February 20, 2013

What ever happened to the Russian Culture Center in Kabul?

Russian Culture Center in Kabul 1982 - 2012 (Source)
For the first year I lived in Afghanistan, I would often drive past a massive bombed-out concrete structure of juxtaposing angles and bullet-riddled walls.  Everyday I thought about how I would like to explore this monstrous building, but put it off for another time.  Then last summer I passed by the building on Darulaman Road and saw it being raised to the ground.  I ran up to the entrance and asked the construction workers if I could take some photos and they looked at me with suspicion and told me to leave.  I expected to see an article in the New York Times or elsewhere about the loss of this iconic building, but no one wrote anything.  Nine months later, it is about time someone wrote an obituary for the Russian Culture Center of Kabul.

Destruction of Russian Culture Center, Kabul Afghanistan.  Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.

Russian Culture Center, Source Unknown
Sadly I did not know the center very well. The old one was torn down with the intention to build a new Russian Culture Center. The original was greatly scarred by bullets and bombings from the 1990s.  It was also famous as a place for opium addicts to convene.

Often when driving past, I had the same taxi driver who grew up in Kabul then spent much of his adult life abroad in Russia.  I asked him if it was safe to explore the premises, and he told me that there are many drug addicts in the building but they are probably harmless.  I then asked him if there were any risks from landmines or other unexploded ordinance and he paused, smiled, then laughed.  After catching his breath he said "you have no need to worry about landmines, all the drug addicts would have cleared them!"  It took me a moment to realize that he meant all the landmines were gone because of the addicts who walked on them.

I also heard that one could find pieces of old film in the rubbles from the film library previously housed in the building.  Blown to bits, none of the film survives, but fragments are scattered about. 

At present there is nothing to replace the Russian Culture Center.  There are plans to construct a new version of the building on the same site, and the plans were to be completed by 2013, but at present there is only some modest construction on site.  If anything does get finished there, I expect it will be about two more years.  Of course who knows what will happen in Afghanistan, in two years, anything could happen.

Proposed Design for Future Russian Culture Center, Kabul Afghanistan.