In Russia, everyday road signs are beautiful, baffling pieces of public art

In Russia, everyday road signs are beautiful, baffling pieces of public art

14 June 2019

Everyone knows that Russia is vast, but nothing quite brings us face to face with its scale like a road trip. The train travel for which the country is rightly renowned is one thing, but in the safety of the carriage, you’re still at one remove from the sheer amount of space all around; out on the road, you’re exposed. And in this space, the most consistent echoes of human presence are the road signs that tell you when you’re about to enter a new settlement. In Russia, these are often miniature installations rather than simple signage — an impressive collection of which can be found at @russian_stele.

In Soviet times, local civic pride (whether enforced from above or not) led to the practice of erecting strikingly artistic signs, intended to reflect the labour or historical achievements of the site in question. The tradition has carried over into post-Soviet Russia, with new variations on old themes. Intentionally grand and elaborate, they mark cities, villages, kolkhozs, and former pioneer camps; places that are still inhabited and places that have long ceased to exist. They mark the points at which Russia’s great emptiness is temporarily interrupted.

The structures of the signs are impressive: a mix of concrete and steel, mosaics, fonts, ornamentation, usually drawing on the heritage of the area in question. A ship crowns the sign of the Arctic port of Murmansk; a replica of a rocket welcomes you to Novosibirsk; a falcon alongside Slavic ornaments for Vologda.

All the images are snapshots from Google street view, slightly blurred and surreal, exactly the way they are encountered in real life as you speed past in your car. The account also features a customised Google map that documents where exactly in Russia’s great expanse each of these miniature civic works of art sits.

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