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The Forgotten Soviet-Era Murals

Telling stories through mosaics and murals is a tradition that goes back to antique times. During the Soviet era, murals were used extensively as a medium of propaganda, spreading ideas and slogans through brightly colored artwork on the walls of factories, schools, government buildings, and housing blocks all across the Soviet Union. Murals often depicted hardworking men and women in heroic proportions. Those on government buildings, schools etc. glorify Soviet workers, scientists, soldiers, miners, steelworkers, milkmaids, sports persons and cosmonauts. Mosaics on ordinary apartment blocks were often dedicated to the history of Communism and Vladimir Lenin, depicting people of every age and gender as the builders of Communism.

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A Soviet-era mosaic somewhere in Ukraine. Photo credit: Yevgen Nikiforov

Some of the first Soviet mosaics appeared during Stalin’s rule in the 1930s, adorning the grand neo-classical train stations, theatres and the stations of the Moscow metro. It fell out of fashion in the 1950s under Nikita Khrushchev, but reappeared again under Leonid Brezhnev in the late 1960s and 1970s. This was when most of the art that now appears across the Eastern Bloc were made.

Mosaic art was funded generously. All new public buildings had 5% of the budget earmarked for “artistic elements”. If the project was a prestigious building, these would be designed by local artists. Everything that the Soviets did in those days were gargantuan in scale. There are some murals that are eight storeys tall.

Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, much of the empire’s vast public art perished. But some survived.

Amateur photographers as well as professionals, locals residents as well as tourists, have tried to capture with the camera these amazing works of art before they are reduced to rubble. Such photographic endeavors have resulted in several projects and books. Dennis Keen, an American living in Almaty, Kazakhstan, runs the website Monumental Almaty where he documents these Soviet-era relics around Almaty. Soviet Mosaics in Ukraine is another project that collects photographs of decorative murals around Ukraine, while Soviet Mosaics does the same for murals across Georgia. There is also a new art book entitled, Decommunized: Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics, by Kiev-born photographer Yevgen Nikiforov, documenting Soviet-era mosaics across Ukraine. If you are in London, you can hear him speak at London’s Calvert 22 Bookshop tomorrow, that is, Thursday 26 October 2017.

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A Soviet-era mural in Minsk, Belarus. Photo credit: Terry Feuerborn/Flickr

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A large soviet era mural in Ulan-Ude, Republic of Buryatia. Photo credit: digitalcosmonaut/Flickr

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A mosaic on the wall at the entrance of the Institute of Nuclear Research of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Keiv. Photo credit: Yevgen Nikiforov

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Photo credit: Yevgen Nikiforov

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Photo credit: Yevgen Nikiforov

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A mosaic depicting a cosmonaut in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Dennis Keen

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A relief sculpture and mosaic in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Dennis Keen

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The 1965 Enlik-Kebek mosaic on the outside of the Hotel Almaty in Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Dennis Keen

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A mosaic on Almaty Wedding Palace. Photo credit: Dennis Keen

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A Soviet mosaic in Karaghandy, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: The Guardian

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A concert hall in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Photo credit: The Guardian

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A Soviet mural in the centre of Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Photo credit: The Guardian

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A mosaic on a residential community in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo credit: Soviet Mosaics in Ukraine

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The mosaic on the wall of the administrative building of the National Сancer Institute in Keiv, Ukraine. Photo credit: Soviet Mosaics in Ukraine

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A mosaic in Angarsk city, Russia. Photo credit: RBTH.com

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A movie theater in the city of Bor, Russia, is decorated with a massive mosaic depicting Lenin, Red Army soldiers, and workers marching towards the "bright future of Communism." Photo credit: RBTH.com

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Mosaic of a worker fighting for Communism and bearing a red flag in Penza city, Russia. Photo credit: RBTH.com

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A huge mural on a derelict building in Zestap'oni, Georgia. Photo credit: orientalizing/Flickr

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