When you think of the Soviet Union, you probably think of autocracy, sternness, and regimentation. But the photographer Christopher Herwig is highlighting the interesting design theory and sense of aesthetics employed by the other side during the Cold War through an intriguing lens: bus stops.
These bus stops, which Fusion wrote about previously, are really stunning displays of artistic expression and even the good that can come from public investment in infrastructure—and they're just everyday bus stops!
In an interview with Atlas Obscura, Herwig talks about a 12-year project he assigned to himself to photograph as many of these stops as he could, traveling through 13 former Soviet states and searching high and low for the stops. The resulting photos are part of Herwig's new book, Soviet Bus Stops (published by FUEL).
Herwig tells Atlas Obscura that he noticed the bus stops first while traveling and became obsessed with them, scouring hundreds and hundreds of miles on Google Earth to map them. He also says there is a community of people who share his passion and who guard the locations of the bus stops like a secret.
Herwig says that the condition of the stops varies from country to country. In places like the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, he found that the stops have become tourist attractions and are maintained by the locals. In other countries, many stops have already been torn down and are now no more than memories if no photos exist.
I reached out to Herwig via email to get him to talk more about finding these forgotten treasures. I was curious, for example, which bus stop was hardest to find:
"This one in Belarus was a real surprise totally off the the beaten path on a dirt road," Herwig told me. "We had been driving all morning trying to find certain stops on fairly major roads and continually got disappointed as they had been torn down. We decided to just try and take the most minor roads on the map possible and just try our luck and were happy to come across this."
Amazingly, he tells me, this stop in Pitsunda in the disputed region of Abkhazia has become a familiar part of the landscape. Locals didn't know what he was talking about when he mentioned it, so he had to find it himself.
Herwig tells me that sometimes it can become a hassle to get to the locations, especially if they're in disputed areas.
"In Kazakhstan I was traveling with a friend from the BBC up into the Altay Mountains—near the borders with Mongolia and Russia—and to get in there we first needed to get a special permit from today's equivalent to the KGB."
He says it was worth it, however, because he was able to take the picture below, his wife's favorite of the collection.
It's not always just a matter of waiting for the ink to dry on a permit though. Once, in Abkhazia, he was accused of being a Georgian spy by a taxi driver who extorted him for "a couple hundred dollars" while threatening to turn him over to the militia who, it was implied, would execute him.
"He put a finger gun to my head and made the bang bang sound."
Herwig says he paid the driver and went back across the border with his memory card hidden in his underwear.
"[During] the quiet walk across no man's land I debated whether the risk was worth it for what I felt were by far some of the the craziest bus stops I ever saw," Herwig told me.
To close things out, I asked Herwig which bus stop was his favorite. He chose the one below, both because of it's subtle design and the surrounding area.
"This one was in the middle of a large expanse of open farmland and has actually three pointy wings. While feeling heavy and brutal, the bus stop also seems like it wants to be free and to fly. It creates the perfect harmony with the design and the landscape."
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org