Aral: The Soviet Atlantis

by Olesya Turkina
Translated from Russian by Brian Droitcour

For the catalog Walking the Sea (published by Hatje Cantz, 2014) on the occasion
of the solo exhibition at the Blaffer Museum of Art (Houston)

Andrei Platonov’s 1922 short story “A Satan of Thought” is about an engineer named Vogulov who reorganizes the planet.[1] In order to manage air currents, he levels mountain ranges and digs gigantic tunnels into the ground, thus changing the global climate. Flowers bloom in Siberia, the thawed territories become grain fields, and people migrate en masse to the newly warm Antarctica. But the inventive mind of engineer Vogulov doesn’t stop at these useful improvements. By gaining mastery of the structure of the universe, he discovers a means of destroying it—an incredibly powerful explosion that will produce a new super-energy. To realize his dream, he inoculates the working class with energy microbes, and they live their whole lives in a moment. Their combined vital forces create the quantity of the explosive substance of ultralight needed to blow up the world.

The redistribution of the earth’s topography and climate was more than just a writer’s utopian fantasy. Platonov was, after all, a civil engineer who dreamed of easing man’s earthly lot by changing the climate—though he wasn’t willing to pay for it with a planetary explosion. Furthermore, over the course of the twentieth century, the world was actively transformed, both symbolically in the arts and physically in its landscape. And if the most radical transformations were initially suggested by artists, then the mission was subsequently taken up by the state. In 1915, the Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov founded the utopian Society of the Presidents of Planet Earth or Union 317 (a number to which he attributed special significance, with connections to the speed of light and the earth’s revolution). It was to have 317 members, who would serve as the leaders of the future worldwide “government of Time.” Inspired by Khlebnikov, after the Russian Revolution Vladimir Tatlin began a model for the Monument to the Third International in 1919. In its completed form, this gigantic structure would have rooms for meetings of the Third International, printing houses, libraries, a telegraph office . . . all at an elevation of 400 meters. According to Dmitry Dimakov, Tatlin’s tower was a gigantic astronomical device, measuring the cycles of time discovered by Khlebnikov.[2] A radio antenna crowning the tower was to serve as the stylus of a sundial. Two inclined spirals would contain buildings of varying geometrical shapes stacked on top of each other: one meant to represent personhood in time, while the other stood for society. Four glass volumes on the inside of the tower, spinning on their axes at speeds varying from one revolution per year to one per hour, constituted a unique optic device. As sunlight passed through the glass, it fell on the spirals and indicated the time. The tower could thus record the oscillation of events and counter-events in correspondence with Khlebnikov’s theory of cyclical time, the periodic victories and defeats, the rise and fall of world historical figures.[3] According to legend, there were plans to build a tower in each nation where the Revolution succeeded. But not a single tower was ever built to scale. The model (only two were made) was displayed at the eighth All-Russian Congress of Soviets and other exhibitions and triumphantly borne at parades, but it was then lost. Avant-garde ideas and artistic practices were banned soon thereafter. Meanwhile, a planetary approach to the earth’s surface became a factor in the great construction sites of Stalinist communism.

Inoculated with the energy microbes of Stalinist enthusiasm, workers leveled mountains to reveal the coalfields beneath. Control over waterways became a top priority in the ideology of Soviet modernization. Why was the element of water destined to serve the land of the Soviets? Because hydroelectric power stations produced cheap energy. According to Lenin’s famous formula, communism is Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country. In part, the GOELRO plan stipulated the construction of ten hydroelectric power stations.[4] Water is a free and renewable resource, and the labor force that was needed to build the dams soon became free as well. The construction sites for canals, dams, reservoirs, and hydroelectric power stations were staffed primarily by Gulag prisoners. Thousands of prisoners worked to complete one of the last Stalinist utopias—the Main Turkmen Canal, which was to unite the Amu Darya River with the Volga, the Aral Sea with the Caspian and Black Seas, and the Baltic with the Arctic, and turn the Karakum Desert into a blossoming oasis.

On cinema screens and propaganda posters of the nineteen-thirties, forties, and fifties, peasants of Soviet Central Asia performed ablutions with the water that flowed through the canal—an offering to the new deities of social justice and industrialization. Far-reaching plans for the irrigation of arid regions were proposed in the nineteenth century, but at that time they seemed impossible. The extreme labor intensiveness of the process, the absence of technology, and difficult climate conditions meant that attempts to create a common irrigation system were doomed to failure. But starting in the nineteen-thirties, canals and reservoirs were built in Central Asia, and at the same time grandiose plans were made to irrigate the deserts and dry steppes in order to cultivate cotton and provide food for the land of the Soviets.

Outlandish ideas became reality due to the combination of the socialist economy and slave labor––totalitarianism and energy microbes. In 1948, the famous Soviet geographer, geologist, and science fiction writer Vladimir Obruchev suggested that Joseph Stalin divert the northern rivers toward the Aral-Caspian Depression.[5] The project initially was rejected due to potential adverse effects on the environment, yet the Soviet Union returned to it several times. It was Obruchev—who wrote stories such as “Plutonia,” about the discovery of Atlantis in the center of the earth amid prehistoric creatures, and “Land of Sannikov,” about a bountiful oasis lost in the ice floes of the Arctic—who invented such a fanciful solution for irrigation. From the nineteen-sixties until the Perestroika movement, dozens of Soviet institutions worked on the plan to redirect Siberia’s rivers to Central Asia. Public protest alone stopped the realization of the project, which unexpectedly returned in a proposal to redirect the northern rivers made in 2002 by the then-mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov.

In the late nineteen-forties, it was decided to irrigate massive areas of land using the waters of the Amu Darya, which fed the Aral Sea. The earlier idea of making free water available to all, which came with Soviet power, was effectively supplanted by the idea of irrevocably evaporating cubic kilometers of water from the surface of the Amu Darya and the Aral Sea. One could say that the demon of reason sat in almost all of the major projects, and no one was particularly bothered by the fact that this plan would be paid for by lowering the level of the Aral Sea, and possibly by its total disappearance. Prominent hydraulic scientist Alexander Askochensky, who worked on this as well as other canal projects, knew what would happen: “The mirror of the sea, evaporating water in the western part of the lowlands, would shift to the east, closer to the mountains, which would certainly humidify the piedmont climate. The network of water sources would be changed with reservoirs that, located in the upper and middle flows of rivers, will positively influence the climate.”[6] The cardinal change to the earth’s surface and, accordingly, the climate, went from a fantasy to a production goal. The remaining lifespan of the Aral Sea as a consequence of the project was estimated to be at least two centuries, not the few dozen years it turned out to be.

In 1950, construction of the Main Turkmen Canal began. It was to stretch 1,200 kilometers, from the Amur Darya to Krasnovodsk (now Türkmenba?y in Turkmenistan), and was called one of the “greatest construction sites of communism,” along with the Kuibyshev and Stalingrad hydroelectric power stations on the Dnepr River, the South Ukrainian and Northern Crimean canals, and the Volga-Don shipping canal. Major construction projects were designed to provide the country with cheap electricity, food, and a networked system of waterways. In sum, the climates and ecologies of vast territories irreversibly changed. Monasteries and ancient cities drowned. Those who tried to protest were sent to the Gulag. The rational use of natural and human resources was not a factor in the planning of great construction sites. What mattered was building the highest dam, digging the longest canal, constructing the mightiest power station, irrigating (or desiccating) territory commensurate in size to several European nations. In a communist utopia, everything had to be bigger, better, taller. The creation of irrigation and water supply systems became part of Stalin’s great plan to transform nature.[7]

In 1953, after Stalin’s death, construction of the Main Turkmen Canal was stopped; the following year, work began on the Karakum Canal, which was to release the waters of the Amu Darya into another riverbed altogether. This canal was 1,445 kilometers long, and when its construction was completed in 1988, it carried about forty-five percent of the waters from the Amu Darya, contributing to the demise of the Aral Sea.

The Aral was the world’s fourth-largest inland sea, after the Caspian Sea, Lake Superior in North America, and Lake Victoria in Africa. In the nineteen-sixties, the Aral Sea exceeded 64,000 square kilometers in area, measuring about 500 kilometers long and 235 kilometers wide. Rare animals inhabited the area, and its waters were abundant with fish, which were caught and raised by collective fisheries. On the one hand, you could say that the Aral fell victim to Stalin’s plan for the total transformation of nature, lasting many years after his death. On the other hand, some people believe that if, as Stalin intended, the Main Turkmen Canal had been built instead of the Karakum Canal, perhaps the consequences would not have been so catastrophic.

Starting in the nineteen-sixties, the struggle to maximize the cotton harvest, the chief export product of Central Asia, became increasingly intense. Dozens of research institutes, thousands of excavators, and an army of workers and engineers created networks of canals that increased the production of raw cotton several times over. The waters of the Amu Darya were pumped into artificial lakes and delivered to fields, losing the better part of their moisture along the way, absorbed into the sands of the Karakum. The Aral Sea immediately began to dry up. In the late nineteen-eighties it became clear that an environmental catastrophe had occurred. In 1990, the Aral Sea turned into two rapidly drying lakes. The islands first became peninsulas, linked to dry land, and then disappeared entirely. On the largest part, once occupied by a giant sea, the Aralkum Desert took shape.

Paradoxically, the results of Stalin’s plan to transform the climate and change the planet’s surface did not result in the utopia imagined by the builders of communism, but rather a reality that had acquired certain fantastical elements. Cause and effect, utopia and reality, traded places, as if in reverse perspective. The irrigation of the desert led to the desiccation of the sea. The Aral is an upside-down symbol of a Soviet Atlantis—it did not disappear underwater, the water disappeared on it.

The process of the Aral’s disappearance was so rapid that “natural” reasons were sought to explain why it happened. Geologists proposed that the Aral and Caspian Seas were connected by a subterranean canal in the lithosphere. Depending on solar activity and the speed of the earth’s revolution, the direction of the flow in these waterways switched between the Caspian to the Aral and from the Aral to the Caspian. The Aral’s bed was in an earthquake zone, and therefore seismologists decided that water periodically entered the openings that formed there. Climatologists believe that over the last twenty years the climate in Central Asia has become drier, and the canals significantly increased the area where water evaporated.

However it happened, the plans for global irrigation resulted in catastrophic drought. Cotton fields turned the sea into a desert by devouring the moisture that had fed it. The socialist rhetoric that only the unified effort of an entire people could bend nature to human will turned out to work flawlessly. But the mechanism’s outcome was not entirely predictable. In accordance with Stalin’s plan, it took little more than fifteen years to change the climate of a territory covering 120 million hectares of land. Nature changed. Where people had struggled with drought, problems now arose with peat formation, salt marshes, the death of plants, and the extinction of endangered species. While the hungry steppe became an oasis, the Aral Sea turned into a desert, where ships lay stranded in the sand, and abandoned cities and villages stand as remnants of a lost civilization.

This upside-down Atlantis was the destination of artist Anton Ginzburg. Walking across the dry sea is possible only once a year, when the temperatures are at their lowest. With the disappearance of the Aral Sea, the climate changed, becoming much hotter and drier. Furthermore, the artist had to obtain special permission in order to film in the basin of the waterless Aral Sea. In Soviet times, access to the disappearing sea was strictly limited. Perhaps for that reason, early in the Perestroika movement, when the ecological catastrophe became widely known, there was a feeling that the sea had evaporated only for a moment, as in a magical tale.

The zone is surrounded by legend. At the bottom of the vanished sea are geoglyphs shaped like giant letters of an alphabet, and even drawings of a rocket. Teeth of gigantic sharks can be found here, and there are rumors of ancient Cyclops burial grounds. The vanished island Barsa-Kelmes, which can be translated as “island of no return,” recalls the Island of Doctor Moreau from H. G. Wells’s story: according to rumor, experimental biological weapons were tested on animals at a Soviet biological research base on the island. There is a legend of an underground passageway connecting the Aral to the Caspian Sea.

Many legends, such as stories about labyrinths and sunken cities, have been confirmed today by archaeological excavations. When the Aral dried up, remains of ancient structures and mausoleums dating from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries were found. It is believed that the Aral Sea has dried up and returned several times over history. A great Massagetean steppe once covered the seafloor. Saxon tribes lived here; it was the site of the kingdom of the Oghuz Turks. Dozens of cities were built on the Aral floor, surrounded by fertile fields with developed irrigation systems. In the fourteenth century, when the Aral last returned, it happened so quickly that citizens fled, leaving their possessions, which have been found in the recently excavated settlement Kerderi-2.

The discovery of a new Atlantis on the Aral’s floor, thanks to the irrigation of cotton fields that dried out the sea, seems particularly interesting in the context of Soviet theories of Atlantis. These had nothing to do with the New Atlantis imagined by Francis Bacon, a utopia governed by thinkers who united their efforts to explain and exploit natural phenomena. Though it was Soviet science and technology that made the irrigation of deserts possible, Soviet science fiction writers described Atlantis not as a Golden Age for mankind, but as socially and economically backwards albeit technologically advanced. In his 1922 novel Aelita, Alexei Tolstoy sent the surviving Atlanteans to Mars, where they created a high-tech civilization based on principles of inequality. It was discovered by the Soviet engineer Los and the Red Army solider Gusev, who went to Mars and started a revolution there. Alexander Belyaev, in his 1925 novel The Last Man from Atlantis, described an expedition sent in search of Atlantis, which had once been the center of a slave-owning society, lost as a result of a natural catastrophe that similarly coincided with a slave revolt. Belyaev suggested a new concept of Atlantis: in the spirit of Marxism-Leninism he stressed its sociopolitical formation in addition to geological issues connected with its locale.

Obruchev—the aforementioned author of the Siberian river reversal—worked on his own ideas about Atlantis and left behind an unfinished novel of that title. Soviet chemist Nikolai Zhirov, a founding figure in Soviet Atlantis studies, believed the island was related to the biogeography of the Quaternary Period, and ascribed scientific and archaeological purposes to the search for Atlantis. In his 1964 book Atlantis: Basic Problems of Atlantology, Zhirov set out an authentically scientific approach to the study of Earth’s past, in opposition to the pseudo-science that had previously surrounded Atlantis. As these concepts of paleontology and geology were developed, the Soviet Union produced a number of minor Atlantises—cities and villages that went underwater, literally, before people’s eyes as dams and hydroelectric power stations were built. Soviet power accelerated time; millennia were compressed into decades. It is no accident that a popular slogan at the time was “Time, Forward!,” also the name of a highly popular suite by composer Georgy Sviridov that was used as call signals on radio and television.[8]

It is difficult today to explain the global implications of a project intended to transform nature with an exclusively pragmatic goal: to grow the maximum crops of grain, cotton, and melons. At the foundation of this willful decision––involving hundreds of thousands of people, hundreds of engineering bureaus, millions of hectares of earth, and cubic meters of water, and creating a change in the earth’s surface and the direction of air currents––seems to be something more grandiose. What was the idea to be realized with the “advantages” of the planned Soviet economy and the totalitarian regime? The means of managing nature and human masses? The rational transformation of the surrounding world? The creation of a new landscape for a new man? The realization of a new environment that would cultivate the new man was the dream of the artists of the Russian avant-garde.

Anton Ginzburg calls this heroic transformation of the landscape a readymade earthwork. Unlike American artists of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, who transported hectares of sand through the desert, built hills of soil, created observatories, and made gigantic piers, the Soviet state, which changed the face of the earth, seems not to have had aesthetic objectives. But gigantic structures such as the sluices and levees of the Stalin period were invariably decorated with enormous sculptures of the leader, or with reliefs bearing images of the founders of Marxism-Leninism and sickle-and-hammer ornamentation. What’s striking today is not the scale of the dams, levees, hydroelectric stations, and networks of canals, but what Robert Smithson called the “infernal landscapes,” the sights we are left with after completion of these structures. The artist believed that the drossy heaps, abandoned quarries, and polluted rivers were more relevant to contemporary aesthetics than the cultured landscape.

Water, air currents, earth—all these elements were directly activated both in the Stalinist transformation of nature and in works of American land art. It is interesting that both Western artists making earthworks and the Soviet state did not represent the landscape, but rather interacted with it directly. Retroactively, moving from the present to the past, one can see in phrases such as “change the face of the earth” and “the transformation of nature” not only an ethics but also an aesthetics, albeit projected onto the future. The aphorism ascribed to Lenin—“ethics is our aesthetics”—was fully resonant with Western art of the nineteen-sixties and seventies. What, then, is the principal difference? It is that in official Soviet discourse there could be no talk of the entropy of the environment. The symbolic exchange—work for harvest, deserts for oasis, sea for steppe—seemed to exist out of time and was subjugated to the concrete goal like in an alchemical laboratory, with the difference that the philosopher’s stone was already found. It is no accident that Marxist-Leninist teaching was called the “cornerstone.” Through an unusual alchemical transmutation of its water, the Aral Sea became white gold—cotton.

Ginzburg’s project unites the impossible in everyday life—walking on the sea––with the even more paradoxical situation of transforming reality itself. The artist’s journey across the basin of the depleted inland sea seems much more fantastic today than a walk on the surface of the moon or Mars. If the artist went to another planet, then he would have to take into account factors such as gravity and atmosphere, and adapt to them by ensuring earthly conditions within a spacesuit or a cosmic station. But on the bottom of the dried Aral Sea, gravity and atmosphere, while remaining altogether earthly, radically change the very concept of the subject in connection to the utopian imagination.

Where utopia might be thought of as being an ideal place, an abundant paradise of fertile fields and enormous harvests, here it is instead an alogical space that, paradoxically, personifies the very essence of utopia. It is a place that is physically absent. The sea went away, and its crater has become a gigantic frame for this void. And through this framed void the artist moves, bearing a three-dimensional mirrored structure on his back.

One might say that the mirror plays the role of a camera without a camera—it reflects the landscape through which the artist moves. It shows a three-dimensional desert landscape turned inside out, dotted with remnants of Soviet structures airing in the sun like skeletons of prehistoric animals, and camels passing on the horizon. The mirrored structure also recalls Tatlin’s counter-reliefs, which protrude into three-dimensional space, and the reverse perspective of the Russian icon. Pavel Florensky wrote of reverse perspective as a means of presenting an event inaccessible to our sensory experience.[9] The icon cannot be visually entered like a space rendered using the principles of linear perspective. The meeting point of the two planes of reflected landscape on Anton Ginzburg’s back pushes the viewer out of the space of the event. The artist is no longer associated with the viewer. He serves as a detached camera lens, embodying Dziga Vertov’s dream of the kino-eye that records reality independently of the subjective gaze.

In the disappearance of the subject, Ginzburg’s journey resembles the wanderings of the dervish. His silent travels are an encounter with time. That which was at the bottom of the sea has acquired another life—it is resurrected in history. What was living is dead. The artist carries the image of a desert-sea across the infernal landscape of the Aral, an image he himself cannot see. As if disappearing in the Caspian Sea or in the irrigated cotton fields, or in the rifts in the earth’s core, or in the atmosphere, the inland sea becomes an inner mental landscape.


[1] An alternate title of the story is “Children of the Sun: A Fantasia.”

[2] In the early nineteen-nineties, Dmitry Dimakov with his colleagues built a contemporary reconstruction of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. See Sybille Fuchs and Marianne Arens, “Interview with Dmitrii Dimakov, Expert on Tatlin’s Work,” World Socialist Web Site,

[3] Khlebnikov believed that “the laws of the universe and the laws of numbers coincide.” In Boards of Fate, only one chapter of which was published during the poet’s lifetime, he generalized the laws of time he discovered—cyclicality in history, the repetition of the same events and personalities.

[4] GOELRO is the transliteration of the Russian acronym for the State Commission to Electrify Russia, which was founded on February 21, 1920.

[5] Obruchev was an expert on Siberia and Central Asia, and the chair of a commission to study permafrost.

[6] Documentation of the Scientific Session of the Academy of Sciences of the Uzbek SSR, September 2–5, 1949.

[7] “Stalin’s plan to transform nature”: so the newspapers called the plan Stalin initiated in 1948, activated by a decree of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, which was officially known as the plan for field-protective forestation, grass rotation, and construction of ponds and waterways to ensure high stable harvests in steppe and forest-steppe regions of the European part of the USSR. It was an unprecedented effort to change the climate in order to combat drought.

[8] Georgy Sviridov wrote the suite “Time, Forward!” in 1965 for a film of the same title by Mikhail Shveitser, dedicated to the construction of the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works. A fragment was used as the theme music for Vremya, the evening news program of Soviet Central Television.

[9] Father Pavel Florensky was an orthodox priest, theologian, scholar, philosopher, and poet, executed in 1937. In his 1922 work Iconostasis, he gave a theoretical basis for the features of the medieval Russian icon, including its reverse perspective.