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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


The Seven Towers of Stalin’s Capital
Text and photos by Dr. Olga Zinovie

The Foreign Ministry

he seven Moscow skyscrapers, also known as the Seven Sisters, have a very distinct presence in Moscow, even 50 years after their completion. They are significant city landmarks which organize the surrounding landscape of squares and streets and establish a very firm structure of downtown Moscow. They act as beacons and guide us towards the center almost from the borderline of the capital. What are these hypnotizing colossi? There is still a lot of discussion going on about their architectural and political impact on the city today and what exactly Josef Stalin had in mind when he contemplated the giant project amongst the ruins of Moscow at the end of the Second World War. This huge 10-year undertaking of sophisticated development and implementation embraced seven big construction sites. However the overall plan was even more ambitious, as reported by the popular magazine, Ogoniek, in 1952: “The first seven out of eight skyscrapers (the eighth should have been next to Red Square) have been almost accomplished, and very soon more similar palaces will appear in the Soviet capital.”

One may see some similarities in these marble-looking palaces, but in fact, they were designed and built by seven different groups of architects in 1947–1957. Each team prepared several wood mockups for approval. They had huge balloons hover over the city at the projected height of the buildings in order to understand how the buildings would appear against the Moscow skyline. The Kremlin was very demanding, unpredictable and menacing. It had unlimited resources, owned all the land and had forced-labor in the form of both German prisoners of war and Soviet political prisoners.

The style, which blossomed after the war was called Stalinist Empire style. The style had actually been around since Ancient Rome and was popular among great historical leaders and conquerors. This is an architectural anthem to victory, expressed in huge triumphant arches, monumental buildings of complicated silhouettes, decorated with scenes and symbols of historical battles. One can admire imposing figures of the Soviet goddesses of victory holding laurel wraths and oak leave garlands in the company of heroic soldiers. Ancient weapons, banners, helmets, shields, drums, cannons and horns were supposed to bridge the Soviet victory in WWII with the glorious heritage of Tsarist Russia. Stalin definitely felt like an emperor, at least that’s what his art and architecture indicate to us in no uncertain terms.

Stalin skyscraper (background) on Kotelnicheskaya Naberezhnaya

Moscow had always been growing upwards – Ivan the Terrible celebrated his victory over Kazan and Astrakhan (1561) through the erection of his miraculous Cathedral of Intersession (or St. Basil’s) on Red Square; Boris Godunov built his Bell Tower of Ivan the Great (1600); the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (1883) was inaugurated to commemorate the victory over Napoleon. One can see a philosophical meaning in this constant desire to rise upwards to the heavens; creating stairs of superiority, both in political and religious terms. Stalin needed his own ziggurats or temples, taller and better than any others built before him. He wanted to win another victory over Old Russia. This was not easy to do, and the new towers absorbed the best Russian architectural traditions. They had elements of the Kremlin towers and Orthodox churches. Classical and medieval architectural principles were bundled with the latest technology available in the 1940s-1950s. Through their resemblance with the Kremlin towers they have become distinct fortresses around the center of the city and guardians of the Soviet absolute ideology. One can see a lot of elements, typical for any cathedral. They have a lot of obelisks, so common in Babel or Egypt, meant to reflect the strength of the rays of the Sun God. Obelisks and spires hypnotized the dictators of the past, who either brought them to Europe from Egypt or constructed new ones. You can also find a lot of heliotropes or sunflowers in the decor of the buildings, which were supposed to follow the Sun of the Nation. A stand-alone column was invented by the Greeks to commemorate victory over the Persians and became very popular in civil buildings but even more in clerical construction. Orthodox cathedrals borrowed columns from ancient pagan temples. Cathedrals of the past were homes for gods on Earth and the seven Stalinist temples were designed for Soviet deities: where they worked, lived or received their education.

The MGU main academic hall, which combines classical columns with wheat-type chandeliers, spikes on grills and ceilings, as well as extraordinary acoustics

The Moscow State University building at Vorobyovy Gory

Apartment building in Kudrinskaya: another Soviet ziggurat with its deities and protectors; sculptor Nikogosian

There are two office buildings, two luxurious hotels, two apartment buildings and the Mikhail Lomonosov Moscow State University building. It is rather amazing to see the attempts to provide comfort for those, who were admitted to these heavenly chambers. The current Foreign Ministry on Kudrinskaya Naberezhnaya had a metro entrance right inside the building, which also reflects the fact that security was less important then. A visit to the memorial apartment of Galina Ulanova, an outstanding Soviet ballerina, located in the residential building on Kotelnicheskaya Naberezhnaya can help to understand how dignitaries were allowed to live. Stalin could award people with lavish apartments for their contribution but could take his generous gift back, have the tenants arrested, sent to Siberia or even executed. Very often apartments changed hands.

The idea to erect skyscrapers arose in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, when the completion of projects for the Palace of Soviets, an administrative center and a congress hall of the newly formed Soviet Union, was announced. It was the last open international contest during Stalin’s reign, where such esteemed masters as Le Corbusier, Joseph Urban, Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn and Armando Brasini, took part. American entries were coordinated by Albert Kahn. Hector Hamilton, a 28-year-old British architect living in New Jersey, got the second award. Boris Iofan was awarded the first prize; they planned to build it on the site of the demolished Cathedral of Christ the Savior. However, despite the efforts taken, they only completed the basement, which was later on turned into a swimming pool.

Hotel Leningrad on Kalanchevskaya Ulitsa with lavishly decorated lobbies on the first floor has probably the least influence on the surrounding area in comparison with its other six “sisters” due to it’s proportions and compact silhouette.

The Mikhail Lomonosov Moscow State University building is thought to be the peak and farewell to Stalin’s era and unmistakably one of the most astounding buildings in Moscow. Its construction was covered by the media daily; they often named it the Temple of Science and Education (we could also add “ideology”). From the top it looks like a scarab beetle with horns stretching towards the Kremlin – the Soviet torch and control center. The alley of immobile sculptures, similar to the alley of sphinxes in Luxor leads us to the main entrance, marked by the twin sculptures of divine students (by Vera Mukhina), male and female, looking alike. Huge columns and obelisks add to the impression of a true Egyptian temple. Alexander Deineka, Pavel Korin and many other outstanding artists, sculptors and designers contributed to the grandeur of its lobbies, halls, theaters, museums, lecture rooms and staircases. The 32nd floor houses an elite conference hall under the protection of a sparkling red star high on the ceiling. The Museum of Earth Science presents a combination of scientific objects and works of art and occupies the five top floors of the university.

Architects of the ‘Seven Towers’

  • Moscow State University
    Lev Rudnev, Sergei Chernishev, Pavel Abrosimov, Alexander Khriakov, 1953, Vorobyovy Gory, 32 floors
  • Hotel Ukraine
    Arcadii Mordvinov, Viacheslav Oltarzhevsky, 1957, Kutuzovsky Prospekt, 26 floors
  • Foreign Ministry
    Vladinir Gelfreikh, Mikhail Minkus, 1951, Smolenskaya-Sennaya Ploshchad, 20 floors
  • Hotel Leningrad
    Leonid Poliakov, Alexander Boretsky, 1952, Kalanchevskaya Ulitsa, 17 floors 
  • Residential Building
    Dmitry Chechulin
    Andrei Rostkovsky, 1952, Kotelnicheskaya Naberezhnaya, 17 floors
  • Residential Building
    Mikhail Posokhin, Ashot Mdoyants, 1954, Vosstania Ploshchad, 16 floors
  • Administration and Residential Building
    Alexei Dushkin, Boris Mezentsev, 1953, Krasniye Vorota, 16 floors

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