polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Stalinist Urbanism

by Peter Sigrist

This is the fourth post in a series of visual studies on public parks in Moscow. The current focus is urban development under Stalin, between 1928 and 1953. As with the previous posts, this may evolve as I gather more information.

Portrait of Stalin by M. S. Napplebaum, 1924. Stalin's house in Moscow, 1932.

Stalin maneuvered his way into power after the death of Lenin, bringing an end to state-sanctioned debate among modernists on the future of the socialist city. A series of Five Year Plans accelerated urbanization and industrialization throughout the country. Between 1926 and 1955, the urban population of the Soviet Union grew from 26.3 million to 86.3 million (or from 18 to nearly 50 percent of the total population), creating an urgent need for investment in housing and infrastructure.

"Increased production of machine tools," a section from the Second Five Year Plan, 1934.

Planning was considered an essential and superior alternative to "chaotic" and "arbitrary" capitalist development, with the potential to meet the needs of the urban population and modernize the nation as a whole. In 1930, Stalin's administration issued a decree against "utopianism" in planning, calling for a more pragmatic "socialist realism." The independent architecture societies, where so many of the experimental ideas of the 1920s had arisen, were consolidated into the Union of Soviet Architects and brought under direct control of the state.

Interior of the Lenin Library, 1928.

New buildings were designed along neoclassical lines, and plans for the Palace of the Soviets took the form of a giant pedestal for a 100-meter Statue of Lenin, surrounded by columns, stairways, and an immense plaza. On Stalin's orders, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior -- built in 1812 to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon -- was demolished to make way for the palace.

Demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (film stills), 1931.

Palace of the Soviets with giant plaza and parades, 1934.

Excerpt from the film "New Moscow" (1938), in which planners present a dramatic vision for the city.

A comprehensive master plan was released in 1935, with a focus on promoting industry, transportation, housing, and public green space while limiting the expansion of the city. Much of the plan was ignored, most notably the provision of adequate housing for the majority of citizens. Still, a great deal of public work took place before World War II.

Moscow Master Plan, 1935 (left). Note the attempts to widen and straighten roadways through the center, in comparison with Nikolai Kolli's map of the city from the 1920s (right). Click on either for a closer view.

Red Square was expanded and the public market at Okhotny Ryad eliminated to make way for the giant neoclassical Hotel Moskva. Main thoroughfares were widened, straightened, and lined with dramatic government buildings and residences for elites, including party leaders, senior military officers, and prominent figures in the arts and sciences. Gorky Street (currently Tverskaya) was expanded from 17.5 to 60 meters wide, and rows of venerable lime trees were removed to expand the Garden Ring Road.

Kaluga Gate on Leninsky Prospect, built in 1940.

Thirty-five kilometers of embankments, three urban reservoirs, two new ports, seventeen bridges, and a hydroelectric dam were built along the Moscow and Yauza Rivers.

Design for Sovnarkom (Council of the People's Commissars) overlooking the Moscow River, 1940.

Walkways and apartment blocks along the Frunze Embankment, 1940.

The Moscow Metro opened in 1935. Izmailovo and Sokolniki forests were converted into public parks of culture and rest. In the center of town, an extensive new plan for Gorky Park was put into effect.

Sketch of the Komsomolskaya Metro Station, 1935.

A ride in Gorky Park, 1930.

However, industrial development was the primary focus. In open defiance of the 1935 plan, new factories were built throughout the city. The shortage of housing created severe overcrowding despite millions of lives lost to famine, purges, and World War II.

Marble panel in the Autozavodskaya Metro Station, 1943.

With the exception of the metro, which was built with civil defense in mind, little urban development took place during the war. Even the steel from the partially constructed Palace of the Soviets was commandeered for the war effort. When the Soviet Union emerged victorious and thoroughly devastated, Stalin set out to celebrate the nation's heroism and project an "imperial principle" through reconstruction projects. Moscow benefited from new investment in public works, including the Academy of Sciences Botanical Garden, established in 1945.

Moscow Botanical Garden at Ostankino, 1948.

Postwar development brought historicism to new extremes in the form of monumental plazas, dramatic statues, and seven famous "wedding cake" high-rises built throughout the city between 1947 and 1953. The largest and perhaps most extravagant is Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU), which includes a botanical garden and extensive landscaping connected to the park along the river at Lenin (currently Sparrow) Hills.

Moscow State University today.

Moscow State University plan, 1949.

An earlier design, 1947.

Open land around the new building, 1954.

New development, 1957.

An older house prepared for demolition to accommodate the Universitet neighborhood along Leninsky Prospect, 1957.

Housing for everyday citizens remained terribly insufficient, as elites were given beautiful apartments in the city and cottages in the country. New residential development tended to follow a kvartal model, in which buildings of roughly 5-10 stories were bounded by a city block with shops at street level and shared interior courtyards. Today, at least in the more affluent neighborhoods of Moscow, these structures have aged well. They combine density with pleasant landscaping and easy access to amenities. This model influenced the development of larger apartment blocks in "microdistricts" after Stalin's rule. These places are generally not considered beautiful. Still, there is much to be said for the kvartal idea.

Kvartal-like courtyard at lower-right corner, beside the residential tower at Kudrinskaya Square, 1954.

Stalinist urbanism draws upon a number of ideas raised in the 1920s for the socialist city, including the modernization of infrastructure, communal housing, employment and amenities close to home, ubiquitous public transportation, and the integration of green space. However, basic human needs were neglected in favor of industrial development and an image of grandeur. Human rights were given even less concern. This abuse of power in the name of socialism is an enduring tragedy. Stalin's massive urban modernization projects made it possible for Moscow to accommodate a great influx of people. But I'm not sure if they improved living conditions on the whole, or if the ecological consequences can be justified.

Stalin surveying a construction site, followed by Voroshilov, a removed person, and an unidentified person, mid-1930s.

In some ways Moscow's high-density living, extensive public transportation system, and accessible parks sound like a contemporary planner's dream. However, after reading about Stalin I've become more sympathetic to the flip side of this equation, the suburban house with a small park (ie, yard) of one's own, where we can adapt the environment on a smaller scale without imposing our will on others. Can urban condos and parks meet those kinds of needs?

"Increased public spending on health and physical education," a section from the Second Five Year Plan, 1934.

This might seem like a loss of faith in cities, but the real problem is abusive power. Stalin accomplished many things in Moscow that have proven of enduring value. But process is at least as important as results in this case. Great places can come about through autocratic, democratic, capitalist, and socialist means. But for the good of daily life in cities, a democratic socialism sounds preferable to autocratic socialism or democratic capitalism. Oppression and exploitation must give way to freedom and responsibility.

Credits: Top drawing of Mozhaiskoe Schosse (currently Kutuzovsky Prospect) scanned from "Architecture of the Stalin Era" by Alexei Tarkhanov and Sergei Kavtaradze. Portrait of Stalin scanned from "Stalin: A Biography" by Robert Service. Stalin's house in Moscow scanned from "Stalin: A Biography." Interior of the Lenin Library scanned from "Architecture of the Stalin Era." Graphic on increased production of machine tools scanned from the "Second Five Year Plan, План Второй Пятилетки," published by Ленизогиз. Film stills of the demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior scanned from "Propaganda & Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US" by Leah Bendavid-Val. Palace of the Soviets scanned from "Architecture of the Stalin Era." Plan for Greater Moscow 1935 scanned from "Architecture of the Stalin Era." Nikolai Kolli's map of Moscow in the 1920s scanned from "Mosca: Capitale dell' utopia" by Arnoldo Mondadori Arte. Kaluga Gate Square scanned from "Moscow: An Architectural History" by Kathleen Berton. Sketch of a design for the Sovnarkom building scanned from "Mosca: Capitale dell' utopia." Stairway and apartment blocks along the Frunze Embankment scanned from "Moscow: Architecture and Monuments" edited by Bryan Bean and translated by Bernard Meares. Sketch of the interior of the Komsomolskaya Metro Station scanned from "Mosca: Capitale dell' utopia." Carnival rides in Gorky Park scanned from "Propaganda & Dreams." Marble panel in the Autozavodskaya Metro Station scanned from "Architecture of the Stalin Era." Moscow Botanical Garden at Ostankino scanned from "Mosca: Capitale dell' utopia." Photo of Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU) from the MSU Department of Geometry and Topology. Plan of the MSU building scanned from "Architecture of the Stalin Era." Early design for the MSU building scanned from "Les sept tours de Moscou: Les tours babyloniennes du communisme, 1935-1950" by Europalia Russia. The area surrounding the university in 1954 scanned from "Hauptstadt Moskau" by Werner Huber. New development near the university scanned from "Hauptstadt Moskau." Traditional house amidst new development along Leninsky Prospect scanned from "Hauptstadt Moskau." The residential tower at Kudinskoy Square scanned from "Mosca: Capitale dell' utopia." Photo of Stalin surveying a construction site, photographer unknown, scanned from "Propaganda & Dreams." Graphic on health and physical education scanned from the "Second Five Year Plan, План Второй Пятилетки."