Roadside Picnic: Russian Urban Decay in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds

We write about the death that we know, and we write about the apocalypse that we anticipate. In the 19th century, as physics and chemistry became more sophisticated and we learned that one day the energy in the universe would cool, we became more interested in the death caused by decay. We saw an end not caused by a massive attack or sudden event, but a slow, creeping death. It’s not the apocalypse which we refer to as ‘Biblical’: lakes boiling, locusts swarming, famine. It’s an apocalypse of the cyclical, endless entropy of all creation. Later on, the world wars will remind us of the catastrophic events that once haunted us. We’ll learn first hand that we are capable of the sort of ending that once seemed the domain of gods.

But this is about the slow creeping death. And like all apocalypses, it’s deeply personal. It’s about our works falling apart..My dad would say in typical, depressing Russian fashion “nichto ne vechno pod lunoi” — literally, nothing under the moon is eternal. The word ‘awful’ comes to mind. It’s a word that used to refer to God.

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is set on a fictional Russian occupied island. The mechanical inspiration is (as players were quick to discern) Battle Royale. But in terms of design, the depiction is a bit more hazy. Though I think it’s not a stretch to say that the Slavic grafitti and powerplant evokes Chernobyl.

And in some ways, Americans don’t fully grasp Chernobyl. Its consequences aren’t taught in school, but broadly, Chernobyl may be one of the biggest factors in the fall of the Soviet Union. And the imagery of a irradiated city is one that’s stuck in the cultural craw of the west. The lines between urban decay and abandonment blurring and becoming fading.

Some things are created to last and some are created to be temporary. Traditionally, it’s the former that affects us to most. “Look upon my works…” But that was before industrialization. Ruinenlust is the fascination people have with ruins. The ruins we usually love are king’s ruins, not abandoned cities. Though this isn’t always the case, as exemplified by the sizeable urban explorer subreddit. And some critics say that that love often plays on the view that the city is corrupt, antithetical to the pastoral. That distinction is often drawn along racial lines.

For me, that urban decay is my home. Russia industrialized quickly, urban housing couldn’t keep up with the amount of new urban denizens. The solution was quick, cheap, prefabricated mass-housing built in the mid-20th century. They were called Khrushchevkas after the Secretary of Russia at the time. Most were never intended to last for longer than 20 years. I was born and lived in a Moscow Khrushchevka for the first few years of my life. I remember the peeling linoleum floor on our small porch, which was slanted in a way that used to make me wonder if it was safe.

I loved it. I saw it as a home. I saw the way my family added character to the apartment. I smelled the scent of laundry dried in the air and sun hanging on the aforementioned porch. I remember the wooden benches in the kitchen. They were attached to the wall, unlike any seating I ever saw in America. There was an elevator in our apartment too. I’d come back from shopping, the elevator would sink slightly when I got in, and I’d pull a thick, iron folding-gate closed.

“They’re tearing it down.” My mom says to me when I ask her about it the apartment.

“You were delivered there, you know.” My dad adds. (I do know.)

“What’re they building?” I asked.

“More expensive housing. All the people that lived there are getting forced out.” My mom tells me.

This isn’t just a Moscow thing, but it’s a trend that’s begun to characterize the city as much as the Red Square or the Bolshoi Theater. Temporary housing is that it’s still a home to someone. My apartment was never meant to last, but my family and every family that lived there gave it life. And it would be standing for a much longer time if it wasn’t for class gentrification. It wasn’t being torn down because the expiration date had arrived; that day had come and gone. It’s to be demolished because there are wealthier people who want to live there.

In other Russian cities, the Khrushchyovkas are being abandoned and remain unreplaced. The Khrushchyovka image is so common that you’ve likely seen them and not known. They’re often identifiable by tapestries on the wall; hanging because insulation is so poor. That’s what PUBG evokes for me. Abandonment, affordable housing. A depiction of a ruined city, devoid of any life. But paradoxically, that void reminds me of life.

Back when Khrushchevkas were first built, most residents liked their homes. Most of them came from places without running water. And my memories of my home and my community are positive. That’s something that can probably be attributed to my youth. My memory of exploring Moscow are wistful memories of large, strange structures. It’s odd growing up in half a ghost town, and unlike the neat suburbs where I lived in America, Moscow’s architecture begged endless questions.

Watching Russian sci-fi movies when I was a kid, I was always struck by the environments. The explanation for them is simple. When you want to depict ‘otherness’ and have a small budget, how do you do that? You film in a field or other empty environment and maybe use a matte painting. Think of Star Trek’s various planets which are California plateaus. Emptiness as visual shorthand for strangeness.

definitely not earth (Secret of the Iron Door)