Baku is preparing for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest with giant construction and renovation projects. Great ambitions backed by oil money are transforming the Azeri capital in a modern boom town. Comtourist visited Baku in 2011 in search for the Soviet past amidst this building frenzy. We managed to find some interesting Soviet legacy, and got our hands on some old Baku promotion video’s as a bonus.
Baku was the fourth biggest Soviet capital and of great economic importance for the USSR thanks to the Caspian Oil. The same oil has made Azerbaijan the country that managed the highest economic growth of all the former Soviet Republics. Good for the country and its people but a potential disaster for the preservation of Soviet architecture, monuments, museums and other cultural heritage. Comtourist spend a couple of days in Baku to see what is left from the Soviet period.
Much of the recognisable Soviet architecture in Baku has been brought down recently to make place for city renewal projects. The two main communist era hotels of Baku, Hotel Absheron and Hotel Azerbaijan have recently been renovated by the Hilton and Marriot groups and are turned into ugly thirteen in a dozen hotels.
There is still enough Soviet era architecture left in Baku however, especially from the Stalin period. The former Palace of Soviets, now called House of Government is the main Soviet landmark in Baku and a highlight of Stalinist architecture. The Palace of Soviets was constructed between 1936 and 1952 if a style where Baroque, Socialist Realism and Oriental architecture are mixed. Other examples of great Soviet architecture are the Sports and Concert complex, the Railway Station, Pearl café and some of the cities theatres. The Baku Metro stations are beautifully decorated as peoples palaces like in Moscow.
Most of the communist era monuments in Azerbaijan were removed after the independence in 1991. The most notable monument of Baku was a giant Kirov statue overlooking the town and Caspian Sea from a hilltop. Kirov is now replaced by a monument commemorating Azeri soldiers and civilians that died during the struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. Lenin used to stand in front of the House of Government and was also removed in 1991. The monument commemorating the 26 Baku Commissars killed in 1918 after an attempted coup was only demolished in 2009.
Some Soviet monuments have managed to survive however, most notable a giant statue of Soviet statesman Nariman Narimanov. The Narimanov Statue was erected by Heydar Aliyev in 1970, then the Secretary of the Azerbaijan SSR Central Committee, later the president of Azerbaijan. Some other Soviet monuments that we found were a bust of Soviet general Azi Aslanov who led tank units during many important battles of World War II, Jafar Jabbarly an Azeri influenced by 1920s communist propaganda and Samad Vurgun, first People’s Artist of the Azerbaijan SSR. Lenin may have disappeared from the streets of Baku but his void is filled with monuments and portraits dedicated to Heydar Aliyev the former president of Azerbaijan who is now the subject of a new leader cult.
The Sea side promenade
The Baku Boulevard is a 3km seaside promenade along the Caspian seafront. The promenade was constructed more than hundred years ago but the Soviets certainly left their mark on this part of Baku. The Parachute Tower was used for extreme sports from 1936 to the 1960s when a fatal accident with a parachute jump occurred. Cafe Pearl is an example of innovative 1970s Soviet architecture using concrete. The Azerbaijan SRR had a branch of the Central Lenin Museum that is connected with the boulevard via a large Square. The Lenin Museum has now been transformed in the National Carpet Museum, the exterior has been changed yet to date.
Soviet Baku videos
Our last night in Baku was a lucky one, we were eating in a traditional Azeri restaurant where A DVD was playing with a video compilation of Baku. The friendly restaurant manager appreciated our interested in the video and gave us a copy. We posted two parts of the video on the Comtourist Youtube channel. The first video shows scenes dating from the 1950s to the 1970s. The second video shows scenes dating from the 1980s to the mid-1990s. The video’s include images of the Old City, people enjoying themselves, important buildings and monuments and the main tourist attractions.