Fragments of a Utopia: Mosaics in the Post-Soviet Space

They are monumental, sometimes of a na├»ve folkloristic nature, and often show exciting abstractions – pictorial works of a vanished era. Lukas Verlag has now published a volume with mosaics that have been used to embellish railway stations, theatres, cinemas, stadiums and bus stops in the republics of the former Soviet Union. Katja Koch and Aram Galstyan set out on an expedition and followed the tracks of these colourful testimonies. Their journey is documented in this incredibly well done illustrated book with very thoughtful texts.

“The mortar that held the Union together was ephemeral. In the mosaics, the spaces in-between appear, like cracks, which precede the later separation.” I find this metaphorical view ingenious and it shows how these works must be viewed today. Because they stand for a very special attitude and deserve our attention. The two authors travelled through Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Georgen, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Belarus. They documented the partly forgotten mosaics and spoke with contemporary witnesses. Thus the book became a valuable store of knowledge.

Monumental facade mosaics

Today, the often monumental facade mosaics in the successor states of the USSR have become shop windows of a bygone world: Cosmonauts, pioneers and collective farmers illustrate the universe of state-controlled Soviet life. But above all at the edges of the former giant empire, creatively coded signs of resistance against Moscow’s centralism can also be seen. Unfortunately, most of the artworks are threatened by vandalism, decay or demolition. All the more reason to pay tribute to the work of Katja Koch and Aram Galstyan, who are protecting this cultural heritage from oblivion.

On 288 pages, the book shows over 500 illustrations and is published in two languages. The mere subdivision into the chapters “Work”, “Education”, “Bus stops”, “Culture, leisure and recreation”, “Public space and public buildings” and “Housing” makes clear the spectrum that these artistic disputes covered. The authors should be highly credited for having endeavoured to determine the author and year of origin of each mosaic. It was almost impossible to record them all.

When looking through the pictures, one notices that, in addition to all the socialist realism to which the artists also had to submit, a very individual pictorial language has nevertheless emerged. For example, the authors were told an interesting anecdote about the mosaic in the laboratory of the Bishkek State University. There the artist Satar Aitijews had created the “Path of Enlightenment”. “At its unveiling, as contemporary witnesses recall, there was general amazement at how this work had been able to pass through state control, since its pictorial language was completely different from what was considered opportune.

And so, while reading the book, I not only indulged in my mosaic enthusiasm, but also learned a lot of interesting facts from the many small states of the former Soviet Union, which each have so much to tell for themselves.