Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
After stumbling across a peculiarly artistic bus stop in Lithuania, photographer Christopher Herwig began seeking out these ex-Soviet relics with intent. His photos have since been published across two dedicated books and in magazines and journals around the world.
As told to Oliver Pelling
Around 15 or 16 years ago, I decided to ride my bike from London to St. Petersburg. It might sound like a big trip, but it was pretty leisurely. The roads were flat and easy to ride, and I was hoping to finish the trip with this great collection of photographs. But all I could see were roads and farms. There were no big or spectacular National Geographic-like moments.
To try and kick-start my photographic output, I decided to take at least one photograph every hour, even if it was of the most ordinary or mundane thing, and try and make it look special. Soon, time started to fly by. I took photos of power lines, clothes lines, apartment blocks, things I found on the ground—it was all fair game.
Before long, I started noticing some of the bus stops along the way. And when I rode into the former Soviet Union, into Lithuania, I saw even more dramatic-looking, artistic bus stops and thought, “Wow, someone has really gone through a lot of effort into designing and building these.”
My wife got a job working in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the following year so we moved there. And for the next three years, I couldn’t help but stop every time I’d see one of these fascinating bus stops. I ended up doing quite a bit of driving around the region in this time, and I began to grow a collection of photos. It was more like a hobby than anything serious.
After a while, I shared the collection with a few magazine editors. Some liked it, but for the most part, it didn’t get a good response and it took a while before people started to appreciate it. Eventually, the series got a good run in several magazines—and that convinced me to go out and pursue these images with a little more purpose.
The bus stops became this platform of expression for people who might otherwise have never done anything artistic in their life.
I started researching and hunting the bus stops out beforehand, instead of just hoping I’d stumble across them. That was about six years ago, and my first book Soviet Bus Stops came out in 2015, although there was a Kickstarter version before that.
With a bit of help from the people who were assisting me with my research, I managed to get in touch with a few of the bus stop designers. It’s not easy to find records of these people. There was one architect in Belarus, Armen Sardarov, who I’ve seen a couple times now and he’s quite a character. He was in charge of a lot of local highway architecture, but particularly the bus stops. There’s also Zurab Tsereteli, a Georgian artist who worked on some of the bus stops along the Black Sea—he’s gone on to become quite prolific.
I tried to gauge from these artists how these bus stops came to be, but the story varies a lot depending on who you talk to. It wasn’t a super-centralized program; it was mainly left up to the local regions and how much effort they wanted to put into them. In some cases, it seems the bus stops were led by factories who wanted these nice, unique bus stops for their workers to use. Hospitals and other places seemed to do a similar thing. Certainly on my last trip, I found a lot of bus stops outside of factories and hospitals.
Other times, the design would just boil down to whoever was making the highway at the time, such as the highway workers. The Belarus architect recalled how one of the road workers had one of his wife’s magazines, which was full of patterns for knitting or embroidery. So he suggested working the patterns into some of the bus stops. The local governments would also just hire artists or students and say, ‘OK, we have this stretch of highway. Try and make it beautiful or fun.’
In the end, it seemed to boil down to who was commissioning it and what they wanted. Often, I think they were trying to convey a message, and other times they drew more from regional traditions or customs. In parts of Kurdistan you can find ones that look like a kalpak, the traditional hat. There really isn’t one story that fits all of them—sometimes famous architects or artists worked on them, in other cases they were made by complete amateurs. It was even mentioned that school children helped decorate some of the interiors!
It’s this big mix of stories behind the bus stops that makes them even more special to me. They became this platform of expression for people who might otherwise have never done anything artistic in their life, like that road worker with his wife’s magazine, or a bunch of school kids.
And it’s this variety of stories that gives each of the bus stops a personality, or a voice. They became a way for people to express themselves during a time when people weren’t really able to. They feel honest and unfiltered, which is refreshing to see in this day in age, when so much seems to be copied or derivative.
This project also gave me a reason to travel to places I wouldn’t necessarily have traveled to otherwise. And it was novel to go on a trip without set expectations or an itinerary. If you’re going to Paris, for example, you know you’re going to see the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre—you have expectations, and you’re expecting to be impressed. But to be driving down a country road without knowing what’s around the next corner … it might not be an Eiffel Tower, but at the same time, that’s what was almost even more special. To be able to create a project for yourself like this, it becomes like a scavenger hunt, like finding gold.
Imagine growing up or living in the Soviet Union during those times, then somebody goes and builds a bus stop that looks like it could rocket you to the moon—I think they might have become a symbol of hope.
Since the books came out, I’ve had people ask me where they can find some of the bus stops such as this one woman who’d recently been traveling around Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. She’s since sent me some pictures, including one of her standing in front of the bus stop from the cover of the first book. People have got in touch and told me they used to go wait for the school bus from a bus stop in my book and things like that—it’s always nice hearing those kind of stories.
There’s a dreamy, futuristic quality to these bus stops that I think is captivating. They’ve got this lovely escapist quality. I think that’s why people have responded to them in the way they have. Imagine growing up or living in the Soviet Union during those times, then somebody goes and builds a bus stop that looks like it could rocket you to the moon—I think they might have become symbol of hope for people.
And yes, some them are quite ugly. But I enjoy that aspect of them too. I love that these people had the chance to do things that didn’t work aesthetically. They just said, “Why don’t we try it and see?” I think there’s a beauty in that. I don’t think people do enough of that nowadays. We could learn a thing or two from that way of thinking.
Visit Christopher Herwig’s official website for more information on the Soviet bus stops project and to purchase Chris’s books.
A Canadian-born photographer/videographer with over 20 years of experience, Christopher Herwig has worked in some of the world's most remote regions for GEO, CNN Traveler, Geographical and Lonely Planet, and has published two volumes of his Soviet bus stop photos.