The Curious World of Soviet Bus Stops

On a long-distance bicycle trip from London to St. Petersburg in 2002, photographer Chris Herwig encountered something unexpected in the barren post-Soviet landscapes—artsy, unusual, and almost spaceship-like bus stops. The more he rode, the more he came across such unique transit structures.

Pitsunda, Abkhazia, Georgia

As Herwig traveled through and later began living in post-Soviet states, he would keep an eye out for unusual bus stops. Having grown up in Canada, he says that the U.S.S.R. was always a mystery to him. Something dark and inexplicable. It fascinated him to find colorful, almost celebratory structures in a land that was once so rigidly governed.

Taraz, Kazakhstan

“Wondering why they existed was one of the driving forces that had me fascinated with the bus stops,” he says. “It was totally unexpected. Every time you’d see one you’d wonder, ‘What was the plan here?’ Or, ‘What was the purpose?’ Because everything in the Soviet Union seemed regimented, planned, and organized, while the bus stops didn’t seem to have a centralized plan. In some places it was basic—the guys who were building the roads would get schoolkids to join in. It did embody the ideal of what communism was—people could contribute to the bus stops. People still paint them today, and the themes are often quite local.”

Gagra, Abkhazia, Georgia

Each design is unique and shaped by the community around it. Herwig shared an anecdote about a construction worker who’d wanted to incorporate local embroidery designs into the bus stop, much to the chagrin of his colleagues.

Herwig has done a considerable amount of research, even consulting artists who were commissioned to work on the bus stops. He has yet to discover why or how it was decided that the designs should be left to local authorities. Based on his research, it seems that the bus stops were often constructed by the workers building the roads, local artists, or even community members.

Machuhi, Ukraine

When asked what compelled him to devote 14 years to this project, Herwig says, “As a photographer you want something that you can get sucked into and enjoy. Quite honestly, it’s some of the most fun work I’ve done, because you feel like an explorer—like you’re actually discovering something.”

Pitsunda, Abkhazia, Georgia

On one particular trip to Armenia, Herwig had been driving for hours in a barren landscape when suddenly he saw a bus stop in the distance. “It was big, with heavy brutalist-style concrete, but at the same time really light, experimental, and fun—built to last,” he says. “It was like a spaceship [had] landed in the middle of nowhere. It’s finding them in settings like that that makes it feel really worthwhile. The architecture, landscape, and culture all come together. You’re in these flat landscapes, and boom, you see a bus stop and it’s like it’s on a pedestal, like a fantastic art installation.”

Aralsk, Kazakhstan

His future plans for the project? “I’ve got a burning itch to do one last epic road trip before all these bus stops are gone,” he says. The trip would take him from the Black Sea to the Pacific to capture stops in Russia, currently not among the post-Soviet states he’s photographed.

Shymkent, Kazakhstan

He hopes that the work will help people to see a greater world outside their home country.

“I hope people open up and realize that no matter what’s going on politically on the other side of the world, there is a difference between what a country does and what the people inside it are doing. I hope it inspires people to travel and not always look for things that are the obvious. There are a lot of little architectural underdogs out there that should be celebrated.”

This project was originally published in the Russian edition of National Geographic. It has also been published as a book by Fuel Design.

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