IN THE MONTHS and years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, countless Communist-era monuments and statues were toppled, dynamited, or otherwise destroyed. The process continues today, and is particularly accelerated in former Soviet states such as Ukraine, where clashes between pro-Russian activists and Ukrainian nationalists often center around (literal) concrete representations of the country’s Communist past.
Countless others, however, have managed to remain standing through the years. Many murals, abstract sculptures, and Lenins (who tend to fare much better than subsequent leaders) were deemed apolitical enough. Others are too far off the beaten path to be noticed, or are so mundane and local that they simply blend into their surroundings.
All images © Jason Guilbeau, courtesy FUEL Publishing
Soviet Signs and Street Relics, new from FUEL, deals mostly in the latter, cataloging hundreds of roadside oddities left over from the Cold War era. The book is a companion piece to the publisher’s ongoing series on Soviet-era architecture, which includes the Soviet Bus Stops duology, Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums, and the exquisite Soviet Metro Stations, sharing both the landscape-oriented format and the straightforward, minimalist approach of the earlier volumes.
Soviet Signs and Street Relics, however, takes a slightly different approach: rather than photographing the structures himself, French photographer Jason Guilbeau instead assembled the images via Google Street View, meaning all the featured monuments are within sight of a road and were generally built for the benefit of those walking or driving past. While some of the monuments (particularly those in outlying countries like Kyrgyzstan and Latvia) maintain a bleak grandeur, standing defiantly among snowy mountains or backed by dense forests, the majority have more in common with classic American “roadside attractions”, sharing both the kitschy colors and the faded-glory associations of the latter.
The one-take, unplanned nature of Google Street View images means that many of the resulting shots are rich with absurd subtext: in one, a pair of boys sits swinging their legs atop a brutalist monument to Socialist utopianism; in another, a driver is questioned by a police officer in the foreground, with the monument serving merely as a backdrop. Several shots have the bleak, deadpan humor of a Jim Jarmusch film: a helicopter perched on a concrete dais sits at the middle of an empty parking lot, while a dog approaches, looking to sniff around and perhaps mark its territory.
The overall effect of the book is much like that of Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards collections, which assemble mundane images of parking lots, office buildings, and lunch counters. Crucially, Parr’s books are, in their relentless mundanity, anything but boring, creating instead an almost psychedelic retro-absurdist pastiche of violently bland Nowheresville locations.
Soviet Signs and Street Relics has a similar cumulative effect, though it’s overall several shades weirder and more unsettling: nearly every shot is devoid of people, and the juxtaposition of monuments to industrial power, agricultural diversity, and vehicle production with crumbling roadways and abandoned towns evokes the broader absence of these industries in the post-Soviet landscape.
Even among the shots of dusty parking lots and dead factories, though, there’s whimsy to be found. As the foreword by Clem Cecil suggests, even within the “prescribed vocabulary of symbols” available to the designers of these monuments, there was room for playfulness and variety. She points out the huge variety of wheat-sheafs on countless signs, which immortalize the overarching symbol for agricultural bounty in a wide range of meters-tall, multicolored concrete forms, and especially delights in a concrete melon in Kherson Oblast, Ukraine, which wouldn’t be out of place next to a combination fruit stand / gas station in the American South.
Ultimately, these roadside monuments were built to form a narrative, a web of stories the former USSR told itself about itself. Many of them have outlasted the very farms, collectives, and factories they were built to celebrate, and now stand as Ozymandian curiosities, visited only by children, dogs, and the occasional world-mapping megacompany.
Soviet Signs and Street Relics
192 pages, £24.95