Stalin sits uncomfortably in his chair, trapped in a staring contest with renowned Belarusian poet Yakub Kolas from across the room. Mao’s enormous head peeps out from behind an idyllic hardworking partisan. And Lenin — Lenin scowls at everything, including himself, from at least sixteen different vantage points in the room.
A few decades ago, this small, unassuming warehouse in Minsk was the home and studio of Zair Azgur. A Soviet scluptor, Azgur created hundreds of imposing works, many of which dominated city centers all over the Soviet Union and communist China.
His statues epitomized Soviet art and propaganda — sharp, defined features, powerful stares of determination, absurd dimensions. Many of the standing statues lean forward over their pedestals, leaving viewers feeling small and afraid — at the very least, of being crushed.
Over 300 likenesses of communist heroes crowd the metal shelves stacked floor-to-ceiling, ranging from the lowly partisan to busts of the sculptor himself. Way in the back, an ill-fitting Winston Churchill grimaces at the surrounding company, a leftover bust Azgur crafted after the British Prime Minister met Stalin and Roosevelt at Yalta to organize post-war Europe.
While the Soviet empire decayed and crumbled in 1991, most of it’s hulking statues did not.
A four-story Lenin still dominates the main government square in Minsk, and several smaller iterations overlook industrial streets and stare at commuters coming in and out of the metro.
A town in Ukraine commissioned two new Lenin statues to be installed in 2009, and hundreds of copies of the communist leader remain prominent landmarks in small towns and big ex-Soviet cities today. Lenin even lords over the hardest-point to reach in Antarctica, facing towards Moscow.
With or without Lenin’s lingering presence, most ex-Soviet countries have distanced themselves from their Soviet heritage in lifestyle and government during the past two decades. Several have joined the European Union, even if wrestling with economic issues and social problems that echo from the past.
Here, distinctly communist figures and monuments — along with innumerable hammers, sickles, and communist red stars decorating the cement city, the continuing existence (both in name and tactics) of the KGB, rigged presidential and parliamentary elections, brutal suppression and imprisonment of opposition, and surreal laws to quash protests (clapping in public is illegal, as is gathering in groups of three or more in the main square) — do little to dispel Belarus’s reputation as a “Soviet Hangover” still governed by institutionalized fear.
Click on any photo below to open the gallery.