The October Revolution of 1917 was at once a break with the past, a new beginning and an end of history, three ideas encapsulated within the dialectic of Marxism and the Hegelian eschatology that Marx’s ideas were based upon. A revolution staged by a radical intelligentsia who claimed to have correctly interpreted the processes of history itself was unprecedented, and because of this it would present specific philosophical and aesthetic challenges to the revolution’s heirs who set about building a new society on the ruins of the old.
The focus of this essay is on the Stalinist architecture that developed from 1932 onwards and how competing views of the purpose of construction in the present struggled for dominance. The writings of Vladimir Paperny, Boris Groys, Eric Hobsbawm and Sheila Fitzpatrick will all be explored to evaluate how Stalinist aesthetics in architecture triumphed over the avante garde.
The revolution of October 1917 had been a based around what its practitioners believed was a scientific analysis of the laws of history. Lenin was focused in his 1902 treatise on revolution ‘What is to be done’, on where Russia stood in its historical development, where exactly in history she was. The conclusion that he reached was that Russia was mired in here own backward peasant past and that a historical ‘short cut’ was necessary to jolt her into the future[i]. This short cut would be the coup of October 1917 and the state built thereafter would construct socialism, thus ushering in the final phase of human existence, Communism. The vast modernisation of Russia that would be carried out in the following decades was therefore based around notions of permanence and ‘eternity’[ii]; the creation of a new Moscow in 1937, for example, would be the last innovation needed as no further phases of history would occur. Marxist-Leninist thought indicated that the nature of all aesthetics and architecture was determined by the material conditions prevalent in a society, and as these would now remain fixed it therefore followed that the buildings that Soviet Communism created would also be built to endure. This is clearly seen in the example of Lenin’s mausoleum, built initially of wood and then constructed in stone as a permanent fixture in Red Square.
Paperny’s Architecture In The Age Of Stalin: Culture Two makes a distinction between two architectural cultures existing after 1917, Constructivist and Stalinist styles, the first flourishing briefly after 1919. Constructivism closely resembled other aspects of the European avante garde in the 1920s, specifically German Bauhaus and Italian Futurism and its core ideology and aesthetic was more closely linked to these movements than Stalinist design later was to Nazi German gigantism in architecture. Constructivism predated the revolution and was part of a wider European modernist movement that reached its height on the eve of the First World War, inspired by the technology of the new century and the possibilities for a new social reordering through rationality and science. This ‘Culture One’ argues Paperny was focused on beginnings rather than endings, and to the avante garde who championed it the future was being built in the moment and therefore unpredictable. The years immediately after the October Revolution presented the Constructivists with a brief window of opportunity to experiment with a new modernist aesthetic, and whilst many broadly approved of the new regime it was based upon the assumption that they had shared aesthetic goals.
Eric Hobsbawm in his final book Fractured Times argued that the admiration that the Constructivists had for the Bolsheviks was not reciprocated, he focuses less on the dialectical view of history that the new rulers of Russia had as set out by Paperny and more on their democratising zeal, Hobsbawm cites Lenin as having asked if there were any ‘reliable anti futurists’[iii]. The sweeping away the past and the bourgeois high culture of the 19th Century that many of the avante garde anticipated was an anathema to Lenin and to Lunacharsky, who saw the culture that they had been familiar with for much of their lives having a fundamental value[iv]. Instead of erasing it, the Bolsheviks, in Hobsbawm’s view, wished to democratise it in the belief that it would have a transformational quality, improving the condition of the workers and building the new Soviet man and woman. Hobsbawm’s argument, while largely valid in its observations on Soviet attitudes towards the avante garde, is slightly flawed when it comes to the issue of the party’s approach to high culture.
He ignores the enormous destruction of high culture, particularly the destruction of buildings that occurred between 1917 and 1953. The almost complete liquidation of the old Russian nobility also resulted in the loss of over ninety per cent of Russian stately homes, countless libraries, antiques, paintings, sculpture and the deaths of tens of thousands of artisans, craftsmen, musicians, composers, curators, translators and academics[v]. An entire generation capable of preserving high culture on behalf of the masses was lost. Initially, Anatoli Lunacharsky, who, according to Douglas Smith was quite sympathetic towards many of the ‘former people’ of the nobility, made efforts to preserve Russia’s stately homes as museums, democratising access to high culture, but ultimately the need to galvanise popular support against the nobles prevailed, resulting in destruction.[vi]
The new regime was perhaps initially inclined to use the remnants of the old cultural order to improve the masses, but certainly after 1928, with the intensification of class warfare against the bourgeois specialists and former nobles, homes such as the Sheremetev’s Corner House in Moscow were either held up as examples of aristocratic decadence or became practical public utilities. Any role they might have had in ‘betterment’ was limited.[vii]
This weakness in the democratisation argument adds an additional legitimacy to the observations of Paperny, who describes in the first chapter of ‘Culture Two’, precisely how ambitious and self assured the Soviet regime was when considering its place in history. He argues that Stalinist architecture did more than simply bring high culture to the masses (though in the case of the Moscow Underground in certainly did intend to and achieve this) it brought together all the major themes in architecture from every epoch in human history, showing that Soviet Communism not only drew from all these periods of civilisation but synthesised them and drew the disparate aesthetic strands together so as to present Soviet architecture as the culmination of the past[viii]. This was a visual metaphor for communism itself, which, at the end of the historical process was the culmination of all of human history itself.
Paperny suggests that this eschatology might also be influenced by a particular Russian habit for importing, borrowing and adapting foreign cultures, particularly European, and cites the greatest architectural borrower from Europe, Peter The Great, founder of Russia’s first modern European city. He claims that the tradition of borrowing from the west was something that was not only well established in Russia by the time that the Bolsheviks came to power, but that was seen as essential by Lenin, specifically to avoid the taint of the ancien regime.
Paperny writes: “Lenin, despite his distaste for futurism was seemingly in complete agreement with these words dictated to Ia. A. Iakovlev: “In our genuinely barbarian country,” he asked polemically, “should we make our heads safe from lice and our beds from bedbugs?” Lenin was horrified by the onslaught of the: “True Russian person, the great Russian chauvinist, essentially a scoundrel and a rapist” and at approaching “sea of chauvinistic Russian trash.”[ix] Lenin’s antipathy towards the bulk of the Russian population, who he saw as backward, reactionary and a potential counter revolutionary threat meant that cultural and aesthetic ideas that originated from within Russia and her people were suspect. An entire structure of politics and economics that was western in origin, dreamt up by a German Jewish intellectual in the Reading Room of the British Library and based on observations of the German, French and British prolateriat, was being imported into Russia to fill what Lenin perceived to be an intellectual void. It therefore seemed natural to import and ‘borrow’ the aesthetic look of the new socialist society, and culture two was the main appropriator of styles.
Culture One, Paperny suggests, is the culture of flux, of permanent change and upheaval, it was the culture that was permissible before the power struggle between Trotsky and the Stalin led triumvirate was concluded in the late 1920s[x]. It was the culture of permanent revolution.
The Soviet citizen, divorced from former bourgeois institutions such as the nuclear family and the home was encouraged to live in barracks and the family itself was undermined as being a relic of the past. Orlando Figes argues that the Constructivists actively participated in the formulation of policy towards families and sought the ‘ complete destruction of the private sphere’[xi]. This was a goal supported by many in the avante garde of culture one, who’s collectivist instincts made them champion communal living and view the family as a threat to this goal. Paperny quotes Vladimir Kuz’min: “The proletariat should waste no time in destroying the family as an organ of oppression and exploitation.”[xii] These ideas were later incorporated into the journal Sovremennaia Arkhitektura, which argued that individuals should be stripped of any other role than that of worker, sleep communally and that: “Man constantly works (even when he is sleeping)”. The relationship between the state and the citizen, or the collective and the individual is always a crucial factor when exploring the nature of public art and architecture. If Culture One led the attack on family institutions through design and the planning of communal dwellings, then it was Culture Two that could be said to have restored the position of family life in the USSR. Whilst Culture One seems to have championed the collective above all things and placed virtue on work itself, the product of collective action, Culture Two deviates from this, but curiously does so at a time when mass labour and work became more important to the state than at any other time in Russian history. The design of Culture One communal living projects became marginalised during the Five Year Plans, something that at first glance might seem paradoxical, but may well have a hidden logic of its own. Communal living of a sort did flourish during the Five Year Plans and all the way up to Stalin’s death in 1953. The commune in this period was namely the Gulag, where prisoners would be sent to be transformed into reformed citizens through work[xiii]. At the same time that the Gulag system rapidly expanded from 1928 onwards, the attitude of the party was changing towards non prisoner communal life and in 1930 the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued a resolution about ‘Work on the Reconstruction Of Daily Life’ which rebuked ill conceived and ‘fantastic’ and ‘extremely harmful’ attempts to reconstruct daily life in a ‘single leap’.[xiv] This might suggest that the Culture Two Stalinists saw the Culture One avante gardists as being over ambitious and attempting to bring about changes in Russia independent of the party and at a pace not dictated by the party. This might possibly be what the Central Committee was trying to communicate, but the idea that Stalinism was by it’s nature cautious and gradualist is undermined by the pace of economic and social change brought about by collectivisation and the Five Year Plans. Instead, it seems more consistent with Stalin’s edict of 1934 that ‘Life has become more joyous, comrades.” Stalin was keen for improved living standards amongst the workers, aware, after the disaster of collectivisation that his position was not completely secure and that he had to produce material rewards for the population if he was to maintain his role of General Secretary of the Party. Stalinist consumerism, as championed by the Stakhanovites could not exist in communal barracks, the relationship between man and work as envisioned by Kuz’min was at odds with the Stalinist conception of work, both emphasised sacrifice to the collective, but Stalinist work was incentivised with material gain[xv] and at the other end of the spectrum in the camps, punished with hunger[xvi].
Prior to the ascent of Stalin in the late 1920s, the avante garde had greater political space in which to operate due to the uncertainty over which direction economically and politically the country would take. Movability and impermanence as concepts in architecture flourished[xvii], and this was partly reflected in the politics of the mid 1920s. Both concepts, according to Paperny, were desirable from the point of view of the Trotskyite left of the party, the atomised individual would simply have one relationship, with the party itself, all else was subject to change. Not only could individuals be treated like this, but so could buildings, with constant uncertainty, impermanence and flux existing in urban landscapes.
The Russian Civil War uprooted millions of citizens and hunger caused constant migration between the city and the countryside. Lenin in particular railed against the migratory population, controlling population movement with internal passports would later become a key element of Stalinist repression and surveillance. The early Constructivist designs for buildings that could be moved disassembled and altered were not only physically impractical but ideologically they were philosophically unacceptable to the regime by the 1930s.[xviii]
Paperny wrote of the intense alarm expressed by Constructivists like the Vesnin Brothers in the USSR and foreign architects sympathetic to regime like Le Corbusier when the cultural shift away from Constructivism began. When Boris Iofan was awarded first prize in the first round of the contest to create the centrepiece in Moscow, it represented a clear rejection of the avante garde. As if to emphasise the cultural shift, Vladimir Tatlin’s modernist aviation sculpture Letatlin, encapsulating the Soviet public’s fascination with flying and exploration, was replaced by an exhibition of the competing designs.[xix]
Paperny argues that the international radical architectural community felt betrayed by Stalin, which raises an interesting question regarding what the avante garde from 1917 onwards assumed would be the nature of public art and architecture in Russia.[xx]
After the revolution, many radical artists and designers had good reason to assume that their ideas would prevail, architects like Tatlin were given ministerial portfolios[xxi] and, as Boris Groys in his book The Total Art Of Stalinism argues, the very process of building socialism seemed ideally suited to the modern, rational architect.
The affinity that many radical artists and architects might have had with the Soviet Government came from a sense that their art could be part of the process of constructing the future or building socialism. Groys argues that whilst complex, the Russian avante garde has one defining feature: “…it does not seem like an extreme simplification to define its basic spirit in terms of the demand that art move from representing the world to transforming it.”
Groys argues that the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War brought such destruction and devastation to the country that by 1922 a completely new canvas upon which the avante garde could paint had been achieved in Russia. Culturally and spiritually the country was reduced to a ‘zero point’, and Groys states that the avante garde seized this as an opportunity to translate their aesthetic visions into a reality, declaring loyalty to the Bolshevik cause. Much as with Paperny, Groys points out that the two were not instantly compatible and that the avante garde saw more potential in the Bolsheviks than the other way round. Echoing Paperny, Groys argues that the scope of change that the avante garde envisioned, particularly with regard to restructuring social life through architecture was immense due to the fact that the possibilities for change were so great, the extent of the chaos in Russia meant that: “…avante garde artists…to whom the external world had become a black chaos, must create an entirely new world, so that their artistic projects are necessarily total and boundless.” Whilst not necessarily set in stone during the first few years of the revolution and civil war, the plans that Lenin had for the future of Russia followed far more fixed parameters. Lenin also used the chaos to socially re-order Russia with the Red Terror, but, as previously discussed, the Bolshevik view of the revolution was that a finite concluding phase to history had been reached, whereas the avante garde saw it as a new beginning. Groys writes: “When Rodchenko and his group proposed the new programme of Constructivism in 1919…enthusiasm was still overwhelming, and the avante garde was convinced that the future was in its hands…Rodchenko, Tatlin and other Constructivists proclaimed the work of art to be a self sufficient and autonomous thing with no mimetic relationship to external reality.” To Lenin, all art, culture and particularly architecture had a clear and observable link to external reality, particularly social reality. Groys argues that the Constructivists looked upon the machine as being the model for their work, and there are echoes of this in Constructivist architecture, indeed Le Corbusier, their most enthusiastic European collaborator and fellow traveller was eventually to describe homes merely as ‘machines for living in’[xxii]. Groys implies a certain level of hubris on the part of the Constructivists and an inability to see political realities in revolutionary Russia, he suggests that they viewed their role as being the: “Aesthetico-political reorganisation of the country.”[xxiii] They seem to have been labouring under a collective delusion about their own significance and place within the revolution, and were assured of their own intellectual superiority. The Bolsheviks for their part did have some vulnerability on the subject of constructing socialism, Karl Marx wrote a great deal interpreting history and suggesting how a revolution might be achieved but he wrote nothing on what the world of communism might or should look like. A generation of visionary architects therefore might well be looked on if not favourably then at least as a useful stop gap until the model of socialist construction could be decided upon. Again, the political and economic uncertainties of the 1920s meant that a concrete vision for the future of Russia was unclear until Stalin decisively resolved this with the Five Year Plans.
The end came for the avante garde as an entity in 1932 when art and culture were finally subordinated to the needs of politics. Ostensibly this subordination was an attempt to end ‘factional strife on the “artistic and cultural front”‘[xxiv] and the use of the term ‘front’ implied that both art and architecture were to be used as part of a renewed struggle or battle. The Five Year plans were the basis of this renewed struggle, after the uncertain years of the NEP, and art would now be used as a tool to mobilise the masses. The avante garde’s view that 1917 represented limitless possibility, creative autonomy and the creation of an ideologically undetermined future was finally swept aside by the economic realities of the Five Year Plans and the cultural logic that they generated. The Leninist and Stalinist viewpoint that a final stage in history was being constructed in Russia prevailed and so to did the architectural ideas that went with it. Many members of the avante garde were happy to welcome direct state control over their various art forms, assuming that the Soviet Government’s direct control would be far less onerous than that of the various cultural organisations that had governed them since the revolution.[xxv]
Sheila Fitzpatrick argues that a struggle to conquer or ‘master’ culture, akin the Stalinist battle to master nature was being waged in the 1930s[xxvi]. The question as to what culture exactly was had been a fraught one and the avante garde had contributed in the 1920s to the idea that it was essentially a class construct and therefore bourgeois culture that still existed since the 1917 had to be uncovered and eliminated. Lenin’s take on culture, as we have previously seen in Hobsbawm and Paperny’s arguments, was that it was ultimately a civilising force, that Russia had a deficit of it and that it was essential to democratise it and make it accessible to finally civilise the anarchic and ‘barbaric’ Russian people.
Fitzpatrick writes: “The “proletarian” side achieved brief dominance in the years of the cultural revolution but was then discredited. That left the alternative view, that culture was something immensely valuable and beyond class, in the ascendent. But it also left a tacit agreement that meaning of culture was not something that should be probed into too deeply.”[xxvii]
In 1920 during a Politburo meeting Lenin wrote the following note to himself: “Not the invention of a new proletarian culture, but the development of the best models, traditions and results of the existing culture, from the point of view of the Marxist world outlook and the conditions of life and struggle of the proletariat in the period of its dictatorship.” This is clear evidence that the idea of introducing a new aesthetic to Russia, for example Constructivism, was not an option as far as Lenin was concerned and the cherry picking of the best elements of the previous culture and adapting them to suit a Marxist perspective was the preferred outcome.[xxviii]
Lenin’s own class prejudices, directed largely at the Russian peasantry, but also to some extent at all the labouring classes of the new USSR, could not be openly articulated a state based on egalitarian principals. His desire to impose a civilising culture, and by extension an civilising architecture was consistent with an elitism that he had nurtured since writing ‘What Is To Be Done’,[xxix] the people alone would have no idea how to construct socialism and must be directed. Similarly, the worst thing that they could be encouraged to do would be to destroy ‘bourgeois’ culture, and instead their energies must be directed into ‘building a new world’.
In the chapter titled: “Palaces On Monday”, Fitzpatrick writes about the fashion for monumentalism in Soviet architecture and the impulse on the part of Soviet architects to want to create ‘palaces’ for the people. Public spaces such as the Hotel Moskva, the Moscow Metro were to become palatial, partly because of an impulse to democratise high culture, but also from an impulse to hold up the public space and the shared experience as sacrosanct. Whilst Lenin may have been sympathetic towards the high culture of the pre revolutionary era, his successor Stalin was not sympathetic towards the private sphere of life. It was here that counter revolution dwelled and here that old bourgeois ways persisted.[xxx]
Fitzpatrick writes: “Palaces were in the spirit of the age. There were palaces of culture, palaces of sport, palaces of labour, usually large, lavishly decorated and imposing buildings to match their names.”[xxxi]
As with Hitler’s vision for Germania, the planned city that would replace Berlin, the General Plan For The Reconstruction of Moscow’ in 1937 was designed to sweep away the crowded medieval streets and the chaotic unplanned districts that had gradually emerged throughout the middle ages without much thought as to an overall plan. A modern Moscow with wide boulevards and impressive Stalinist facades was presented to the public through various models, maps and designs and Soviet cinema was also used extensively to show how the new city would look. The centre piece, the enormous Palace Of The Soviets was never built due to the unsuitability of the land in Moscow that was designated as the palace’s site[xxxii]. That the plan for the ‘palace’ spurred a jealous Hitler to bring forward his plans for Germania and his own gargantuan construct the ‘Great Hall Of The People’ which, again, was never built due to subsidence, speaks volumes about the intended propaganda value of the project[xxxiii]. The designs that appalled modern architects from Tatlin to Frank Lloyd Wright in America, were the logical projection in stone of Stalinist thinking, they attempted to incorporate aspects of architectural traditions from around the world, and bring the palatial spaces that had been reserved for the elite to the ordinary man. Designs for the Palace Of The Soviets, along with the general plan for Moscow came at the end of the second Five Year Plan, a time when the explosive industrialisation of Russia had brought a surge in living standards for many workers and a newly assertive and confident culture existed in Russia[xxxiv]. It existed alongside a growing sense of fear and anxiety about developments across Europe and a resultant return to terror in Russia. Building a monument to Soviet achievement in Russia of the size of the planned Palace Of The Soviets when viewed within this context had a clear propagandist purpose, not only to the non communist world, who Stalin suspected of conspiring against the USSR to involve it in a war with Nazi Germany, but to the many communist parties and organisations in those countries whose delegates and agents would visit Moscow throughout the decade.
A clearer example still from the same year of the newly assertive mood in the USSR was the Soviet Pavilion, designed by Boris Iofan at the Paris exposition that stood directly opposite the exhibition pavilion for Nazi Germany on the Champs-Élysées.[xxxv] Vera Mukhina, the sculptor of the iconic statue on the top of the pavilion Kolkhoz Woman and Soviet Man, wrote about the 1937 exhibition. She said: “I wanted the figures to express the young and forceful spirit of our country, to be light, rushing onward, full of movement and determination. They had to be joyous yet powerful in their forward stride…I did not have to create prototypes of the figures, they surrounded me at every step in my daily life-people who were so full of the joy of living and sure of themselves and of their victory.”[xxxvi] Two themes seem to emerge from what Mukhina is saying, firstly that the pavilion, much like Iofan’s planned Palace of the Soviets was a means of articulating the Soviet Union’s new found confidence and assertiveness. This might be dismissed partially, as the purpose of all international exhibitions since 1851 have been to showcase the percieved ‘greatness’ of nations. The second theme that emerges relates to the Soviet citizens Mukhina claimed her sculpture was modelled on. The themes of joyousness, purpose and forcefulness were all ideas that were aesthetic projections of revolutionary sentiments, but the fact that she concludes her statement by talking about a people’s victory is the most revealing point. As with the earlier point made by Groys about there being a ‘cultural front’, Mukhina clearly identifies some sort of perceived struggle or war going on by 1937. Not only was there an internal ‘war’ being waged in the Soviet Union against enemies of the revolution, Kulaks, wreckers and former people, but there was also an external struggle being fought against fascism in Spain. The fact that a worker and peasant stood on top of the pavilion also suggests that a perceived war against nature itself was being waged and the victory for socialism would be the combination of victories on all these fronts. The one victory that was already assured was the victory over culture and architecture itself.
The Stalinist turn in architecture during the 1930s was part of the logic of Soviet Communism expressed aesthetically, it articulated the Bolshevik and later the Communists view of the past, their present and their beliefs about what the future would be. Stalinist architecture prevailed in the Soviet Union not simply because of the patronage of Stalin himself (though this was a significant factor) but because of an immense enthusiasm throughout most levels of society to participate in the building of socialism in Russia. The democratising of high culture was a significant objective in the Soviet architecture that was specifically designed for mass public interaction such as the Moscow Metro or the various ‘palaces’, however the overall design of public architecture was, as Mukhina recounts, designed to articulate a new found assertiveness and pride, but if this is seen through the prism of Paperny’s argument, the pride that Russians felt in their achievements and the pride they articulated through their monuments takes on a deeper significance. Just as Stalinist gigantism claimed to draw from all the great architectural movements throughout human history and incorporate them into one seamless whole, Soviet Communism visually presented itself as the inheritor to all human history before it. The part of the Russian population actively involved in the advancement of socialism in the USSR could be assured through their public architecture that they had, individually and collectively, interpreted history correctly and could rest assured they were part of the process of building mankind’s future, this was a process which state architecture reminded them they could be justifiable proud of.
Nick Shepley is a writer, journalist, historian and teacher and creator of Explaining History, an ebook series making 20th Century history concise and accessible for students, enthusiasts and busy readers. You can visit the site and find out more about Russian and world history at www.explaininghistory.com
Applebaum, A, Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps (London, 2002) 2nd edition
Curtis, W, Le Corbusier, Ideas and Forms (London, 1992) 2nd edition
Fitzpatrick, S, Everyday Stalinism (Oxford, 1999) 1st edition
Figes, O, The Whisperers (London, 2008) 2nd edition
Groys, B The Total Art Of Stalinism (Princeton, 1992) 1st edition
Hobsbawm, E, Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century (London, 2013) 1st edition
Lenin, V.I., Lenin’s Selected Works, Volume 1, (Moscow 1961) 4th edition
Lenin, V.I.,Vladimir Lenin, Lenin’s Collected Works (Moscow 1972) Vol 42, 3rd edition
Kelly, C, (ed) Shepard, D (ed) Russian Cultural Studies: An Introduction, (Oxford, 1998) 1st edition
Kelly, C, (ed) Utopias (Middlesex, 1999) 1st edition
Muhkina, V, A Sculptor’s Thoughts (Honolulu, 2004) 3rd edition
Moorhouse, R, Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital (London, 2011) 2nd edition
Paperny, V Architecture in the Age of Stalin (Cambridge 2011) 2nd edition
Smith, D Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy (New York 2012) 1st edition