Canadian photographer Christopher Herwig sits in his car in the dark, waiting for the sun to rise. It’s 2013, and he is parked alongside a road in Estonia. His subject is yet another Soviet-era bus stop. He says it is one of the last he will do. Cut to April 2015: Herwig is on the road in Belarus, in search of more of these oddly sculpted shelters. His decade-plus unlikely odyssey is clearly not yet over.
Since 2002, when Herwig set out by bicycle to travel from London to St. Petersburg, he has photographed hundreds of these sometimes abandoned, sometimes carefully maintained (by local villagers), bizarre architectural miniatures. Unlike the outsized, state-sponsored, self-important Spomenik World War II memorials of the former Yugoslavia (which I’ve written about previously) …
… these modest but artistically eclectic shelters for the USSR bus-riding proletariat are anything but utilitarian. Many are open sided, even lacking roofs, affording little protection from the elements. In the USSR, where public housing and architecture often showed a mind-numbing Brutalist conformity, these bus stops on backcountry dirt roads, jutting into the sky with nothing else around to break the horizon, represent a dissident’s thumb in the eye to the Brezhnev-era banality of design form.
This brief video gives a window into the origins of Herwig’s obsessive quest:
Over more than 12 years of travel through 14 countries of the former Soviet republics, from the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to the “Stan” states as far as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, Herwig has documented these quotidian structures. They range from the simplest wood shelter in Kootsi, Estonia …
… to elaborate, even serpentine tiled fantasies along the “Soviet Riviera” of Gagra, Abkhzia.
In a video on Herwig’s website, we see him driving back roads, singing his lungs out as he seeks yet another site. He explains the artful impulses that created these bus stops. Nowhere is the idiosyncratic impulse so clearly manifest as in the sculptural edifices of architect Zurab Tsereteli. In a subtitled voiceover, Tsereteli explains why he created such madcap structures. As he drives on, Herwig ruminates about undertaking this sometimes quixotic venture, and notes how surprising it is to find shelters that are still maintained, even lovingly so, while many others have fallen into colorful ruin or been replaced by pre-fab cookie-cutter shelters, much like those that are the common currency in Europe, Canada and the United States.
In Belarus, Herwig stops at the home of one of the most honored of the era’s shelter architects, Armen Sardarov. The genial host shows him blueprints of his constructions, and caps it with a presentation of his uniform jacket, bedecked with six silver medals for his road-design achievements — silver, not gold, he says, because the bus stops are proletarian structures, not heroic in scale like the Bolshoi Theatre. Then the drinks flow.
Sardarov explains that in the Soviet era, few people owned cars, and individual transport was discouraged because it was considered antithetical to the communist ideal of collectivism; the bus stops brought people together as they waited for their rides. (Herwig notes that even today, some of the defunct stops are visited by locals who come to just talk and drink together.)
In an era of state-mandated conformity, these small structures presented an opportunity for individual expression to the artists who designed them, the workers who built them and the denizens who used them — all reasons why some are still impeccably maintained as kind of ad hoc galleries of local and folkloric art.
In another video, a six-minute interview for PRI, Herwig shares anecdotes over a slideshow of some of his favorite stops, beginning with one of the first he photographed in Lithuania, a simple box-like structure with strong graphic lines.
As he traveled through the many former Soviet republics, Herwig realized how much the materials used in these structures reflected the availability of local resources: wood, stone and metal. Each area represents also its own cultural proclivities.
These readily available materials from local resources gave individual creative expression a kind of wormhole into the rigid and closed Communist nomenklatura, one that slowly burrowed into the heart of a decayed and dissolute bureaucracy. Having done their small part to dismember a colorless hierarchy, these modest way stations are indeed the relics of a lost empire.