Thursday, July 28, 2016

Soviet mural tour

Someday, almost everything connected with the Soviet Union will vanish. Everyone who lived in the USSR will be dead. The murals will have crumbled off the sides of apartment buildings. Old rubles will be rare collectibles. This is what interests me so much- not the Soviet Union itself, but what's still around, hanging on. We took tons of photos of old Soviet stuff in Ukraine, and now it's all gone.

With this in mind, I wanted to see what was left here in Nizhny Novgorod. My friend Allison and I made arrangements with Katya (tour guide) and Alexei (driver) to travel around the city and photograph residential neighborhoods.

First Stop

We started just across the street from the university.

If you haven't picked up on this by now, this city is super-industrial. Still. Rbth even calls this place "Russian Detroit". It was closed to foreigners until the 1990s because of reasons. (Top secret military stuff, shhh.) And the legacy of nowhere to go and nothing to see continues, although this is slowly changing. This means that across the street from our campus is- guess what?!- an aircraft parts factory.

The aircraft parts factory has its own столовая cafeteria, in which only the bravest eat. I'll share some pictures of that later, haha... These mosaics surround the столовая and refer to famous cultural icons: a troika of horses, хлебосольство, a firebird, the deer that represents Nizhny Novgorod, the local Kremlin, and an ancient Slavic sun god.

Second Stop

We traveled to a quiet neighborhood with identical apartment buildings lined up in a row. Each building had a few small mosiacs on the side. High over our heads, children launched toy rockets, sailed, and planted a garden.

Are they having fun or having a субботник?

Here Katya talked to us about субботник, a mandatory day of volunteer labor. A субботник always happens on a Saturday. It might be kids cleaning their school, or neighbors cleaning outside an apartment building. The origin of this day is worth a read. I would be pretty upset if my work started enforcing a policy like this, but maybe I'll start thinking of Saturday's house chores as a mini субботник...

Before leaving, Katya pointed out this building. It was in the same line as the buildings with murals, but lost its mural when it was painted over. I hope someone will create new art here someday.

Third Stop

The next neighborhood was in "lower" Nizhny, on the other side of the river.

One of the bridges is closed for reconstruction, so there's always a little bit of a traffic jam going on. The drive felt like the most luxurious drive ever, though, since usually we make all our trips on buses and marshrutkas. My own seat + radio + open window + not being jostled by dozens of sweaty passengers? Amazing!!

Alexei parked alongside a newer apartment building so we could examine these paintings. They were so massive that people driving by could easily spot them from the main road. As Katya explained, this neighborhood has a more modern kind of art. What do you think? Do you like it? And do you love those cats at the top too?

Fourth Stop

A local stadium here boasts the Olympic theme. The apartment building closest to the stadium had the same theme, probably referencing the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Local residents walked by with bags and baby strollers, giving us the patented weird foreigner wide berth as we took our pictures :p

Looking at this mosaic up close, I'm not sure how much longer it will exist. Bits of colored tile littered the ground near the building. In some places, entire sections have already fallen away.

Fifth Stop

Katya did an amazing job of planning this excursion. She's an actual tour guide, but most of her tours are downtown walking tours with Russian tourists from other cities. When we asked her about doing this tour, she took a few days to do research before putting together an itinerary for us. She also arranged for Alexei to drive so that we could cover more of the city.

This next neighborhood was really sweet and quiet. It reminded me a lot of Kharkiv. There was even a stamp factory down the road. A stamp factory!

Katya brought us here to show us a new mural. Directly above the most unexciting загс (marriage license office) ever, was one of the city's most recent murals. It actually made StreetArtNews: "Rustam Qbic was recently in Nizhniy Novgorod in Russia, painting a large mural for New City Festival there. After 11 days working in the cold snowy weather, the Russian artist completed his massive piece on a 9 story building."

This mural shows children blooming as they read and is called, of course, "Blossom". Okay, yes, slightly weird, but Russia is pretty much beating the rest of the world when it comes to literacy rates. Therefore, they can paint whatever kind of dreamy book art they want.

And when we turned away from the mural, we saw this scene.
I call it a hello-we-are-DEFINITELY-in-Russia scene.


Sixth Stop

Alexei delivered us to another older Soviet mosaic. This one was dedicated to the славный день победа, glorious Victory Day that is celebrated every year on May 9th.

The mosaic, though, seemed almost forgotten. Although the (fake) flowers looked fresh, the nearby pool was empty of water and the eternal flame was off.

There was something else different about this artwork... it was the first one we'd seen with the sickle and hammer symbol. I had imagined this symbol would be a lot more common throughout the tour.

Seventh Stop

As we neared the end of the tour, we stopped at a technical college to see this double mosaic. Katya went through it figure by figure, explaining who each person was based on his clothing.

Neither Allison or I have adjusted to the heat here. It's a heavy, oppressing heat and it's around almost all of the time. Alexei had all of the car windows rolled down but, wow! I felt even hotter simply looking at the blacksmiths.

Final Stop

Our final mosaic was almost fifty years old. Created in 1967 to commemorate the 1917 revolution, it was another piece that might not be around much longer.

You can see how businesses have already started to cover up the mosaic.

Katya pointed out the three faces in profile at the top. I'd seen similar things before but never knew it represented Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. Did you know this?

It was fitting to end our tour with this art, since it had the same image of хлебосольство, hospitality as the very first mosaic (the girl holding bread + salt). 

Alexei then dropped us off at Lenin Square and we settled up with the bill ($50 USD). It was wonderful to have an experience like this. We've been on a lot of the university's afternoon excursions and while they're a nice option, they usually involve five thousand years of of waiting time. This tour was efficient and well-planed, thanks to Katya. It was also cool to see the older murals and mosaics before they're gone. There are probably dozens more scenes like this in Nizhny Novgorod. When they vanish, they might be completely forgotten, unless someone happened to take a photo of them.

Allison and I tried to celebrate the tour's success at a jazz club... or so we thought. If it looks like a jazz club from the outside- but it's called Sexophone- then it's probably a strip club. But that's a story for another post ;)


  1. A tour like that sounds like a great idea! I would love to drive around and see the Soviet murals and stuff. I literally came across Rustam Qbic last week when I was searching street art in Kazan. And actually... I'm going back to Kazan for two more weeks on Sunday. Imagine our luck. I literally leave the day you get there and then you'll be gone when I go back only a week later. Oh well, I guess you'll have to convince D to visit Russia again! ;)

    1. Even just thinking back to that day, it was perfect. Partially because it felt so good to get out from under the thumb of the university ;) If you come to Nizhny, I can send you Katya's contact info and you guys could do the same kind of tour.

      Have fun in Kazan, Jasilyn! What an amazing place that is!!! <3 <3 <3

  2. Love this post. On my last trip to Ukraine I managed to pick up an old Lenin bust when had come from an old building somewhere. It was sold to me by a local villager along with an old Communist party banner. Flying out I was stopped by customs at Kiev Zhulhany Airport and accused of stealing art from the country etc.... Even though all this stuff is now being openly destroyed under the decommunisation process. They were just after a bribe which I was forced to pay. They then let me continue my journey with the 'stolen art'.

    1. Whoa, that's quite a story! I'm surprised they classified it as art instead of "political material" or something similar. Must be a lot of that stuff on the market nowadays. When Lenin came down in Kharkiv, you could buy a chunk of him for the right price.

      So what are your plans for the bust / banner? And I'm loving your Ukraine IG pics, Dean! If I had an IG account, I'd be liking every single one of them :)

  3. Yes , they make these laws up as they go along. Nothing changes there regardless of who is in power. I'm just in the process of mounting the bust in my garage. I'll send you a pic when it's done. Thanks for the comments re my Instagram pics.

    1. Please do! You might actually be the first Brit to have such a garage ;)