Stalin’s Skyscrapers

A distinctive feature of Moscow and some other European capital cities, Stalin’s skyscrapers were designed in the Forties and built from the early Fifties to the early Sixties. For this reason they stand as an symbol of the early Cold War period, when the Soviet Union and the Western Powers were starting to openly competing on almost everything, from the blast intensity of thermonuclear devices to the new frontier of flight – space.

Stalin died in 1953, so he couldn’t see in person the completion of the buildings bearing his name, but it is reported that he was involved personally in the master plan – approved before 1947 -, choice of architects and design of the towers in Moscow, which were to symbolize the might of the Soviet Union, a key player and a winning power of WWII, and to showcase a tangible realization of the Socialist social model. This was also to create a counterpart to the American skyscrapers, a prominent feature of many cities of the US since the mid Twenties.

Today all Stalin’s skyscrapers are still in place, and especially in the very fashionable and modern Moscow, they remain among the most evocative remains of the Communist era. Besides the gothic-renaissance style they are built in, with imposing volumes and tall pinnacles and spines, resulting in a “Gotham City” appearance in contrast with today’s mostly widespread minimal style, these buildings are covered with symbols and sculptures totally bound to the old ‘Communist code’ – tens of hammers, sickles, waving flags and stars, plus portraits of farmers, workers, socialist virtues and happy families – a true relic of a bygone era.

Visiting is generally limited to coming close and walking around, for these buildings are all still used today for various functions, including housing and governmental.

This little report is unfortunately not complete, as I will present only photographs I’ve taken myself of those buildings I had the chance to come close to in Moscow (but not all that you can see there), Warsaw and Riga. Yet I hope to give an impression of what these buildings look like, and… to be able to complete the report with the missing ones in the future!

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Moscow, Russia

Moscow State University (Lemonsovo University)

This building is the largest of Stalin’s skyscrapers, and the tallest educational building in the world – taking pictures of the facade is a real challenge even with a wide lens! The perception of the volume of the building is reduced – to some extent… – due to the isolated position on top of a hill dominating central Moscow from the west.

The campus of the University can be accessed freely (there are gates and fences, but I guess they are normally open at least in daylight), and I suggest going for a walk from the metro stop ‘Vorobyovy gory’ (line 1) to the top of the hill, where you will get a breathtaking panorama of downtown Moscow, as well as a perspective view of the university building. You may then walk closer to the building and eventually move around it, reaching the metro stop ‘Universitet’ (line 1) for your train back to Moscow. The area is huge, so consider more than 1 hour for a complete relaxed tour of the area, even if you are just taking pictures of the outside.

The decoration of the building is probably the most elaborate of all Stalin’s skyscrapers, and include huge communist coats of arms, metal banners with engravings, a Lenin memorial sculpture, a big clock, various allegorical sculptures, and a gigantic USSR emblem with a star on top of the 787 ft tall central spine.

The panoramic view you get from the easternmost part of the perspective allows you to spot from the distance all other Stalin’s skyscrapers in town, including Hotel Ukraine (today Radisson Royal), which is partly covered by the modern skyscrapers of ‘New Moscow’.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Located on the western end of the very popular Arbat boulevard next to the ‘Smolenskaya’ interchange station on metro lines 3, 4 and 5, this imposing building is still today occupied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

The decoration is sober, and the tiles covering the exterior are made from a dark brownish material, giving a solemn, serious and possibly grim appearance to the complex. Slabs with hammer and sickle engravings can be found on the western gate on Smolensky Blvd.

Kudrinskaya Square Building

This imposing apartment building, built for high-ranking members of the Soviet cultural panorama, can be reached from ‘Barricadnaya’ on metro line 7 or equivalently from ‘Krasnoprechenskaya’ on the circle line 5. It is very close to the American embassy, and not excessively far from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The neighborhood is composed mainly of smaller residential buildings, but nonetheless this skyscraper is proportionately designed, rather ‘mimetic’ and not excessively imposing. The typical pale tiles covering most of the façade and the lack of bombastic decoration add to the nice overall perception you may get of this skyscraper.

Kotelnicheskaya Enbankment Building

This is probably the most prominent and impressive of Stalin’s skyscrapers, due to the incredible location on the Moskva river. It can be admired from the distance from the southeastern corner of the Kremlin, and especially from the bridge immediately south of the Red Square and St. Basil. The very light color of the façade gives this large building an airy appearance. A huge spine with a star and a hammer and sickle emblem complete the profile.

It is still today an apartment building. Needless to say, from the building you will get an almost unobstructed view of the Kremlin. It can be reached with a walk from the Kremlin or a more quiet walk from the interchange station ‘Taganskaya’ on line 5, 7 and 8, ideal if you are also visiting Bunker-42.

Walking closer to the building will give you a mixed feeling of grandeur and poor quality at the same time, due to size of the skyscraper on one hand, and to the many small commercial activities on the ground floor, and a certain disorder around the main entrance on the other – due to an overcrowded small parking, and a small, unnecessary fenced park.

Leningradskaya Hotel & Red Gates Administrative Building

I only had the chance for a quick pass by these buildings. The Leningradskaya Hotel (today Hilton) is the most modestly sized of Stalin’s Skyscrapers in Moscow, and is located on the western side of the highly trafficked Komsomolskaya Square, with three railway stations offering connections to everywhere in Russia and to international destinations as well, and a terminal for the world-famous Transsiberian line. The corresponding metro station is ‘Komsomolskaya’ on line 1 and 5.

From the square you can see the tower of the Red Gates Administrative Building, which can be reached with a quick walk from there or with the metro line 1 (‘Krasnye Vorota’ stop). Together with Leningradskaya Hotel, these are probably the least imposing of all Stalin’s skyscrapers, even though some mastery was reportedly necessary in the construction process of this building, due to a complicated reaction of the soil to its weight.

Riga, Latvia

Latvian Academy of Sciences

The latest of Stalin’s skyscrapers to reach completion – opened in 1961 – this distinctive building can be spotted from quite afar in the skyline of Riga, the capital city of the Latvian Republic. In the era of the USSR, this was not a ‘satellite state’, instead it was annexed to be one of the Socialist Soviet Republics, together with its neighbors Estonia and Lithuania. The building can be spotted to the south of the historical district and can be reached with a short walk from there.

This building retains only the style of Moscow’s Stalinist skyscrapers. The construction method is here based on reinforced concrete, where all buildings in Moscow are based on steel frames and masonry. The covering tiles are rather dark, giving a grim appearance to this otherwise well proportioned tower. The building can be accessed and you can reach the top to enjoy the panorama to a small fee.

Warsaw, Poland

Palace of Culture and Science

This service building is on Marsalkowska, next to the metro station ‘Swietokrzyska’, about .6 miles from the totally central University of Warsaw on Krakowskie boulevard.

The building is somehow isolated from the surroundings, being in the center of a large square. It is very imposing and comparable in size to those in Moscow – it is still today one of the tallest buildings in Poland, and can be easily spotted from several places around Warsaw.

You can climb to the top for a fee.