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The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a place that really existed, but it is long dead.
By now, the word “Soviet” should be as meaningless as “Hapsburg”. Yet it endures, as in the wave of de-communisation in Ukraine or the strange idea that the capitalist government in Russia is “Communist”. But does the Soviet experience have anything to teach us today, or was it just an enormous cul-de-sac, a nuclear-armed reincarnation of the Russian Empire? This book tries to find out, through walking the towns and great cities of the USSR, in an itinerary that goes from the Baltic to Belarus, from Ukraine to the Urals, from the Caucasus to Central Asia, in places ranging from utopian colonies of the Twenties, to nuclear new towns of the Fifties, to gleaming new capitals of the twenty-first century.
Travelling across eleven of the fifteen countries that once made up the Soviet Union, this book searches for the remnants of revolutions both distant and recent. and for the continuities with the Communist idea. Instead of a wistful journey through ruins, this is a Marxist Humanist account of how cities and their inhabitants have tried to cope both with the end of a socialist dream and the failure of capitalism to fulfill its own promises. In this patchwork of EU democracies, neoliberal dictatorships and Soviet nostalgic enclaves (often found in the same countries) we might just find the outlines of a way of building and living in cities that is a powerful alternative, both in the past and present.
Owen Hatherley writes regularly on aesthetics and politics for, among others, the Architectural Review, the Calvert Journal, Dezeen, the Guardian, Jacobin, the London Review of Books and New Humanist. He is the author of several books, most recently Landscapes of Communism (Penguin 2015), The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso, 2016) and The Chaplin Machine (Pluto, 2016), the last of which is based on a PhD thesis accepted by Birkbeck College in 2011. A book on European cities, Trans-Europe Express, will be published in 2018.
“Daffodils for Wordsworth. Deprivation for Larkin. A trashed tower block surrounded by a toxic landscape pocked with rust-pitted Ladas in a forgotten oblast 2,000 miles from Moscow for Hatherley.”
“An engrossing and beautifully written book. No one else writes so clearly yet with such elegiac intensity about the symbiosis that exists between history and the built environment, or the lives that are caught, mangled and realised in its midst.”