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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

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Further Reading

culture

The Buran: The Soviet Response to NASAs Space Shuttle

On November 15, 1988, the Soviet Union's first reusable space shuttle, the Buran, launched in what is now present-day Kazakhstan. This little-known chapter in the Cold War space race saw the Soviets build their own version of NASA's Space Shuttle to challenge the USA for space supremacy. The Buran, Russian for "blizzard", was once the future of the Soviet space program. But, its first flight was also its last. A year after its launch, the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR collapsed. The space shuttle program was suspended. In 1993, it was canceled altogether.

culture

Not Lovin' It: The Rise and Fall of McDonald's Diplomacy

On a chilly winter’s morning in January 1990, hundreds of Russians lined up as early as 4am to try a McDonald's hamburger. At 10am, the first McDonald's restaurant in the Soviet Union opened its doors in Moscow's Pushkin Square. 32 years later, McDonald's closed all of its 847 stores in Russia and left for good. It was the end of an era and the death of Hamburger Diplomacy.

culture

The Ekranoplan - The Colossal Soviet-era Aquatic Plane that Never Was

With its short wingspan, the top-secret Soviet naval vessel would look more at home beneath the waves than above them. Classified as a ship by the International Maritime Organization, the 350-ton Lun-class Ekranoplan flew at speeds of 550 kilometres per hour, just a few metres above the waves. But just one was ever built.

art

Intourist Travel Posters - How the USSR Used Propaganda to Drive Tourism

Intourist held a monopoly on tourism in the USSR. As the only tourism agency in the Soviet Union, Intourist was responsible for attracting and accommodating all tourists. Like every other industry or ideal in the USSR, Intourist used propaganda to advance its agenda. Posters targeted western audiences. They portrayed the Soviet Union as a glamorous and exotic land rather than a country of labourers and peasants.

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