Soviet architecture in Central Asia, as the name tells, is a fusion of Soviet modernity with traditional Central Asian culture that remains remarkable to this day. Persian and Islamic motifs can be still found among Soviet buildings in Dushanbe, Tashkent, Almaty, and Bishkek. But these buildings are becoming exceedingly rare as this architecture is being systemically removed in Dushanbe and Tashkent, and it similarly remains at risk in Almaty and Bishkek. This eradication is taking place to modernize the Central Asian capitals, make them look like financial centers, and free up a new national space that is less linked with the Soviet past and ideology while embodying the new era of sovereignty. This problem has been identified since at least 2012, when the 19th Vienna Architecture Congress made an appeal to all governments, NGOs, and cultural organizations of former Soviet states to acknowledge the value of Soviet-era historical buildings and preserve them for the future generations. Yet, many of these historical architectural landmarks have still been demolished, and several others are still pending government decisions in each of these independent states.
In this overview, we look at the specifics of the process that takes place throughout Central Asia.
Xeniya Mironova is an independent scholar, translator, and writer with research interests in Central Asia. She has been researching the Soviet-era architecture of Central Asian countries for the past five years.
A former village, Dushanbe became the capital of the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. Its challenging urban space had been developed by engineers from Leningrad, Odessa, Moscow, and Kiev who sought to make the city an embodiment of Soviet oriental cities, and Dushanbe soon became known for its substantial buildings built in the style of constructivism and neoclassicism.
The drastic reassessment and replacement of Soviet architecture in Dushanbe began in 2007. Since that time, the image of the city has changed greatly. A substantial amount of Soviet-era buildings have been demolished and replaced with wasteland. For example, the Mayakovsky Theatre and Jomi Cinema located in downtown were both demolished in 2016. Since that year, only wasteland remains.
A very popular spot among locals, the Shohmansur market (“Green market” or “Zelenyi bazar”) was demolished in 2017. One can find a very large plot of wasteland there too.
A very unique symbol of the achievements of the Tajik nation, a Stele with the Arms of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, was destroyed in 2015 and replaced with a clock tower made in Turkey.
The creator of the destroyed Stele had planned that apart from the already created 4 stone carvings, a free space which had been left on the stone would be replaced by the next generation with additional historical achievements of the Tajik nation.
The myriad of other Soviet-era historical buildings, murals and monuments which have been already destroyed include the Dushanbe Central Post Office, the City Administration building, the Movie Theatre Named After the 8 of March, the Farogat Tea House, several buildings with oriental arches (Leningradskie doma or Doma s arkoi), Soviet and oriental murals, and many others. Additionally, there is a long list of downtown Soviet-era historical buildings that are waiting for their demolition in the nearest future. And only 15 Soviet buildings of Dushanbe were promised by the government to remain untouched. It was planned by the Tajik state that in Dushanbe, most of the destroyed buildings would be replaced with a giant parliamentarian complex funded by the government of China.
In the previous years, no public discussions of the new reconstruction plans have been conducted in Tajikistan, and no direct access to the final 2017 municipal redevelopment plans of Dushanbe and other cities (General’nyi plan) have been provided so far. Faced with this massive destruction of Soviet-era buildings, Dushanbe dwellers signed a number of petitions for the historical buildings, murals and monuments to be preserved for the future generations. A local branch of an international organization called the “Bactria Cultural Center” has launched an initiative called “Mapping Mosaics in Dushanbe” which seeks to preserve the historical memory surrounding Dushanbe’s murals. Tajik historian Gafur Shermatov regularly publishes photos of old Dushanbe and articles on the importance of preservation of the historical sites of Tajikistan.
The city of Tashkent, one of the most ancient cities of Central Asia, was severely destroyed by a 1966 earthquake that left a large number of residential mud dwellings and old nonresidential buildings in ruins, including schools, hospitals, plants, and public utilities. The city was then largely rebuilt by engineers, architects, and constructors from across the Soviet Union. This led to a new image of the city which embodied the radical urban redevelopment that the other Soviet states contributed to Tashkent.
Under Islam Karimov, the capital of Uzbekistan lost a large amount of its Soviet-era historical buildings as they were either demolished or dramatically reconstructed. But even today, the rest of Tashkent’s Soviet architecture is also going through different transformations. Some of the buildings have been covered by the construction of reinforced-plastic structures, so their image has been changed tremendously; others require repairs and further inclusion into the list of architectural landmarks of Uzbekistan. Tashkent’s activists prepared a list of 100 Soviet buildings to be preserved in Tashkent and provided it for consideration by the government of Uzbekistan. The demolishing of the buildings caused protests across Uzbekistan, a country that has traditionally been ruled by an iron grip that would not allow any form of discontent. In response, the authorities announced that a municipal redevelopment plan for Tashkent would be developed, but only so far as the citizens of Tashkent do not have any information on what kind of renovation changes Tashkent will face in the upcoming years.
Observatory of a Cultural Heritage of Central Asia: Alerte Heritage, an independent non-governmental international association aimed at protecting the cultural heritage of Central Asian countries, created a database and on-line map of Tashkent which contains information about the demolished and reconstructed Soviet-era historical buildings of Tashkent and the ones at risk. It speaks out about the requirements necessary for preservation of the historical memory of Tashkent’s demolished Soviet-era historical sites and the rest of the city’s architectural landmarks.
Soviet architectural works previously demolished in Tashkent include the Pavilion of Cotton-Growing of the Exhibition of Economic Achievements (Pavilion “Khlopkovodstvo” VDNKh), the Yubileinyi Stadium (Dvorec sporta “Yubileinyi”), the Khamom Bathhouse (Banya “Khamom”), the Palace of the Pioneers (Dvorec pionerov), the House of Cinema (Dom kino), the House of Foresters (Dom lesovodov), and many others. These architectural landmarks were constructed in the Stalinist Empire style, brutalist and modernist styles, and in the style of oriental modernism. Later, the construction of an international business center, ‘Tashkent city’, was launched in the same place where the House of Cinema, the Palace of the Pioneers, and the House of Foresters had been located. The Khamom Bathhouse was replaced with a multistory parking garage; the Yubileinyi Stadium was replaced with a trading center; and the Pavilion of Cotton-Growing of the Exhibition of Economic Achievements was not replaced with anything (there is a Victory park there not far from the previous location of the Pavilion).
As for Almaty, the city lost its official status as a capital in 1997 and is now perceived by its citizens as Kazakhstan’s main financial center or the “South capital of Kazakhstan.” The transition of the capital from Almaty to Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) likely helped to keep a lot of Soviet-era buildings in Almaty “untouched” (in comparison with the situation in Dushanbe and Tashkent).
The low-rise Soviet buildings of Almaty looked organic. There was no environmental resistance, and the city’s architecture coexisted in tune with the nature around it. However, over the last decades, the building boom in the city has been chaotic, and many new buildings and reconstructions have replaced the traditional look of historical sites.
There are some historical buildings which were demolished and replaced with modern, more profitable construction. For instance, the Palace of the Pioneers—built in the style of modernism in 1962 and later used for sport activities—was demolished in 2005 and replaced with a hotel; the Ministry of Industry of Construction Materials (Minpromstroymaterialov), built in the style of neoclassicism in 1949, was demolished in 2014 and replaced with a business-center; a movie theatre called “Alatau,” built in the style of modernism in 1958, was demolished in 2015 and replaced with a McDonalds restaurant. Some other demolished Soviet-era construction built in the Stalinist Empire and modernist styles include: the hotel “Zhetysu,” the Eparchial community hall, the building of the State Plan (Gosplan) of the Kazakh SSR, the bus station “Sayahat”, and others. Additionally, some of the historical sites of Almaty have gone under reconstruction, and in most cases their original image is being completely changed by the builders.
In Almaty, the idea of losing historical buildings, monuments, and sites has led to a significant public response, which is why a group of young people led by local activists developed a project called “ArchCode – Almaty,” which is aimed at archiving the city’s “architectural DNA.” The project promotes the preservation of Almaty’s architectural legacy and encourages stakeholders to keep the identity of the city unchanged. For instance, in order to preserve several historical sites of Almaty, an idea to convert a car-oriented street into a pedestrianized street was recently presented to a large audience. This idea received stakeholders’ support; however, further approval from the akimat of Almaty is required.
Online versions of the municipal redevelopment plan of Almaty are available on the website of the akimat of the city of Almaty. Citizens of Almaty were informed about the new redevelopment plans through mass media, but no public hearings have been conducted. Additionally, by 2020 the state plans to demolish more than 800 dilapidated houses in Almaty, and new housing will be provided to the citizens. An online map with the list of streets with dilapidated housing is publicly available. Moreover, Almaty seeks to impress with its 3D municipal redevelopment plan, which was recently presented to the architects and representatives of the different relevant agencies of Almaty and Nur-Sultan.
The current approved Almaty list of historical monuments and cultural sites includes 120 historical subjects to be preserved by the state. Six of them were already removed by the akimat, but the akimat of Almaty recently urged the population to identify the buildings that are most important for the history and culture of Almaty. These historical sites will be considered by experts and the akimat, and public hearings on renewal of the list of historical monuments will later be conducted in Almaty. Moreover, “ArchCode – Almaty” developed a map of Almaty containing more than 700 Soviet-era historical buildings. This map was presented to the akimat of Almaty along with the buildings’ age map, which contains more than 250,000 objects.
Thus, though the groundwork has been laid for a potential situation in which previously defined historical sites may lose their status and be demolished together with dilapidated housing of no historical interest, recent changes in the behavior of Almaty’s akimat indicate a positive sign that there is still hope for more of Almaty’s historical landmarks to be preserved in the future.
Bishkek (formerly Pishpek and Frunze) became the capital of the Kirghiz Soviet Social Republic in 1936. The contemporary city has brutalist architecture that is characterized by the simplicity of its lines and the block-like structures of the constructions.
In comparison with the other capital cities in Central Asia, Bishkek is not as drastically strict when dealing with the Soviet architecture. It was only in 2016 that a draft law was proposed on the demolition of low-rise old buildings in the downtown of Bishkek built before 1996. After conducting the public hearing, this draft law did not gain any support from the population, and it was subsequently scrapped. Since that time, the transformation of Bishkek’s urban space, which was formed during the Soviet time, has continued to be ambiguous; the city has been growing rapidly and chaotically.
Nevertheless, contemporary influences in Bishkek have already started to gain pace, and the city is already trying to shift its policy towards applying a stricter approach on the reconstruction of Bishkek’s urban space. For instance, in 2018 the state developed a city plan which has been largely criticized. Since that time, this city plan has still been waiting for approval by the Parliament. Citizens of Bishkek do not support this plan, as it is undeveloped and lacks easily understandable information; for instance, the plan contains special technical terminology and symbols that are only understandable for architects. It is also unclear how this city plan will protect the historical landmarks of Bishkek. According to the authors of this city plan, if reconstructions or demolitions of Bishkek’s downtown historical-cultural sites are required, such changes will be a subject to approval by the Ministry of Culture and general population.
Despite that, a privately owned Soviet-era building located in downtown Bishkek called the“Erkin-Too” printing house was demolished this month. Its status as an architectural monument was deprived by the state without any explanation. The Ministry of Culture stated that this historical building, which previously had the status of a cultural heritage site, was not a subject to restoration because it was not repaired by its owner. It is planned that the printing house will be replaced with a high-rise hotel.
Many other historical buildings and architectural landmarks in Bishkek are dilapidated. For instance, the building of the Union of Artists, the Bishkek Theatre for Young Spectators, the Russian Drama Theatre, the Kyrgyz National Drama Theatre, the Ministry of Culture building, etc. From time to time, some of these buildings are partially renovated by the artists working there. However, the constant support of the government, along with these buildings’ inclusion in the list of protected historical sites of Bishkek, is also required. This list currently contains 255 historical subjects—however, 23 of them are already marked as “lost.”
The Bishkek Theatre for Young Spectators looks good only in the front. Source: Kaktus. Media News Agency
One of them—a restaurant called “Naryn,” built in the style of Soviet modernism in 1987—was demolished in 2017. Its demolition became a matter of great concern for not only the local population, but also among international experts; Swiss architects made an appeal to the government of Kyrgyzstan and asked for Naryn not to be demolished, as it would be a great loss for world architecture. They also assessed the historical architectural value of Naryn and provided the government with their recommendations on how to renovate the city and preserve the historical sites of Bishkek. However, these measures did not help to save the building. The government eventually announced that Naryn would be replaced by a park.
In their appeal, the Swiss architects named many other Soviet-era historical buildings to be preserved in Bishkek: the Circus, the National Museum of Arts, the Palace of Sports, the Philharmonic Hall, the Parliament building, all Bishkek theatres, and others. Today, as Bishkek is still at a crossroads as it decides “to destruct, or to preserve,” it is still unclear whether or not the government of Bishkek will follow this appeal.