Tradition and Modernization
Regional Modernism

SOVIET ARCHITECTURE AND POLITICS: Interview with architecture historian Paul Wolkenstein

Paul Wolkenstein

ArmArch: The Soviet Union was a multinational country, but many consider this political union as a colonization of the countries of the Union by Moscow. Do you agree with this view of history and if so, based on what reasoning?

Paul Wolkenstein: Qualifying the relations between the union republics with Moscow between 1917 and 1991 as "colonization" does not seem entirely fair, even if certain facets of these relations resemble it. Compared to that of the colonial powers (for example British, French) and imperialists, Soviet “colonization” has its own characteristics. Besides, geographically, the Soviet republics are located in the territorial continuity of the RSFSR. On the other hand, the borders of the Soviet Union are mostly inherited from those of the Russian Empire, whose geographical expansion has always been an important vector of the political ambitions. In terms of wealth sourcing, Moscow's domination is not definite either: some republics produced more than others (some were providers while others were recipients), thus contributing more or less to the good balance of the Union’s economy.

The status of individuals was, in theory, the same over all the territory of the Union, although a contempt of ethnic Russians for other nationalities could regularly be felt. Finally, the right of secession existed in theory in the Soviet constitution, but nationalist ideologies were so repressed by Moscow that no head of state of any of the union republics could use this right.


AA: What was the Party policy towards national cultures and its’ maintenance? How did this attitude change during different periods of Soviet regime?

P.W. Soviet regiem was enclosed in a political discourse that was paradoxical, ambiguous and full of contradictions. Contrary to Western European ideas of the nation, where the holder of a German or French passport was necessarily, and respectively, of German or French nationality, Soviet nationality was defined differently. The state differentiated between ethnos [народность], nationality [национальность] and citizenship [гражданство]. Nationality (in a quasi-biological sense) was anthropologically characterized by the attribution of language, territory, customs and culture.

The “national question” had of course changed over the 70 years of the Soviet Union. Until 1917, the national policy of the Bolsheviks was based on the right of nations to self-determination. Once the new Soviet state was established in Russia, Lenin revised his priorities by wanting to establish communist ideals in as many countries as possible, hence he had to ‘bribe’ local populations by introducing socialist ideas masked under local, familiar forms. Stalin, on the contrary, in the 1930s no longer needed to rely on local populations, hence the minorities were accused of deviation and suffered various forms of repression. In the post-Stalin period, which concerns my research, the number of ethnic Russians present in the local Party apparatuses decreased and the first secretaries of the SSR were all of the titular nationality and, therefore, were interested in greater cultural independence from the center.


AA: Is it possible to say that the Soviet authorities had a selective attitude towards the modalities of expression of national cultures?

As part of my thesis, I spend some time doing the architectural analysis of buildings located in the Union Republics built under Brezhnev. As an architectural historian, I noted that Soviet architects, called upon to produce a “national” architecture, used most of the times the constructive vocabulary of the best known architectural monuments. Admittedly, they are the most archetypal and the most stereotyped. Soviet Armenian and Georgian soviet architecture would imitate medieval churches or fortresses. In Central Asia, it was directly inspired by that of "Oriental cities" or nomadic architecture which compiled the following clichés: winding streets, mosques, madrasas, bazaars and yurts.

Yet nationalist endeavors could only be expressed within a well-defined framework, by indirect and very formal means: a hymn, a coat of arms, a flag or, in the field of the arts, by motifs borrowed from crafts and folklore.


AA: How did the Party envisage to nurture the national identities of the nations?

P.W. Under Brezhnev, narratives of collective identity were largely constructed by means of art and popular culture and by restoration of pre-revolutionary historical and cultural heritage (archaeological excavations, rehabilitation). Also, public spaces got gradually equipped with architectural reminders to the glory of important local historical figures or memorials to commemorate major historical events, the roots of which were much older than the history of the Soviet Union. The same concerned the names of streets or certain buildings, which were named after nationally important historical figures.


AA: How did the architects and the larger society in different republics perceive their architectural heritage revived in modern architecture? Can we say that, for example, in the Central Asian SSRs, modernist architects were more reluctant to refer to the historical architecture than Armenian architects, who were happy with citations of historical architecture in their modernist projects?

P.W. I would not say that architects and scholars of Central Asia and the South Caucasus saw the principle of “historical architectural citation” either as heresy or as personal satisfaction. “National in form, socialist in content” was the directive to follow, especially in the union republics. To be able to build, it was necessary to respect this mantra. At the time, architects had to work in the frames of repressive, centralized and normative system. The question of architectural freedom was therefore often frustrating. All efforts were directed towards implementation of authoritarian system: the question of professional development and the criticism of directives were secondary, if possible at all.


AA: In an interview you use the phrase “Russian and regional constructivism” to describe periods of Soviet architecture. Can you tell us what is the difference between these two, and why you distinguish regional constructivism from Russian constructivism?

P.W. Despite that the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s intended to shape a universal image of the new man, the national question still played an important role in the development of constructivist architecture in the union republics. Local architects adapted the constructivist architecture developed in Moscow to their respective regions. The constructivists were taught in particular at the Vkhoutemas school, an institution of the avant-garde created in 1920 in Moscow. The trio of Armenian architects Karo Halabian, Gevorg Qotchar and Mikael Mazmanian, for example, studied there, but back in Yerevan, they created architecture that was deeply avant-garde but tinged with local accents: design of deep loggias to provide shade and use of local stone (pink tuff). The Builders' Club (1929) or the ”Chess” building (1930) are emblematic buildings of this form of "regional constructivism".


AA: The Brezhnev period architecture is characterized with an unprecedented freedom of forms. How did this become possible?

P.W. In the post-Stalinist period, the Soviet doctrine required economy in construction. The State Construction Committee sought to provide decent housing and plenty of community amenities for the entire population. Therefore, they had to sacrificed the architectural diversity of certain buildings and the quality of the materials used for the sake of cheap and fast construction. The architecture of this period was largely based on the industrialization of construction processes and ubiquitous standardization of construction elements and building typologies. However, most architects had no interest in working on typological projects that they were required to. They were often reluctant to produce standardized architecture and sought more freedom. Yet, there are few architects who succeeded in realizing buildings on so called individual design. To achieve their goals, they needed good networks among the establishment and not little professional talent. The ability to use the rhetoric of power, “corridor maneuvers” and the leverage of the Party members were the keys of access to the freedom of creativity. This engendered a great diversity of architectural responses: the birth of postmodernism and a Soviet-style metabolism, inspiration from the Western architecture, the gradual use of the national component, etc.


AA: Was there any ideological opposition between the architects and the authorities?

P.W. In the post-Stalin period, architecture became freer and thoughtful than that produced during the Stalin era. It reflected the end of Stalinism, the Great Patriotic War and the era of the thaw that is usually associated with the outcomes of the XX Congress of the CPSU in 1956. However, I do not believe that one can speak of opposition. Architects were often staunch Communists, but their architectural practice was more creative and less political. Architecture was no longer just a political or technical gesture; it reintegrated the artistic dimension. Sometimes they had their card of Communist Party membership simply to receive recognition from the state and obtain more orders, and sometimes they were completely detached from the Party. Architecture is a pragmatic art, and dissent was reserved for the “paper architecture”, which is a ‘theoretical’ architecture that will never be built. If architects wanted to obtain certain power of design, they could not remain completely on the sidelines.


AA: Did the freedom of the architectural forms, that the Brezhnev period architecture was marked by, result from a desire to copy the West? Or maybe a desire for creativity after so many years of deprivation of freedom in creativity?

P.W. While respecting the aesthetic preferences of the Party and the national style, the architects were inspired by Western and Japanese architectural productions. Recent architectural achievements on the international scenery were well known to Soviet architects through the professional press. Whether due to the wish to withstand the competition, by simple mimicry or pure admiration, the design institutes borrowed from the booming international architectural vocabulary on the other side of the Iron Curtain.


AA: Apart from the 1955 Decree on Architectural Excesses, what other official documents or texts specified the ideological and creative orientations and approaches to architecture and culture in general during the different periods of Soviet power?

P.W. Among the official texts which have influenced Soviet cultural and architectural approaches, two decrees are fundamental: the one of 1955 that you quote, but also the Decree on the Reorganization of Literary and Artistic Circles of 1932. Kosygin's economic reforms, the decrees establishing architectural prizes to the union republics, the 1969 Decree on the Means to Increase Architectural Quality in Civil Construction are also very important. The number of decrees issued by the Central Committee was incalculable, and all aspects of society were regulated through them.


AA: Working with archives is like being a detective. Did you come across any artifacts that surprised you?

P.W. The study of an architectural project requires research into the incentives and constraints to which the construction of a building was a subject. My doctorate gave me the opportunity to question myself on the combination of the tool of architectural analysis and the archival research. In order to bring up the past, thirty-five years after perestroika, several types of archives should be consulted: administrative and technical documents, graphic documents and ethnographic interviews. The artifacts that surprised me the most are, probably, the graphic documents of buildings that I had never heard of or which have never been built. Certain documents (plans, sections, elevations) still clutter the cellars of certain Tbilisi or Douchanbé design institutes without having ever been analyzed.


AA: What are the most interesting or new facts concerning the cultural/architectural policy of the Soviet period that you learned during your research?

P.W. Among the most interesting facts that I learned during my research, and which illustrate the relationship between architects and the power in the Brezhnev period, I would mention the growth of the national construction. The first secretaries of the SSR central committees were keen on architecture and wanted to give meaning to their career by construction. However, their interference was very limited. Besides, after Stalin we witness the Renaissance of communities of local architects who set up ultramodern architectural programs of emancipatory effects. The quest for a new architectural image to "capitalize on" is indisputable.


AA: Is there a particular thesis in your research that you want to prove/study and what materials have helped you do it?

P.W. In one of his works, Karen Balian compares the architectural policy of Karen Demirtchian to that of Mitterrand in Paris in the 1980s. The thesis that I defend is that the buildings built under Brezhnev in certain capitals can be compared to this policy of "Grands Travaux". I use three tools in my research methodology: official archives, interviews and memories, and architectural analysis.


AA: What is the attitude of different countries towards their Soviet modernist architectural and cultural heritage? Is it perceived as something that should be valued as a national heritage or should be rejected because of recalling the Soviet ‘colonial’ past?

P.W. The attitude of various now independent republics with regard to the Soviet heritage in architecture is very different. It is definitely perceived as something that belongs to the nation, but it is sometimes highlighted, sometimes rejected. I think that during the 2010s there was a lot of progress in the growth of appreciation of the Soviet heritage. The more time passes, the more the societies in different post-Soviet countries appreciate their Soviet heritage. In addition, official actors (UNESCO, ICOMOS and Ministries of Culture) and informal actors (associations, social initiatives, etc.) become increasingly committed to the safeguarding of this heritage. In Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, several Soviet modernist buildings have recently been saved from untimely demolitions, even if their restoration has not yet started and their future remains uncertain. In Georgia, after the destruction of several monuments under Sahakashvilli, the authorities start to be more concerned in safeguarding this architecture. In Azerbaijan, the fact that the president is the son of the first secretary Heïdar Aliev (in power under Brezhnev) allows this heritage to be highlighted by a dynastic process. In Kazakhstan, the Brezhnevian architecture of Almaty was probably saved by the moving of the capital to Astana in 1997. In contrast, the political situation in Uzbekistan (where progress has been noticed since the fall of Karimov), in Tajikistan and in Turkmenistan does not benefit to the appreciation of this stratum of architectural heritage.

by ArmArch