SOVIET-ERA ART & ARCHITECTURE IN BISHKEK
Frunze was a name I’d never heard of before setting foot in Bishkek. Leningrad, Stalingrad, Stalinabad, sure. But Frunze? This was news to me.
Like many other great Soviet cities, Kyrgyzstan’s capital was renamed under communism. The Bishkek born Bolshevik hero Mikhail Frunze lent his name to the city for more than sixty years. During this time, a change in name wasn’t the only revamp Bishkek experienced. In true Soviet fashion, the city underwent a physical transformation. People’s art adorned the walls of apartment blocks, work buildings and public spaces. Imposing Socialist Modernism architecture dominated civic design. Parks and green spaces sprung up across the city. It’s a legacy that endures to this day.
While Frunze is no more, the monumental art and architecture of the Soviet-era remains, and exploring modern day Bishkek through its recent past is a fascinating way to discover the city. From colourful mosaics to towering statues, there’s a lot to uncover. That is, if you know where to look.
On the hunt for Soviet-era Art & Architecture in Bishkek
We spent a week in Bishkek hunting out such Soviet-era delights. Our explorations had us strolling the city’s streets and leafy boulevards, getting to grips with the public bus and marshrutka network, and diving head first into residential micro-districts. We wandered far beyond the usual tourist trail, in what’s already a fairly obscure travel destination. As such, sourcing the location of many of these Soviet relics proved challenging.
Researching Soviet mosaics in Bishkek, I came across a few articles about a 2012-2014 project by STAB called Fragmented Dream. Reference kept being made to a map of key works produced by the group – exactly the kind of thing I wanted to get my hands on. But it was easier said than done. A pdf of a calendar produced a year later was all I could dig up, complete with the location of some of the most special mosaics. I pored over the details, translating the Russian or Kyrgyz addresses where necessary, and bookmarked them all on Maps.me.
This was the best I could hope for it seemed. Until that is, an email reply from STAB confirmed they still had some maps, and I could come by to get one. After a Cold War drama-esque exchange with the office security guard, we had our hands on the precious map! It showed that I already had the right location for a number of works, and it outlined a few more, mainly in the 5th microdistrict on the outskirts of the city centre. The detective work had paid off and we had ourselves a plan for the week, well, in between eating and drinking the best Bishkek could offer.
Here you’ll find the best of Bishkek’s Soviet-era art and architecture, ready and waiting for you to discover for yourself.
Soviet Bishkek Map
MOSAICS & RELIEFS
If you’ve ever wandered the streets of Bishkek, chances are you’ve passed right by Labour without even realising it. Adorning an apartment block wall just off Chuy Avenue, this is one of Bishkek’s most easily accessible Soviet-era mosaics. In fact, you can spot it right across the street from the outdoor seating area of Bukhara restaurant.
The mosaic, made of pebbles and ceramics, symbolises Soviet class structure. A countrywoman stands beside an industrial worker complete with bushy moustache, and an intellectual dressed in a white coat and tie.
This is still a lived-in apartment building, where a stream of people young and old come and go through the locked front gate. Hang around and flash a smile, and your camera, if you want to gain access to the small entrance courtyard for the best view.
THE PATH OF ENLIGHTENMENT
This unique Soviet-era mosaic strays, quite surprisingly, far from the realm of traditional Socialist Realism. Boldly marking the entrance to one of Kyrgyz National University’s campus buildings, it’s not hard to find. Dream-like figures of men and women, some dressed in traditional Kyrgyz hats, emerge from the sky, looking towards a central ghostly shape. Wispy clouds float by and the whole mosaic takes on an ethereal, painterly feel. Indeed, the artist is a prominent Kygryz painter. This monumental artwork is a far cry from stereotypical Soviet ideology, and it created quite a stir when it was first revealed.
The mosaic is complemented by a number of smaller works either side of the main panel. They’re easy to miss, hidden behind trees and fading in colour. Each is made from smalt, a special kind of cobalt glass sourced from the Baltic.
The main mosaic is in excellent condition and can be easily appreciated from the large open courtyard in front.
One of the earliest Soviet mosaics in Bishkek, Song is beautifully preserved to this day. It is the only interior mosaic we found, located on the back wall of a bright open space in the corridors of the Shubin Music School.
The bold colours and detail of the clothing is wonderful, and you can appreciate it up close. You’ll need to visit during opening hours as the school is still active, and the mosaic is best viewed in the afternoon light.
OUR WORK TO YOU, MOTHERLAND!
RADIO AND NOWADAYS
Much like Our Work To You, Motherland! reflects the function of the textile factory it adorns, Radio and Nowadays boldly announces the city’s radio station. It’s one of the few mosaics in the city to be made of cheap local pebbles and not costly smalt tiles (most of these are from the early period of creation). This makes the colours a little more subdued but the scale of the work is impressive. A giant of a man cups hand to mouth, radio waves emanating skyward. He stands level with a radio mast, symbolising the enormous scientific achievements of the Soviet Union.
LENIN IS WITH US
This large mosaic takes on a three dimensional appearance, with curved sections protruding from the wall. ‘All Soviet People’ are represented; a Red Army soldier, male and female students, a scholar, a scientist, a young pioneer, a worker and so on. They are spread across numerous panels, all connected by a flowing red banner.
Lenin stands separate on the left, arm extended in his familiar pose: he is presented atop a pedestal in statue-like form, facing right towards the others. On the opposing side of the mosaic is a Madonna-like figure with child: dressed in white robe and head covering, she looks directly back towards Lenin. She is surrounded by the Soviet people, and is seemingly the centre of their world.
It’s curious to me, this bold religious figure sat in direct contrast to Lenin. The title suggests that even in this modern age, the early Soviet ideals and teachings of Lenin remain at the heart of everything the people do. But the composition shows such a distinction between the two, that you can’t help but wonder if the artist is suggesting that Lenin is being forgotten.
More Soviet-era Art & Architecture
This was the first mosaic to appear in Frunze, positioned boldly by the road to the old airport. It was created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the accession of Kyrgyzstan to Russia. Its style is unique compared to others created later in the city, still owing its influences to the Socialist Realist Stalinist style. It’s bright and colourful, and remains in excellent condition.
Men, women and children are shown in a variety of dress, some in traditional Kyrgyz clothing, others wearing modern European style suits and dresses. The red communist flag, complete with yellow hammer and sickle, flies triumphantly above them all.
Ala-Too Cinema is still in operation to this day, a prominent building found on central Chuy Avenue. Its distinctive curved facade is topped by seven bas relief panels, depicting the great achievements of the Soviet Union.
They are not the original panels, having been re-designed to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Kyrgyzstan’s accession to Russia. The outer panels commemorate the occasion, with distinct Kyrgyz motifs. The central panels symbolise peace, scientific progress and the advancement of education under Soviet rule. The classic hammer, sickle and star emblems also appear.
FESTIVE PROCESSION OF THE PEOPLE OF HARD LABOUR, CULTURE AND SCIENCE
Boldly adorning either side of the Southern Gate, these two panels were originally designed to be purely decorative. This wasn’t acceptable to officials however, and the artists were ordered to incorporate ideology into the design, told to celebrate the achievements of the republic in the fields of science, culture, agriculture and industry. A compromise was made by the artists, interspersing figures of people to symbolise these achievements.
The use of tufa and travertine creates a muted colour palette, and in its faded state today, the monumental art blends in somewhat with its everyday surroundings.
SPACE AND PROGRESS OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
While Flourish, Kyrgyzstan! endures thanks to the refusal of local residents to cover it up, not all Soviet-era mosaics in Bishkek have been so lucky. While all of these mosaics should be maintained by the government as monuments of history and culture, in reality little is done to protect them. Some, like Women (1985), have been covered over by new building owners, completely hidden from view. Others, like Space and Progress of Science and Technology, have been purposely and irrevocably damaged.
On the side of the former House of Science and Technology, this spectacular mosaic was painted over by the new owners, and holes were drilled through it to insert external air conditioning units. After a campaign by STAB, the owners were forced to wash off the paint and were fined a measly 1000 soms (about $14). However, the brown paint remains on the cracks between the tiles, and while you can just about make out the imagery of a cosmonaut soaring towards the sun, it’s in a very sorry state.
While in the area, keep an eye out for the 2014 street art murals on a school nearby. The most interesting is a modern reinterpretation of Semyon Chuikov’s famous painting ‘Daughter of Soviet Kirghizia’. Instead of books, she carries an iPad, and listens to headphones while wandering through an urban landscape (replacing the rural backdrop of the original).
Fuel Up For Your Explorations
SOVIET-ERA MOSAICS OF BISHKEK MICRO-DISTRICTS
Away from the grand avenues and official buildings of central Bishkek, Soviet-era mosaics and other forms of art thrived in the micro-districts of Frunze. Their function was far less ideological, existing largely to brighten up local neighbourhoods and combat the monotony of mass construction. As such, these projects were allocated significantly less funding than the big budget pieces on display elsewhere.
Uniquely, design and execution was carried out not by master craftsmen and members of the Union of Artists, but by local workers themselves. Besides a few notable pieces such as Male Athletes and Female Athletes, these works are largely undocumented. Titles, dates of construction and artists involved are unknown. But there’s something enjoyable about wandering the neighbourhood and stumbling across little pieces of history here and there.
Alongside Female Athletes, this is the only mosaic in the micro-districts that overtly extols Soviet ideology. Images of powerful athletes and the promotion of healthy, active lifestyles was a common theme in Soviet propaganda. Male Athletes is in pretty good condition, on the south-west facade of an apartment block facing a leafy park. It can be appreciated up close, or from a perfectly positioned park bench across the path.
Stylistically similar to Male Athletes, Female Athletes holds a more prominent position on a residential block facing a main road. Two women leap skywards, arms raised triumphantly, a flag in each hand. Unfortunately, the mosaic was damaged when the building resident renovated, the upper portion no longer resembling the original work. A state archive photo from 1979 shows the Olympic torch and rings on the upper left of the mosaic, with the women soaring towards it. It remains an impressive piece regardless.
VARIOUS WORKS OF THE 5TH MICRO-DISTRICT
With pleasing the state of little concern or necessity, the works of the 5th Micro-district of Bishkek are varied and intriguing. My favourite is the figure of Khottabych, a character from a 1957 Soviet fantasy film called Old Man Khottabych, flying through the sky on his magic carpet. Below, you can see the Sphinx and pyramids of Egypt, as well as mosque minarets. Much of it is decoratively embellished with what appears to be fragments of patterned ceramics, resembling smashed up traditional Kyrgyz teacups.
Elsewhere, snow leopards and deer roam the sides of buildings, and a man dressed in Kyrgyz attire rides a white horse. A sgraffito image of three children marching forth adorns one apartment block. And a huge decorative pattern of blue and yellow Kyrgyz motifs emblazons the side of another multi-story block. Their conditions vary, with little being done to prevent natural erosion and decay.
Click on the images below to see them enlarged
UNKNOWN WORKS THROUGHOUT THE CITY
On our wanders around Bishkek we came across numerous other interesting works of art. We can only assume they are of the Soviet era, but who knows? They include bas relief works, ceramic panels and statues.
SOVIET-ERA ARCHITECTURE IN BISHKEK
Locating Bishkek’s prominent Soviet era architecture proved far less challenging. The buildings are relatively well documented and easily accessible on a self-guided walking itinerary through the city.
STATE HISTORY MUSEUM (1984)
Dominating the northern side of Ala-Too Square, this impressive marble and glass cube is particularly attractive in the golden hour glow. The museum itself is currently closed for renovation, with no apparent completion date. There’s a huge statue of Manas, the Kyrgyz national hero, in the square in front. The whole area is popular with rollerbladers, and you can even rent a pair from the boot of nearby cars.
WEDDING PALACE (1987)
Wedding Palaces are a feature of many ex-Soviet cities, a non-religious place where couples could marry. To this day, weddings are still held here. The inside of the building is impressive, with colourful stained glass covering the tall, narrow windows with classic Kyrgyz motifs. Outside, a crumbling mosaic fountain presides over the small square.
PRESIDENTIAL PALACE (1984)
Known locally as The White House, this is home to the national parliament, but not actually the president.
STATE CIRCUS (1976)
Another common feature of ex-USSR cities, the State Circus is a classic example of Soviet kitsch and quirkiness. The bright yellow and green facade resembles a giant flying saucer, complete with bas relief clown figure embellishment.
PALACE OF SPORTS (1974)
My personal favourite when it comes to Soviet-era architecture in Bishkek, the Palace of Sports is an angular behemoth of concrete, marble and glass. A giant statue of mythical Kyrgyz strongman, Kojomkul, was erected outside in 2004.
Many Lenin statues have been removed from cities across the former USSR, but this one remains, moved from Ala-Too Square to a less prominent position behind the State History Museum in 2003. He is shown in his familiar stance, arm outstretched, pointing the way to communism.
Standing in a park of the same name, this statue is dedicated to the famous Russian writer.
FATHERS OF THE NATION
This imposing statue by T Sadykov is from the post-Soviet era, erected in 1995, but certainly worth checking out. Originally, it had many life-size bronze statues of prominent Kyrgyz political and public figures. Gradually, the figures started to disappear, possibly stolen for scrap metal. Today, only the names remain, inscribed under the platforms where the statues once stood. Nevertheless, it’s impressive, bold and intriguing.
‘Fragmented Dream’ Map
I contacted [email protected] to ask about the original ‘Fragmented Dream’ map and Asel replied (in Russian) with instructions for collecting one. It cost 200 Som.
We stayed at the central Interhouse Hostel in Bishkek and can recommend it. The location means you can walk almost everywhere, and if you want to take a bus or marshrutka, there are stops nearby. Apple Hostel is a good option if you want to be close to the bus station, however not so handy for exploring Bishkek itself.
SOVIET-ERA ART & ARCHITECTURE IN BISHKEK
That’s it for the tour of Soviet-era art and architecture in Bishkek. If you’re travelling to the Kyrgyz capital, enjoy visiting these fascinating and intriguing works. And if you know of any other interesting pieces of monumental art in the city, or have more information regarding anything mentioned above, get involved and leave a message in the comment section below.
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