Over the last few years there has been a strange craze for glossy photo books of Soviet architecture. The once absurd idea that there was anything worth looking at in the cityscapes of the USSR and its empire has been embraced in the likes of Richard Pare’s The Lost Vanguard, Frederic Chaubin’s CCCP and Roman Bezjak’s Socialist Modernism among many others. Some of these books are intriguing, others much more voyeuristic and shallow.
But when putting together a book on the architecture and urbanism of the Soviet era I tried as much as possible to avoid this approach, preferring quick snapshots that showed these spaces being used — as they almost always are — rather than as grandiose monuments to a vanished civilisation. The use of old picture postcards elsewhere in the book came from an analogous impulse. If the snapshots showed these as mundane places in the 21st century, then the postcards show a publicity image, but publicity that is frequently so odd and jarring that it can be hard to imagine how these photographs were intended as a form of architectural and political PR.
Almost all of these were found in second hand bookshops in Warsaw, something which came about very much by accident. Finding the postcard sections of these bookshops, on visits with Varsovian critic Agata Pyzik, meant that despite being functionally monolingual I could spend huge amounts of time rummaging through boxes. It got to the point where, in one of them, the Antykwariat of Pan Krzyś in the Warsaw district of Żoliborz, the proprietor would get out boxes upon boxes of musty postcards. Generally, booksellers would price anything pre-war considerably higher, which was convenient given that I was mostly looking for stuff from between 1945 and 1990.
Interspersed with Christmas cards, soft porn and postcard sets of dogs and flowers, there was lots of that to choose from. Meanwhile, at Antykwariat Grochowski, around six large drawers stuffed full were ransacked thoroughly for this selection. A small minority are from elsewhere — the strikingly modern card of Kalinin Prospekt (aka the “New Arbat”) in Moscow, where the serried towers have their lights read “C-C-C-P”, as cars zoom by, was actually found by Agata in a branch of Oxfam in central Oxford.
The messages on the back are often banal — a lot are actually competition entries for radio and TV, with answers to the set questions — but in addition to this, the postcards found in Warsaw reveal a geography that doesn’t exist anymore. Poles today do not, by and large, go on holiday in Armenia, eastern Ukraine, or Crimea (there were always, though, a lot of cards of the Middle East, where Polish engineers were building cities and industry). Travel between the countries of the former Warsaw Pact is, today, far rarer than east-west travel. And even when that travel does take place, it’s unlikely that Lenin statues and modernist theatres would be the images you’d want to send home to your family and friends.
That said, much of this isn’t obviously even holiday-related at all. Many of these postcards are photos of quite ordinary places — housing estates, TV towers, modern public buildings — often rendered in strange cheap colours, giving an undeniably nostalgic effect. Some countries seemed to offer more “socialist” postcards than others, usually those which were landlocked, cold and not noted for their natural beauty. So postcards from the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, the Romanian Black Sea coast, Crimea and the Caucasus offer images of sun, sea and concrete that were not massively dissimilar from what you’d find at the Costa del Sol, as you can see in the postcard of the striking Brutalist resort of Albena above.
In much of the USSR, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, however, you could buy a postcard of a cultural centre in a mining town, or of a prefabricated housing estate on the outskirts of a provincial city. Places that you might have moved into, or wanted to show off about that. Little reminders that these ordinary spaces were once regarded as something rather special — places that if you visited or got rehoused in them, you’d want to write home about.
Text: Owen Hatherley
Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism: A History through Buildings is available now from all good bookshops