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Post-industrial Landscapes of Soviet-Era Monotowns

Get an insight into Soviet-era urban development with a new book about monotowns—urban settlements erected around single industries in the hinterlands of the former USSR.

Monotowns by Zupagrafika, 2021

Published by Zupagrafika, the book features images taken by photographer Alexander Veryovkin all over Russia—from the Arctic Circle to the Far East—in towns such as Vorkuta, Norilsk, Mirny, Kirovsk, Tolyatti, Cherepovets, Magnitogorsk, Monchegorsk, and Nikel. Many of the buildings captured in Monotowns have never been published before.

“In our new book, we portray the monocities and the quotidian lives of their inhabitants today, with a special focus on how they have transformed after the fall of the Soviet Union,” the authors and founders of Zupagrafika, David Navarro and Martyna Sobecka, said.

“The book provides an insight into the Soviet-era urban development of these industrial centers, its dreams and utopias, failures and successes. We believe this book can be a tool to explore the little-known Soviet-era architecture shaping the cityscapes of post-industrial settlements in Russia.”

Lenin monument in Vorgashor, Vorkuta

The Volgar Sports Palace in Tolyatti

Kolkhoz Market, Cherepovets

What follows are excerpts from a foreword by architectural critic Konstantin Budarin:

What is a monotown? The term would suggest it might be some kind of a city, and this is true in part. The concept relates to towns, but not in the sense of a municipality; rather in relation to a specific set of economical conditions. Some might even say that “monotown” defines anything but a town.

Soviet mosaic inside the ‘Olymp’ swimming pool in Tolyatti

In 2014, a Russian Federation Government Decree defined when a city can be classified as a monotown. One of the most important factors is the number of people employed in the so-called city-forming factory. If over 20 percent of the fit-to-work population works in a local industry, the town is listed as a monotown.

A clear definition of these kinds of settlements was necessary for largely social reasons. Cities which rely on the well-being of one single industry tend to be vulnerable to all kinds of economic fluctuations. If the factory isn’t doing well, it puts the whole city in danger. And a lot of these factories aren’t doing well.

A total of 313 Russian urban settlements were listed as monotowns in 2014. Depending on the state of their economy, the cities were allocated between three groups, which, broadly speaking, consisted of those falling apart, those that were not faring too well, and those which seemed OK for the time being. The first category featured 75 monotowns.

Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works

‘Glory to the conquerors of the Arctic,’ Vorkuta

Zayagorbsky District (Zarechye), Cherepovets

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In a broader sense and from an urban planning perspective, monotowns can be seen as a product of enlightened industrialization. Over the last two centuries there have been numerous attempts at creating the ideal industrial city. It is fascinating to see how all such attempts share a similar format. From above, an industrial city looks like a juxtaposition of separate residential and industrial zones. While the industrial area can differ depending on the type of production, the residential part is pretty much the same everywhere. The living units are designed to be almost identical, often constructed using prefabrication methods, yet with adequate insulation and greenery that seem to compensate for their lack of identity. The multi-story houses do not line the streets but are instead organized around deep courtyards. There is a program of public buildings such as kindergartens, schools, and sports facilities scattered around the microrayons.

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Magnitogorsk

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Cherepovets, Industrialny District

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Prefabricated panel blocks of Cherepovets

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So is a monotown a city? From today’s perspective, the answer is not exactly. Diversity is key to the contemporary understanding of what makes a city. At least in terms of production, monotowns are the opposite of diverse. They have resulted from efforts to modernize society through industrialization and state control. This model does not, or at least does not seem to, fit the post-industrial economy, although projects like Elon Musk’s Gigafactory indicate that industry could one day regain its former pride of place. In its approach to scaling, the Gigafactory looks very much like the industrial zone of Tolyatti.

Kukisvumchorr Mountain prefab panel houses, Kirovsk

Entering the monotown of Kovdor

Uninhabited frozen panel block in Vorgashor

Cover image: Mirny pit shaft, 525m deep and 1,200m wide, is visible from space

All photographs are by Alexander Veryovkin, courtesy of Zupagrafika

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