The above photograph is of the main building of Moscow State University in the Sparrow Hills district of Moscow. This is one of the so called Seven Sisters - the Stalinist buildings that are prominent in the Moscow skyline. When completed in 1953 this was the tallest building in the world outside New York City, and it remained the tallest building in Europe until 1990. The building was built partly with gulag labour. As it was nearing completion, the gulag workers were housed inside it in order to minimise the number of guards required, so the building functioned as something resembling a gulag itself during construction.
The Seven Sisters were built in the 1950s after the USSR obtained the technical knowledge to built large steel framed skyscrapers from the United States. There are a few more such buildings scattered throughout the former USSR and the former Warsaw Pact states. The most notable of them outside Moscow is the Palace of Science and Culture in Warsaw, which I have written about before.
The Polish attitude to that building is, at this point in time, mixed. It is a memento of having been occupied by the Soviets, an experience of which the Poles are not especially fond of the memory of. However, the familiar becomes familiar, and it is hard to imagine it not being there. The Palace of Science and Culture is full of many good cinemas, theatres, concert halls, and other venues for cultural activities, and many a good evening has been had there by many a Polish person. As the years go by, other tall buildings have been built in Warsaw, none of which have anything like the same style, and the Palace of Science and Culture has become just a historical artifact (and a reasonably interesting one) in a more modern, and more western city. Nobody would ever think of building another building anything like it, and it remains as an integral, but singlular, landmark of the city.
Moscow is different. There are seven large buildings in the same Stalinist gothic style, and a number of smaller ones. They are not physically together, but are scattered all over the city. They don’t dominate the Moscow skyline, exactly – if anything does it is the spires of the cathedrals of the Kremlin and Red Square – but they lend an essential part of the character of the city. Take photographs and there is always one lurking in the background somewhere. Their style is one of the defining styles that defines Moscow, and even defines Russia.
Consider this building, though, to be found elsewhere in Moscow.
This is the Triumph Palance. This is a residential apartment building out along Leningradsky Prospect corridor in the direction of Sheremetyevo airport and the stadium belonging to the football team CSKA Moscow. It was completed in 2003. For a few years after that, it was the tallest building in Europe. There is also a hotel on the 53rd floors and above. A quick check on booking.com finds that the hotel offers rooms from £171 a night, which I think in Moscow puts it in the “very nice but not extremely luxurious” category. I bet the views are great. A walk up to the building finds security and people who come and going who look prosperous but not obscenely rich. I think we are talking oligarchs’ lawyers rather than oligarchs themselves.
The building, though, is clearly influenced by the style of the Stalinist-Gothic architecture from the 1950s. It would seem that there therefore exists an architectural style that might be called “Stalinist revival”. Saying that this style is nostalgic for the communism of the Soviet 1950s is probably not right, but it is clear that that era has had a big influence on what makes Moscow Moscow just the same – to the extent that the city is still building upon it. This is unthinkable in Warsaw, but is what happens in Moscow. This almost makes me think about some of the strange iconography I have seen recently from Eastern Ukraine: “Russian Nationalists” holding up communist symbols and Russian Orthodox Christian iconography side by side. Communist iconography no longer means anything as communism, but has become part of the language of Russian nationalism.
I am told there are some Stalinist revival buildings in Kazakhstan, too. In fact, there is even another Triumph Palace in Astana. What I should read from this, I shall leave for another day.