The period from the 1930s through to the early 1950s is synonymous in Russia with the infamous Joseph Stalin. This complex, controversial figure exerted such a deep influence on every facet of life in Russia that historians refer to the time of Stalin’s leadership as the ‘Stalinist Era’, which developed a distinctive style in all spheres of art including architecture, or the so-called ‘Stalinist Empire style’. The Moscow State UniversityRussian: Moskovskiy gosudarstvennyi universitet or Московский государственный университет, the Exhibition of Achievements of the National EconomyRussian: Vystavka dostizheniy narodnogo hozyaystva or Выставка достижений народного хозяйства, or VDNKhRussian: ВДНХ, Gorky Central Park of Culture and LeisureRussian: Park Kultury imeni Gorkogo or Парк Культуры имени Горького and the Moscow MetroRussian: Moskovskiy metropoliten or Московский метрополитен are architectural constructions created by Russia’s leading architects for the common people, who lived among luxurious pubic buildings and structures, despite a rather modest personal lifestyle.
Splendour of new Moscow
Several architectural styles evolved simultaneously during Stalin’s time, such as Art Deco, exemplified by MayakovskayaRussian: Маяковская Metro Station designed by Alexey Dushkin, Neoclassicism, represented by the House on Mokhovaya StreetRussian: Dom na Mokhovoy or Дом на Моховой built by I. Zholtovsky, and the Stalinist Empire style noted for its luxurious style and its plethora of decorative elements. Architects of the time found inspiration in the Baroque and Late Neoclassical styles. Revolutionary avant-garde architectural designs were relegated to the past, giving place to stately buildings featuring arches, columns, porticos and pilasters.
In the aftermath of World War II, Moscow was to become an exemplary Soviet city and a symbol of new life and progress. TverskayRussian: Tverskaya ulitsa or Тверская улицаa StreetRussian: Tverskaya ulitsa or Тверская улица, the Garden RingRussian: Sadovoe koltso or Садовое кольцо and Kutuzovsky AvenueRussian: Kutuzovskiy prospekt or Кутузовский проспект were enlarged and redesigned. Since new buildings were symbolic of the Victory in World War II, and industrial breakthroughs represented the rise of the new world, the finest examples of the Stalinist Empire architectural style mostly include public buildings, such as universities, hotels, park zones and metro stations.
The finest stalinist buildings
A highly characteristic example of the Stalinist Empire style is the Red Army TheatreRussian: Tsentralnyi teatr Krasnoy Armii or Центральный театр Красной Армии (now, the Central Academic Theatre of the Russian ArmyRussian: Tsentralnyi akademicheskiy teatr Rossiyskoy armii or Центральный академический театр Российской армии) located at 2, Suvorovskaya SquareRussian: Suvorovskaya ploschad or Суворовская площадь. A high-columned gallery encompasses this large, solemn building along its perimeter, and the stage designed by architects K. Alabyan and V. Simbirtsev is so vast that it has sometimes provided a venue for reconstructions of tank battles. This building is symbolic of the might of the Soviet army.
The VDNKh, or, i.e. the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy (119, Mira AvenueRussian: prospekt Mira or проспект Мира), is a huge Stalinist Empire architectural ensemble dating back to 1939, when numerous luxurious pavilions occupied the thoroughly re-designed territory to house the first All-Union Agricultural ExhibitionRussian: Vsesoyuznaya selskohozyaystvennaya vystavka or Всесоюзная сельскохозяйственная выставка. It immediately became popular with filmmakers and embodied the future-oriented Soviet reality. For example, Grigory Aleksandrovfamous Soviet-Russian filmmaker of 20s-40s shot his movie, Shining PathRussian: Svetlyi put or Светлый путь here in 1940.
The renovated VDNKh was inaugurated in 1954, after WWII. The solemn buildings reminiscent of ancient temples and palaces are exposition pavilions, one for each Soviet republic and for each major sector of the national economy. Columned porticos, pediments, domes and lavish sculptural adornments – all these luxurious elements come together with well-arranged flower beds and fountains set up along the alleys. For many Muscovites, the VDNKh symbolized the post-war recovery. It is also a great place for strolling, as its overall appearance creates a festive atmosphere.
The Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure (9, Krymsky ValRussian: Крымский Вал Street) occupies the territory of the former All-Soviet Agricultural Exhibition and a part of Neskuchny GardenRussian: Neskuchnyi sad or Нескучный сад. It opens with a monumental entrance gate, yet another Stalinist architectural landmark designed by Y. Shchuko in 1955. Simple, succinct shapes, stately size, tall columns, and stucco reliefs lend an air of grandeur to the park.
Special emphasis was given to the Moscow MetroRussian: Moskovskiy metropoliten or Московский метрополитен. The epitome of the Stalinist style is KomsomolskayaRussian: Комсомольская Metro Station on the Circular lineRussian: Koltsevaya liniya or Кольцевая линия designed by A. Shchusevan acclaimed Russian and Soviet architect, featuring graceful archways, stucco mouldings and mosaic images of Russia’s prominent figures. KiyevskayaRussian: Киевская, BelorusskayaRussian: Белорусская, Ploschad RevolyutsiiRussian: Площадь Революции, NovoslobodskayaRussian: Новослободская… Each of these metro stations is truly a work of art.
Of all the construction which took place during the period, residential apartment buildings are of particular importance. Despite the fact that Moscow badly needed more accommodation, every apartment building boasted an individual design and unique decoration with columns, balconies and stately passage arches. Most of these buildings are located in downtown Moscow, in particular, on Frunzenskaya EmbankmentRussian: Frunzenskaya naberezhnaya or Фрунзенская набережная, Tverskaya Street and Leningradsky AvenueRussian: Leningradskiy prospekt or Ленинградский проспект. These buildings are still very comfortable to live in, with their large apartments, high ceilings and well thought-out designs.
The so-called Seven Sisters, or Stalin’s high-risesRussian: Stalinskie vysotki or Сталинские высотки, are well worth mentioning. The ‘Decree on the construction of high-rise buildings in Moscow’, issued in the late 1940s, aimed at building seven high-rises intended for different purposes: a university, a ministry, hotels and apartment buildings. These new landmarks built with amazing speed were commissioned in the late 1950s.
The tallest of the Seven Sisters is the 240-metre high building of the Lomonosov Moscow State UniversityRussian: Moskovskiy gosudarstvennyi universitet im. M. Lomonosova or Московский государственный университет им. М. Ломоносова (1, Leninskiye GoryRussian: Ленинские Горы Street), designed by Lev Rudnev. It served as a symbol of what the Soviet government prioritised at the time – the development of science and education. Situated on Sparrow HillsRussian: Vorobyovy gory, or Воробьевы горы, the main MSURussian: МГУ building towered over the Moskva RiverRussian: Moskva-reka or Москва-река, dominating the panorama of the entire district – it still dominates this panorama today. This building houses the University President’s office, several faculties, the student dormitory, housing for academic staff, an assembly hall and a student theatre. MSU students still joke that it is possible to inhabit this building without ever going outside, since the area is entirely self-contained – a variety of shops, cafeterias, a gym and a swimming pool, a cultural centre with a busy concert schedule and even a museum are all located here.
Both the exteriors and the interiors of the MSU building are truly impressive, with stunning sculptural decoration by Vera Mukhinaa prominent Soviet sculptor, polished jasper, granite and marble columns, stucco work and wooden panels. The building is topped with a tall glass-clad spire ending in a five-pointed star. Many legends surround the Seven Sisters. For instance, each of the five major building blocks was intended to serve as a pedestal for a giant sculpture with a statue of Mikhail Lomonosov in the middle. Stories about MSU’s cellars are particularly interesting. Legend has it that they hide the entrance to the alternative underground transportation system. Vast and deep, suited for complex engineering communications and designed to handle direct bomb strikes, these cellars are still restricted to the public and maintain their status as classified areas.
The remaining high-rises are equally interesting. Kutuzovsky Avenue starts with the 34-storey Hotel UkrainaRussian: gostinitsa «Ukraina» or гостиница «Украина», boasting a stunning location the banks of the Moskva River. Kotelnicheskaya EmbankmentRussian: Kotelnicheskaya naberezhnaya or Котельническая набережная features a 700-apartment residential building equipped with all the necessary amenities, including shops, restaurants, a cinema and a post office. It completes the panorama which extends from the Kremlin towards the Yauza Rivera river in Moscow, a tributary of the Moskva River. The Ministry of Foreign AffairsRussian: Ministerstvo inostrannyh del or Министерство иностранных дел (32/34, Smolenskaya-Sennaya SquareRussian: Smolenskaya-Sennaya ploschad or Смоленская-Сенная площадь) has a more severe design, with a huge USSR state emblem on its façade. The initial design did not include the spire which was subsequently added to the building. The spire had to be made of lightweight steel and lacks the traditional five-pointed star at the top, because it would have been too heavy for the spire. Hotel Leningradskaya Russian: gostinitsa «Leningradskaya» or гостиница «Ленинградская»(21/40 KalanchyovskayaRussian: Каланчевская St.), the apartment building on Kudrinskaya SquareRussian: Kudrinskaya ploschad or Кудринская площадь and the administrative and residential building on Red GateRussian: Krasnyie vorota or Красные ворота Square (21 Sadovaya-SpasskayaRussian: Садовая-Спасская St.) are Stalin’s other high-rises, which are also worth a visit.
While the Sisters look alike, each is designed with a specific location in mind. Another high-rise was intended to be built, but was never erected. According to Stalin’s original idea, the seven high-rises were supposed to visually frame the central and most important building called the Palace of the SovietsRussian: Dvorets Sovetov or Дворец Советов. It was to be erected on the site of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour Russian: khram Khrista Spasitelya or храм Христа Спасителяon VolkhonkaRussian: Волхонка Street, which was blown up in 1931. The Palace of the Soviets was to become the world’s tallest building and to house the Supreme Soviet of the USSRRussian: Verkhovnyi Sovet SSSR or Верховный Совет СССР (the Soviet equivalent of a parliament). A colossal tower with multiple columns was to soar into the sky above Moscow, with a statue of Lenin on top. The height of the building including the statue, was planned to be 420 metres! Construction began in 1939, but funding for its construction stopped after the outbreak of war, and the project was abandoned.