While the USSR dissolved in 1991, its ghost remains in the form of buildings that just won’t go away.
I saw this firsthand last year when I visited Georgia, a country on the Black Sea with Russia to its north. As a traveler from the United States, it was easy to be fascinated by Soviet Architecture: a stark reminder of a time I didn’t have to live through, in a place I don’t reside. The people who live there have a more complicated relationship to these structures though. While certain buildings in these former Soviet Union countries may have architectural merit, and stand as a reminder of the past, others feel uncomfortably out of place. But what is that line between preservation of the past and perseverance towards a better future?
Soviet architecture refers to construction in the Russian-dominated USSR, which, at its height, controlled 15 republics. Generally, people recognize three main eras of Soviet architecture: avant-garde (from 1917, just before the USSR officially formed, to 1932), socialist realism or Stalinism (from 1932 to 1955), and late modernism (from 1955 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991).
While each era has its own unique elements brought on by various political shifts, Soviet architecture is often recognized by its harsh, brutalist style that liberally incorporates concrete and mosaics made from tiny pieces of tinted glass. Some are almost absurdly massive, while others look futuristic, or monolithic, but all of these buildings were built with a message in mind.
“Architecture can be a tool to direct people on how to live, to show them their importance, or completely disregard it,” said Ana Chighitashvili, an Architect at Tbilisi firm Khmaladze Architects. “In my opinion, it intentionally or unintentionally showed people the power that the state had over them.”
Chighitashvili admitted that she likes some of the architecture from this time period, and sees value in maintaining them. “If we take the famous building of the Ministry of Highways as an example of Soviet architecture, it is undoubtedly exceptional,” she continued. “The metro stations in post-Soviet countries are good examples of timeless and important architecture, and also the work of the famous Georgian architect Viktor Jorenadze is astonishing.”
While tourists will easily encounter these types of buildings on tours of the city, locals interact with Soviet architecture in much more personal locations: their homes. Many people in Tbilisi live in identical post-war apartment buildings (also called khrushchyovkas), many of which were built under communist chairman Nikita Khruschchev. “They wanted to build them quickly for a prompt solution,” Chighitashvili explained. “Today, even though they can be a little interesting because of their history, living in these buildings, especially in their original state, is not desirable. It shows people a power that the state had over them that, today, is not that relevant, but we’re still living in these buildings, so it still has an impact on us and how our community is shaped.”
Ia Gebrandze, a tour guide and tourism professional in the country of Georgia, lives in one of these apartment buildings with her family in Tbilisi. Her dwelling is 130 square meters, while the typical space usually measures to an average of 50-80 square meters. Her family, as well as the 64 others in her complex, have made the home their own, but the outside still appears basic and uninspiring.
“In regards to the Soviet period, they were trying to make the same standard of living for everyone; as simple as possible,” Gebrandze explained. “You’ll see it in all post-Soviet countries. And I honestly don’t think that people are really happy with the architectural style, or the standards of life from that period. And because of the ties to Russia, well, it’s a very unpleasant feeling. Or it’s also anger.”
Gebrandze explained that she and her family were refugees who arrived in Georgia because of Russian interference in the Caucasus region. When you take into account the 2008 invasion of Georgia, not to mention current events with Ukraine, it’s easy to understand why Eastern Europeans don’t exactly feel fond of their Russian neighbors.
But as Chighitashvili mentioned, some Soviet-era buildings are truly unique; if they were to be demolished, Georgia would not only lose a piece of history, but something of architectural value. Some should remain.
Some architects and designers are proving that it is possible to breathe new life into public structures without heavy interference. The firm Adjara Group partnered with MUA – Architecture & Placemaking to turn an old sewing factory into Fabrika Hostel, which has become a cultural hub and hangout for locals and visitors alike. Adjara Group also constructed the ultra-chic Stamba Hotel out of a Soviet-era print house that retains its original façade and incorporates salvaged printing equipment in the interior design. Tbilisi transport authorities recently initiated construction on an abandoned cable car, and the designer intends to refurbish the staircases inside, rather than destroy them completely.
But the question remains of what to do with the residential buildings. Concrete was commonly used to construct Soviet architecture, especially uniform housing structures. Nikita Krushschev actually used his first major speech after Stalin’s death as an opportunity to emphasize the benefits of concrete. The material didn’t cost much, its accompanying tools were readily available, and it was easy to prefabricate slabs of it, which meant even unskilled laborers could complete a given construction job.
But concrete ages poorly without proper upkeep, and it’s both incredibly challenging and costly to demolish. Funding issues aside, some residents like the renovations they’ve put into their space, and want to stay in the place where their family has lived for decades. Gebrandze said most buildings have at least five floors and up to sixteen, which raises the issue of where to house people waiting for apartment updates.
In 2014, the Georgian City Council announced a project to replace 800 Soviet-era apartment buildings, but Tea Tsulukiani, the country’s Justice Minister at the time, seemed skeptical of its merit. According to the Georgian media site Agenda, she said, “one of the hardest challenges for the ‘ambitious project’ would be to provide all residents of khrushchyovkas with new apartments.”
Tbilisi’s mayor, Kakha Kaladze, also announced a project that would gradually place residents in newer housing— with the keyword being “gradual.” While this sort of undertaking would certainly increase the quality of life for residents, it can’t happen overnight.
“I am sure that many of the owners who have those old apartments would prefer to have new ones, but it costs so much money to demolish it, and to bring the investors to build the new ones, that it seems impossible at the moment,” said Gebrandze. “I don’t know what the future will be like.”
For better and for worse, Soviet architecture is part of Georgia’s history. But while some buildings act as a testament to what a city or country has gone through, others represent an outdated way of life that somehow still affects people every day.
Chighitashvili reiterated that while some buildings should be preserved, others should be refurbished, transformed, or taken down entirely. Meanwhile, she hopes that the city can move on to build more new, modern buildings. “The aim of Tbilisi should be to move away from the Soviet Union as much as possible,” she said. “Going back to that, and having a sentimental approach towards it, would be devastating for this country.”