An in-depth look at the quintessential architectural works of the late Stalin era that fundamentally reshaped daily life in the Soviet capital and continue to define Moscow today.
Following the end of WWII, Moscow became the site of an unprecedented building project. The Soviet capital’s skyline was forever transformed by the construction of seven grandiose neoclassical skyscrapers. Housing elite apartment complexes, luxury hotels, and ministry and university headquarters, the so-called “Seven Sisters” became the most vivid embodiment of Stalinist ideology and aesthetics.
In Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital, published by by Princeton University Press, historian Katherine Zubovich explores the profound transformation that these towers had on the city and Soviet society.
Drawing upon extensive original archival research, Zubovich examines the complexities of late Stalinist architecture and sheds light on the lives of those who designed, built, and inhabited these structures. The book also looks at the Palace of Soviets, the unbuilt megaproject which was meant to become the biggest skyscraper in the world. This gargantuan blueprint provided a stylistic precedent for the city’s postwar monumental development, and its construction established important institutional structures and international ties.
Though meant to symbolize the supremacy of the Soviet Union and the socialist system, the Seven Sisters were practically born obsolete. Following Stalin’s death, these opulent and ornate skyscrapers faced harsh criticism from the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who waged a war against “excess” in design and construction.
What follows is an excerpt from Moscow Monumental’s final chapter, which charts Khrushchev’s battle against uneconomical design and examines the contradictory perception of these towering structures and the long shadows they cast far beyond Moscow.
“WHY FLY TO THE SKY? WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE GROUND?”
In 1956, Khrushchev took his criticism of Soviet architectural monumentalism on the road. At a speech to Polish officials at the Central Committee plenum of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Khrushchev spoke at length about the waste of state resources under his predecessor in all manner of projects, from dams to Moscow State University. “We built the university,” Khrushchev stated, “it is a very beautiful university; very beautiful, but very unwisely built. Why should a student or professor go all the way up to the 36th floor? What for?” Denying that a university should serve any purpose beyond the education of students, Khrushchev questioned the wish to build in excess of practical need. “Why fly to the sky,” Khrushchev asked, “what’s wrong with the ground?”
Khrushchev’s criticism of MGU rested principally on the issue of wasted funds, but the new Soviet leader also articulated a clear, functionalist position that stripped the built environment of its symbolic potential. “If someone took a pencil and started to count,” Khrushchev told his Polish audience, “we, by using the same money we wasted on this university, could have built three or four universities of the same capacity.” And beyond the funds used to build the structure, Khrushchev lamented, were those devoted to operating it into the future: “almost an entire factory” was needed to keep the university up and running. “Who needed it?” Khrushchev asked,
“It was silliness. Stupidity. In America, the buildings are tall. There, Americans do it smartly and wisely. All of America is one story high. But Americans build only in the big cities; in centers, where the land is more expensive than the construction of the high-rise. It’s economically justified under capitalistic conditions; but we are located in the fields . . . where, you understand, parks could be formed . . . When our people will become richer and smarter, they will refuse to use high buildings and build a building of two, three, four floors in height. And use the money from the operating cost and use it for something more useful.”
Khrushchev need not have used the example of Moscow State University to make his point in this speech delivered in Poland in 1956. Stalinist monumentalism had travelled westward in the late Stalin era. In 1951 and 1952, the Soviet government gave skyscrapers as “brotherly gifts” to the Eastern Bloc capital cities of Warsaw, Prague, and Bucharest and to the Soviet capital cities of Kiev and Riga. Poland’s Stalinist skyscraper was completed in 1955, less than one year before Khrushchev delivered his address at the plenum. But pointing to Warsaw’s new skyscraper as an example of wasted state resources may have been too undiplomatic, even for Khrushchev.
While Khrushchev had paved the way for the new direction in Soviet architecture in Moscow, cities on the periphery of the Soviet sphere were sent mixed signals in the mid 1950s. At the very moment that the Stalinist skyscraper was being unceremoniously discarded from the pantheon of Soviet architectural achievements in Moscow, identical buildings were under construction in Eastern Europe. After 1953, the distinctive Soviet skyscraper would continue to serve as a useful tool in helping to forge ties in the expanding socialist sphere.
While Warsaw’s Stalinist skyscraper opened its doors in 1955, Riga’s skyscraper, a structure serving as the new headquarters of this city’s Academy of Sciences, was completed only in 1961. That building would stand as a testament to the slow unravelling of Stalinist aesthetics on the periphery of the empire.
When duplicated abroad, Moscow’s Stalin-era skyscrapers served a dual purpose: they stood as examples of socialist realism and as iconic and instantly recognizable symbols of membership in the socialist sphere. And so, while its progenitors back in Moscow were facing increasing hostility, Warsaw’s new Palace of Culture and Science, for example, was being hailed in official circles as a “beautiful gift.” The links that skyscraper construction forged went well beyond the aesthetic. According to the agreements drawn up for the transfer of these “gifts,” the Soviet state provided funding, supplies, labor, and expertise, while each receiving nation agreed to have the silhouette of its capital city permanently altered to reflect its ties to Moscow.
In the Warsaw case, an agreement had been drawn up on April 5, 1952, between the Soviet and Polish governments. The Soviet Union pledge to fund the construction of a 28–30-story Palace of Culture and Science (PKiN). This building would serve as the headquarters for the Polish Academy of Sciences, and as an important public building housing youth and cultural organizations, exhibitions, congress and concert halls, and a movie theater. Assigning responsibility for the construction of this skyscraper to the USSR Ministry of Construction of Heavy Industry, the Soviet government agreed to send design teams, engineers, and workers to Warsaw to build the Palace. The Polish government in turn would, according to the initial agreement, supply an additional 4,000–5,000 Polish workers for the project, as well as logistical support on the ground.
Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science was presented in 1952 as a Soviet contribution to the postwar reconstruction of this city. Following the announcement that the skyscraper would be built, various groups wrote to Polish newspapers expressing their thanks in the gracious and obsequious manner that the situation demanded. Participants at the Fourth Polish Assembly of Builders, for example, wrote a letter addressed to the Soviet state and published in the newspaper Żołnierz Wolności (Soldiers of Freedom). “We builders,” they wrote, “are especially happy to receive the news today that our Soviet comrades are coming to visit us, not only to lend a hand and to give more materials towards the reconstruction of Warsaw, but, as we especially value, to teach us through concrete construction applications all [their] wonderful achievements”—the pinnacle of which were, of course, Moscow’s tall buildings, “the most vanguard construction in the world.”
Back in Moscow, planning on the new skyscraper for Warsaw had been in the works since early 1951. A Council of Ministers decree of October 1951 made the project official by establishing requirements for height and other elements of the new structure. And by February 1952, before the agreement between the Polish and Soviet governments had been reached, the team of architects working on Warsaw’s Palace had already drawn up plans for the building. This team was led by Lev Rudnev, head architect of Moscow State University. Rudnev approached the Warsaw skyscraper as a structure that should, like its Moscow forerunners, combine the latest technological advances in steel-frame construction with design elements that reflected national—in this case Polish—culture.
Just as Moscow’s skyscrapers were understood to be rooted in Russian national heritage, so too was Warsaw’s new Palace to reflect Polish national form in its ornate façade and throughout the building’s interior. Rudnev toured Poland for inspiration in 1951. Admiring the heritage restoration work underway in cities like Krakow and in Warsaw’s Old Town, Rudnev was especially impressed by the Polish tradition of metalworking, which he incorporated into the detailing of Warsaw’s new Palace. Stalinist monumentalism proved to be a convenient vehicle through which to make the Soviet skyscraper more palatable to a variety of local audiences. Classical architectural vocabularies, in particular, offered architects the flexibility to present an imperialistic urban vision as the product of local, vernacular traditions.
Warsaw’s new skyscraper, known initially as the “Palace of Culture and Science in honor of Joseph Stalin,” officially opened its doors in July 1955. Further solidifying the link between skyscrapers and communism, the opening ceremony of the building was held on the occasion of the anniversary of the Polish People’s Republic. The Palace—with its congress hall equipped with seating for 3,500, its scientific institute, movie theater, and concert hall, and its swimming pool, basketball, and volleyball courts—was transferred to the Polish state on July 21, 1955. Along with the Palace, the Soviet state also gave Poland “Friendship” (“Druzhba”)—a workers’ village that had been built nearby and included 83 dormitories and 83 single-family cottages formerly occupied by Soviet construction workers. In his speech at the opening ceremony, the Chairman of the Polish Council of Ministers thanked the builders of the Palace of Culture and Science for their “beautiful and noble gift” to the Polish people.
The city of Warsaw was thus caught in the same puzzle as Moscow: structures that had only just appeared on the cityscape and that were, in actuality, quite useful were all of a sudden deemed immediately after their arrival to have “not stood the test of time.” In Warsaw as in Moscow, now that they had arrived on the skylines of their respective cities the Stalinist skyscrapers proved to be more than just monuments.
The Warsaw Palace for its part was a flexible, multi-use complex that successfully and continuously served the population of the city. As Michał Murawski shows in his study of the building, the Palace of Culture and Science complex has served as the “center of gravity” in Warsaw well into the post-socialist period. In 1958, three years after opening, Warsaw’s Palace had already received twenty million visitors. The popularity of the structure was in part the result of its scale and multiple purposes: as Murawski notes, this building was the only venue in Warsaw able to host the Rolling Stones when they played their first and only concert in communist Eastern Europe in 1967.
Khrushchev could not have been more wrong in his prediction in 1956 that when “our people” got “richer and smarter” they would refuse to use skyscrapers entirely. As Karl Schlögel writes, “if the architects of these buildings had been wholly informed by ideology and not by their practical purpose of providing space and splendid interiors—in other words, had they not been designed to be useful—then by now they would be ruins, or simply, as someone said to me in the Hotel Leningradskaya, ‘architectural monuments.’ But they are not.” Stalinist monumentalism, as it turned out, was as enduring as it was excessive.
MOSCOW’S SKYSCRAPERS AND THE THAW
The Stalinist skyscraper may have been cast as the enemy in the battle against “excess,” but in Moscow the structures nevertheless served as key sites of the Thaw. In the late 1950s, foreign guests were welcomed by their Soviet hosts in the marbled halls of Moscow State University and in the opulent interiors of the Hotel Ukraine and Hotel Leningrad. And so, as de-Stalinization got underway, Stalin’s tall buildings were found to be more than mere monuments on the cityscape. As aesthetically suspect as they were after 1954, these towers became icons of the time. In July 1957, the Sixth World Festival of Youth and Students was held in Moscow, attracting 34,000 visitors to the Soviet capital. Many of them stayed in the skyscraper hotels, and they joined together to dance and sing at mass events held at Moscow State University on the Lenin Hills.
It was not just foreign youth who were received in the opulent surroundings of MGU. In the summer of 1958, the Union of Soviet Architects hosted the Fifth Congress of the International Union of Architects (UIA) in Moscow. Foreign curiosity about the Soviet Union ensured that the Fifth Congress was especially well attended. Over 1,400 architects from 44 different countries arrived in Moscow in July 1958, with many of them staying at the Hotel Ukraine. The theme of the congress was “The Construction and Reconstruction of Cities from 1945–1957,” but Moscow’s architects organizing the proceedings took the event as an opportunity to showcase the new Soviet achievements in mass housing construction—achievements that had only just begun. An exhibition of Soviet architectural plans and drawings was mounted at MGU for all to see. The focus of the show was the country’s designs for prefabricated mass housing construction.
While this architectural exhibition of 1958 sought to highlight the new trends in Soviet construction, it was impossible to erase traces of the Stalinist approach to design. As the Union of Architects representative dutifully reported, “the exhibition commission took great care to omit from the display buildings and structures with excesses.” But Soviet architects’ efforts to purge all exhibition photographs of columns, spires, decorative friezes, and other “excesses” was hopeless. From the Lenin Hills, visitors gazed out across a cityscape newly dominated by Moscow’s ornate, neoclassical skyscrapers. Moreover, the exhibition was held inside Moscow State University—the most pronounced example of Stalinist excess. As Khrushchev put it years later, “approaching [MGU] from a distance, someone who doesn’t know better might think it’s a church. He sees huge spires, cupolas on the horizon, silhouetted against the sky. When you get closer, the whole complex looks like an ugly formless mass.” It was a strange setting, to be sure, for an exhibition of Soviet advances in mass housing construction.
Stalin’s tall buildings were enormous, intractable masses on the cityscape, whether officials like Khrushchev liked them or not. Seven of these buildings had been completed, or nearly completed, by the time Khrushchev had ascended to power. The eighth unbuilt skyscraper in the Zariad’e would never be finished. (In its place, the Zariad’e skyscraper’s architect, Dmitrii Chechulin, built his modernist Hotel Rossiia in the mid-1960s. The hotel would be demolished in 2006 and replaced in 2017 with the Zaryadye Park, designed by the New York-based firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The churches saved on the Zariad’e site in the late-Stalin period remain.) The only question remaining was what to do about the unbuilt Palace of Soviets.
A NEW PALACE OF SOVIETS
It did not take long after Stalin’s death for doubts about the Palace of Soviets project to be raised openly by those in charge of Moscow’s urban development. As early as August 1953 Khrushchev and Malenkov received a letter jointly written by the head of the Moscow Communist Party Committee, Nikolai A. Mikhailov, and the head of Mossovet, Mikhail A. Iasnov. These two municipal-level officials wished to express their concerns about the Palace. The new General Plan for Moscow of 1951–1960 stated that the Palace of Soviets would be constructed, at last, after Moscow’s eight monumental skyscrapers were completed. In their letter, Mikhailov and Iasnov recalled that Iofan had reworked the design for the Palace of Soviets during the war: in the revised design, the structure was to be shorter and stouter—at 364 meters in all—than was originally planned. Still, the monumentality of the planned Palace would be impressive, with the dome of its grand amphitheater reaching a height of 103 meters. For Mikhailov and Iasnov, it was precisely this monumentalism that presented a problem.
Mikhailov and Iasnov stressed in their letter that construction costs for the as-yet-unbuilt Palace of Soviets had already reached the incredible sum of 240 million rubles, with “120 million rubles spent on design, survey, and experimental work.” But beyond their financial concerns, there were more serious defects in the planned structure caused, they asserted, by “a desire for gigantomania.” “For example,” the two officials wrote, “nothing can justify the installation of a sculpture of V. I. Lenin at such a height, so that for much of the year it will be up in the clouds or the fog.” The amphitheater within the structure was also gargantuan. What would the acoustics be like in such an enormous space? How would maintenance work be carried out in such a building? These were questions, Mikhailov and Iasnov noted, that had no clear answers.
The letter of August 1953 from Mikhailov and Iasnov was no doubt received by at least one sympathetic reader in Nikita Khrushchev. Still, it would take a few more years before the Palace of Soviets project, as designed by Iofan, Gel’freikh, and Shchuko, would be abandoned once and for all. In February 1955, Iofan himself wrote to Khrushchev. Having spent many years writing to Stalin, Iofan now approached this new interlocutor with some caution. The architect opened his letter by recounting for Khrushchev the history of the project. He explained that construction of the Palace had been put on hold in 1941, but that design work had continued through the war and up to the present. Iofan stressed the role his building would play in commemorating Lenin. He also emphasized how swiftly Moscow’s tallest tower could be built. “Resuming construction work on the Palace of Soviets has been seriously delayed,” Iofan wrote. The postwar period had nonetheless served to strengthen the Palace’s construction workers, who now had the experience and technical knowledge needed to quickly bring the Palace of Soviets into reality.
When writing to Khrushchev in 1955, Iofan surely sensed, amidst the dramatic shifts underway that year in Soviet architecture, that his Palace of Soviets would never be built. Later that year, the Communist Party Central Committee issued an order calling for a new design competition for the structure. Held between 1957 and 1959, the new competition revealed the enormous changes that had taken hold in architecture in the short time since Stalin’s death. A new location was chosen for the Palace outside the city center, on a site situated just southwest of MGU. In a meeting of the Central Committee in November 1955, Khrushchev, Kaganovich, Iofan, and others discussed the new Palace project in broad outlines. Insisting that while the structure would maintain its original purpose as a monument to Lenin, Khrushchev was adamant that the new Palace “does not need to be 460 stories tall.”
Rather than emphasizing monumentalism and verticality, as the design by Iofan, Shchuko, and Gel’freikh had done in the 1930s, the new design submissions by and large emphasized horizontality. Some proposals were reminiscent of Hector Hamilton’s winning entry for the Palace competition of 1932. Others made extensive use of glass, steel, and mosaic-work, and still more were futuristic, drawing on the new aesthetic of the space age. By the time the competition advanced to the second round in 1959, all proposals for the Palace of Soviets were long, flat structures designed to work in concert with, but not overshadow, MGU. In the end, like the first Palace of Soviets, the second one would never be built to completion.
The unbuilt Palace of Soviets lives on in Moscow today in the seven Stalinist skyscrapers that were built to completion in the 1950s. Yet the afterlife of the Palace of Soviets is not limited to these structures built during the Stalin era. The building’s legacy stretches into the twenty-first century. When they traveled to America in 1934, Iofan and his team from the USDS could not have predicted that their work with Moran & Proctor would contribute to the construction of a highrise business district in post-Soviet Moscow. The sleek glass skyscrapers that make up the Moscow International Business Center, known as Moskva-City, bear little resemblance to the Palace of Soviets, but there are connections between the two projects all the same.
In the mid-2000s, Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers (formerly Moran & Proctor) was hired as the geotechnical consultant for Moskva-City’s Mercury City Tower, completed in 2013. When they began work on this 75-story bronze-tinted glass structure, the engineers at Mueser Rutledge turned to their firm’s work in Moscow seven decades earlier for guidance. They sifted through records in the company’s past projects vault, looking for information collected in the 1930s on the Palace of Soviets site. Among the hundreds of pages documenting Moran & Proctor’s work in Moscow, they found feasibility studies, settlement analyses, and site load tests. These subsurface investigations remained useful since, as the engineers put it recently, “conditions were not that different” on the site chosen for Mercury City Tower. The careful measurements taken in the 1930s of the limestone and marl that lie beneath Moscow have not expired with the passage of time or with the passing of communism. Similarly, the impulse to build monumentally has survived from one era into the next.
*Footnotes have been omitted.
Excerpted from Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital by Katherine Zubovich. Copyright © 2020 by Katherine Zubovich. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.