These things cannot be repeated: the extraordinary story and soundtrack of new film Soviet Bus Stops

For two decades, Canadian photographer Christopher Herwig has been documenting the idiosyncratic bus stop architecture of the former Soviet Union, capturing examples of unique and geographically-specific creativity emerging from right beneath the gaze of authoritarian power. A new documentary charts his extraordinary mission – accompanied by an equally extraordinary soundtrack that could not have been produced under any other circumstances

“You can’t have a road trip without music,” says Christopher Herwig. “When you’re driving for ten hours every day, for two weeks straight, you better have some good mixtapes.” 

There are few who know the importance of this more than Herwig. For over twenty years he has been painstakingly and obsessively traversing the 15 countries which were once part of the Soviet Union on the hunt for one thing: bus stops. From Ukraine to Uzbekistan, Armenia to far eastern Siberia and everywhere in between, Herwig has been photographing unique, strangely beautiful – and increasingly disappearing – bus stops from the Soviet era.  

It has resulted in two books along the way and now a new documentary, seven years in the making. Soviet Bus Stops finds Herwig tirelessly tracking down leads, driving endlessly down perilously icy roads, shovelling snow out from submerged tires with his hands and attempting to communicate with confused locals in primitive Russian.

“Since no one has really done such an extensive collection before, there really isn’t a good archive or a database out there to base your searches on,” he says. “So, a lot of the bus stops you just kind of stumble upon.” But even stumbling upon them can take a huge amount of effort. “One of the keys is always just to get off the main roads,” he says. “Because typically on the main roads they would have been redone and all the old bus stops would have been torn down. It’s more the smaller communities in the country roads and out of the way places where sometimes there will be thousands of kilometres of literally nothing. Then it hits you, like, oh my God, how do I get out of here?”

However, after travelling over 50,000 km through this vast territory, Herwig finds that there’s always a pay-off with enough perseverance. “You may come to a section, just a mile or two, and every 200 metres there will be something new,” he says. “And it’s like, wow – it’s like an art gallery out here. There are no towns or anything, just these bus stops lined up every 200 metres. You think: how and why is this possible?” 

When he does land on a particularly special one, it’s elating. “It’s more rewarding because you really feel like you’ve discovered something,” he says. “There are people who want to be an adventurer or an explorer but then everybody is like, ‘Oh, you know, Everest has been climbed – everything’s been done.’ Well, there’s a lot of things you can do on a smaller scale that can still give you that sense of being an explorer, that you are discovering something. I can’t really think of a project that could beat one to death quite like this but still has the same level of personal enjoyment all these years on.”  

The stereotype of Soviet architecture (which contains some truth, for civilians at least) is that it was often uniform and utilitarian rather than grand, colourful and unique. Like many things in the USSR, architecture and urban planning were strictly supervised by central government, but as Herwig says, “Sometimes the benign bus stops were overlooked.” As a result, hundreds of these distinctive bus stops are now to be found all across the former Soviet Republics. “Built by individuals who decided to follow their own artistic urges,” says Herwig, “they found a way of expressing local and artistic ideas, in this small form. Their bus stops were built as quiet acts of creativity against overwhelming state control.”

However, the sheer difficulty of finding these often-remote bus stops was not the only hurdle in Herwig’s never-ending quest; local people sometimes objected too. In the documentary he can be seen being ushered away impatiently, almost angrily, by one market trader whose stall sits in front of the bus stop Herwig is hoping to shoot. “I kind of understand where they’re coming from,” he says. “I mean, the bus stops are run down or often someone has used it as a bathroom, they look kind of rough, they’re not in their best shape. Also, people don’t see it as part of a bigger collection, it’s always just been that one bus stop. So, for them, it’s like: this is definitely not special, this is just the bus stop.”

There’s often a worry that the photos are intended to mock or caricature the often desperately poor communities – the ‘poverty porn’ argument. “There’s always this fear from people,” says Herwig, “that when you’re photographing stuff that is old and broken down, you’re going to take the picture back to your own country and you’re going to show how poor and sad looking their country is. I have had that explained to me in those words. Even though I try to say I’m genuinely interested in the architecture and I think this is really beautiful, people often wouldn’t get it and I do find that quite sad and frustrating.” In some areas, the bus stops are actively disliked and frequently torn down.

There are of course other reasons why some may not have much love for the bus stops. While many are the work of individual artists and architects, some of whom Herwig tracks down in the documentary, some were seen as material expressions of Soviet propaganda. “When it comes to places in the Ukraine or Georgia, I can totally understand that people would want to tear them down,” he says. “When they see it, they actually just see the Soviet Union and think of the Russian Empire and occupation. So in that respect, I find the whole thing, all of this, really quite heartbreaking.” 

You may be reaching this point and thinking, “Yes, this is all well and good, but why is it in a music magazine?” Well, the Soviet Bus Stops documentary also includes a uniquely musical element that is also rooted in discovering forgotten treasures of the USSR – in this instance the Latvian space disco outfit Zodiac. 

Herwig found their 1980 debut album Disco Alliance in an old Moscow shop. From the hypnotic, chugging groove of opening track ‘Zodiac’ – think Kraftwerk meets Patrick Cowley and Cluster – he became besotted. “I felt a connection in that discovery process as I did with the bus stops,” he says. “The concrete nature of a lot of the bus stops, along with the utopian, futuristic, almost space themes that get repeated in the music – I just felt that this music fitted very well.” 

Zodiac were formed by Jānis Lūsēns in 1979, who was then studying composition at the Latvian State Conservatory in Riga and called upon his student friends to flesh out the project into a band. Herwig tracked him down and asked if the music could soundtrack the film, and now a standalone soundtrack album has been put together. It includes 13 remastered versions of Zodiac’s Soviet-era works alongside new compositions written especially for the documentary. 

While Zodiac may have been a golden crate-digging find for Herwig, having been previously unknown to him, in their own unique way this band were huge. While the name may not be widely recognised in the EU and US, during the Soviet Union they were monstrously big, with their debut album selling 20 million copies. For context, that’s roughly the same number as Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here or Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and only just behind Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?.   

“We broke the old Soviet music traditions,” says Lūsēns, who worked in collaboration with his son Jānis Lūsēns Junior (who also translates for us) on the new project. “After that a lot of bands sprung up, looking for their own musical style.” 

Making or listening to music could be a challenge during these times – especially if that music could be deemed ‘Western’ in any way. However, Lūsēns was inspired by the records that were slipping through the cracks. “The Soviet Union was behind the Iron Curtain at that time but records were imported here,” he says. “Sailors did it, and diplomats did. The discs thus found their way to record duplicators who made illegal copies and traded them illegally. It was all piracy.” There were three acts that really stuck out for Lūsēns. “I liked the melodism of Space, the atmosphere of Tangerine Dream and the image of Kraftwerk,” he says.  

Yet going into the studio and making electronic music was not straightforward in those days. “As we were living in a closed-off country, no foreign consumer electronics were available legally to us,” says Lūsēns. “Foreign synthesisers were imported by diplomats who sold them here for extremely high prices, which of course for us was not an option.” The answer? To build something themselves “from available electronic parts from the Soviet army.” 

Disco Alliance by Zodiac

A Latvian electronics enthusiast called Feliks Stagnevics created the first synth prototype for the group in this way. “If in the United States this is done by numerous researchers and scientists with a lot of resources available, then here it was done by one person,” recalls Lūsēns. The result is a device that sounds like no other – because there literally is no other like it. “These sounds cannot be repeated,” says Lūsēns. “This instrument is unique.”

With this distinctive sound, the band soon hit a nerve and began to blow up, releasing their debut album Disco Alliance in 1980. Their record sales were remarkable and they performed on television; their success was a minor miracle given the circumstances. “We need to understand that the Soviet Union was a closed-off territory with KGB agents and people who could snitch you out from every gathering,” says Lūsēns. “However, those who did not openly express any anti-Soviet slogans or did not openly go against the regime were relatively left alone and just observed. Also, it was lyrics that were subject to censorship. As we had no lyrics, this really did not affect us.”  

The result was a record rooted in distinctly Western sensibilities, playing in the homes of millions. “The phenomenon of this was the fact that the people were tired of the content of the Soviet popular music,” says Lūsēns. “We created a feeling that finally in Soviet music shops there is a Western album available.” 

However, all the things you may associate with an album blowing up and selling 20 million copies – fame, wealth, glamour, worldwide tours – did not materialise. “There were offers from USSR concert organisers,” recalls Lūsēns, “but we were not allowed to leave our studies, because then we would have had to serve in the Soviet army – nobody wanted that. And all of the income from the record remained in the common treasury of the USSR.” The band continued to release music up until 1992 but never quite matched the success of Disco Alliance and its futuristic grooves. 

For Herwig, he draws a parallel between the maverick designers behind his beloved bus stops and the woozy space disco that has come to soundtrack it. “Looking back you realise how really experimental Zodiac was,” he says. “Building a synthesiser from scratch because they couldn’t get a real one – that spirit of creativity, I thought was just a perfect fit.” 

The Soviet Bus Stops soundtrack is out now via Fuel-Design and the documentary is screening at film festivals throughout 2023. Photography by Christoper Herwig