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Memory Palace: Inside the Abandoned Shymkent Palace of Culture

Credit: Alex Pflaum

In the early days of the Soviet Union, the Socialist state began building Dvorets Kul'tury (Palaces of Culture) at the heart of many Soviet towns and cities. Decorated with elaborate mosaics, and stained glass windows, almost 140,000 Palaces of Culture were built by the time the USSR collapsed almost 70 years later. Photographer Alex Pflaum recently visited the abandoned Shymkent Palace of Culture to document a rapidly vanishing part of Soviet history.

The palaces functioned primarily as a propaganda platform, a means of amplifying the socialist message of the Soviet state. They housed local congresses and regional divisions of the Communist Party. Members of the Komsomol - the youth wing of the Communist party - would spend months learning patriotic anthems and bylaws by heart before attending a solemn oath swearing ceremony at their regional Palace of Culture. Over time, the palaces evolved to also serve as venues for leisure and culture where faithful Soviet citizens could watch films, theatre, dance, art and literature. 

Credit: Alex Pflaum

By the late 1980s, there were more than 137,000 Palaces of Culture in the Soviet Union. After its collapse, palaces like the Shymkent Palace of Culture fell into disrepair without the financial backing for their upkeep. “Architecture, which is dependent on time and politics, declines and goes into ruins when it does not receive neither material nor spiritual investment.” 

Here are a few more photos from Alex's visit to Shymkent...

Credit: Alex Pflaum

Credit: Alex Pflaum

Credit: Alex Pflaum


Built spaces tell us the stories of the civilisations that shaped them. They’re products of their time; windows on the politics of the past. Architecture isn’t just art, it’s anthropology. Architecture Across the Ages takes travellers to some of the most important – and most often overlooked – architectural sites across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Visit Uzbekistan’s towering turquoise mosques, see how Georgia shook off Soviet rule with cosmic-inspired superstructures, and witness the rebirth of Turkmenistan with its audacious white marble city. Learn more

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