The Adventures of Owen Hatherley In The Post-Soviet Space

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 Nov 2018

Member Reviews

Owen Hatherley has written an in-depth alternative guidebook to the former USSR states which combines history politics and architecture. He documents his travels and analyses what remains in the post-Soviet landscapes looking at if, and how, Communism has been remembered. Hatherley explains the historical context of the architecture that remains and the utopian ideals behind city planning whilst also comparing it to how people are dealing with living in these spaces in the present day. Filled with brilliant pictures too, I found this book absolutely fascinating.
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A strange title, making one think of Owen Hatherley standing in for Buck Rogers or maybe Grandmaster Flash. All the more curious for the way it normally takes me a second to separate Hatherley from Owen Jones (come on, surely it's not just me). But no, this is an openly personal take ("This is a subjective book, the things that were found interesting by an effete Western Marxist on foot") on the architecture and public space of the sometime superpower to the East. Pleasingly, when one often finds tankies to the left and mutterings of 'cultural Marxism' to the right, Hatherley is politely but firmly insistent on nuanced assessments. He is openly interested neither in condemning communism in its entirety, nor absolving it of all its sins. Which, with capitalism so clearly being broken but 'revolutionary' responses often equally clearly clueless, and sometimes outright vile, is surely the only sensible response. This sense of balance extends to other regimes too; while at pains to make clear that he hates the Putin regime, as anyone not utterly compromised one way or another must, he is nevertheless willing to admit that strictly in terms of urban planning, it's been better for Moscow than the chaos which immediately preceded it.

In some ways, though, it's not material like the Moscow chapter which makes this such an interesting read; even more so, the notes on St Petersburg can't help feeling like a footnote if one has just read a few hundred pages devoted solely to that intermittently great city (in a book Hatherley appears to have missed, though that may just be down to publication deadlines &c). No, where this really comes alive is when it ventures to the places I'd heard of but couldn't picture, or never heard of at all. In the former camp, the chapter on Kiev is an example of what makes the project so fascinating. This is a city where queer film festivals and experimental art still somehow manage to thrive in the cracks of a city largely divided between Soviet nostalgia and macho nationalism, and where the project of decommunisation may be physically impossible without razing the whole city - an opening for a glance at the whole tension of rewriting history, destroying monuments which may one day be missed for non-toxic reasons (regarding which I especially liked the comparison with pharaonic statues). But the writing on places I never knew existed is even better, emphasising the localisms in a history which, to Western eyes, can easily look monolithic. So the chapter on the charmingly Hanseatic Latvian town of Kuldīga provides an opportunity to explain all sorts about Latvia's history in general, where in 1905 they were one of the most revolutionary areas of the Russian empire. A crumbling Estonian Portmeirion brings us to the role of the green movement in the liberation of the Baltics. There's a statue of Stalin erected in 2010; a Lenin left standing but draped in local iconography, by way of a compromise between the various political and historical and factional claims; Belarus' "Brezhnev cosplay"; Georgia, which from the brief reign of the Mensheviks to its hipster leader in recent years, has always done things a little differently, even if the extreme inequality of its capital may be a vision of the West's future. At the end, there's even a tantalising glimpse of what we should have won, a flickering embassy on Earth for the dream of fully automated queer luxury space communism.

Important to note, too, that for a book which, for all the particularities it finds, still can't help largely being about totalitarianism and concrete, it's surprisingly funny. Sometimes this is a matter of arch wit: in Tatarstan "the Republic's government has been building itself the grandiose governmental buildings it has hitherto lacked, and it has done so in the common style of post-socialist dictatorships, that is, in a style that could roughly be described as Postmodernist, if that didn't suggest degress of irony and playfulness absent in these wild, hieratic hulks." Other times, it's as easy as pointing out the unfortunately named constructivist architect Semen Pen. Plus, I think this is the first time I've ever read an architectural survey that references Mysterious Cities of Gold – which is a sad indictment both of architecture writing, and architecture itself. My main regret is that this book should have had lots of glossy pictures, been almost a coffee table book - though it's hard to know from a Netgalley ARC how good the pictures might look in the paper edition. Still, the grey shabbiness of the images in this digital format itself has something Soviet about it, so in a weird way it works precisely by not working.
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What an unexpected delight this wonderfully idiosyncratic and in many ways unique book turned out to be. I actually felt quite sad when I finally reached the end having spent a wonderfully invested weekend being taken by Owen Hatherley through the streets, grandiose main squares, workers housing estates, cultural museums and of course those wonderful metro stations that form part of the texture of the many cities and towns of the former USSR that he visited. 

It is hard to categorise the book for although its main theme is architecture and its significance and legacy in the Soviet and post Soviet world the book also covers history, politics and how the past determines the present and the forces that seek to shape and determine this. This quirky part guidebook (a must surely for anyone visiting St Petersburg) and part polemic is a real labour of love by the author and one can not but fail to be impressed by his humanism and desire for a better world even if you have misgivings about his Marxist utopian beliefs that underpin this.

What I particularly liked about the book was how the author took time to document and explore the contradictions and differences between the places that he visited and the diverging directions they were travelling. In the Ukraine for instance decommunisation moves at an ever greater pace aligned as it is with nationalism, historical revisionism and symbolised with the removal of Lenin statues and all traces of its Soviet past whereas just to the north in Belarus the Soviet past is remembered fondly by many and the Lenin statues remain in situ. 

An underlying theme is how with the collapse of the USSR the majority of places went from a rigid planned economy to a deregulated neo liberal one with consequences that would include depopulation (the Baltic States) and economic stagnation and regression (Georgia among others). Also planning deregulation would see the proliferation of many new hideous new buildings. The text is aptly accompanied by numerous photographs that the author himself took, indeed rarely can a book of this size contain so many and the cover in many ways gives a true reflection of what you will find inside.

I really loved the book and would certainly read more by this author who both entertains, educates and at the same time leaves the reader wanting more.
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How does Owen Hatherley do it? This is his ninth book since 2009, covering a range of subjects but with architecture and the shape of cities in Britain and, increasingly, Europe as his core theme.  There's little sign of him running out of steam and lots of interest in 'Adventures' in the post-Soviet spaces he visits, in which he uses informed, but rarely condescending, description of their buildings and design (or lack of design) to explore the social and political outcomes of the end of the Soviet Union.  However, he doesn't really have adventures.  Hatherley rarely talks to anyone.  His approach is much more academic and when he is invited into a flat in Yekaterinburg, this made me want to read more insights into how people actually live in the places he visits.  Despite this, the book is often a delight, it made me want to visit most of the places he writes about , And the cover is fantastic.
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