Reviewed by Karen Langley
Author Owen Hatherley has carved out a niche for himself as one of the UK’s foremost commentators on matters architectural and political; his work exists at the point where these intersect with aesthetics; and his latest chunky tome, a fascinating volume from Repeater Books, tackles all three in a work that is lively, trenchant, informative and never dull! Hatherley has a particular interest in modernist, brutalist architecture and also the Eastern Bloc countries as they attempt to survive after the fall of the Soviet Union. Those two interests often overlap and this book charts a number of journeys Hatherley has made through the countries affected, providing his thoughts, analysis, photographs and interpretations in a book which is bracing and yet often funny.
Soviet architecture has crept back into the spotlight as having a kind of kitsch value; the prevalence of a variety of Taschen-style picture books on the subject are testament to this, and interestingly Hatherley did produce one of his own (Landscapes of Communism, 2015). This doesn’t stop him having a cheeky sideswipe at the genre at one point during his Adventures and his approach is always much more in depth that just a collection of photographs.
The Soviet Union is, of course, no more; you can regard it as any number of things from a totalitarian regime to a failed Utopian experiment, but as the book’s blurb points out, by now we should have moved on from the whole concept of “Soviet”. Or should we? The USSR was a massive conglomerate of countries, yoked together under the Communist Dream, and those countries are still dealing with the aftermath of the collapse of the Union. So Hatherley’s adventure is to explore those countries, starting from the west in Slavutych (in the north of Ukraine) and finishing up in the east at Bishkek, where oddly many of the ideals of the former regime may still be hanging on. In between these two places he takes in well-known cities like St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev and Kazan; and ones you might not have heard of like Ventspils or Astana. Somewhat disingenuously Hatherley describes his work as a guide book which could be useful in the pocket of visitors as they walk around the cities in question; well, it would have to be a big pocket, and he does himself an injustice really, as he takes his exploration of the architecture of the places he visits as a jumping off point to explore the revolutionary past of the Soviet cities and satellites, making this much more than just a pseudo Rough Guide. This is a book of substance, both in size and in content, and Hatherley brings considerable intellectual heft to the subject matter.
The post-Soviet countries have been through incredible ups and downs, wars and revolts, since the fall of Communism, and the physical landscapes Hatherley travels through reflect this. The populations and governments of the various locations have a complex relationship with their past; often forced into joining the Soviet Union at the expense of their own indigenous national heritage, many of them leapt towards capitalism as soon as the chance came, which only replaced one kind of dictatorship (a communist one) which a new one (driven by capitalist oligarchs). Many of the cities have slipped into Third-World status, and the extreme divide between the haves and the have-nots is quite shocking in some areas.
Hatherley’s extensive knowledge of the Soviet Union and its past allows a nuanced reading of the various post-Soviet countries and their current states of politics/architecture. In many cities the 20th century constructions have been altered out of recognition or demolished, and there is often little acknowledgement of the pioneering attempts of the architects to construct buildings that reflected a new society. The general lack of care for architectural history equates in many cases with a denial of Soviet past, and when you add in the kind of problems of conservation which are global, things can get very problematic. For example, as Hatherley discovers, much of the centre of St. Petersburg has been protected and this ends up forcing nasty developments to spring up on the outskirts. Very few places seem to be able to comfortably negotiate the sticky territory between preservation and development, and it’s a tendency you can see all over the world.
As well as exploring the political situation and discussing how the places and structures we live in and around reflect and affect our lives and politics, Hatherley also touches on matters purely architectural and aesthetic in his appreciation of many of the structures. The book is liberally illustrated with images taken by Hatherley on his travels and these really bring the narrative alive (as well as providing a record of a stunning array of buildings). These were the real jewels in the crown, and I did wish that some of them had not become a bit murky, presumably as a result of the printing process.
A particularly striking aspect of the book for me was the discussion of the iconoclasm going on in the countries Hatherley passed through. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall (and what a major act of iconoclasm *that* was!) we’ve become used to seeing statues and symbols tumbling on a regular basis. In the former Soviet countries this is generally labelled ‘decommunisation’, and ranges from the state-sponsored iconoclasm of somewhere like Kiev to graffiti-style ‘vandalism’ by the general populace. Yet, despite the removal of innumerable Lenins and the renaming of any relevant street or square, Hatherley finds a surprising amount of the iconography is still there, and this seems to me to reflect an unsettled world still in a state of flux. The ironies of the ever changing shifts of power in Russia and effect this has on the physical landscape and populace is not lost on Hatherley. And it’s telling that although the Soviets have gone, the new governments are no less dictatorships and Hatherley has problems taking photographs or getting into many places, despite often being an invited guest for a seminar or the like.
I should say that I found the book perhaps unexpectedly witty in places. Hatherley is a self-deprecating and often dryly funny narrator, and in the introduction describes his work as “a subjective book, the things that were found interesting by an effete Western Marxist, on foot, with a camera”. It’s therefore a very personal narrative, based on his own experiences, but never anything less than erudite, invigorating and entertaining. Hatherley is not a man to mince his words, and if he thinks something looks rotten he says so, often in highly amusing terms.
The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Space is a fascinating tour of history as well as location. The author doesn’t pretend to have any solutions to the issues, but it’s valid to highlight and discuss the problems, as well as marking the current state of these cities and their buildings (which in a year or so’s time may be completely different). The book has a breathtakingly wide range, sweeping from the east to the west of the former empire. There are some dark episodes here, from the (literal and metaphorical) fall out from the Chernobyl disaster to the battles over borders which took place at Kuldiga in Latvia (a particularly powerful chapter about a place where the monuments surviving reflect a complex history). The short section on the Writers’ Resort at Lake Sevan was one of the most moving and affecting; and the final chapter veers quite wonderfully into the metaphysical and Utopian, with the exploration of a version of a city which didn’t actually exist! Despite the length of the book I could have read even more about the lost and disappearing architecture and landscape of the post-Soviet space if Owen Hatherley had cared to keep writing.
Certainly, if you want a guide to Soviet history and architecture, Owen Hatherley is your man. I don’t know if you would find it convenient to carry this chunky monkey around in your backpack, but as someone who’s never been able to go travelling all over the post-Soviet landscape, reading this fascinating and enlightening book is the next best thing; it’s perfect for curious and interested armchair or real travellers the world over.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and thinks modernism rules! (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)
Owen Hatherley, The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Space (Repeater Books, 2018). 978-1912248261/, 571pp, paperback.