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Soviet Status Symbols: The Unique Balconies of the USSR

Credit: Balcony Chic, Oleksandr Burlaka

In Ukraine, there are balconies shaped like ship hulls and castles. DIY renovations extend over the streets below, each decorated in a unique style representative of their owner’s identity and requirements. The architecture of personal expression found in Soviet balconies tells a compelling story of defiance against uniformity.

Credit: Balcony Chic, Oleksandr Burlaka

From Saint Petersburg to Moscow

In the iconic Soviet film, Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!, a drunken Moscow man flies to Saint Petersburg by mistake, where he takes a taxi to his home. The street, building and apartment in Saint Petersburg are identical to his street, building and apartment in Moscow. This was not entirely improbable, given that almost all buildings constructed after WWII were identical - across all the Soviet republics. 

After the Second World War, there was an urgent need for housing across the USSR. All citizens were entitled to housing in the Soviet socialist state. To save on design and construction costs, thousands of centrally-planned identical concrete apartment buildings were built in quick succession all across the Soviet Union. With a focus on practical living over private comfort, many apartments lacked a kitchen, while bathrooms were often shared by multiple families. The buildings were referred to as Khrushchyovka, after the new premier Nikita Khrushchev, and they came to characterise the drab Soviet style which was famous in the West. 

Credit: Balcony Chic, Oleksandr Burlaka

The USSR is dead, long live the Balcony

After the fall of the USSR, many Soviet citizens became owners of their own apartments, their first foray into private ownership. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, renovating a balcony required official permission - something that was hard to come by. This didn’t stop citizens from making their DIY renovations to make their balcony’s suit their requirements. Many enclosed them, effectively turning them into another room to compensate for the shortage of space in prefab-Soviet housing. Most were renovated without any thought for their stability. Questions of their safety come up time and time again. 

The architecture of personal expression found in these balconies reveals a compelling image of the transition from socialism to individualism in the post-Soviet era. You can read more about balconies in the book in Balcony Chic or the recent documentary Enter Through The Balcony.

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

Our Buildings | Ukraine | 1981£150.00
Dutch Housing Architecture | Hungary | 1973£250.00
Come to Poland | Poland | 1971£650.00
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Further Reading

architecture

A Top 10 Guide to Armenia’s Best Brutalist & Modernist Buildings

With its concrete clover windows and ornately carved scenes in red stone, the National University of Architecture and Construction is one of the most striking examples of Brutalist architecture in Yerevan. The inside is just as beautiful, although if you wander aimlessly through the halls taking photos, the security guards will come and politely escort you off the premises.

architecture

Knocking on Heaven's Door: Armenia's Abandoned Orgov Telescope

Two hours by car from Yerevan, nestled amongst grazing cattle and the farmers who tend to them, is the abandoned remains of a telescope which once searched for signs of life beyond our world. Space exploration was initially a practical concern: rocket technology solved the problem of sending huge nuclear payloads over long distances. But the Space Race soon evolved into something of much greater symbolic significance.

architecture

Armenia’s Modernist Masterpiece: Lake Sevan Writers Retreat

In the 1930s, the Writers’ Union of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic commissioned a writer's retreat to be built on Sevan Island. Around the time that the retreat first opened to writers, Sevan Island was in the middle of a dramatic transformation. The Soviet state was diverting water from Lake Sevan to irrigate the Ararat plain and generate hydroelectric power. Over the next two decades, the lake’s water level fell by around 20 metres, and Sevan Island became a peninsula.

art

Bulldozer Exhibition: The Degenerate Art of the USSR

On September 15, 1974, a group of twenty Soviet nonconformist artists gathered in a vacant lot in an urban forest on the outskirts of Moscow. But the authorities were ready. Almost immediately, more than 100 policemen armed with batons, three bulldozers, and a truck with a water cannon began to break up the exhibition. It was mayhem. Artists desperately tried to save their artworks as they were chased by authorities.

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