The last city of the Soviets
After the catastrophe of Chernobyl, Soviet architects built a new ideal city on humanist principles, the Ukrainian town of Slavutych.
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In the main secondary school of Slavutych, a town of 25,000 people founded in 1986 in the north of Ukraine, is a full-length mural that tells a strange tale about technology, revolution and human progress. A Neanderthal plays with a Rubik’s Cube. Byzantine monks bring Christianity to ancient Rus. Red Guards storm the winter Palace. A beaming Yuri Gagarin, in a spacesuit, rises from his parachute like Botticelli’s Venus. And in the centre of it all, a blonde girl in shorts runs from an exploding nuclear power station, as figures in protective suits fight to put out the conflagration.
This is the foundation myth of the last city built in the Soviet Union. Its purpose was to rehouse those who lost their homes with the evacuation of Pripyat, the new town that served the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. It was built as an extraordinary act of Soviet internationalism, not with standard plans laid down in Moscow, but with distinct, separately conceived districts, each designed by the architects – and built by the builders – of eight different Soviet Republics: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine.
It is “the last ideal city”, according to Ukrainian architectural historian Ievgeniia Gubkina, whose newly published book Slavutych Architectural Guide is the first work on the subject in English. A “humanist utopia”, opposed to the “technocratic utopia” of the nuclear power station and of Pripyat, an answer to a loss of faith in progress, technology and socialism that was the consequence of the nuclear disaster.
That loss of faith came as a catastrophe to many of the Soviet citizens who were affected by or took part in the relief effort to alleviate the disaster. In her recently republished Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexeivich quotes one worker describing how even the robots that were sent to repair the reactor, after it was considered unsafe for even protected human beings, succumbed: “our robots, designed by academic Likachev for the exploration of Mars”.
But according to the local party boss at the plant, who later became the long-serving Mayor of Slavutych, “I had dozens of letters on my desk by people asking to be sent to Chernobyl. Volunteers. No matter what they say now, there was such a thing as a Soviet person, with a Soviet character.” As first dozens, then hundreds of relief workers became sick and died from radiation sickness, that enthusiasm began to seem incomprehensible.
A Belarussian nuclear engineer who took part in the clean-up told Alexeivich: “I don’t remember that any of our colleagues refused to go work in the Zone. Not because they were afraid of losing their party membership, but because they had faith. They had faith that we lived well and fairly, that for us man was the highest thing, the measure of all things. The collapse of this faith in a lot of people eventually led to heart attacks and suicides. A bullet to the heart.” Slavutych was a town that attempted to alleviate that trauma, a city that would renew that faith in a new way – an environmentalist, humanist, internationalist socialism, rather than the technocratic, polluted, standardised form represented by Pripyat.
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Pripyat has long been a cult destination, a modernist ghost town much frequented by “urban explorers” – even though no one has lived there since 1986, it is probably more visited by Westerners than Slavutych. However, the replacement town provides a striking contrast to Pripyat’s image of post-nuclear modernist ruins. Gubkina writes that “one of the tasks confronting the planners was to emotionally and psychologically rehabilitate people who were moving here from Pripyat”, in order to “avoid exposing them to negative memories arising from the tragedy”, with deliberate avoidance of propagandistic or nuclear imagery. “The antagonistic dialogue with a dead town exists in a town which is itself alive.”
I visited Slavutych this year, to take part in a summer school on “The Idea of the City”, organised by Gubkina with the Kharkiv-based Urban Forms Centre. The first thing that strikes a visitor is the combination of classic Soviet spaciousness with “green city” gestures.
Past a derelict, never-completed hotel is a forested park, containing a memorial for the first group of relief workers, all of whom died of radiation sickness within days of the explosion. Then you reach a gigantic, empty square, with (what was) the party headquarters, department stores, an art gallery, a “house of culture”: all the essentials for a Soviet new town. This centre was designed by architects from Ukraine, aside from the Minsk department store – the only contribution from Belarus, the republic most affected by the disaster. Forested pedestrian streets and cycle paths lead from here to the districts designed by each republic.
The tone was set in the “Tallinn Quarter”, designed and built by Estonians. The architect Mart Port insisted on retaining the tall pines in “their” suburb, and most others then followed suit. As well as the density of trees, each republic’s district was notable for having a school, a sports hall, a restaurant or a cultural centre. The greater innovation was the inclusion of large single-family houses with gardens in each quarter, among the taller blocks of flats that dominate the view. They’re not bunched away in an affluent suburb, but placed within the mid-rise, flat-roofed, prefabricated modernist flats, so as not to create class differences. By the 1980s, Soviet housing had a waiting-list system, with rents at around 5 per cent of income; these houses were originally granted to “heroes of labour” at the power plant, though since all housing here was privatised in 1992, they sell on the open market, naturally for more than the flats. These are also impressive, though, cleverly arranged to create courtyards, views and ensembles. The other Baltic republics took a similar approach – the houses (terraces and semis in “Riga”, detached in “Vilnius”) and the maisonette flats could easily be in affluent Sweden or Finland rather than Ukraine. The only giveaway that you’re in a post-Soviet country is the high fences built by some house dwellers.
The placid elegance of “Tallinn”, “Riga” and “Vilnius” was part of a “humanism in Soviet architecture” that developed since the 1950s, especially in the peripheral republics. Gubkina tells me that “these values were well known by ordinary people and architects and were frequently used in theory of the ‘stagnation period’ in the USSR, but timidly applied in practice. For 1986 it was really new and interesting that the individual, the human experience and even attention to people’s trauma started to be considered. Environmentalist topics became a strong component. There was also a strong and consistent work with communities. Although, as you can understand, there is also a contradiction: a new, planned city in a forest is not so environmentally friendly.”
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The idea to have each district designed by a different republic was an improvisation, intended to take pressure off Ukraine. Gubkina quotes Fedir Borovyk, one of the Ukrainian architects, saying that “the town was largely created over the phone”, collectively and democratically, as an example of perestroika in action. The only decision the Ukraine co-ordinators made without consultation was the tower blocks that fringe the square, which help give some vigour to the vast empty space at the heart of the town. “According to the architects,” says Gubkina, “everything was directed to a comfortable, healthy and democratic life as they understood it.” The unifying idea of an “eco-city”, meanwhile, fitted into certain already existing Soviet traditions: environmental ideas “were quite clear and easy to understand for Soviet architects and people, because they fit into a concept of struggle, the condemnation of exploitation, healthy lifestyle and the legacy of interwar modernism.”
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The city pivots between egalitarianism and individualism. Of the two Russian quarters, “Moscow” is a standardised grid identical to anything built in Russia in the 1970s or 1980s, but “Leningrad” is more imaginative, with a rhythm of open loggias (a gallery or room with one or more open sides) and never-completed water features, intended to evoke the canals of old St Petersburg.
Aside from the Baltic quarters and the Leningrad district, the most popular has always been the Armenian Yerevan Quarter. Barbecues were built into each balcony and into the public square between the flats, faced with Armenian pink tufa (a porous rock) and entered through grand archways, surrounding caravanserai-style houses with central courtyards. These are similar to houses in “Tbilisi”, along which cypress trees were planted in reference to the Georgian capital. The least favoured is Azerbaijan’s “Baku Quarter”, largely because of flaws in the prefabrication system used. At the heart of “Baku” is a school for orphans, its grounds full, like each of the quarters, of delightful, surrealist sculptures designed in abstracted versions of local folk art. Here, unlike in all the other quarters, these have been smashed up, and the buildings left half-derelict.
That aside, the town is in strikingly good condition, especially by Ukrainian standards. Mostly, Slavutych’s residents are caring for its unique features, and “Decommunisation” has affected it little, but for a mooted and silly change of name from the Leningrad Quarter to the Neva Quarter. Based on the interviews she made for her book, Gubkina tells me that “residents show a keen interest in the architecture and urban design of their city”, but remain disgruntled with the poor transport connections (one daily train to Kiev) and with the future of the power plant itself, which is being wound down. Slavutych workers recently protested in Kiev, knowing that there is no plan as to what happens to the town when those jobs go.
Given the Russian-backed conflict in Eastern Ukraine, this built expression of the “friendship of nations” is all the more remarkable. So too in its context – here are Armenia and Azerbaijan, peacefully side-by-side, on the eve of the two countries collapsing into inter-ethnic warfare. Within a couple of years co-operation between the Baltic Republics would hasten their independence from the USSR, but this close, democratic and humane co-operation between the Baltics, the Caucasus, Russia and Ukraine still seems remarkably utopian on the eve of the end of the Soviet Union’s demise. Rather than seeing it as a proof that the USSR could be reformed, she sees it as the fulfilment of Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika, a “reconstruction” of Soviet socialism from the ground up which never got the chance to be widely implemented.
This “humanist utopia” didn’t arrive any more than did the “technocratic utopia” promised by Pripyat. None of the ideas in the town about pedestrianisation, cycling, environmentalism, urban democracy or public space were influential in the former USSR. Instead, architects, now commissioned largely by private business, fell into “a primitive fulfilment of their clients’ wishes and needs”, resulting in a “complete loss of professional and aesthetic skills, and of the moral and ethical concerns of an architect”.
The results in a city like Kiev, with its chaos of overpowering advertising, towering nouveau riche penthouses and underground shopping malls, piled onto creaking, unrenovated Soviet infrastructure, are grim to behold. Curiously, given the rejection of all things Soviet, these perestroika ideas are, she argues, much more connected to the demands of Ukrainian activists than Ukrainian capitalism as it is currently practised, with people advocating “things like cycling, democracy in the city, human rights in architecture and urban design, the promotion of a healthy lifestyle and public spaces that are basically very similar to those which emerged in the period of perestroika. Almost any of the principles applied in Slavutych has its counterpart in modern urban planning.”
Yet all of this emerged not as the result of peaceful changes in Soviet thinking and planning, but as a rushed result of an appalling catastrophe. As one relief worker tells Svetlana Alexeivich: “don’t call these the ‘wonders of Soviet heroism’ when you write about it. Those wonders really did exist. But first there had to be incompetence, negligence, and only after those did you get wonders: covering the embrasure, throwing yourself in front of a machine gun. But those orders should never have been given, there shouldn’t have been any need.” It took the most horrendous nuclear disaster in history for Soviet architects and planners to make their last attempt at the ideal city.