Visual essay “Knots, Stones, and Passes”
a contribution for New Silk Roads project
by Stefan Rusu

This visual essay was assembled out of partly spontaneous and short, and other carefully planned and longer trips through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The images swing between urban “archaeology” and documentary photography in order to build a comprehensive archive and understanding of post-Soviet road infrastructure, including post-industrial urban transformations in remote and high-altitude cities and villages in mountains or desert areas.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were scenes of intense geopolitical struggle between the British and Russian Empires. Later, the struggle between the Soviet Union and the West deepened, after USSR invaded Afghanistan, and furthered in the 21st century by explorations involving hydrocarbon and mineral wealth in the region, as well as the impact of the Belt and Road Initiative. The idea of modernity has been translated/implemented in different ways throughout history by these ideologies in the region, this photography series reveals their potential legacies.

This ongoing research, titled “Insular Modernism,” aims to identify and document the artefacts and current state of socialist architecture that overlap a number of cities associated with the Silk Road narrative. An impressive network of roads and former trade nodes are currently involved in China’s global Belt and Road Initiative. Thus, the journeys and images are an attempt to unfold ongoing political and cultural influence that continue to cross and nourish the region.   

Excerpts, full version:


Crossing Kyzyl-Kum desert from Bukhara to Khiva, Uzbekistan. 2018. Image by Stefan Rusu
© InsularModernities


Palace of Weddings (A. Logunov and A. Klishevich, 1987), Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. 2017.
Image by Stefan Rusu © InsularModernities

Palace of Weddings (ZAGS) is an iconic building of socialist architecture, built in 1987. Wedding palaces had emerged as an architectural typology and social institution in the 1960s, as a component of the Khrushchev administration’s attempt to promote state atheism. Paradoxically, an institution originally intended to promote a homogenized secular culture and stamp out local religious traditions became a means of celebrating national culture.
During the January 17 demonstration (2019), national activists protested in Bishkek’s public spaces against what they called the increasing number of Chinese migrants in Kyrgyzstan. The demonstrators also expressed support for ethnic Kyrgyz who they said were being persecuted in re-education camps in China's north-western province of Xinjiang.
Beijing officials say its repression is a necessary counter-terror operation, but experts say it's actually to protect their BRI projects. Uyghurs are the largest indigenous community in Xinjiang - home to many projects along the Silk Road Economic Belt. 

Teahouse "Rohat" (K. Terletsky, 1958). Dushanbe, Tajikistan. 2018. Image by Stefan Rusu
© InsularModernities

The new master plan of the capital developed by Moscow OJSC Giprogor was approved by the government in 2013, according to which dozens of Soviet-era buildings in the city center 80 percent of the old buildings in the capital are set to be demolished and Teahouse "Rohat" located on Rudaki Avenue - the main street of Dushanbe was among them.  
The Tajik government has planned that a parliamentary complex will be built instead of the demolished buildings, the money for the construction of which was received from the Chinese government. For the Chinese, Tajikistan is one of many partners across the region–a piece of its grand One Belt, One Road strategy, but Tajikistan’s bad roads need to be fixed if the country is going to serve as the sort of crossroads China wants.


"Kokhi Vahdat" in the process of rehabilitation (E. Erzovsky et al, 1974). Dushanbe, Tajikistan. 2013. Image by Stefan Rusu
© InsularModernities

Rohat Teahouse and Kokhi Vahdat were declared among the 15 national monuments to be saved from being demolished and soon after the rehabilitation of Kokhi Vahdat has been initiated. However, the renovation project involved a new facade of the building and a terrible landscape design. The “Kokhi Vahdat” is a former House of Political Education of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Tajikistan and was designed by a group of young architects led by Eduard Erzovsky in 1974.
There are claims that the BRI will pay for this. There is also a collaboration MoU signed between Russia and Tajikistan for cultural heritage between 2021 and 2025. So, the competition from the last two centuries continues.

Visual essay “Knots, Stones, and Passes” by Stefan Rusu is part of New Silk Roads is a collaboration between Aformal Academy and e-flux Architecture. The project has been supported by Design Trust, and has been produced in cooperation with Digital Earth.

Stefan Rusu is an artist and curator whose work focuses on the social and political changes in post-Soviet societies after 1989. He is a member of IN SITU – European platform for Artistic Creation in Public Space and founder of Insular Modernities, which advocates for the preservation of socialist architecture and modernist heritage in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia.