Photography by Arseniy Kotov
Arseniy Kotov is a photographer who documents architecture. Some photographers are commissioned and shoot buildings for commercial purpouses. Others enjoy the beauty of architecture, when they press the shutter button with the camera facing towards an 18th century stone bridge. Arseniy, though, is on a mission to document the decaying apartment complexes and other structures from the 20th century, that started it’s life in the Soviet Union. Socialist realism, as it is called, is a dying breed of art. Literally. Since the last decade most post-Soviet and eastern bloc countries have started to replace the old with the new. Sleek and western looking architecture is popping up everywhere, replacing the gritty and gray brutalist counterparts. Arseniy is on a mission to document as much as he can. There is no doubt that his photographs will be viewed as history in the near future.
Where did the name “Northern Friend” come about? Does it mean anything specific?
Once not long ago I was in Georgia and had a walk with one local girl. We talked about everything and a topic came about relations to Russians and she told something like: “Why should we like our northern friends, who occupied almost half of our territories?” I think she meant the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. So that’s where my nickname came from.
As an admirer of Soviet architecture, can you please explain what do you like about it so much? Usually people are more interested in elegant modern architecture and other… aesthetically pleasing structures.
I was born in 1988 in Куйбышев [Kuybyshev] which was renamed to Сама́ра [Samara] in 1991. All of the urban landscape in my part of the city consisted of typical serial buildings and several huge unique constructions. In my childhood I went to a typical kindergarten. After kindergarten I was in a typical school (project V-76). I perceived all of the surrounding as self-evident and the only possible.
After school I entered the university. It was one of the biggest universities in my town! It occupied a territory of about 5 square kilometers, that mostly included auditorium buildings, laboratories and sport complexes. At the center of the territory, there was an abandoned museum under the sky with military planes and helicopters. All of the interiors in the university were saved in its original condition. It was decorated with beautiful monumental pano, mosaics and art depicting people of the glorious communist future that will never come.
On the last year of study I started my first real work as an engineer. It was a monstrous factory, the biggest in the city! Almost 20 000 people work there now but it used to have twice as many workers. During lunch hour, it was exciting to explore half-abandoned vastnesses of the factory. All the workshops were the same since the 1980s, equipped with the best technology of the time. Interiors were mostly minimalistic, decorated only with slogans dedicated to safety techniques and for motivation to work. For example: in the courtyard of my block there was a giant red metal hammer and sickle with the inscription “Glory to labor!”. It was fascinating for me to spend time in such surroundings! At those places I felt myself like an archeologist amongst ruins of a great civilization of ancient times.
After 2005 Russia started to change slowly. New districts appeared at the edge of cities and high-rise buildings were built in the center. Russian modernist architecture was not like Soviet modernist buildings. It was too bright and coloured in confrontation with the normal look of Soviet cities that were built in faded colors or used blank concrete. Nowadays, it’s harder and harder to find untouched, original city landscapes from the socialist period. There are many elements that make architecture of that period special. Most projects of that time were huge and ambitious. Architects had a chance to plan and build whole cities! They didn’t care very much about the look. It was moreso utilitarian and was made comfortable enough for living. Public spaces, schools, kindergartens, shops, hospitals etc. were built with every new district. Most new cities or dormitory districts consisted of typical blocks with the only difference in their disposition. But there were some unique buildings between all this similarity, mostly built in the brutalist style. I lived most of my live in an apartment building just opposite one of these brutalist buildings: the famous corn-building in Samara.
Nowadays this landscape is rapidly changing. City administrations renovate or even demolish old districts. They paint them with ugly colors and destroy all of the Soviet heritage that made our country so special and not similar to anything else in the world. I want to save this part of our history at least in photographs. For the last several years I had an opportunity to travel a lot so during my journeys I take pictures of unique soviet buildings and huge typical districts. I prefer to take pictures at twilight from some high vantage point where it’s possible to see all the composition of surrounding architecture.
Recently you toured most of Eastern Europe. Can you please explain what was the idea behind it and how long did the trip last for?
I toured Eastern Europe and had no interest for the west.I had already crossed Russia from Saint-Petersburg to Sakhalin and been to most parts of republics within Russia. So it was a logical continuation for my travels. The idea for this trip was to visit all the post-socialist countries to photograph the most brutal and craziest buildings that remained there. I think that the best way to explore the diversity of socialist architecture is to visit capitals of those countries, so that’s what I did in Europe. I also had a plan to visit all the capitals of post-soviet republics. For me the only capitals left are Kiev, Dushanbe and Ashgabat. I’m on my way there. Going to Kiev on the next week!
Regarding your Eastern European tour: You have posted many photos on your Instagram account, but are you planning something bigger with the photos? Maybe an art exhibit or a photo book?
I plan to publish a photo book after I visit all the capitals of post-Soviet republics. Guess it will happen around next year. There are three possible interesting themes to exlore: dormitory districts, unique socialist modernism buildings and Soviet monumental art.
These kinds of building are definitely unique. Do you have any fans from the west? Seems to me that this kind of unique photography would appeal to artsy people living in London or NYC.
I have some fans from the west, but not a lot I would say. Guess people spend money on art only in well developed countries.
Is there a reason this kind of Soviet architectural photography has gotten so popular recently? You mentioned cities and municipalitys are renovating or building new houses. Do you think many photographers are just trying to shoot as much as possible before it all is gone or is there some other reason for the popularity?
As you may know, architecture needs some time to become recognisible and popular. Nowadays we may compare modern buildings that are similar all over the world to socialist architecture. All of these old buildings remind me the heritage of a disappeared civilization. At that time, architects used different materials and different technologies to build different cities for another kind of way of living.
I’m not sure if this kind of photography is very popular. I know only about 20 profiles in Instagram that are dedicated specifically to socialist architecture.
To me it seems that your photography does not only fit into the architecture photography genre, but also has alot of street photography in it. Do you shoot as you go, by hand, or do you set up a tripod and maybe shoot for 15 minutes to get a good photo? What kind of equipment are you using usually?
I like street photography as much as landscape photography. But street photography needs a lot of luck! Especially when you try to take pictures of special buildings in the background. I usually get to a roof with a good view just after sunset and wait for the perfect light conditions. For all my photos I use a Sony A7R camera with M39 ring to use soviet rangefinder optics: Orion-15 28mm, Industar 61 l/d 55 mm and Jupiter-11 135 mm.
What will happen, when you have visited all the capitals? Start touring the smaller industrial cities?
I guess after I finish my Soviet Union project I will go to South America for 6 months. I am a big fan of mountaineering and hiking, so every summer I go to some distant wild region, like The Caucasus or Kamchatka. And now I have a dream about hiking trip to the glaciers of Chile!
And of course I will never stop touring! So yes, I will visit a lot of small industrial cities as well in the near future.
Check out Arseniy’s Instagram profile to keep up with his journey: https://www.instagram.com/northern.friend/