Thursday, June 26, 2008

Living Ruins

For more than half a century the Soviet Union was one of the world's great powers. Most of Asia, and a good chunk of Western Europe was part of a bold social experiment to see if there was an alternative to capitalism. There wasn't. The experiment failed spectacularly. Communist economies created only poverty. Idealism gave way to tyranny. By 1990, the entire house of cards came apart.

We travelled for a few days with Jirka, a young Czech who told us stories of life under communism. He remembers the day when Germany opened the borders. His family drove their smoky old car into Germany and everyone greeted them. They couldn't believe it when they saw all the products in a grocery store. They still have photos of all the incredible selection of laundry detergents you could buy. Under Communism there was one. When it was in stock.

Downtown Balykchy

Now, like the Mayan city of Tikal, the great buildings and artifacts of the Soviet Union are crumbling. The Soviets planned magnificent cities with broad streets and ample public spaces. Unfortunately nobody can afford to maintain them anymore. The parks are overgrown, the sidewalks are crumbled. The Pakistan border post with China is a small tin shack. Kyrgystan has a large marble building but when you go inside everything is abandoned and fallen apart. Broken lights hang from the ceiling. You walk through empty halls until you reach a small shack set up in a larger room. This is the border post now. Eventually the building will fall apart completely and the shack will be moved outside.

Lenin Statue Outside a School

The private spaces are even worse. Soviet apartment blocks are drab and poorly constructed. Now, 20 years after the last maintenance they are little more than ruins. The toilets have stopped working. The water is unreliable. The heat doesn't work. Windows have fallen out and been bricked up. Many of them are abandonded completely.

It is an amazing experience to be able to walk through the ruins of one of the world's great civilizations only 20 years after the civilization crumbled. Only two decades ago it was impossible to visit these places. Now you can walk around freely almost anywhere in the ex-Soviet Union. You can talk to the people and hear their stories. The Lenin statues still look out over the streets. But the secret police are gone and there is food in the stores.

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