Soviet Modernism’s Totalitarian Beauty

Bold architectural experiments in the photographs of Yuri Palmin.

In 1955, soon after Stalin’s death, the country’s new government put an end to grandiose classicism in Soviet architecture. Daily needs, economic growth, and unprecedented cultural freedom stimulated the experimentation of architects and designers. The era of Soviet modernism began, lasting almost four decades, right up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The buildings of this period are varied and complex, and they became symbols of a new era of progress and dialogue with the world. However, the realization of grand ideas was often hindered by bureaucracy and censorship. Projects were rarely left unaltered and rarely completed on time, and the poor quality of the materials, along with careless treatment of the buildings, often meant they aged rapidly. 

Although there is interest in this style among enthusiasts and cultural historians, most people, who in Soviet times suffered supply shortages and the Iron Curtain, resent it. In their guidebook “Moscow: The Architecture of Soviet Modernism 1955-1991,” Anna Bronovitskaya and Nikolai Malinin offer an objective look at the works of Soviet architects who managed to convey the spirit of the period during which the first human spaceflight and the 1980 Olympics took place.

Photographer Yuri Palmin, who collaborated with Bronovitskaya and Malinin on their book,  favors detached observation over personal expression. Rather than provoking an emotional response, his stark images allow viewers to make out the unique essence of Soviet modernist buildings. Palmin has selected seven Moscow constructions, each reflecting the imperfect beauty of this architectural era.

Ninth Novye Cheryomushki Housing Estate (1956-1959)

Architects: Nathan Osterman, Georgiy Pavlov, Vladimir Svirsky, Sergey Lyashenko

The experimental ninth block of Novye Cheryomushki was the first Soviet experiment aimed at solving the USSR’s housing shortage. On a small plot of land in southwest Moscow, progressive strategies of planning and amenity provision were tested, as were new materials and technology. Although the main aim of the experiment was to simplify and lower construction costs, concern for the future residents can be seen in each project manager’s plan.

Provisions were made for a car park on the inner site, as well as paths, recreation areas, and games and public utility sites. The bare exterior was offset by picturesque landscaping, and the single-family apartments were equipped with inbuilt furniture and bathroom fixtures. At a time when millions of people were squeezed into communal flats, Novye Cheryomushki was a miraculous symbol of the blissful life found in individual housing.

Central Economic Mathematical Institute (1966-1978)

Architects: Leonid Pavlov, I. Yadrov, Galina Kolycheva

The Central Economic Mathematical Institute was established in 1963 for the development of analytical techniques aimed at optimizing the Soviet project of communism. Architect Leonid Pavlov tried to reflect the collaboration of humans and machines though architecture: one building in the structure was intended for computers, the other for researchers. The building’s appearance was an undeniable success, but the same cannot be said for its functionality. While the construction process dragged on, computer technology was evolving rapidly. Both the computer rooms, designed to house bulky early models, and the small offices, which could only hold a few people, proved ineffective. In order to develop ideas, researchers needed to converse, and there was a lack of rooms suitable for personal interaction.

Chertanovo North Housing Estate (1972-1983)

Architects: Mikhail Posokhin, Lev Dubek, Lev Misozhnikov, Abram Shapiro, Adolf Kegler

The experimental housing estate Chertanovo North was the most ambitious residential housing development project of the 1970s. It was built in the run-up to the 1980 Olympics and was supposed to become a place where foreign guests could experience the future lifestyle of residents of an ideal communist city. Not only did the project designers have to create an impressive architectural ensemble, but they also had to supply it with progressive maintenance and support systems. The plan suggested using underground space for a residential road and a car park; the construction of a separate school on the housing grounds; and a community center. The entrance halls of the apartment buildings would be fitted with storerooms and individual lockers for deliveries, while sensors and cameras would monitor the systems and maintain order.

However, the Olympics, which initially acted as an incentive for the construction of the estate, were a drain on resources, and the project was never fully realized.

“Swan” Residential Complex

Architects: Andrei Meerson, Elena Podolskaya, Alim Repetiy, I. Fedorov

The construction of the “Swan” was one of many attempts to create a modern residential complex with a developed infrastructure and a collective mode of living. At the same time, the designers did not pursue the utopian dream of building a commune, but worked in accordance with the most recent research by Soviet sociologists and their own analysis of the links between a person’s needs and where these needs are met. The podium, whose roof was supposed to make up for the lack of courtyards, was used to set up service and communal facilities, ranging from a dry cleaner and an assembly hall to a library and a photography darkroom.

Despite the uniformity of the building’s basic components, the architects were able to produce a striking and memorable configuration with unique features. And this was at a time when any form of “identity” was considered ideologically opposed to Soviet authorities. The “Swan” was executed poorly, like many projects by Soviet architects, whose bold ideas were fated to undergo disastrous implementation and, as a result, rapid deterioration.

First Humanities Building of Moscow State University (1965-1971)

Architects: Alexander Khryakov, Eleonora Zolotnitskaya, Mikhail Chesakov

Originally, the humanities faculties of the country’s main university were located in the center of Moscow, not far from the central library and under the ideological control of the state. However, after the abolition of tuition fees in 1956, the number of applicants began to grow, as did interest in the humanities, which underwent a revival after the restrictions under Stalin. The decision was made to build a modern building, whose appearance and atmosphere were designed to fight cultural and pedagogical inertia. Bare interiors allowed students to appreciate the thoughts of their generation’s intellectual idols more clearly, while recreation areas facilitated productive discussions with teachers. 

The Humanities Building of Moscow State University may have been inferior to its Western counterparts, but it was aligned with the generation of intellectuals educated within its walls. This generation also struggled to compete on the world stage. However, it did manage to cultivate and adopt perestroika, which brought cultural freedom.

Lenin’s Funeral Train (1979-1980)

Architects: Leonid Pavlov, Lydia Gonchar, Elena Kopeliovich

Although the distance from the village of Gorki, where Lenin died, to Moscow is not great, the use of a train made his funeral particularly ceremonial. The decision was made to restore the steam train and turn it into a memorial in 1937, at the peak of the repressions. An uninspiring neoclassical pavilion was built over the funeral train, but at the end of the 1970s, it was decided that this would be replaced for the 110th anniversary of the leader’s birth. The glass square, with its smooth roof, pulled-out stone wall and heavy-duty caisson panels appears solemn, while the train tracks on the floor and the train itself add a sense of dynamism. An unexpected element of the interior is a red granite wave with a protruding sculpted head.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the building was used as a car dealership showroom, but in 2001 it was handed over to the Railway Museum. In 2010-2011 it was reconstructed, destroying the harmony of the original composition. But enough remains in this strange museum to capture the imagination of an architecture lover.

Moscow Mint of Goznak (1971-1982)

Architects: Vsevolod Voskresensky, V. Lipatov

Initially, the Moscow Mint was located on the grounds of a small printing factory, but with the proliferation of vending machines, the country needed more small change. In the new project, the abstract form of the building took priority over the demands of the production process.

The lack of visible entrances hints at the secrecy of money production, while precise lines, so important in the production process, are embodied by the slit windows and the white stone pylons of the façade. Even when changing viewpoints and walking the length of the building’s walls, a passerby can only see the ripples on the surface – the building has the properties of an optical illusion. The project designers must have been familiar with the work of optical artists through their publications in Soviet magazines. It’s possible that, in realizing his vision, the architect Voskresensky worked alongside the creator of this movement, Victor Vasarely, who tried to expedite an architectural renaissance through the combination of art forms and integration of visual techniques.

“Moscow: The Architecture of Soviet Modernism 1955-1991” is published by the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.