What should one do in Moscow? Apart from paying your respects to Lenin and exploring the metro system, you cannot miss Stalin’s seven sisters. Sisters? Did Stalin have any sisters? Are they embalmed in a secret location, or are they a row of statues commemorating the man of steel’s siblings? Not at all, for they are among the most significant architectural wonders of Moscow.
This is a low cost exploration of Moscow, a real bonus since the city is not the cheapest of places to visit. All you need is one of the freely available maps, some loose change for the metro, and walking shoes. The seven sisters lie in a loose circle around the city, most of them in the Garden Ring. A single day is all it needs, although you can take a more leisurely pace over two days.
But what are Stalin’s seven sisters? They are a series of massive buildings constructed in the style of what is now called Stalin Baroque, a distinct architectural style that developed during the 1930s and carried through to the following decades. Since they are still among the highest buildings in Europe, the locals call them Vysotki – the tall buildings. They are known for high quality materials sourced from throughout the USSR, careful attention to detail and fine craftsmanship, and architectural sensitivity to human-centred experience. That is, quality was the operative word, for they were intended as showpieces, to display what was possible under communism, in terms of technological, artistic and aesthetic achievement. That they manage to dominate the skyline even today, in the midst of trashy contemporary efforts, is a testament to the achievement back then.
Many other buildings in Moscow also hail from this period, and they too are variations on Stalin Baroque. Our hotel, the Peking Hotel, is one of those. But we are keen for the sisters, so from the hotel we set out, in a counter-clockwise direction. Within half an hour’s walking distance is the Kudrinskaya Square Building – one of two apartment buildings drawn up in the original plans. Already visible in the distance from the moment we leave the hotel, suddenly it soars upwards at the moment we turn the last corner.
Involuntarily we take a step back, attempting to absorb the initial impression. Here you can see the effect of the new building techniques of the time, with steel frames, concrete slabs, and then ceramic tiles and panels, all of which enabled the massive size of extremely solid buildings. My eye is drawn past the gardens in the front to the layout of the building itself. Following a wedding-cake design, with outer layers leading to the central spire, it draws your eyes ever upwards. At the top of the spire, at times wreathed in clouds, is the red star sailing in the heavens. Perhaps it is appropriate that Kudrinskaya was originally intended for scientists, cosmonauts and pilots.
Drawing closer to the building is like approaching a massive painting, for now the ‘brushwork’ becomes apparent. Flowers, leaves, budding plant, and intricate patterns weave their way around the stonework, while balconies, pilasters and pylons are adorned with geometric patterns. Over the deeply wrought timber door – itself as high as a vaulted ground floor – are the dates of construction, 1949-54. And you cannot miss the claims of the Soviet era, with red stars and hammers-and-sickles encased in images of fecundity.
This will be hard to beat, I think. Surely, Kudrinskaya has set the standard to which all the others are to be measured. I am wrong, for our next stop is Hotel Ukraina, a short walk away.
Rising from a turn in the Moskva river, it dwarfs all that is around it, making the later high-rises built in the vicinity look like cheap efforts lacking in imagination. Now the parapets are topped with urns, red stars in wreaths stand out from all points, the vast entrance doors seem like tiny trapdoors beneath the central tower spire that is literally reaching for the stars. And here too is another red star asserting its own place in the heavens.
Thus far we have encountered an apartment building and a hotel. Now we walk a short way to a government building, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This one is different from the other two, for it is set in the midst of other structures, many of them residential buildings and shops in Stalin Baroque as well. The Ministry is more compact, holding its outlying columns in close, keeping the leaping spire of the centre at a more modest level. The ornamentation is of a simple, geometric pattern, but the effect is to draw one’s gaze to the prominent symbol at the centre of the spire: a massive red star encased in a wreath.
For the fourth sister, we need to break away from the Garden Ring in which most of the sisters are found. Moscow State University is further out, almost at the end of the metro line 1 and across the winding river. Unlike the other sisters, which we take in from a distance and then explore at close range, the university emerges from the trees in parts. The intimacy of arrival initially conceals its grandeur, so we touch its statues of youthful and vigorous homo sovieticus:
and peer up at the stone banners and flags festooned with myriad reminders proclaiming the USSR, the victory of the Great Patriotic War, the stars and hammers-and-sickles:
Here the stonemasons and artists went all out, working every conceivable corner with relief sculptures, with symbols of plenty and the breadth of universal knowledge, all of it set in red, yellow and cream stone. How to take it all in? We found ourselves walking backwards for quite some time, until at last the whole panorama lay before us. Now the outer towers spread out, like arms from a torso – the walk around the whole building is three kilometres. The central structure itself rises and rises again, sporting statues and layers until the characteristic red star on its spire touches the planets. It remains the tallest educational building in the world.
The remaining three sisters are not of the same expanse, but they each have their own character. The communal apartments (originally designed for elite housing) on Kotelnicheskaya Embankment are back in the Garden Ring, so to the metro we return.
Set on the confluence of the Moskva and Yauza Rivers, here the construction is simpler, with cream stone in a hexagonal design with three side wings, and each pinnacle finished with a flower yet to bud. A hotel and a ministry building remain; both of them close by Komsomolskaya metro station. The whole area around the metro is festooned with communist names and buildings, for outside the metro is Leningradskaya square, as is the hotel itself with the same name.
The most modest of the sisters, it simply sports a central tower and is constructed of red, yellow and cream stone. Both it and the Red Gates Building can be seen in the span of a single look, so it is a short walk from one to the other.
Red Gates once housed the Ministry of Construction of Heavy Industry, although it is now an administrative building. The story goes that it was originally completed in a Moscow winter, so it was settled at an angle to allow for settling when the ground thawed. However, when the thaw set in, the building still did not settle sufficiently, so engineers pumped in hot water. Now it tilted too far in the other direction; not too far, thankfully, for it was still within in the angle of safety.
As we wearily tread our way into the last metro station, I ponder the era that produced such buildings. It spanned more than two decades, from the 1933 Palace of the Soviets competition to 1955 when Khrushchev did his best to unravel Stalin’s legacy. Two decades is not such a long time, especially when one considers that a considerable portion of that time involved the monumental effort of defeating Hitler’s massed armies in the Great Patriotic War. But what intrigues me the most is what these constructions reveal concerning both the spatial vision of a new communist order and Stalin’s surprisingly (at least, for his myriad knee-jerk critics) democratic way of operating. As was the case with his generals during the Second World War, Stalin gathered the most talented architects and designers and let them do their thing in open and vigorous debate. So, within a year of approving an ambitious plan for rebuilding Moscow, Stalin called together the Union of Soviet Architects and let them loose. Their mission was to let their creative talents run, to design and oversee the building of a memorable Moscow. The seven sisters were but one of the projects, which included many other buildings and the extraordinary construction of the Moscow metro system. Immense energy, immense organisation, immense gathering of materials and labour – all by a country that was still emerging from its industrial and technological backwardness.
Perhaps it is a testament to the achievement embodied in the seven sisters that the new Triumph Palace apartment building, near Sokol metro station, takes its inspiration from that era. Completed in 2003 with a height of 264 metres, it is designed in the same spirit – a nod in a lesser age to the grandeur of those times.