Surreal Photos of Post-Soviet Architecture

This photographer traveled to the far corners of the former Soviet Union to document a new era in design.

Photograph by Frank Herfort
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Astana, Kazakhstan
Ministry Buildings (2012)
Photograph by Frank Herfort

In the 1950s, premier of the Soviet state Joseph Stalin transformed the skyline of Moscow by building seven-tiered skyscrapers, which filled the horizon like Socialist-era wedding cakes. The spires stretched above ornate exteriors that recall Gothic cathedrals and centuries-old Russian churches. Although the country had just emerged from war, leadership prioritized the staggering construction costs for the towers–housing a university, government ministry, hotel, and more–to reinforce the upward strength of the centralized new power. The city became canvas to express the new aspirations of nations.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, and the influence over its satellite states ended, the countries of the former Eastern Bloc needed to forge their own paths. Starting in 2008, German photographer Frank Herfort drove around the region from Moscow to Astana to Siberia in a Volga (a Soviet-era automobile) to document the contradictions of architecture that emerged over the two-decade span in his series Imperial Pomp.

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Kazan, Russia Police Headquarters (2002)

“If you go to any Russian city, they all look the same. From Moscow to Saint Petersburg to Novograd, they all have the same type of housing,” explains Herfort of the apartment blocks designed for a classless society of workers. These featureless facades symbolize how the ideal communist citizen should be–a cog in the regime’s machine. The Seven Sisters, built by Stalin, were the only exceptions to the rule until many new towers–among the tallest skyscrapers in Europe–sprang up in the past decade, symbolizing a new era. [Read about the forgotten video games of the Soviet Union.]

Not all post-Soviet buildings broke from the past. Completed in 2006, the Triumph Tower–the highest apartment building in the city–is nicknamed the “Eighth Sister” because the stacked style of Stalinist architecture and classical columns matches the buildings from more than half a century earlier. Past strength is admired, but the city aspires to outdo that old greatness. “They always try to top themselves,” Herfort says.

Other architectural additions to the region reflect the search for a new identity. Futuristic-looking structures and gilded towers altered the appearance of Astana, Kazakhstan, after the Soviet rule ended.

Despite the shared common history, the region's post-independence development has been uneven, explains Kasia Ploskonka, an art historian focused on art in post-Soviet Central Asia. Although nation-building began during the USSR, each country needed to market their new identiy. “Complete identity erasure and reconstruction has not happened, but rather there has been a selective forgetting and privileging by the new elites in an attempt to solidify the importance of one’s standing on an international platform.”

Yet the elite’s construction projects, as seen in Herfort’s images, seem to show little regard for the real needs of the population, unlike the functional communist housing blocks. Few humans penetrate the photographs. Some new buildings stand empty.

Today, regional cities return to more organized, practical buildings, moving past the glory days of post-Soviet construction–the two decades following the fall of the USSR. But remnants of the past remain standing—and the cycle of the past being replaced and then glorified continues.

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Khanty Mansiysk, Siberia, Russia Chess Centre (2010)

Frank Herfort is a documentary and architectural photographer based in Germany. Follow him on Instagram.