• February 25, 2016

The Curious World of Soviet Bus Stops

On a long-distance bicycle trip from London to St. Petersburg in 2002, photographer Chris Herwig encountered something unexpected in the barren post-Soviet landscapes—artsy, unusual, and almost spaceship-like bus stops. The more he rode, the more he came across such unique transit structures.

Picture of a bus stop in Abkhazia
Pitsunda, Abkhazia

As Herwig traveled through and later began living in post-Soviet states, he would keep an eye out for unusual bus stops. Having grown up in Canada, he says that the U.S.S.R. was always a mystery to him. Something dark and inexplicable. It fascinated him to find colorful, almost celebratory structures in a land that was once so rigidly governed.

Picture of a bus stop in kazakhstan
Taraz, Kazakhstan

“Wondering why they existed was one of the driving forces that had me fascinated with the bus stops,” he says. “It was totally unexpected. Every time you’d see one you’d wonder, ‘What was the plan here?’ Or, ‘What was the purpose?’ Because everything in the Soviet Union seemed regimented, planned, and organized, while the bus stops didn’t seem to have a centralized plan. In some places it was basic—the guys who were building the roads would get schoolkids to join in. It did embody the ideal of what communism was—people could contribute to the bus stops. People still paint them today, and the themes are often quite local.”

Picture of a bus stop in Abkhazia
Gagra, Abkhazia

Each design is unique and shaped by the community around it. Herwig shared an anecdote about a construction worker who’d wanted to incorporate local embroidery designs into the bus stop, much to the chagrin of his colleagues.

Herwig has done a considerable amount of research, even consulting artists who were commissioned to work on the bus stops. He has yet to discover why or how it was decided that the designs should be left to local authorities. Based on his research, it seems that the bus stops were often constructed by the workers building the roads, local artists, or even community members.

Picture of a bus stop in ukraine
Machuhi, Ukraine

When asked what compelled him to devote 14 years to this project, Herwig says, “As a photographer you want something that you can get sucked into and enjoy. Quite honestly, it’s some of the most fun work I’ve done, because you feel like an explorer—like you’re actually discovering something.”

Picture of a bus stop in abkhazia
Pitsunda, Abkhazia

On one particular trip to Armenia, Herwig had been driving for hours in a barren landscape when suddenly he saw a bus stop in the distance. “It was big, with heavy brutalist-style concrete, but at the same time really light, experimental, and fun—built to last,” he says. “It was like a spaceship [had] landed in the middle of nowhere. It’s finding them in settings like that that makes it feel really worthwhile. The architecture, landscape, and culture all come together. You’re in these flat landscapes, and boom, you see a bus stop and it’s like it’s on a pedestal, like a fantastic art installation.”

Picture of a bus stop in kazakhstan
Aralsk, Kazakhstan

His future plans for the project? “I’ve got a burning itch to do one last epic road trip before all these bus stops are gone,” he says. The trip would take him from the Black Sea to the Pacific to capture stops in Russia, currently not among the post-Soviet states he’s photographed.

Picture of a bus stop in Kazakhstan
Shymkent, Kazakhstan

He hopes that the work will help people to see a greater world outside their home country.

“I hope people open up and realize that no matter what’s going on politically on the other side of the world, there is a difference between what a country does and what the people inside it are doing. I hope it inspires people to travel and not always look for things that are the obvious. There are a lot of little architectural underdogs out there that should be celebrated.”

This project was originally published in the Russian edition of National Geographic. It has also been published as a book by Fuel Design.

There are 7 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. muhammad zahir babar
    March 17, 2016

    russia i love you . miss you very much. kazakhstan first country i travelled abroad . got nostalgic after watching these pictures.

  2. R.J. Ain
    March 2, 2016

    Art is an innate part of being human and unquenchable regardless of the setting or era.

  3. Peter G
    February 29, 2016

    Always surprises me how something so ordinary can have such a story.

  4. Sherry
    February 29, 2016

    Thank your for sharing your work. These bus stops remind me of the old diners across western America that were built in the shapes of cows, or teepees, or hot dogs. Local diners built by the people they served. These bus stops have the same sort of 50s look and feel: out of joint with time and full of whimsy. I’m glad to know there are other small things in the world built to take the practical and make it art. My favorite photo is the colorful tiny one surrouned by sand in every directions. Kind of like Ozymandias: Look upon my works ye mighty and despair. Nothing besides remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away. Perfect photo for those lines . . . Thanks again for sharing.

  5. Shota Kuprava
    February 27, 2016

    Please respect the sovereignty of Georgia and include the name of the country after naming the region of Abkhazia.

  6. praveena
    February 25, 2016

    Some of these bus stops ARE unique, what with the colour and shapes. Moreover these structures are a reflection of the local community and culture. For an outsider like me for whom the erstwhile USSR was a huge unknown, the only thing certain was its homogeneity. Offices and residential buildings used to be clones of each other, reflecting the structured nature of organization. Therefore, the architectural uniqueness of these bus stands comes as a jolt. In the flatlands of the Soviet steppes, the sudden jutting out of these myriad structures must be an awe inspiring sight. These photographs reinforce the fact that there is more to this world than cities and architectural wonders. Lesser known works of mankind also need to be celebrated. I for one would be waiting for the next installation of these photographs.

  7. LizR
    February 25, 2016

    Wow! The word that springs to mind is surreal. I wonder if our descendants will be looking back at the excesses of capitalism with similar feelings, once it’s used up all the resources and destroyed the environment…

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