The Soviet Union was in a tough spot in the years following World War Two. They had lost an enormous portion of their young population, yet they received little recognition for their contribution to the Allied war effort.
The USSR’s ideological enemy, the United States, boasted some of the world’s grandest skyscrapers. But Stalin looked at Moscow, and saw a city still recovering from a multi-year battle with the German Army. He felt that the Soviet capital needed their own awe-inspiring architectural wonders to show that communists could build skyscrapers just as well as capitalists.
So, he began a project in the late 1940s to change that, ordering the construction of a handful of skyscrapers that would change Moscow’s skyline forever. Today, we’re talking about Stalin’s Skyscrapers, Moscow’s Seven Sisters.
The first Soviet skyscraper project actually began in the late 1930s. It was a building appropriately called the Palace of the Soviets, but its construction was halted by the German Invasion of 1941. Instead, the metal frame was broken down and used in the building of the Moscow defense ring. After the war, the Palace’s key architect, Boris Iofan, repeatedly pressed Stalin to give the Palace another go. But Stalin had a change of heart. Instead of building one massive structure, he would build eight slightly less massive structures.
The new plan was called vysotki, and Stalin had multiple reasons for abandoning the Palace in favor of this new plan. The Palace’s legacy would’ve been tarnished by its connection to Comintern, the organization founded by Vladimir Lenin, which still played a considerable role in Soviet politics when the Palace was first planned. Stalin personally saw to it that Comintern was dissolved before the end of the war, and he was committed to forging his own legacy apart from that of Lenin and Communist International.
Along with boosting his personal legacy, Stalin wanted to improve Moscow’s and the Soviet Union’s public image, especially compared to their capitalist allies turned enemies. After all, he saw Russia as the nation that had just led the Allies to victory in the apocalyptic war against tyranny, and he wanted to display their might for the world to see. Nikita Kruschev recalled Stalin’s words, claiming that he said, “We won the war … foreigners will come to Moscow, walk around, and there are no skyscrapers. If they compare Moscow to capitalist cities, it’s a moral blow to us”.
Planning, Architecture, and Construction
Stalin announced the vysotki program in January of 1947 and spent the next nine months selecting building sites, eventually kicking off the construction on September 12th, 1947. Part of Stalin’s plan for distancing the skyscrapers from the USSR’s pre-war history was to disregard the “old-guard” of Soviet architects in favor of a younger generation, ranging from 37 to 64 years old. The first challenge facing the project was that none of these architects had ever designed high-rise buildings. But this was a problem characteristic of most Soviet designers, and not just this slightly younger generation.
The architects were required to design buildings within a specific architectural style, which would eventually be called Stalinism. This style combined Russian baroque with gothic forms, though it was also inspired by the skyscrapers of New York, including the Municipal Building in Manhattan. They would all include over-engineered steel frames with concrete walls and ceilings, as well as a handful of the preferred communist motifs, like sickles and images of noble working men. By April of 1949, plans for all the high-rises were complete, and every architect involved was given the prestigious State Stalin Prize.
The second major challenge was the weak soil found throughout Moscow called sandy loam. Though ideal for growing tomatoes in your backyard, the sandy, silty soil could hardly support high-rises made of thousands of tons of concrete. Given that it was Stalin’s pet project, the best and brightest engineers and scientists were tasked with figuring out a way to strengthen the foundations, and they came through.
The result was the first box caisson foundation in the Soviet Union. The caisson is a type of deep foundation most suitable in areas with weak topsoil, as it transfers the load to the deeper, more structurally sound soil beneath it. They’re also airtight, and therefore suitable in areas near rivers where the soil is wet. For the Seven Sisters, these foundations were made of reinforced concrete, and they went up to seven meters deep into the earth.
The ambitious plans required a vast portion of the national industry and practically created new sectors in the Soviet economy. Special factories were built to produce the metal frames and reinforced concrete used in the structures. Altogether, post-Soviet economists have estimated that the project took up half of Moscow’s construction effort over the decade that it took place.
The Seven Sisters
While each of the Seven Sisters is magnificent in its own right, some have had a more considerable impact on Moscow’s skyline over the decades. All seven buildings were technically started between 1947 and 1950, though many saw work begin years later, and they were all completed between 1952 and 1957. The seven buildings are the Hotel Ukraina, Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Apartments, the Kudrinskaya Square Building, the Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya Hotel, the main building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the main building of Moscow State University, and the Red Gates Administrative Building. Not all of these buildings are worth diving into, but let’s take a look at a few of the highlights.
Moscow State University Main Building
The largest of the Sisters is the main building of Moscow State University, found in the Sparrow Hills neighborhood of the city, placing it at a high point overlooking the rest of Moscow. The project had multiple architects because the first one, Boris Iofev, mistakenly planned for the building to be built in an area with high landslide potential. Stalin apparently wasn’t a fan of second chances because Iofev was immediately canned from the project in favor of Lev Rudnev.
Rudnev’s structure was ambitious and eye-catching. It stands at 240 meters (790 ft) tall, and its highest point is a 58-meter (190 ft) spire topped with a 12-ton five-pointed star, a symbol found on all of the Sisters. Upon its completion, it became the seventh tallest building on earth and the tallest in Europe, a title it held until the completion of the Messeturm in Frankfurt in 1990. The central tower, which utilizes over 40,000 tons of steel for its framework and 130,000 cubic meters (4.6 million cubic feet) of concrete, was inaugurated on September 1st, 1953.
The building remains a dominant force in Moscow’s skyline and is still the tallest educational building in the world. Unfortunately, the building is not open to the public, so you might need to enroll at the university to see the inside.
The Leningradskaya Hotel is actually the smallest of all the seven sisters, but it holds a special place in Soviet lore because of a little controversy. The Leningradskaya was the first luxury hotel in Moscow, as it was finished before the Ukraina in 1954. It was once even featured in the Guinness Book of World Records for containing the world’s longest light fixture, which people were, of course, very excited about. However, Nikita Kruschev famously hated the Leningradskaya due to its terrible use of space.
The interior floor plan prioritizes vast, luxurious rooms over compact, efficient ones, a clear shirking of Soviet values. The hotel contained 354 rooms, but Kruschev’s sources told him that it easily could have held over 1,000 rooms and that it could’ve been built for a fraction of the cost. He felt that more of the hotel should’ve been made available for rent, but due to the lack of rooms, that was not an option.
The architect was a man named Leonid Polyakov, and, like every architect of the Seven Sisters, he was given a Stalin Prize in 1949 for his design of the building. However, Kruschev took away the man’s prize, claiming that the interior was too wasteful to warrant an award bearing Stalin’s name.
The rest of the Sisters range in height from 138 to 198 meters (452 to 650 ft) and are used as apartments, hotels, and office space for public ministries. While their grandeur varies from structure to structure in modern Moscow, they once all sat comfortably on the list of the ten tallest buildings in Europe.
The Eighth Sister
While the “Seven Sisters” has a great ring to it in English, the original plan included a crowning eighth sister, which would have been the largest of all the structures and among the world’s tallest buildings. The design’s working name was the Zaryadye Skyscraper due to its location in Moscow’s Zaryadye neighborhood.
This eighth sister made it through the early planning stages, with architect Dmitry Chechulin taking the lead on the 275-meter high-rise. However, at the time of Stalin’s death, no progress had been made on the construction. The Soviet leadership agreed that the building would’ve been too grand for their tastes, possibly overshadowing the Kremlin for the title of the city’s most magnificent building. So, the project was canceled, and Chechulin instead built the Rossiya Hotel on the predetermined spot.
Impact and Legacy
The Seven Sisters still stand majestically throughout Moscow as symbols of the country’s past and as examples of beautiful architecture. Following many European dictators’ traditions, Stalinist architecture had always been grand and elaborate, but the skyscrapers literally took those traditions to new heights.
Aside from their lasting design, though, the Sisters actually had a visible impact on Moscow and the Soviet Union’s architectural history. Moscow was the first European city to build skyscrapers of this scale, and they’ve continued to lead the continent with the size of their structures. While London is making a push to overtake them, there’s no doubt that Moscow is the skyscraper king of Europe, with seven of the continent’s nine tallest buildings found within the city.
Throughout the rest of the former Soviet Union, there are a handful of copycats that do their best to reflect Stalinist influence, though often lacking in the original sisters’ scale. These include the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Casa Presei Librei in Bucharest, and the Hotel International Prague in, well, Prague.
But, of course, the Sisters’ legacy is much more complicated than that. The skyscrapers were criticized for requiring too many of Russia’s resources for buildings with relatively little public utility. Essentially, these were prestige builds, almost the polar opposite of the standard housing blocks, which were models of efficiency but utterly devoid of character.
Altogether, the decade-long Seven Sisters project added about 500,000 square meters (5.4 million sq ft) of floor space to the city, split between residential and office space. For comparison, Moscow built over 400,000 square meters of housing in 1949 alone. Modern estimates claim that the prestige project halved housing construction rates from 1947 to 1957 by diverting many of the country’s resources. However, they also played a considerable role in establishing Moscow as an industrial center, as the factories and skilled labor used for their construction would become critical for Kruschev’s housing projects in the following decade.
The most controversial aspect of the skyscrapers, though, is the man who built them. For many residents of Moscow and the former Soviet Union, the Sisters represent a period of dictatorial rule where the government had little regard for the lives of their workers, despite their supposed ideals. Yes, Soviet planning led to the construction of the most magnificent 19th-century buildings in Europe, but it also led to the oppression of millions of people. Perhaps, more than anything else, the buildings represent power and the lengths that some men have gone to prove that they had it.