(Image: Vyacheslav Argenberg; Stalinist architecture: Moscow State University)
Imagine being given unlimited power to stamp your personal vision over an entire country. Imagine being able to dictate exactly how public spaces should be shaped, how the skyline should look. In the 1930s and ’40s, Russia did exactly this. With all power concentrated in the hands of the notorious Joseph Stalin, every aspect of domestic and foreign policy became a game of self-preservation. Professionals from all walks of life, from writers, to doctors, to architects, struggled to guess exactly what the dictator might like.
The result of this last one was a profusion of a style known as ‘Stalinist architecture’ (aka Stalinist Empire style and Socialist Classicism). Defined by a bombastic, Neoclassical Revival style that has variously been described as ‘grandiose’ and resembling ‘a wedding cake’, it shaped the skyline of Russian cities for decades to come. Often maligned and occasionally loved, the Stalinist style today remains one of the most imposing and controversial architectural forms in history.
Stalinist Architecture: Raddison Royal Hotel
(Image: Sergey Korovkin 84)
Rising from the shores of the Moskva River, the vast bulk of the Raddison Royal Hotel (also known by its original name Hotel Ukraina) rises from the landscape like an overwrought 19th century leviathan. Personally commissioned by Stalin and designed by Arkady Mordvinov and Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky, it eventually threw open its doors in 1957, when the excesses of the Stalin era were already fading into memory. For the next 19 years, the vast Moscow building would remain the tallest hotel in the world.
Always grandiose, the former Hotel Ukraina today is the last word in Muscovite luxury. There are ballrooms, bars, upscale restaurants and decadence galore within its white neoclassical walls, not to mention the fleet of luxury river yachts always on standby. Currently owned by the improbably-named Azeri billionaire God Nisanov, the hotel has also become the site of one of Russia’s great non-state art collections. Around 1,200 paintings by Soviet artists are housed here today, one of the biggest such collections in the world.
Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building
Looking like a modern-day castle, the turreted, terraced tower of the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building stands on the edges of the Moskva River, sternly watching the ships come and go. Originally a (relatively) simple Stalinist apartment block that was completed in 1940, the building later expanded upwards and outwards until it became the 32-floor megastructure you see above. Designed by Dmitry Chechulin, it was one of the few Stalinist skyscrapers that Stalin himself lived to see completed. It was finished in mid-1952. The Soviet dictator died in early 1953.
For fans of Stalinist architecture, the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building is known as one of the ‘Seven Sisters’, a collection of seven vast Soviet skyscrapers that dominate Moscow’s skyline. Alongside the Raddison Hotel Royal, it is one of the ‘sisters’ that ended up looming over the river, defining the views of the waterfront. While Moscow’s Seven Sisters are not universally loved, they are certainly all icons of Stalinist architecture’s unique mix of classical, Gothic and baroque elements, as we’re about to find out…
Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya Hotel
By the standards of Stalinist architecture, the Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya Hotel can seem like something of a letdown. Rising a mere 26 floors above the surrounding Moscow streets, its aspirations to grandness seem to drag this smaller structure down rather than elevating it into the realm of vision and myth. Looking like a New York skyscraper redesigned by one with a love of points and towers, the overall effect can be almost disappointing. Until you look inside. Since it was completed in 1954, this ‘sister’ has been one of the most-luxurious hotels in the whole of Russia.
To peek inside is to glimpse the psyche of the rich and powerful, and see how little such tastes change whether you’re living in a Soviet or capitalist society. Marble, chandeliers, gold and luxury are the major orders of the day, and the result is both gaudy and breathtaking. Bought by the Hilton corporation in 2008, it now serves as one of their flagship Russian properties, bringing Soviet kitsch to today’s international rich.
Kudrinskaya Square Building
This is it. The final one of the Russia’s iconic Seven Sisters to be built. Completed in 1954 (the Raddison was built earlier, but opened later), Kudrinskaya Square Building was a last hurrah for a style of architecture that was already falling out of favour. Khrushchev was consolidating his power, and would soon make his famous speech denouncing Stalin. The Stalin-influenced Academy of Architecture would be abolished a year later, and the era of Soviet wedding cake design would come to an ignominious end (in Russia, at least).
Given the circumstances of its construction, Kudrinskaya Square therefore winds up seeming more than a little gloomy. Seen from afar, it’s rather beige and block-like, the surreal power of the earlier Seven Sisters dwarfed by poor planning choices. It’s also something of a monument to flamboyance. The apartments at the top are nowadays inhabited by Moscow’s super rich, a different kind of elite from those high-ranking Soviets who once used it.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia (Main Building)
(Image: Jack Versloot)
In the beating heart of Moscow, towering over the surrounding buildings of Smolenskaya Square, sits one of the most-impressive designs of the entire Stalinist architectural era. The main building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs rises 27 storeys into the air, topped off with a glowing metal spire. The front is somewhere between the grandiose Art Deco styling of the Empire State Building and a background building from Fritz Lang’s hallucinatory 1927 sci-fi epic Metropolis. Illuminated at night, it seems to fairly radiate power, a symbol of Russia’s still potent place on today’s world stage.
The work of V.G. Gelfreih and A.B. Minkus, the building was quickly ushered through the planning stages in the post-war period, breaking ground as early as 1948. After a conflict that had seen around 20 million of its citizens killed and entire cities levelled, the USSR was desperate to reestablish itself as a global power. Reportedly, Stalin himself remarked that the lack of skyscrapers in Russia’s ruined cities was an embarrassment, allegedly sparking off the entire Seven Sisters program. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wasn’t the first example of Stalinist architecture to get underway, it was still one of the most-powerful designs. Even today, its sheer scale can still take visitors’ breath away.
Moscow State University Main Building
(Image: Alfred Schaerli)
And here is where it all began. Designed by Lev Rudnev, the Moscow State University main building is where the whole Seven Sisters project started. The first to be given the go-ahead for construction (it would actually break ground after two others had been begun), it’s from Rudnev’s vision that the whole style we know as Stalinist architecture essentially flowed. It’s also the tallest of all the Stalinist skyscrapers. While the building itself tops out at 36 floors, the roof is crowned by a 57 metre metal spire that projects out into the leaden Moscow skies. The spire is topped by a star that itself weighs 12 tons. Everything about the Moscow State University’s main building is massive.
It’s also seems evident from a cursory glance that Rudnev was the most talented of all the Seven Sisters’ architects. The university has the same spikes, spires and follies as the rest, but this time everything is working in harmony. The proportions are such that the building’s tremendous height is accentuated, rather than merely making it look bulky. The approach is impressive rather than merely being vertigo-inducing. You could argue all day about the merits or otherwise of Stalinist architecture in general. But it’s hard to deny that, with this building, Rudnev created the movement’s greatest masterpiece.
Red Gate Building
This was the first of the Seven Sisters to break ground, with construction commencing as early as 1947. Designed by Alexey Dushkin, it topped out at a comparatively modest 24 floors, its spire reaching its apex over 100 metres below the very top of the Moscow State University spire. Perhaps the modesty of the Red Gate Building was thanks to its intended function. While its side wings contained 300 apartments between them, the main tower was intended to be the headquarters of the Ministry of Construction of Heavy Industry. Away from party grandees and off visitors’ radars, it perhaps naturally didn’t reach epic proportions.
Today, the Red Gate Building still lacks the recognition of its larger, more-famous cousins. Yet that hasn’t stopped it from carving out a niche for itself among many tourists’ itineraries. For those truly interested in Stalinist architecture, the Red Gate Building simply cannot be missed.
Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva (VDNKh)
Moving away from the Seven Sisters, we come to Moscow’s sprawling VDNKh (Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy). A collection of wildly-different buildings and pavilions thrown up alongside each other, the VDNKh was originally conceived as a kind of Soviet answer to the World’s Fair exhibitions of the 20th century. Featuring pavilions from across the USSR, it wound up being a conglomeration of regional variations on the bombastic Stalinist style.
Originally slated for a 1937 opening, the VDNKh was delayed two years until 1939. In a chilling reminder of how dark these times were, the head of the project, Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky, was arrested for the missed deadline and not freed from jail until 1943. When the complex finally opened, it was to vast crowds, who flocked to see the different pavilions from the governments of Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and others. Still standing today, these varied buildings make for an interesting diversion – and a reminder that the USSR was not one country, but a collection of endlessly diverse regions.
Stalinist Architecture in Poland: Nowa Huta
(Image: Piotr Tomaszewski)
Nowa Huta is the part of Krakow tourists seldom see. Located many miles from the much-photographed monuments of Habsburg rule, the haunting old Jewish quarter and the remnants of World War Two, Nowa Huta is as off the beaten track as you can get in so popular a city. Yet for fans of the unusual, it almost can’t be missed. Here, grafted onto the very edges of one of Poland’s oldest cities, is perhaps the largest Soviet housing estate ever built.
Started in 1949, Nowa Huta (literally: new steel mill) was the ultimate expression of Soviet central planning. A whole new town was essentially built from scratch, centred around a vast steelworks named after Vladimir Lenin. As part of this thrust into the socialist future, the designers ensured the low-rise buildings carried traces of the Stalinist style then all the rage in Moscow. Transported onto such a small scale (the apartment blocks don’t even reach 10 storeys), the effect was unusual, to say the least. Not that this deterred the architects. Nowa Huta was destined to be the model Soviet town, and that meant liberal usage of Stalinist architecture in its design. At the time, Nowa Huta was visionary. Today, it is merely a curiosity.
Palace of Culture and Science
There’s an old Warsovian joke that says the absolute best place in the whole of the Polish capital is standing at the very top of the monumental Palace of Science and Culture. Why? Because it’s the one place in Warsaw where you can’t see the damn thing.
Given to the people of Poland in 1955 as a peace offering after the Red Army allowed the Nazis to flatten Warsaw, the palace was deliberately designed to look like a long-lost cousin of the Seven Sisters. They even got Lev Rudnev back to work on the project, who deftly topped it with a spire nearly as tall as his Moscow State University one (though not quite as tall, it’s worth noting). Since given a makeover to scrub out the more noticeable Communist elements, the Palace of Culture and Science still looks like an escapee from mid-20th century Moscow. For some Poles, it is one historic reminder too many of their suffering under Communism.
Which isn’t to say the Palace is without its merits. Seen at night, its towering form illuminated high above Poland’s energetic, bustling capital, it still has a strange kind of allure, even all these years after the death of the style that gave birth to it.