact, open to compromise when it came to preserving the cultures of their Central Asian ‘little brothers’. But sandwiching these surreal photographs are two essays by architecture historian Alessandro De Magistris and urban history professor Marco Buttino who explain that this hybridisation was rather “a cleverly conceived reconstruction of local roots” designed to contextualise local traditions within the ideology of the period.

A closer look at some of the folkloric frescoes will reveal what they mean. A mosaic on a house in the Tajik capital Dushanbe depicts Avicenna, the great Persian philosopher next to Soviet astronauts, all contemplating the starry cosmos. This calculated visual storytelling was designed to embed national history within the context of a progressive socialist future, an architectural strategy “based on history yet striving to eclipse it”.

A fascinating dialogue between the traditional and the modern can be read across these built surroundings, a relationship which is not so much a struggle, but the architectural version of an arranged marriage. This new publication rejects a simplistic Western narrative of the all-encompassing hegemony of Soviet Modernism and commands a re-reading of these richly layered urban landscapes, as well as offering a more nuanced look into one of the most distinctive architectural styles of the 20th century.

Soviet Asia is out now, published by Fuel.