Issue 3/2017

The Empire Strikes Back?


It is already a quarter of a century since the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist. The after-effects generated by the downfall of this erstwhile empire still however appear in a whole host of different forms to this day. Many current problems, ranging from political difficulties to social and economic tensions in the former Soviet republics, can only be understood against the backdrop of this historical process whose repercussions are still felt today. Old elites have been replaced by their new counterparts. Long-simmering conflicts have broken out again in earnest, with no clear end in sight. New geopolitical fault-lines and spheres of influence now criss-cross the region of the former Soviet bloc region. As pan-European integration becomes an increasingly remote prospect, a newly invigorated Russia emerges with growing forcefulness. Is this how the empire strikes back?
New manifestations of nationalism, apparent on every front, have effectively replaced the previous unifying idea of transnational socialism; a socialism that is appraised differently in retrospect from country to country and continues to harbour explosive potential in conflict-ridden engagements with the past. Yet reconciliation in the region is scarcely possible unless there is an engagement with its shared Soviet heritage, colonial spatial structures and emancipatory initiatives. The Empire Strikes Back? edition is therefore structured around the motif of dealing with the Soviet Union’s built heritage, which continues to link cities and memories in the region, yet in many cases also divides them. An equal central, although often less visible, role is played by enlightened-democratic urban (sub-)cultures and civil society protagonists who have developed their often difficult artistic/political work over the last three decades.
The point of departure for this edition is the project initiated by, The Empire Strikes Back?, which involved a group of intellectuals, town planners, architects, activists and other authors travelling in autumn 2016 through cities such as Yerevan, Tbilisi, Chișinău, Moscow, Minsk and Kiev. As well as taking stock of local situations, an investigation of the structural commonalities concealed by descriptive categories such as “post-Soviet society” formed a central focus on this journey. This exploration examined the local particularities of various urban situations, along with the ongoing transformation processes. One of the project’s key aims it pursued was to identify models for a shared future by drawing on the common past within the “empire” and on distinct, yet shared, experience of the post-Soviet city.
The Empire Strikes Back? edition picks up on central findings from this project, supplemented by broader perspectives extending beyond the immediate project alliance. The introductory text by Wolfgang Kil and Georg Schöllhammer, based on a joint project presentation, tackles striking examples in addressing their view of the Soviet architectural legacy. Wolfgang Kil engages with the ways in which the Exhibitions of Achievements of National Economy (VDNKh), first initiated in the 1930s in various cities, sometimes with interruptions and later with a new focus, presented compressed depictions of various different “modernities”. Similar processes emerge in the architectural history of the Armenian capital Yerevan, also testifying to the existence of several parallel modernities, sometimes at loggerheads but also partly intermeshed.
The threats now confronting these various modernities become apparent in selected examples from Yerevan’s urban history presented by Ruben Arevshatyan. Some masterpieces of modernism are being demolished to make way for new projects, while others are simply left to crumble. A similar nexus of problems is addressed by Dimitrij Zadorin and Jewhenija Hubkina. Dimitrij Zadorin sheds light in his essay on the history of standardised modernist housing throughout the entire Soviet sphere, a phenomenon often overlooked in the light of architectural “excellence-driven mindsets” and currently embroiled in a largely ideology-driven struggle. Jewhenija Hubkina focuses her attention on a highly topical contemporary focal point of disputes, the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, with its conflictual collision of Russian and Ukrainian interests and spheres of influence.
As well as turning the spotlight on local historical Soviet modernism, for example in architect Gaga Kiknadze’s piece on the Georgian capital Tbilisi, an exploration of various current problematic situations takes centre-stage. Boris Chukhovich for example considers the construction boom unleashed by power-hungry neo-autocrats in Central Asian states like Uzbekistan. Stefan Rusu addresses the impact of attempted updates of former modernist urban planning concepts in capitals such as Bucharest and Chișinău. Finally, Olga Shparaga looks beyond the narrower focus on the built Soviet heritage. Her essay discusses the ever-deeper divide between “good” and “bad” universalism through the prism of the political and social situation in Belarus. In the midst of this polarisation, Shparaga above all identifies a need for art activism with a civil-society focus. That is also a fitting image for the post-Soviet present, which cannot simply discard testimonies of the empire inscribed in concrete.