In the courtyard of a Cairo mortuary, the Arab springtime seemed very distant

Jeremy Bowen reports from Egypt.

The morning after Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign as president of Egypt in February 2011, millions of people in this fractious, overheated, argumentative nation were seized by a rare sense of unity. Everything was going to change for the better. To be alive in that dawn was blissful.
 
In Tahrir Square, some of the tens of thousands who had occupied it for 18 days set to with brushes and buckets to clean it up. A shingle beach of rocks and broken paving slabs that had been hurled at the police and at supporters of Mubarak was shovelled up and carted away. Big granite cobblestones were salvaged and returned to their original positions near the Egyptian Museum. Middleaged, middle-class men who looked as if they had never touched a brush in their lives puffed and panted importantly as they filled dustbin bags. Some western liberals fooled themselves that Egypt might transform itself into an oriental version of a European democracy. Egyptians were caught up in the euphoria, too. It was a time of schemes and dreams.
 

A shoddy business, death

 
As I stood this month in the courtyard of Cairo’s central mortuary, that Arab springtime seemed very distant. So many people have been killed here in the past weeks and so many bodies have not yet been claimed or identified that the mortuary is overflowing.
 
Four refrigerated lorries have been parked outside the morgue for the bodies that cannot be accommodated inside. The corpses are crammed into the back of the trucks. Thick clouds of flies buzz around them. Clumps of incense sticks, disinfectant and some Febrezelike sprays fight a losing battle against the stench of rotting bodies.
 
The trucks do not stay very cold, because men are constantly climbing in and out of them, gagging on the smell, unwrapping shrouds and shining torches on to the remains of the faces to try to find missing friends and relatives. Some families sit exhausted around the empty coffins they have brought, wondering if they will ever be able to find and bury their dead. The courtyard is squalid, covered in litter and reeking of death and desperation.
 
When they find the body, the nightmare does not end. Egyptian law demands that a death certificate be issued before a funeral can take place. I have heard complaints that families are being told they can get a death certificate only if they accept the cause of death mandated by the official behind the wire-mesh window at the morgue, even if it is not correct.
 
Many think there is a conspiracy to disguise the way that demonstrators have died. One man at the mortuary waved a certificate, a flimsy piece of paper torn out of a book of preprinted forms, a receipt for a life, and yelled that the cause of death was asphyxia, even though the body was burned. He claimed they were told to take what they were given or the corpse would be dumped in the desert.
 

Just like old times

 
Many Egyptians feel that the governing style of the dictator is coming back. It feels like that for a reporter on the streets. The official media are full of incitement against what they claim are the biased international media, blaming us for Egypt’s problems. It’s like old times.
 
The Cairo mortuary stands opposite the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital, a place set up in the 1930s by an English lady who was horrified to see cavalry horses being used and abused as beasts of burden. Just beyond this small memory of a very different Cairo, a group of local men was loitering, looking for suspicious visitors, especially foreigners with cameras. They had chased away some of my BBC colleagues a few days earlier. We had to film covertly, with a small camera that looked like a mobile phone. It is open season on the messenger here right now.
 

Cheers for leaders

 
Quite a lot of Egyptians are happy that the firmness of the Mubarak days seems to be coming back. They are fed up with the collapse of law and order that followed the 2011 revolution, chaotic streets and a collapsing economy. They hated having the Muslim Brotherhood telling them what to do while the country went, in their view, from bad to worse. I have lost count of the times I’ve been told it was better under Mubarak.
 
Since the armed forces overthrew President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July, the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square have been quiet. They no longer appear to be an important factor. Before the end of 2011, it was clear that their energy was not being channelled into the kind of political organisation that was their only chance of rivalling the two existing power centres in Egypt – the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Some liberals have turned into cheerleaders for the military, their attachment to Egypt’s democratic experiment overwhelmed by their relief that the Brotherhood, which they could not beat at the polls, is under attack.
 
It is clear that the military wants to decapitate the Muslim Brotherhood, to remove it as a political force from Egypt. The Brotherhood is being driven on by shock and rage that the power it worked towards since its foundation in 1928 has been taken away after only a year. It was disastrously incompetent at government but it is skilled and experienced at operating as a banned organisation. Its enemies celebrate a premature victory at their peril.
 
Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. An updated paperback edition of his book “The Arab Uprisings” is newly published by Simon & Schuster (£8.99) 
An Egyptian man walks between lines of bodies wrapped in shrouds at a makeshift morgue in Cairo. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.