Countries of the Former Soviet Union

by Aaron Pultz on April 2, 2013

This photographic essay surveys four countries—Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan—documenting the people and places of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) over twenty years after the dissolution of the communist empire they belonged to. Each country faces its own challenges, whether they are economic, political, or cultural. Some have remained close to their former Russian masters, however Georgia is by far the most western leaning of the countries investigated. These nations all face great uncertainty, and time will tell whether their governmental structures will rise to the economic and security challenges they face, allowing them to flourish as fully independent countries.

1. Welcome to Georgia

This is the new border complex being built between Georgia and Turkey on the Black Sea coast near Batumi. The architecture reflects the whimsical nature of Georgia, a country that continues to develop along the parallel lines of modernity and long-held tradition.

2. The mountains of Kasbegi, Georgia

The Republic of Georgia is endowed with exceptional natural beauty, and the mountainous regions to the north are particularly breathtaking. Kasbegi offers easy access from Tbilisi, compared to the twelve hours it takes to reach the striking mountainous region of Svaneti to the northwest. These lush mountains are home to shepherds and cattle in the summer, and become destinations for skiing in the winter months.

3. Boy and Girl, Batumi

These Georgian teenagers are taking time out to enjoy the Black Sea coast in Georgia. Tourism is a growing industry, fueled by a combination of natural beauty and investment. The city of Batumi has a population of 120,000 and is located close to Turkey’s northeastern city of Trabzon. It is currently undergoing substantial renovation and the evidence of new construction is apparent everywhere.

4. Old Man

This weathered man living in neighboring Turkey spends his days on the street, trying to make money by telling people’s fortunes. When prompted, the rabbits bite a small scroll that has the fortune written on it. Although not a member of the FSU, he shares the fate of many old people, perhaps reminiscing about dreams lost and a life that moved too fast.

5. The Church of Stalin

Isoeb Besarionis je Jugasvili—better known as Joseph Stalin—was born in Gori, Georgia in 1878. His indelible legacy touched millions of lives, and here he is celebrated by a museum erected specifically to honor his memory. A museum dedicated to such a despotic ruler makes for an eerie place, and when put in context it is hard to imagine anybody building a similar museum in Hitler’s Austrian hometown of Braunau am Inn.

6. Ticket Woman in Stalin’s Museum

The lady behind the ticket desk at the Stalin museum looks like she would rather be somewhere else—a thought that surely crossed the minds of those who died or were imprisoned during his reign.

7. The Changing of the Guard

Kyrgyzstan’s military uniforms and martial style are a legacy of Soviet rule, as seen in this changing of the guard in the capital city of Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan offers an interesting geopolitical conundrum; it is the only country that hosts military bases from both the United States and Russia. The strategic position of Manas Airbase has been a boon for the American military’s transportation of troops and supplies into neighboring Afghanistan, and talks continue for the renewal of the United States’ lease on this vital hub.

8. Child Saluting

This Kyrgyz child in Bishkek’s Children’s Hospital snaps out a smart salute, in the American fashion. The presence of U.S. troops at Manas airbase has been an economic boon—estimated at $860 million—for a country that is bereft of natural resources compared to it’s much larger neighbor Kazakhstan.

9. Cancer Hospital in Bishkek

Medical facilities in Kyrgyzstan are quite poor by western standards, and the cancer treatments patients receive are suboptimal compared to those of more developed countries. Although the technology may be poorer in this country, the suffering and loss caused by cancer is universal across the world, regardless of economic development.

10. Child with Hula-Hoop, Kyrgyzstan

This young girl, despite the dire circumstances of her battle with leukemia, exhibits courage and a will to live that many adults cannot muster in their older age. It is uncertain whether she will survive her ordeal, however her spirit of optimism remains a beacon for us all.

11. Kyrgyz Ballet, Bishkek

This is a portion of the ceiling in the State Opera and Ballet Theater in Bishkek. The ballet has always been synonymous with Russia, and during the Soviet era this European art form penetrated deep into Central Asia. The ceiling shows the mixed ethnicity of the region—Russian dancers in this photograph, and on different portions (not shown) one can see native Kyrgyz hunters on horseback.

12. Alaverdi Copper Factory, Armenia

Travelers making the journey from Tbilisi to Yerevan by Marshrutka (fixed route taxi) inevitably pass by the town of Alaverdi, in the Lori region of Armenia. The copper smelter was established in the 1700s, and the factory continues to operate to this day with plans for further expansion. Visitors can be forgiven if they confuse this place with J.R. Tolkein’s Mordor from The Lord of the Rings, such is the desolation of this factory town.

13. Bride and Groom, Armenia

This newly betrothed Armenian bride and groom are stepping into the world for the first time as a married couple. They are leaving behind their former lives to embrace a future of hopes and dreams, and also the unknown that lies ahead in a region full of uncertainty.

14. Weddings

Getting married might be the number one national pastime in Armenia, and nobody can argue that they don’t know how to throw a great celebration. Here, the bride emerges from her home after being serenaded by the groom’s entourage, who arrived earlier to dance and sing outside before entering for a small ceremony and numerous toasts. The lucky couple then departs by car or horse drawn carriage to the church where they will exchange their vows. In this ceremony flowers were scattered along the ground, and afterwards the neighborhood children rushed out to collect as many of them as they could.

15. Armenian Genocide Memorial

Tsitsernakaberd is the Armenian name for the memorial erected in Yerevan in honor of the victims of the Armenian Genocide, carried out in 1915. It is impossible to understand the Armenian mentality without addressing this cataclysmic event—an event that drove the population out of Turkey and into Armenia and further abroad. The Armenian diaspora is one of the largest in terms of proportion, exceeding the size of the home nation itself by a significant portion. Estimates put the diaspora at 7,000,000 versus a population in Armenia of only 3,000,000.

16. The Church

Christianity and the Church are fundamental components of society in Armenia and Georgia. Armenians are proud to say that they are the first state to adopt Christianity, but Georgia disputes this claim. This is one of many arguments that go back and forth in the competition to be first between Georgia and Armenia. I heard a joke during my travels: Georgian archaeologists were conducting an excavation and discovered the world’s oldest telephone cable, making them the first country with a telephone network. Not to be outdone, Armenian archaeologists dug throughout the entire country looking for an older telephone cable. When they failed to find one, they simply declared, “Armenia was the first country with wireless”. And so it goes.

17. Lighting Candles, Armenia

The act of lighting candles is done every church in Armenia. This woman is placing candles in the melted wax during a wedding ceremony.

18. Tourism from neighboring Iran

Armenia is a landlocked country with only two of its four borders open to travel—Georgia to the north, and Iran to the south. Yerevan has become a destination for Iranians who wish to experience a holiday where they are free from the social restrictions imposed in their country. Disco Iran, with its tri-lingual sign, is clearly trying to capture this demographic.

19. The Road to Nagorno-Karabakh

Voyagers making the journey from Yerevan to Nagorno-Karabakh must make a long trip through an austere but beautiful mountainous landscape. This old American hearse has “rent for free” written in Armenian on its side. This could be a case of Armenia’s sardonic sense of humor, but it is more likely an impressive act of generosity in a country that’s seen its fair share of warfare and loss.

20. Stepanakert

It looks like Nagorno-Karabakh is ready to step in and host the Oscars if Hollywood ever decides to take a break from the Academy Awards. This is just one of many buildings under construction in Stepanakert, the de-facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Aid from outside the tiny region has poured in, and now it is normal to find higher quality roads and facilities in this former war-torn region than in neighboring Armenia.

21. Tank Memorial, Nagorno-Karabakh

This is a Russian built Armenian T-72 main battle tank that was used during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that ended in a ceasefire in 1994. The memorial lies near the border between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, an area that is still rife with tension over territorial claims and displaced citizens. Unlike most decommissioned war monuments—where the vehicle is rendered completely inert—this tank seemed like it was ready to spring right back into battle. With continued sabre rattling by both sides, that would be the worst possible outcome for this retired warrior.

22. Tanks in Ukraine

Unlike the previous monument, these T-72 tanks lie in cheery repose. This monument/art project is located in Kiev, at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Visitors can climb and play among these brightly colored war machines, weapons that have little likelihood of being needed again.

23. Soviet era statue in Kiev

These old heroes of the Soviet Union are joined in the background by some more modern Hollywood representations—Trinity, Morpheus, and Neo from the Matrix. Statues such as these can be found all across the Soviet Union and many of them celebrate the extraordinary struggle against the German army during the Great Patriotic War. It is still easy to see the scars of that war upon the psyche of these countries—fears of foreign meddling and xenophobia are in no short supply. However, in Ukraine the biggest enemy is the corrupt government itself.

24. Empty Shell

This old Kyrgyz airliner will never fly again; it sits in a grass field at Manas Airbase waiting for the elements to take over. The airplane is an excellent metaphor for the economic challenges facing the country—a proud aircraft that used to fly high, but no longer has the engines it needs to propel itself forward.

25. The Spirit Goes On

Regardless of the economic, political, and cultural hardships, one thing that never disappears is the desire to celebrate. The need to have fun and be part of a community is something that these countries all have in common with each other, and the world around them.

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