New East Digital Archive
Empire state of mind:
projecting power in post-Soviet architecture
Vast, grand and imposing, post-Soviet architecture has reflected the political aspirations of its commissioners. Frank Herfort spent six years photographing it

Ministry Buildings, Astana (2012)

The photographer Frank Herfort has never met the stocky man with the grey lion’s mane who is walking along the bank of the Moscow River, past what is probably his best-known creation. But the architect Mikhail Belov could have been the inspiration for his book Imperial Pomp: Post-Soviet High-Rise. Belov is one of the builders of the new Moscow. He completed his Imperial Building, an imposing residential building within view of the towers of the Kremlin in 2010.

Imperial Building, Moscow (2012)

The 12-storey house with a tower of 18 stories connects seamlessly to the monumental buildings of the Stalin era. “It is terrible to say it” — Belov hesitates for a moment — “but it is still true: Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer, simply had good taste.” Belov also has at the ready the politically correct superstructure for his empire project. He says it is about “de-Stalinising neoclassicism.” In lieu of the enormous Imperial Palace, a playful “House of the Avant-Garde” had originally been planned, with individual wings conceived according to motifs from the painters Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko. It would have been Moscow’s version of the Friedensreich Hundertwasser House.

The fact that the municipal authorities froze the project marked a shift in political tides that can now be observed everywhere from Minsk in Belarus to Vladimir Putin’s Moscow and as far as Astana in Kazakhstan: empire rather than avant-garde, authoritarian rule rather than the experiments with democracy of the 1990s.

The labour pains after the collapse of the recently formed states are made evident to everyone with particular clarity in architecture

Frank Herfort, born in Leipzig in 1979, has for the past six years travelled the collapsed Soviet Union in search of architectural clues. In his blue Volga automobile, another relict of the Soviet era, he travelled more than 7,000 miles in the Wild East: he crossed the Ural Mountains, advanced as far as Siberia and followed the course of the Volga River. Herfort’s study of buildings is a key to understanding a geopolitical region that is searching for its identity after centuries of czarist rule and seven decades of communism. The labour pains after the collapse of the recently formed states are made evident to everyone with particular clarity in architecture. Here the skyscrapers appear to have been thrown to the earth with a ghostly hand against sleepy, unreal backdrops. Here the headquarters of the energy giant Gazprom rises above rusty garages. Here a single photograph bridges several hundred years by juxtaposing wooden houses and skyscrapers.

On the one hand, we see modern high-rises and skyscrapers of the 21st-century that could have been built much like this in Tokyo or Shanghai. They make it look as if Russia and the other 14 countries once belonging to the Soviet Union had arrived in the globalised world.

On the other hand, the photographs include futuristic-looking structures, like the government ministry buildings in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan; the “Zeppelin” high-rise in Moscow; the headquarters of the Russian Railways, also in Moscow; or the chess centre in the oil town of Khanty-Mansiysk in far northern Russia. The point is always to shine with a particular geometric form.

There are also the near copies of New York’s Flatiron Building in Samara on the Volga or of London’s Big Ben as an office building that looms into the sky above the Siberian oil town of Surgut. When the latter was dedicated, the speaker remarked: “We have reproduced part of England as well as its culture and traditions. We are opening not only the doors of the new building but also, and above all, our hearts. Only thus can we teach our children to communicate freely with the civilised world.” The arrival of the big wide world in the provinces reflects a striving for cosmopolitanism. But the buildings remain foreign bodies in their old surroundings.

Many of the new buildings photographed by Herfort come across as quotations from the Soviet era and recall the so-called wedding-cake style of Stalinist skyscrapers in Moscow. They express a desire for past greatness and the ambition to outdo that old greatness. At the turn of the year 2013, the respected Moscow polling institute VTsIOM published a study indicating that 56% of Russians longed for a return to the Soviet Union, even though the great majority of Russians are better off than ever in material terms today.

This desire is motivated not only by the security that real socialism ensured its subjects. It is all the stronger among those who feel the pain of a loss of meaning in their homeland. The times are over when the Soviet Union was engaging in global competition with the US over spheres of influence, when it sent the first men into space and when it regularly won the most gold medals at the Olympics.

Capitalism and communism have one thing in common: the human being is small, and always just an object

How nice that architecture is trying to span the arc between the old greatness and the new. The new financial district Moscow City — “Manhattan on the Moscow,” as Der Spiegel has written— is the largest urban development project in Europe. And naturally the tallest skyscraper on the continent, the 339-metre-tall Mercury Tower, stands in the Russian capital.

In Moscow City, the symbol of Russian turbo-capitalism, communism seems light-years away. But capitalism and communism have one thing in common: the human being is small, and always just an object. Herfort’s photographs illustrate this as well. When people can be seen at all, they are tiny in comparison to the buildings photographed.

Herfort presents the Triumph Astana, an enormous office building in Astana, with two people standing in the foreground in front of a one-storey clay house. The Kazakh head of state, Nursultan Nazarbayev, had the Triumph Astana built after seeing the original in Moscow. Astana was once a modest Cossack settlement on the steppes. The autocrat Nazarbayev has turned it into a planned city that he declared the new capital of his country. Monumental architecture serves him as proof of the greatness of his country and perhaps as cover for the backwardness of the oil-rich country on the steppes, in which, according to the UN, some of the provinces are still stuck at the level of development seen in Afghanistan.

In a park in Nazarbayev’s capital, the British star architect Norman Foster planted a 62-metre-tall glass pyramid: the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. And the Bayterek Tower looms bizarrely in the middle of the government quarter. It is 105 metres tall and was conceived as a symbol of the new Kazakhstan. Although it was designed by no less an architect than Foster, and its name translates as “Tree of Life,” the tower remains a mystery to me. No matter how long I gaze at it, the tower still seems like a failed caricature of the FIFA World Cup trophy. So it is not so much a symbol for Kazakhstan as a symbol for the difficult search for identity in states that became independent two decades ago.

This text, by Matthias Schepp, originally appeared as the introduction to Frank Herfort’s Imperial Pomp: Post-Soviet High-Rise