A Shiny New Moscow . . . Sort of

Plans of Grandeur

The late 1920s and the 1930s were an iconic time in architectural history. It was the height of the Modernist movement with notable architects such as Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe of the Bauhaus, the Spanish architect Le Corbusier, and American architect Frank Lloyd Wright designing some of their most famous buildings. In the Soviet Union, architectural projects took a different stylistic route than the west. One of the major architectural and urban plans of the Soviet period was the rebuilding of Moscow. It was a massive undertaking signed in 1935—though revitalization had already begun as early as 1931—with plans to restructure the entire city in 10 years. The new city plan was based on a radial district structure that would increase Moscow to three times its size and allow for a population of 5,000,000. The designs would incorporate new highways and transportation systems, monumental government buildings, apartments, and lots of public parks. In the 1935 decree it was stated that “the construction and architectural design of the capital of the U.S.S.R. must perfectly reflect the grandeur and the beauty of the Socialist epoch.” (Denny, 17 Moments) The image created for Moscow was an idyllic vision of an urban utopia which is ironic considering the dark and bloody aspects of the 1930s under Stalin (a representation of this can be seen in the impressionist style painting New Moscow which I found amusing and made the cover image for my blog).  

Master Plan of Moscow, 1935

The World’s Best Metro

While plans for the rebuilding of Moscow were being created construction has already begin to create the “most modern conceivable system of transportation”—the Moscow Metro. Construction of the metro system began in 1932 and was backed by a massive publicity campaign by the Soviet government to ensure its success. The project was directed by Moscow Municipal Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev and Lazar Kaganovich, another leading politician who would later be purged by Khrushchev in 1957. The metro opened in 1935 and stations unexpectedly became tourist destinations. “Stations in central Moscow are like palaces, walls clad in precious stone, decorated by mosaics and grandiose sculptures.” (Moscow Metro, 17 Moments) Despite the Metro’s decorative elements that “mocked utility” it was a symbol of national pride and did much to improve the image of the party. (Freeze p.361)   

A Failed Utopian Symbol

The major architectural feat attempted under the reconstruction of Moscow—and the centerpiece of the new city plan—was the Palace of the Soviets. Planning for the building began as early as 1931 with an architectural competition that received 160 entries from both Soviet and foreign architects—including leading modernist architects Gropius and Le Corbusier. The final design selected was by Boris Iofan a Soviet architect, “his terraced, colonnaded palace was to be the tallest building in the world, soaring eighty meters above the recently completed Empire State Building. It was to be crowned with a massive, 90-meter tall statue of Lenin.” (Rebuilding of Moscow, 17 Moments) Many scholars have assumed that this design shows the Soviets rejection of western modernism, however, Sona Stephan Hoisington argues that this is not necessarily the case as many modernist designers were invited by the government to participate in the competition and were some of the top awarded designs. She further states that “what started out as a practical complex . . . was rapidly transformed into a symbol of Soviet might and the determination to overtake America and into a sacred space, a temple to the revolution . . .” (Stephan Hoisington, 42) To further press the point of Soviet power, the site chosen for the Palace of the Soviets was the massive Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer which was demolished in 1931. In place of the church, the Soviets wanted to construct something visually dominating that represented the power and authority of the government. (Stephan Hoisington, 47) Construction of the building began in 1935, but despite the Soviets grand plans for an architectural symbol, the Palace of the Soviets was never completed. Construction was halted with the Nazi invasion and in 1960 the largest outdoor heated swimming pool was opened on the site. (Rebuilding Moscow, 17 Moments)         

Stalinist Architectural and Shifting Cultural Sensibilities

The development of Stalinist architecture can be seen as a reflection of changing cultural sensibilities in the Soviet Union and as part of the “Great Retreat” from revolutionary values. The increased focus on the capital city as a symbol of the Soviet Union’s power, represents what Freeze calls ‘the consolidation of the center’. It “signaled a new hierarchy of values, by which society’s attention shifted from the many to the one outstanding representative.” (Freeze, p.361) This shifting focus towards achievements of the individual rather that the whole can be seen in other aspects of Soviet society in the 1930s such as Stakhanovism and Stalin’s Falcons. As part of this reconstruction, many large stadiums were built and encouraged the growing interest in competitive sports. (Physical Culture, 17 Moments) All these elements incorporated in the reconstruction of Moscow seem to contradict many revolutionary values of discipline and celebration of the many not the few. The use of monumental and more classical architecture as symbols of authority and power show the shift towards traditionalism that developed with Stalinism in the 1930s.

Sources

Denny, H. (2016, January 14). Soviet to Rebuild Moscow In 10 Years. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1936-2/rebuilding-of-moscow/soviet-to-rebuild-moscow-in-10-years/

Freeze, G. L. (2009). Russia: a history (Third). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Siegelbaum, L. (2017, June 18). Rebuilding of Moscow. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1936-2/rebuilding-of-moscow/

Stephan Hoisington, S. (2003). “Ever Higher”: The Evolution of the Project for the Palace of Soviets. Slavic Review62(1), 41–68.

von Geldern, J. (2015, October 13). Physical Culture. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1934-2/physical-culture/

von Geldern, J. (2015, August 27). The Moscow Metro. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1934-2/the-moscow-metro/

All images are from 17 Moments – Rebuilding of Moscow

12 thoughts on “A Shiny New Moscow . . . Sort of

  1. I thought your article was very well written and I enjoyed reading about the grand plans the Party had for Moscow. However my favorite part was the ending in which you wrote about the great retreat and the shift to the celebration of the one great representative and not the many. I think that can be seen in many aspects of Soviet Socialism as you mentioned, such as the “cult of personality” elevating one man over the rest of the party.

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    1. Hi,
      I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think it is really interesting how the built environment can be a tool to both influence and reflect societal and cultural changes, and in Stalinist architecture you can really see some of those shifts.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a lovely read! I have always seen pictures of the Metro in Moscow and had been blown away with how beautiful the architecture was, I never knew it was part of a greater plan to revitalize Moscow! I do have one question though, about the Palace of Soviets, was it going to be the party’s/government’s headquarters?

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    1. Yes, I believe that the Palace of the Soviets was imagined to function as a sort of government headquarters. It was intended as an administrative building but also containing a massive auditorium space for party meetings. Functionally I would liken it to the Capitol building but in terms of an iconic monument it was supposed to rival the Empire State building.

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  3. Agree with Alyssa — this was a pleasure to read! I really appreciate the way the first part of the post situates Soviet architecture in the broader context of modernism. Your post highlights how even as the more modernist currents in architecture receded in the face of renewed traditionalism, the sheer scale of the transformation of Moscow takes on significance. Thanks also for discussion the (planned) Palace of Soviets — when I started going to the Soviet Union in the eighties, there was still a huge outdoor swimming pool on that site. Now, of course, the Cathedral has been rebuilt.

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    1. Thanks Professor Nelson! I am glad you enjoyed it. This was a fun post to write as it combines a lot of things I find interesting. I imagine that a pool that massive was impressive to see. I am curious, how much it was used by people in the times you were there? Was it a public amenity that people actually took advantage of?

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  4. Your article was extremely satisfying to read especially with such a clean format. The architecture mentioned was crucial for building a new Russia. Creating a new headquarters was essential for showing the power of the party especially to other states. A really great read.

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    1. Thank you for you comments! Architecture is definitely an area the Soviets utilized to push their intended public image, but can sometimes be forgotten when discussing visual propaganda despite its importance/effectiveness.

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  5. Awesome post, Kayt! I also wrote about the Moscow metro in my post. I definitely agree that the metro was far from just a transportation system. It showed off to the world, especially the west, that the Soviet Union was equally capable of pulling off huge feats of art and architecture.

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    1. Thanks, the metro is definitely an interesting structure not only stylistically but also for its context in Soviet society and its relation to the western world.

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  6. I really enjoyed this post! I think one of the few redeeming things that came out of the Soviet system was certainly their taste in architecture and engineering. The Moscow Metro is just as functional as it is beautiful and that is a credit to its builders for sure. I think you could also say that the style of Architecture was also very much impacted by the very imposing nature of the Soviet society, and that perhaps the domineering structures were a subconscious acknowledgement of this fact.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree, the style of soviet architecture was most definitely influenced by the image and message the Soviet government was trying to portray. One of authority and power which led to massive and imposing structures. I would say it was probably far more than a subconscious act on their part and rather a strategic decision to further their party image.

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