March 30, 2016

A Tour to Nowhere (in pictures)

A Tour to Nowhere (in pictures)

What happens when the death knell tolls for an entire town? What does it look like when the knell stops ringing, everyone jumps ship, and there’s nothing but a few worn buildings to prove anyone lived there at all?

It’s not pretty – or rather, it can be extremely pretty, in an eerie sort of way. Whether you find it dismal or delightful (photography-wise), take a tour of some of the most stunning images of disrepair you’ll ever see. Thanks, Russia.

First, churches. Here’s one now:

In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, thousands of churches were obliterated. The most famous example is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow: razed, then projected as the site for the 316-meter Palace of Soviets (never built) and, when that fell through, turned into a swimming pool. The Cathedral was rebuilt (expensively and semi-accurately) during the return to Orthodox values that came in the 1990s.

Other churches, less central or extravagant, still exist in their original form, left slowly to decay over time.

The enforced atheism that was part of Bolshevik ideology was responsible for the destruction or dilapidation of many of Russia’s churches. Many in rural landscapes, like this one, were simply forgotten.

As far as secular dwelling-places, issues such as urbanization (or forced resettlement, during Soviet times), war, or just plain money problems turned a number of thriving cities into ghost towns.

Tvarkcheli is a victim of war. Formerly the industrial center of Abkhazia, it faced siege and then extinction in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, when Georgia fought for independence from the USSR and Abkhazia fought for independence from Georgia.

The result: Tkvarkcheli, along with its neighboring towns of Akarmare and Polyana, were abandoned, and former roads, apartment buildings, and theaters taken over by foliage. It looks like something out of Planet of the Apes, and shows the devastation that sweeps over not only a town’s population, but its architecture, too, in times of strife.

In Russia’s current economic climate, many towns face a similar fate.

On the one hand, there are spots like Solikamsk, whose enormous, house-devouring sinkhole demonstrates the force of nature over human design.

Then there are Russia’s 319 single-industry (or single-company) towns, or monogoroda. In a July 2015 visit to Usolye-Sibirskoe, a town that relies on only one chemical plant, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that only 79 of such towns were economically stable, and added, “There is not enough money for all of the single-industry towns that are in crisis.”                                                Alexander Solo

As the vestiges of the USSR’s triumphal emphasis industrialism, such towns are often forgotten or even, from urban vantage points, unseen (as claimed in the monogoroda documentary project, Invisible Cities).

But their citizens are neither under siege (like those of Tvarkcheli) nor ready to up and leave, even in the worsening economic conditions facing Russia. Single-industry towns may not be a big deal for Russia’s economy, but they make up a significant enough chunk of the country’s territory – not to mention population, at an estimated 14 million – that they’re not going the way of the trees just yet.

Still, Russia’s shifting demographic landscape means that, a few years down the line, we may be observing more than church cupolas caving in. Until then, at least there’s photography.                                                Alexander Solo

Top image credit:

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Alexander Solo is documenting "monotowns" in Russia. He shows us a couple in Leningrad Region, where he lives.

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