The writing all over Stalin's walls: Archives now reveal exactly how the dictator used buildings as propaganda, overwhelming citizens with power-architecture, writes Jonathan Glancey

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SOVIET archives are suddenly in the news, most prominently because David Irving, the right-wing apologist for Hitler, has been transcribing for the Sunday Times diaries by Goebbels that have been stored in Moscow.

But also, amid less controversy, Stalinist Architecture, written by the Russian art historians Alexei Tarkhanov and Sergei Kavtaradze, has been published in London. As Laurence King, their publisher, says, 'Tarkhanov and Kavtaradze belong to a new generation of Russian art historians: the first to be able to see the art and architecture of Stalin's time in a historical context.' As Mr King points out, much of the material shown in this book has remained unseen - except by favoured academics - in Soviet archives for the past 40 years.

This architecture is hugely important in the history of art as propaganda, and the most powerful buildings of Joseph Stalin's dictatorship (taken in this book as the years from 1934 to his death in 1953), were personally approved by this former Jesuit seminarian. 'Tyrants have always loved architects,' say the authors, drawing comparisons - inevitably - with Adolf Hitler, whose passion was architecture and who in his last hours in the Berlin bunker brooded over plans for the rebuilding of Linz, the intended future cultural hub of the Thousand Year Reich.

Unlike Hitler, Stalin was unable to draw the buildings he wanted, but he understood the power architecture has to set the tone and character of a political regime and to frame the way of life it forces on the people.

In 1934 he founded the All-Russian Academy of Architecture (VAA), which became the fount of architectural truth. The academy set the tone for a bragging and monumental architecture, as distinctive as Albert Speer's for Hitler in Nazi Germany. But, where Speer's has largely vanished, Stalin's architectural vision remains inescapable and is often, it must be said, the highlight of a trip to former Soviet cities.

What the archives reveal is the background to many of the works Stalin commissioned or encouraged - including those ubiquitous symbols of Moscow, the stations of the metro and the wedding-cake style Moscow State University (designed by Rudnev, Abrosimov and Khryakov, 1949-53) on the Lenin Hills. Many of these titanic projects were carried out using forced labour equipped with the most basic tools; Stalin was little concerned by the death toll among the workers creating these daunting homages to himself and the Soviet people.

Stalin's taste was, like Hitler's, provincial and petty bourgeois; both men revered tradition and liked architecture best when it was more or less Classical and constructed on an outlandish scale. Architects were imprisoned or executed if they strayed towards un-Soviet Modernism. Those who pleased Stalin, however, with their post-Modern conceits were treated as a highly privileged elite. 'Their fees were enormous,' say Tarkhanov and Kavtaradze. 'They lived in luxurious apartments and studios and built up priceless private libraries. Soviet cinema at the time invariably portrays architects as sybarites and gentlemen of leisure'.

Yet, as the authors show for the first time, of the many thousands of projects on which these toadying sybarites lavished their attention most were never built; their designs were used mainly as party propaganda, as visions of the heroic peasant-worker state that was constantly alluded to but never realised. Neo-Classicism was often the style adopted because, according to Anatoly Lunacharsky, one of Lenin's closest colleagues and the first Soviet Commissar for Education, it would 'restore the only culture of the past ever to approach the ideal, namely that of Athens, thus fulfilling the yearning of Saint- Simon, the greatest of all Utopians, for harmony of body and spirit'. Roosevelt's government of the United States thought more or less the same at the time and so did Hitler - as the Jefferson Monument in Washington and the new Chancellery in Berlin show.

But Stalin's Classicism took on a special character of its own. The most representative buildings of the regime look more like nightmare visions of some vicious eastern empire than dreams of Arcadia: architectural forms were stretched to unlikely limits and decoration was culled from the East as well as the West. Although architects continued to enter competitions for such grandiose projects as the Palace of Soviets (which remained unbuilt) with Modernist schemes until as late as 1934, by then their time was up.

Stalin made it clear that all art was to take on a 'socialist realist' style, which was interpreted by the Academy of Architecture as an overblown and distorted Classicism. The academy refused to discuss Modernism or notions of architectural progress; its slogan was 'mastery of the heritage'. The more impotent the regime became in its struggle to create an idealised society sucking at the dugs of ancient Greece, the more pompous the architecture became. By the Fifties, even ordinary blocks of flats in Moscow had become objects of architectural fantasy and political propaganda. Tarkhanov and Kavtaradze say the richly decorated apartment blocks of the early Fifties 'lacked only suitable inhabitants, as ideal as the buildings themselves, to stroll along the galleries, meditate in the pavilions or gaze loftily from the luxurious loggias. The purpose of the porticoes and colonnades was to suggest an ideal reality and to divert attention from the drabness of Soviet life. The view of an imaginary city as an absolute ideal beyond reality . . . holds the key to an understand-

ing of Utopian Stalinist


The end of Stalinist architecture came in 1955, two years after the dictator's death, when Nikita Khrushchev's decree 'Measures for the further industrialisation, improvement in quality and reduction in cost of construction' returned Soviet architecture to the Modernism it had abandoned in the late Twenties.

Stalinist Architecture is an impressive book: beautifully produced and well written, it throws new light on a period of artistic endeavour too often swept under a politically correct carpet. Most importantly, it shows how architectural issues are keys to the image of a party, nation, state or regime and why the design and construction of buildings is never anything less than a political act. Only when a regime passes can we stand back and try to judge the artistic quality of what remains.

And here, Tarkhanov and Kavtaradze prove themselves to be mature historians: the story of Stalinist architecture is a bestial one, yet so many of the buildings from the Moscow metro station at Komsomolskaya (Alexei Shchusev, 1952) through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Gelfreich and Minkus, 1952) to the great apartment buildings on Gorky Street and Smolenskaya Embankment make your jaw drop. Magnificently built 'heritage' kitsch, they remain staggering monuments to a heroic age of Soviet Communism that never really existed beyond the facade of Stalin's architecture.

Pictures shown are from 'Stalinist Architecture' by Alexei Tarkhanov and Sergei Kavtaradze, published by Laurence King, pounds 35.

Our feature on Anita Roddick's Body Shop headquarters has been held over.

(Photograph omitted)