See the stark beauty in the Soviet Union’s abandoned company towns

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Constructed on the perimeter of an open pit mine or on the permafrost fringes of an enormous automotive manufacturing unit, the company towns of the former Soviet Union are city developments of financial extremes. With Brutalist concrete buildings tinted by fading pastel paint and no scarcity of monuments to Vladimir Lenin, these towns burst out from the snowy tundra of Russia’s far north, forming huge and unbelievable city agglomerations close to and inside the frigid Arctic Circle.

[Photo: Alexander Veryovkin for Zupagrafika/©Zupagrafika]

Whereas they have been created in the mid-Twentieth century beneath the governance of the Soviet Union, and instances have actually modified, many of those cities are nonetheless occupied, and a few of them are nonetheless functioning as single-industry company towns. Monotowns: Soviet Landscapes of Post-Industrial Russia, a brand new guide from Zupagrafika, affords a glimpse at what these towns seem like right this moment.

Zupagrafika is an unbiased writer and graphic design studio run by David Navarro and Martyna Sobecka, based mostly in Poland. Earlier books embody explorations of the concrete buildings of the former Soviet Union and the architecture of Siberia, in addition to an ongoing sequence of cut-and-fold paper model kits of Brutalist buildings.

Right here, Navarro and Sobecka clarify what these monotowns are like, how they’ve advanced since the finish of the Soviet Union, and why they selected to {photograph} them solely in the winter.


[Photo: Alexander Veryovkin for Zupagrafika/©Zupagrafika]

Quick Company: Company towns are notoriously precarious locations, depending on their essential {industry} for survival. How are they designed and constructed in another way from different, extra economically numerous cities? And the way do they differ from each other?

David Navarro and Martyna Sobecka: Soviet monotowns are city settlements erected round single industries in the hinterlands of the former USSR—some thriving, others struggling to outlive, nonetheless others partially abandoned. Though Vorkuta, Norilsk, Mirny, Kirovsk, Tolyatti, Cherepovets, Magnitogorsk, Monchegorsk, and Nikel would possibly all be categorized as monotowns, they differ as a lot as different cities. A key distinction is their founding firms, i.e., the single economies round which they have been constructed. They vary from nickel or diamond mines, like in Norilsk and Mirny, to automotive manufacturing vegetation, as in Tolyatti. Their city panorama additionally varies significantly.

As many monotowns have been erected in very tough topographical places, their structure wanted to be adjusted to the native challenges. Due to this fact, in Norilsk and Mirny one can find homes constructed on concrete piles to guard from melting permafrost and rows of panel blocks shielding the inside cities from the biting wind, nearly like a medieval fortress. The housing estates in Norilsk are painted pink, inexperienced, orange, and blue, and their shiny colours contrasting with the omnipresent whiteness instantly entice your consideration and assist kids determine their properties throughout lengthy polar nights.

FC: These towns have been constructed beneath the Soviet Union. How have they modified since then?

DN and MS: The privatization that got here after the fall of the Soviet Union has undoubtedly taken its toll on the majority of state-owned enterprises, due to this fact, placing all monotowns in hazard. Tolyatti or Mirny, whose economies remained depending on one enterprise, at the moment are managed by a personal company. Different monotowns opted for diversification of their financial system, like Kirovsk, which in latest years has turn into a thriving ski resort, making the most of its picturesque location in the Khibiny mountains. Not all monotowns have tailored to the post-1992 actuality so nicely. The final nickel smelter in Nikel closed down in December 2020 and the metropolis’s future is now being determined. In all probability the most blatant instance of a monotown that didn’t make it’s Vorkuta, whose satellite tv for pc settlements depopulate yr by yr, leaving ghost-town landscapes behind, as you possibly can see in the guide.

FC: The guide options greater than 130 images, all shot by Alexander Veryovkin. What was the technique of working with him? How did you determine what to shoot and the place to go?

DN and MS: We’ve got labored with Alexander for a number of years now; he’s a incredible photographer and we each already understand how we work fairly nicely. Nonetheless, he nonetheless continues to shock us with the superb outcomes of his work. We (Zupagrafika) first develop an idea for a guide, then do the analysis into the places and architectural objects that we wish to have in the guide. Then we offer Alexander with a choice of spots and primary pointers for capturing, like avoiding the solar, for instance. Some new places are additionally added by Alexander throughout capturing.


He labored in fairly excessive climate situations. That is how Alexander describes his expertise: “The coldest metropolis whereas capturing for Monotowns was Vorkuta. The images have been taken over a two-year interval throughout wintertime, with temperatures reaching -35 levels Celsius in some places. Generally the digital camera would freeze to my face. I used to be very impressed with Vorkuta. I’ve not seen something like this elsewhere. The town nonetheless has quite a lot of Soviet legacy, in store indicators, structure, and so on. I used to be additionally shocked by the variety of abandoned homes. Individuals are leaving, as there isn’t any must mine as a lot coal as earlier than. A number of ghost towns have already shaped round Vorkuta, and in the metropolis itself, the homes are the least expensive in the nation.”

Glory to the conquerors of the Arctic’, Vorkuta. [Photo: Alexander Veryovkin for Zupagrafika/©Zupagrafika]

FC: All the images have been taken throughout winter. Why?

DN and MS: We’ve got been documenting the postwar modernist structure each in the type of illustrations and with a photograph digital camera for a decade now. From the first pictures again after we began, it grew to become very clear to us that we didn’t like the outcomes when the solar was out. The sort of distinction between the gentle and shadows, the coloration that the solar was giving to the concrete was one thing that we began to study to keep away from. Winter affords excessive possibilities of cloudy days in basic, and can be a time the place we might often select to journey. On prime of that, snow makes the gentle extra impartial and homogeneous, focusing the images on the key parts we wish to characteristic in our work: the structure and the folks.

FC: There’s a bent, in the West at the very least, to think about this sort of Soviet structure as bleak, or maybe even lifeless. How do you see these buildings and towns?

DN and MS: We stay and work in Poland, due to this fact, the structure of the socialist period remains to be current in our on a regular basis life. Martyna was born in the mid-Eighties, and like many of us from this era was raised in a Wielka Płyta property, or blocks of prefabricated flats. You may see many alternative examples of this sort of prefab development in our books.

Additionally, we have to do not forget that the uniformity of these buildings is simply seeming. When you have a more in-depth look, the towns, districts, and panel blocks differ in some ways as proven in our books Jap Blocks or Concrete Siberia. The individuals who inhabit these buildings additionally apply all types of personalized alterations to boost their performance. At the finish of the day, the postwar estates, districts, and “microrayons” or microdistricts are designed for the folks, with numerous greenery round, giant playgrounds, and good communication with the inside cities. Principally.