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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

Dutch Housing Architecture | Hungary | 1973£250.00
Come to Poland | Poland | 1971£650.00
Proof of the Man | East Germany | 1984£300.00
List of all posters

Further Reading

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.

architecture

Memory Palace: Inside the Abandoned Shymkent Palace of Culture

By the late 1980s, there were more than 137,000 Palaces of Culture in the Soviet Union. After its collapse, palaces like the Shymkent Palace of Culture fell into disrepair without the financial backing for their upkeep. “Architecture, which is dependent on time and politics, declines and goes into ruins when it does not receive neither material nor spiritual investment.”

culture

Samantha Smith: The 10 Year Old Girl Who Became an Icon for Peace

The pressure was building. As the world stood on the sidelines at the height of the Cold War, both superpowers battled for ideological supremacy, each backed by their growing arsenal of nuclear weapons. Tensions kept rising.

art

In Conversation with a Soviet Poster Artist: Vladimir Tverdokhlebov

Art runs in my family. My father Sergey Grigoryevish Tverdokhlebov was an artist and spent most of his life working as an art teacher. My uncle Ivan Grigoryevich Tverdokhlebov was a prominent artist in Russia and Chechnya.

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