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14 June 2023

Soviet Modernist Architecture in Almaty

What do you think of when you hear “Soviet architecture”? Gray building blocks? Emblems of arms and hammers? Lack of individuality? All are correct. Yet today, we take a look at when Soviet architecture produced something beyond its cliche buildings and explored different shapes, creating the style of Soviet Modernism.

Soviet Modernist Architecture in Almaty

Image: Pavel Mikheyev/Shutterstock

Soviet Modernism has become especially spread and well-preserved in Central Asia, which recently ignited the interest of a few Western photographers and journalists who went on to explore the region and document its architectural heritage. For example, two Italian photographers Roberto Conte and Stefano Perego, published Soviet Asia, a book in which they documented their journey exploring four Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan—and the buildings built from the 1950s until the fall of the USSR. What makes this style special is its focus on Eastern ornaments and individualistic design, making buildings stand out from typical Soviet architecture. 

When it comes to Kazakhstan, its main Soviet modernist focal point is its biggest city and country’s financial hub, Almaty. As the former capital of Soviet Kazakhstan, the development of Almaty and its further transformation were thanks to Dinmukhamed Kunayev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan from 1959 to 1986. As reported by Owen Hatherley, a British journalist and writer, some believe that former president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s decision to move the capital to Astana was due to Almaty being viewed as a direct representation of the “Kunayev” period in Kazakh society. Hence, Nazarbayev’s determination to outshine the architectural achievements of Kunayev, whose legacy is becoming ever more memorable. Hatherley, although criticized by The Guardian as “a self-posited outsider who writes about surfaces,” wrote books and articles on Soviet architecture and described how despite all the innovations and money invested, Astana “doesn’t have ‘heritage’, and hence that what it does have is of little value”.

While Almaty today has many newly built skyscrapers—typical attributes of any post-Soviet city in the 21st century—it is its Soviet Modernist buildings that remain the main architectural attractions in the city. 

Palace of the Republic 

Image: Veniamin Kraskov/Shutterstock

Initially built in 1970 for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin and called Lenin’s Palace, today, the Palace of the Republic is one of the biggest concert halls in the country. Together with its name, it also lost a statue of Lenin that used to be in front of the building. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was replaced with a statue of Kazakh poet Abay Kunanbayev. The traditional Soviet Modernist design of the building is combined with Soviet layout and national elements. For example, the curved shape of the roof is a remnant of aiyrkalpak, the Kazakh national hat. Unfortunately, the Palace was reconstructed in 2010-2011, making it look cheap and tacky. As described by ArtGuide, before the reconstruction, it resembled Japanese architecture with its walls not touching the roof. However, now that resemblance is lost.

Hotel Kazakhstan