Skyscrapers and Stalinism — A Review of “Moscow Monumental”

Zubovich, Katherine. Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2021.

Reviewed by  Zinaida Osipova

While many people seek to understand why the Soviet Union fell apart, Katherine Zubovich focuses on one of its enduring successes—the seven skyscrapers designed under Joseph Stalin that still dominate Moscow’s landscape. In Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital Zubovich explains how the postwar Soviet Union sought to cement the vision of Moscow as a world capital by constructing a series of tall buildings. She contrasts this with the lesser-known side of the glorious project, its effects on thousands of regular citizens—laborers, prisoners, and displaced inhabitants who realized these monuments. By contrasting the skyscrapers’ grandeur with the complexities of resettling people and allocating housing to a selected few, Zubovich gets at the essence of late Stalinism, which was criticized for its “excesses” by the new head of state, Nikita Khrushchev.

A 1938 painting by Alexander Kotiagin depicting the Palace of Soviets – a widely advertised structure that would never be completed in real life. Alexander Koyagin, “Котягин Дворец советов 1938,” before 1947, Wikimedia Commons.

Zubovich begins by introducing readers to Red Moscow of the late 1920s, which the Bolsheviks aspired to rebuild, thus emblematizing revolutionary progress. One of the main features of the new city plan frequently mentioned by scholars is the Palace of Soviets. Had it been completed as planned, it would have been the tallest structure of the world at that time. The project was never completed, and historians often see it as a metaphor for the failures of the Soviet Union. Its construction was originally paused due to the onset of the Great Patriotic War—an event that would drastically impact Soviet life, including its architectural needs. Many architects were drafted into the army, while others focused on more urgent wartime needs.

Postwar Moscow was “caught between two opposing impulses, one mundane and the other monumental”: the need to rebuild a war-shaken city met the desire for upholding the status of the victor and a world leader. Unlike the 1930s when Soviet specialists traveled abroad, including to the United States, postwar architects were building structures that would have others look towards Moscow and not vice versa. First unveiled in 1947, the decree for the construction of skyscrapers envisioned one 32-story building, two 26-story buildings, and five 16-story buildings.

After taking the readers to the cabinets of officials and architects discussing the project, Zubovich leads them through a shadow city—“a city of workers, supply lines, and displaced residents.” She points out that the construction of the buildings that became prestigious residential quarters, hotels, administrative buildings, and the Moscow State University entailed removing current inhabitants from the selected locations. Many of these residents were rehoused in the outskirts of Moscow along with newly-arrived construction workers. The visibility of the monumental structures was thus made possible by the less visible parallel development of the city’s outskirts. The massive project required the work not only of free laborers but also that of Gulag prisoners whose sentences could be commuted in exchange for their labor in Moscow.

Park Zariad’e, opened in 2017, and the location where the eighth skyscraper was supposed to be but was never erected because of archeologists’ finds of 10-13th century artifacts; a view of the residential skyscraper on Kotel’nicheskaia embankment. Gennady Grachev, “Zaryadye,” 2107, Wikimedia Commons.

While most of the country lived in communal housing, the newly-constructed skyscrapers had luxurious single-family apartments. Cultural, scientific, and bureaucratic elites were to occupy these apartments, and many prominent figures sent petitions asking top officials for the coveted living space in a vysotka (the name by which the buildings would be known rather than the Russian word for “skyscraper” tied to Western tall buildings). Ironically, as soon as, and even before, some of the buildings were finished, they were deemed “excesses” of Stalin’s system by his successor Khrushchev (who soon embarked on a program of constructing mass-housing that would awe by its numbers and availability rather than its grandeur). Zubovich notes that despite Khrushchev’s criticisms, the skyscrapers played a major role in receiving foreign delegations and being recognizable symbols of Moscow until the present day.

Zubovich’s book is an excellent read for anyone interested in seeing the two sides of high Stalinism—its postwar claim to glory and its shadows—as well as for the broader audience interested in urban development. It contributes to a growing body of knowledge of the Soviet Union of this period and urban history of Russia’s ancient capital as it was reconceptualized by the Bolsheviks. Carefully researched, the book is written in accessible language and is accompanied by a multitude of images making the construction process of the monumental skyscrapers a pleasure to follow. In a multitude of studies on how the Soviet Union fell apart, it is a refreshing history about how it was built up.

Zinaida Osipova is a PhD student in History at Columbia University. She is interested in urban and environmental history of the late Imperial and early Soviet Russia. She is currently researching the history of the chemical industry of Dzerzhinsk and the overall ecological situation of the Nizhny Novgorod region of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Featured image (at top): The main building of the Moscow State University finished in 1953. I.s.kopytov, “МГУ, вид с воздуха”, 2015, Wikimedia Commons.

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