Snow ghosts: Soviet military-industrial power frozen in time

27 October 2016

Danila Tkachenko is a Russian photographer whose series Restricted Areas crystallises the tendencies of many artists working on themes of the post-Soviet space. As Calvert 22’s Power and Architecture season demonstrates, there is a healthy interest in the abandoned or neglected buildings that once served as landmarks of Soviet ambition: the rack and ruin of utopia. What sets Tkachenko apart is the unforgiving simplicity of his compositions.

The architecture of Restricted Areas is scattered across Eurasia: from an observatory in Kazakhstan to submarines in the Volga region of Samara and oil fields in the remote republic of Bashkortostan. But through Tkachenko’s lens they become part of a single winter landscape, minimal and saturated with whiteness.

“Abandoned buildings of almost inhuman complexity” is how the photographer describes his subject, and it is true that the series speaks to the sublimation of the person into the political project. There seems to be no logic to it. Why would anyone build in these places? Why is there a submarine stranded in the midst of all this snow?s

One image, of a deserted interplanetary antenna in the Arctic Arkhangelsk region, speaks particularly poignantly to the idea motivating many of these structures, that it might be possible to transcend the earth altogether. Planning to build bases on other planets, the Soviet Union prepared facilities for interplanetary communication such as this antenna, which were never used and left deserted.

Peer closer and a strange logic starts to reveal itself. Scattered across a vast landscape but assembled in Tkachenko’s images, Restricted Areas speaks to the scale, and ultimately the limits of imperial ambition.

We might see deserted pumpjacks on a defunct oil field, a reminder of the enormous physical effort that the Soviet Union devoted to extracting natural resources.

Or this sculpture, Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow, the rocket on top is based on the design of a German V-2 missile.

But time and again, Restricted Areas seems to offer a reminder that even the grandest dreams can end in failure. This Bartini Beriev VVA14 amphibious aircraft with vertical take-off for instance, was one of just two built by the USSR built, only to crash after commission.

A derelict ground station in Kazakhstan’s Karaganda region offers a glimpse of how much prestige and importance the Soviet Union gave to space exploration.

As does a deserted observatory in the Almaty region of Kazakhstan, an area with particularly good conditions for space observation.

Grounded flying machines, beached submarines, rusting excavation machines: Tkachenko’s series is replete with defunct technologies assembled at great human and financial cost. Buried in snow and kept off the map, they pose more questions than answers.

Here, a landlocked ship acts as a poignant coda to human lives lost and memorialised in these icy wastelands. The cruise ship Bulgaria was reclaimed after sinking in the Volga river, with the deaths of 122 passengers and crew.