Frontier Facades

by Warm Engine

An appreciation of the administrative architecture along the Trans-Siberian Railway.

"Frontier Facades" was commissioned by Triple Canopy as part of its Research Work project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston.

IN THE WINTER OF 2010 we traveled the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, beginning in Moscow and ending in Beijing. The route from the Kremlin and Red Square to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square roughly follows the trajectory of czarist forces as they brought ethnic populations under the yoke of imperial rule beginning in the sixteenth century, the Red Army as it quashed the White Guard during the Russian Civil War, and the migration of Soviet architectural styles following the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

In order to track the modeling of the Siberian landscape by Soviet culture, we examined the government architecture of ten Russian and three Chinese administrative centers. The imperial ambition of the USSR is evident in the many western Siberian administrative centers that arose in the first half of the twentieth century, as Moscow strived to homogenize various ethnic populations. (The railway was also essential in sustaining the USSR’s population; in the regime’s early years, Moscow survived on shipments of Siberian grain.) Farther east, civic projects exhibit, even memorialize, the precarious dynamics of the partnership between the cold war’s Communist behemoths. Soviet advisers assisted the PRC in planning cities, constructing buildings, and training local architects until broad ideological tensions caused a breach in relations in 1960.

We were drawn to administrative buildings because they are most likely to register the political changes of the twentieth century, which are oftentimes inscribed in their facades: the early Soviet avant-garde, the historical revivalism that reigned under Stalin, the restraint of the Khrushchev era (during which architectural excess was officially banned). Some of these buildings serve as unchanging monuments to fleeting moments in Russian and Chinese history; others have been altered—in appearance and use—over time, marking the vicissitudes of political order. (Parts of the railway have at times been controlled by czarist Russia, the White Army, the USSR, Japan, imperial China, and the PRC.) Housing blocks and factories, while perhaps the paramount reflections of Communist ideology in architecture, have been studied extensively and besides are in short supply in much of Siberia, where construction projects tended not to extend beyond city centers.

Before the Trans-Siberian Railway was built, populations along the route were isolated and practically immobilized in winter. When Anton Chekhov traveled from Moscow to the far eastern Siberian prison island of Sakhalin in 1890, the trip took him nearly three months. (“People can live even in Siberia,” he wrote after his return. “Even in Siberia there is happiness.”) Czar Nicholas II ordered the first tracks to be laid in 1891, when Moscow’s authority over Siberia and its traditionally autonomous ethnic groups was tenuous. Linking Moscow to the eastern port of Vladivostok would enable the czar to secure trade routes and consolidate power over a region that nebulously overlapped with northern Chinese territories. But fifteen years later the railway was only partly operational, a failure often blamed for Russia’s defeat in the 1905 war with Japan. The last tracks were finally laid in 1916—just in time, ironically, to facilitate the Red Army’s successful Siberian campaign.

Beyond their borders, little is known about the architecture of places like Nizhny Novgorod and Novosibirsk. We went, somewhat naively, to Siberia to figure out how the historical relationship between Russia and China—not only Soviet influence but, perhaps, the westward encroachment of Chinese culture—could be read in the urban landscapes of their frontier cities. As we discovered, proximity doesn’t necessarily yield good information.

What follows are diagrammatic drawings and photographs of the fourteen administrative centers we visited, the order of which corresponds to the route of our monthlong journey. There are also short videos of each city, shot from the train as we entered and exited, revealing the urban landscapes as they emerge from—and afterward disappear into—suburban industrial parks and fields of snow-shrouded evergreens. Rather than a conclusive analysis, we ended up with a visual record of our journey, one that offers as much insight into these rarely visited lands as we were afforded (and as could be extracted from the bureaucrats we interviewed)—an experience of the Trans-Siberia route in documentary fragments.

—Greta Hansen and Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong

Click below to view a map of the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Use the left and right arrows at the bottom of the screen or your keyboard’s arrow keys to scroll, or click and drag the image.


It is not uncommon to be greeted by human-size cartoon characters cloaked in pink plush and purple polyester as you near the Kremlin. Red Square is a concatenation of queues surrounded by glinting banners, peddlers selling trinkets, and tourist hordes exiting the adjacent underground mall. Visitors to Lenin’s mausoleum pass through a series of security checks before being granted forty seconds to view the dramatically lit body preserved within a sarcophagus designed by Konstantin Melnikov. The graves of Soviet politicians line the Kremlin’s wall, among them Joseph Stalin—he was displayed in Lenin’s mausoleum until 1961, when he banished to the ranks of the other, lesser leaders of the revolution.

In 1917, the Bolsheviks moved the capital to Moscow from Saint Petersburg, where Peter the Great had migrated in the seventeenth century. The Kremlin, Russia’s traditional seat of power, offered the Soviets symbolic continuity with the past. The Communists replaced some of the buildings within the Kremlin’s walls with new structures that gestured to the imperial architectural style, such as the bright yellow USSR Supreme Council Building, built in the early 1930s on the site of the Chudov Monastery. The USSR Palace of Congresses, built in the mid-1950s, stands in starker contrast to the Kremlin’s cathedrals.

Nizhny Novgorod

286 miles from Moscow

Nizhny Novgorod was founded in the early thirteenth century at the intersection of the Volga and Oka Rivers. In 1932, the city’s name was changed to Gorky (after Maxim Gorky); it became Nizhny Novgorod again after the fall of Communism in 1991. As in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod’s administrative center lies within a sixteenth-century kremlin (the generic word for a citadel). The functions of the buildings within its walls have changed over the years: An erstwhile arsenal now houses the National Center for Contemporary Arts; a nineteenth-century edifice used as a tram depot by the Soviets is now a military museum; the former Communist Party headquarters has been turned into an opera house. The city center pits modernist Soviet structures against their antitheses—nineteenth-century Western-style architecture of the czarist regime. Although many of Nizhny’s historic buildings were destroyed during the twentieth century, the city’s eight-hundred-year-old walls remain, dipping daintily down to the Volga River, a picturesque sight in stark contrast with the clumsy architectural mishmash above.


868 miles from Moscow

Founded in the mid-1700s, Perm grew dramatically in the twentieth century, when it became an industrial center. During World War II, the Soviet government transferred its headquarters to Perm; the city was renamed after Vyacheslav Molotov from 1940 till 1957. Throughout the Soviet era, visitors to Perm were required to have an authorized passport, and in the 1980s the city was home to clandestine plants producing and testing weapons and biochemical technologies. Soviet city planners commissioned a monument to Stalin, in which the leader’s name would be engraved in the earth and extrude upward to form a tower, but only the first letter was ever completed. The city administration building, erected in 1975, is a Brutalist edifice wrapped in stone that abuts a long, formal lawn.


1,104 miles from Moscow

Yekaterinburg was founded in 1723. In 1924 it was rechristened Sverdlovsk, after Yaakov Sverdlov (a Bolshevik and Leninist who authorized the execution of the Romanov family here); the original name was restored in 1991. It is the first major Russian city east of the Urals, in Asia. The view of the city is dominated by a 720-foot-tall TV tower, which emerges from the center like a concrete whistle; construction began in 1983, but the tower never became operational for lack of sufficient funds.

The city administration building, which was built in 1949 by German prisoners of war who had not yet been released, resembles a Constructivist rectangular mass decked with neoclassical ornamentation.


1,307 miles from Moscow

Tyumen is a well-preserved, idyllic oil town on the border of Siberia. The architecture is vintage and quaint, the coffee overpriced, and music plays on every corner and in every plaza. Sounds tumble out of omnipresent metal posts: American pop, ballads, Russian folk songs. There is no detectable standard or pattern to the playlists, and when you return to one place you’ll find its ambience altered from your last visit. What might have been playing Vitalii Vladasovich Grachyov before pipes Mariah Carey now.

Tyumen was founded in the late sixteenth century as a beachhead for czarist expansion. Its administrative square is flanked with Khrushchev-era buildings designed in classic Stalinist style. Tyumen, we can speculate, was able to bypass prohibitions on architectural excesses because of its wealth as an oil town. Its city administration building, erected in the early 1980s, looks like the miniature of a Khrushchev-era tower administration building but built of aluminum panels, on a smaller lawn, with a slightly dinky ice festival.


2,052 miles from Moscow

Founded in 1893 as Novonikolayevsk, this city on the banks of the Ob River soon became the site of a major bridge connection of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which helped transform it into the region’s largest metropolis. Further railroad expansion in the 1930s made the city an important link between Central Asia and Russia. The city’s name was changed to Novosibirsk (New Siberia) in the 1920s as part of Lenin’s postwar reconstruction plan. The city’s central attraction is the monumentally proportioned opera house, which sits next to the statue of Lenin at the apex of the main lawn, a location that would normally be reserved for an administrative building. The neoclassical building was constructed during World War II, under Stalin; its interior is decorated with pastel curlicues and tendrils, and an enormous hammer and sickle looms over the stage.


2,526 miles from Moscow

In Krasnoyarsk, we felt we were truly in Siberia. In the winter, the weather drops below negative forty degrees Celsius. The rivers seem to heave as they flow and release a thick, undulating fog. In one hotel restaurant, we saw on television a series dramatizing murders that have been committed in Krasnoyarsk. The story of one young woman was told through pictures of her high school yearbook, followed by a re-creation of her pursuit down a back alley, complete with angled shots of the dirty ice blanketing city streets, and ending with a gruesome, if unconvincing, death scene.

Krasnoyarsk was founded in the seventeenth century as a fort. In 1934, it became the administrative center of the largest region in Russia, but it was not marked on official maps until the early 1990s: Under Stalin, the city was a major hub of the gulag network, and later it operated illegal radar outposts. The post-Soviet municipal leadership transformed the city into an industrial-manufacturing zone. The city’s regional administration building dates to 1934 and is in a typical Stalinist style; it was augmented in the 1960s by a modernist addition, which rises behind it like prosthetic elf ears.


3,202 miles from Moscow

Forty miles from magic Lake Baikal, Irkutsk was established in the late seventeenth century as a base for the Russian military to control the Buryats, the dominant Siberian ethnic-minority population. They resisted Communist rule after the October Revolution, surrendering only after a few years of fighting. In the early twentieth century, the city was a hub for the lucrative trade of Siberian furs for Mongolian goods and Chinese tea; it soon grew into the administrative center of eastern Siberia.

Irkutsk’s history is evident in its diverse ethnic population and wealth of pre-Communist architecture, especially the wooden houses that dot the outskirts and are tucked between concrete high-rises in the city center. The city’s central square is dominated by the regional administration building, which was completed in 1964 on the site of the Kazansky Cathedral.

Ulan Ude

3,485 miles from Moscow

A monolithic head of Lenin—the largest in all of Russia—lies decapitated in Ulan Ude’s central plaza, stoically facing forward, in line with the city’s procession of administrative buildings. If the body were present, this Lenin would clear the roofs of the surrounding edifices. We couldn’t find out whether the body had ever existed or if the head was installed as a reminder to Ulan Ude’s restive Buryat population that the USSR was watching.

Regardless, the people of Ulan Ude seem to have never succumbed to the Soviet Union. A longtime trading post on the route between Irkutsk and China, the city was established as the capital of the Buryat Republic in 1934, when its name was changed from Udinskoye to Ulan Ude (Buryat for “red gate”) to signify the projection of Communist ideology into the distant reaches of the country. Soviet authorities often clashed with Buryats as they sought to maintain their traditions and Buddhist faith, and foreigners were barred until 1990. In the years since, however, new Buddhist monasteries have been built in the surrounding countryside.


3,831 miles from Moscow

Chita is on the fringe of Siberia, the last major stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway route before the Trans-Manchurian line begins. The surrounding territory was occupied first by the Turks, then the Mongolians, and finally the Chinese, before being seized by Russia in the mid-seventeenth century. Chita expanded in the late nineteenth century as the region’s natural resources—timber, gold, and uranium—were exploited.

When we visited, the central Lenin Plaza was festooned with ice sculptures and towering multicolored peacock planters. The bland regional administration building was constructed in 1940 on the site of Chita’s largest cathedral. The city administration offices are housed in a far less dour green and white prerevolutionary building. Chita’s proximity to the border has perhaps prompted an assertion of Russianness absent in Ulan Ude or Irkutsk, and residents tend to stay up late drinking vodka and bellowing.


4,125 miles from Moscow

Manzhouli, a trade center since the early 1900s, is the railway’s first major stop in China. It is now the country’s busiest terrestrial point of entry, responsible for 60 percent of goods brought to and from Eastern Europe. It is also a common day-trip destination for Russian shoppers. On approaching, the city appears flat and featureless, until the landscape is interrupted by a few fantastic architectonic creations: a gigantic babushka-shaped restaurant, a saucer stadium, and a field of replicas of famous Soviet statues.

Once in the center of Manzhouli, the scale of these candy-colored buildings (whose style is more Walt Disney than Russian or Chinese) is overwhelming, though their monumentality is more playful than daunting.


4,859 miles from Moscow

Changchun, established on the site of a longtime fishing village, was occupied by the Japanese military between 1931 and 1945. During these years it expanded rapidly, owing to its position at the junction of the Japanese-owned South Manchurian Railway and the Russian-owned Chinese Eastern Railway. In 1932, the last Chinese emperor, Pu Yi, was installed here by the Japanese, and he ruled from the Imperial Palace until the end of World War II. Many of the buildings constructed during the occupation remain, including the regional administrative complex. Even buildings erected afterward oftentimes placed Chinese structures over Japanese foundations. Modern Changchun is emblematic of the contemporary Chinese tendency to modernize through the organization of large, expansive cities; all the major government buildings are situated along the main north-south artery, Renmin Road.


4,706 miles from Moscow

The modern city of Harbin developed after the Chinese Eastern Railway laid down tracks through the area in the first years of the twentieth century. Like Chita, control of Harbin has been disputed by Russia, Japan, and China, and the city remains heavily influenced by Russia: Many Russian workers lived here during the construction of the railway, and thousands of Russians, many of them Jews and White Russians, fled their country and settled in Harbin in the years following the October Revolution.

Harbin’s enormous annual ice festival features an amalgam of frozen creations, from replicas of World Heritage Sites to advertisements for products such as Harbin Beer, all embedded with glittering LED lights. The primary thoroughfares remain illuminated with powerful fluorescent lights all year round, such that riding in a cab down Jing Wei Street transports you to Super Mario Cart’s Rainbow Road. Harbin’s administration buildings—walled fortresses heavily guarded from the public eye—loom above the city streets. In contrast, the newer city-hall building resembles a modernist housing block marooned at the center of an oceanic parking lot.


5,568 miles from Moscow

In the fifteenth century, during the Ming dynasty, Emperor Yongle reestablished Beijing as the capital of China and developed the foundations of its infrastructure. He also ordered the construction of the Forbidden City at its center. When Mao came to power in 1949, he proposed a new plan for the site that would have demolished all existing buildings; the Forbidden City was then abandoned for several years. It is unclear why Mao’s plan was never realized.

Mao consulted with Muscovite city planners from the inception of the People's Republic of China until relations between the USSR and the PRC dissolved in the 1960s. He transformed the urban landscape along Soviet lines, replacing small streets with wide avenues and old hutongs with monolithic administrative headquarters.

In the past decade, Beijing has undergone an equally dramatic transformation. The city is increasingly digitized: LCD screens with Chinese pop videos and advertisements for beauty products have proliferated, and the omnipresent swarm of bicycles that once defined the city has given way to thickets of automobile traffic. But the Forbidden City, the center of the seat of imperial power, is still dominated by the constant queue of visitors waiting to pay their respects to the embalmed body of Chairman Mao.