A Syrian greengrocer next to a bombed out building in the Shaar district of Aleppo, February 2014. Photo: Mohammed al-Khatieb/AFP/Getty Images
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Jeremy Bowen: I know there’s trouble in the Middle East when I need my flak jacket, gas mask and Kevlar pants

The BBC’s Middle East editor on John Kerry striking the wrong tone over Ukraine, and remembering the Aleppo souks.

I saw someone looking on sympathetically as my attempt at running for the train turned into a hop and then a hobble. It was the kind of sympathy no middle-aged person needs or wants and I didn’t turn around to look for any more when the doors of the carriage came together with a smug hiss, leaving me on the platform. At the moment my left knee, calf and Achilles tendon have various injuries, all caused by sport. Some go back to the late 1970s. The most recent was self-inflicted during a rash attempt to ski off-piste a month or so ago.

Journalists in the Middle East need to be mobile. Visits to presidential palaces, foreign ministries and embassies all matter but being on the streets is the best way to get to the heart of the matter. My physio tells me I will stop limping fairly soon. Then I’ll be able to cycle and, after that, run.

Perhaps getting my left leg to work properly will be a mixed blessing. In the past year or so, two good legs have taken me to any number of Egyptian riots and have stumbled, nervously, as I tried to wade through streets full of rubble in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. And they have trudged through the snow in miserable informal  refugee settlements for Syrians in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. “Informal” means their inhabitants are barely supplied, burning pieces of plastic to keep warm and melting snow to get water.

 

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Sometimes the challenge of covering the misery and complexity of the modern Middle East is almost overwhelming. Since the Arab uprisings started at the end of 2010 the region has been in a profound process of change, which looks likely to go on for at least a generation.

Its consequences have turned millions of lives upside down and in Syria alone ended more than 100,000. Journalists have been extremely busy.

I always have a big flight case packed in my garage. It contains a flak jacket, a ballistic hel­met, vivid yellow and black Kevlar-woven “blast boxers”, assorted dressings and first-aid kits, along with a riot helmet, a gas mask and shatter-proof protective glasses. The case is my personal index of Middle Eastern trouble. I needed it all only rarely before 2011, usually because of a flare-up between Israel and the Palestinians or Lebanese. Now I take the case to most places.

 

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The international news reporting machine has turned its attention to Ukraine. I would never wish the attentions of a pack of journalists on anyone. Yet the world is in a time of trouble and bad news is going to happen somewhere. The Middle East is still pumping out stories, but for now Ukraine, Russia and Vladimir Putin are getting top billing.

It is a relief, in a strange way. I have been travelling for more than half of the time since the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt began in January 2011. It’s refreshing to be able to hobble for the train in London.

 

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I watched a live broadcast of the American secretary of state, John Kerry, in Ukraine. The way he mocked the Russians at his news conference sounded as if he was trying to win a debate, not help settle a crisis. I think that Russia should not send its troops on to the territory of its neighbours. However, it is hard to listen to an American official talking about sovereign territory, international law and invasions without thinking about what happened in Iraq in 2003.

I am not proposing a reprise of the row over UN Security Council resolutions or whether or not the United States, the UK and their allies were acting legally or illegally but it is important to remember that many countries did not buy the west’s version, so it has to expect a sceptical response when it scolds others.

 

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If Middle East politics was a lake, it would always be turbulent. The US and UK threw in a big rock in 2003 and the waves it made are still washing up, from the Gulf to the shores of the Mediterranean. Apart from the obscene amount of death in Iraq since 2003, the worst consequence of the invasion was the way it heated up sectarian tensions.

The differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims make up one of the world’s oldest religious and political quarrels. Yet the invasion’s reordering of the regional balance of power brought the conflict stretching and snarling into the new century. Events since then have made it much worse.

 

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In early March, I will be in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. The organisers have invited authors to bring a guest. Mine is my 13-year-old daughter, Mattie. It’s not her first time in the Middle East. In 2010, with my mother, we travelled through Lebanon and Syria.

We couldn’t do that now. Mattie loved the Old City in Damascus. She would still be able to recognise it. Physically it has barely been touched by the war, though foreigners are rare and foreign tourists extinct. Most of all she loved the old heart of Aleppo, its alleys, khans and mosques and the great citadel. Friendly traders sold us dried fruit, freshly roasted nuts, soap made from olives, embroidered cotton and a slimy nylon football shirt in Syrian colours.

Every time I see pictures of the devastation, the deserted, burnt-out souks, the toppled minarets and punctured domes, I think of the people who used to buy and sell in Aleppo’s narrow streets, of the way they smiled at my mother and daughter, and wonder what happened to them. l

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor and the Royal Television Society TV Journalist of the Year

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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.