Out of Russia: The space-saving kitchen that did for Communism

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MOSCOW - 'The House on the Embankment' is the name of a wonderful book, a haunting 1976 novella by Yuri Trifonov about Stalin's purges. It is also the name of a hideous building, an enormous, grey concrete hulk next to the Great Stone Bridge on the opposite side of the Moscow River from the Kremlin.

I read the book and decided to take a look at the building, completed in 1931 as a model - remarkably, if unintentionally, accurate in its brutishness - of what Russia's revolutionary future would bring. I had driven by hundreds of times and marvelled at its breathtaking ugliness, as monstrous as the Kremlin, only a few hundred yards away on the other side of the bridge, is majestic.

The building looks no less ghastly close up. It squats like a derelict factory, its lumbering bulk towering over a group of children playing hop-scotch on the pavement, a hawker selling chocolate and vodka from a makeshift stall and elderly couples venturing out, after six months of snow and slush, into the still weak sunlight of what may finally be spring.

Boris Iofan, the architect, intended the project as prototype of the ideal Communist society: the need of every resident (all of them senior party officials) would be catered for on the premises. There was a post office, a canteen, a bank, a launderette, a kindergarten, a clinic, a beauty salon, a cinema and a department store.

All that remains is the cinema and a ramshackle metal shed selling bread and milk. The central courtyard is strewn with rubble, the paint peeling, the plaster cracked. It is hard to fathom why so many powerful people chose to live here. Some, like Marshal Zhukov, have been honoured with marble plaques. But many former residents have been judged best forgotten: Stalin's drunken son, Vasily, and Stalin's even more brutish secretary, Alexander Poskrebyshev, the only man trusted to make tea for the Great Dictator but who, if he took more than 10 minutes at the task, would have his work chemically tested for traces of poison. (Poskrebyshev's second wife - his first died in the gulag - still lives in the building.)

The full horror, and occasional glory, of the place is on display in a small museum on the ground floor. It is run by a group of old women determined to remember all who lived there. 'The whole of our history is in this building,' says Viktoria Volina, a 73-year-old former journalist. 'This was the house of the executioners and the house of their victims.' Mrs Volina has lived there since the 1930s. Her father was a colleague of Nikolai Bukharin, one of Stalin's most celebrated victims. She grew up at the height of the Great Terror: 'I had a trick. We lived on the eighth floor but I would always take the lift to the ninth first to see if there were any police. It was all a terrible game. Children didn't know what was happening.' Nor did most of their parents.

More people were carted away in the middle of the night from the House on the Embankment than from probably any other building in Russia. For it was here that Stalin's biggest enemies lived: old Bolsheviks whose revolutionary credentials made them potentially potent rivals. A list of their names - more than 400 - hangs on the wall of the museum. Mrs Volina runs her finger across rows of photographs of earnest young men who used to live in Stairway No 12: 'Shot, shot, shot, shot, shot . . .' There are 20 photographs in all. All but five were executed.

I leave the museum and walk outside to find Stairway 12. It is the only part of the building still guarded round the clock. Important people live there, explains the guard. Just as Lenin's elite gave way to Stalin's elite, the new post- Communist elite has staked its own claim to the House on the Embankment. Next to where Stalin's secretary lived resides the manager of the Moscow McDonald's.

A middle-aged man offers to show me his flat. He apologises in advance for the mess: 'It's very hard to keep clean.' We get into a creaking lift and go to the ninth floor. The corridor is grimy and very dark. Then he opens the door. Why so many killed each other to live here - and why housework is so difficult - is suddenly less incomprehensible. Before us lies the biggest flat I have ever seen, room after gigantic room, each one with high ceilings, wooden floors and a magnificent view of the Moscow River. He explains: 'My father used to be minister of culture.'

What he really wants me to see, though, is the kitchen. While the rest of the flat has been designed for giants, the kitchen was built for midgets. The architect intended it this way: the new socialist man, he assumed, would eat in the communal dining room. 'This,' says my host, gesturing at his minuscule kitchen, 'was why Communism failed.' It is also why the boss of McDonald's now lives downstairs.