Representations of the Past

Relicts of (Another) Future? – The Afterlife of the Socialist City in Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus

Dr. des. David Leupold

As one of the most ambitious and embattled modernist projects of the 20th century, Lenininist state socialism sought to fundamentally and irrevocably transform societal life. While experimenting with new visions of humanity, urban space was understood as the prime laboratory where the “new human” was to be created. Through urban planning, Soviet policy-makers aspired to inscribe their future vision directly and irrevocably into the material fabric of the city. The lofty but abstract idea of socialism was to be translated into a physical reality – a reality that could be both actually and theoretically experienced by the Soviet citizen on a day-to-day basis.

Today, three decades after the fall of the system to which they owe their existence, Soviet-era materiality are simultaneously relicts of the past and reminders of a future-that-was-not scattered around what has now become, after all, a rapidly changing, neo-liberal urban space. In many ways, as it is true for all fallen empires of history, the architectural legacy outlives the system to which it owes its existence - yet do the ideas ingrained into the urban fabric do so, as well?

The project "Relicts of (Another) Future" explores how Soviet urbanity as a physical remainder of the ancien régime conditions the social life in post-Soviet cities today. Reading urban space as an 'embattled geography' where competing imaginaries of past and future are inscribed (and erased), this project sets out to reconstruct multi-layered antagonistic maps: socialist future-scape versus ethno-national past-scape. Tracing semiotic cracks in the surface of the newly-minted national landscapes, it sheds light on how the ‘unfinished futures’ of the socialist project may mobilize alternative historical imaginaries that may challenge the rising ethno-centric discourse of today. For this, the project turns to two exemplary laboratories of urban space in the former Soviet South: Central Asia (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) and the Southern Caucasus (Yerevan, Armenia). There it explores the mobilizing power of Soviet-era ‘materialized memory’ in a field of tension between rising populism, political alienation and competing visions of the future.