February 7, 2024
From ML-Theory

Plan for the Palace of Soviets by Iofan, Gelfreich and Shchuko

This series will discuss the development of Soviet architecture and to an extent also city planning. We will discuss how socialist construction turned the country of barracks houses and homelessness into a developed society with a beautiful built environment where everyone had a roof above their head.

This series will be a discussion of the history of Soviet architecture, mostly focusing on the ideological aspects and debates, which were always strongly connected with practical questions.

I’ll discuss what socialist realism means in architecture and how the socialist realist method arose in the 1930s and struggled with other trends, and the most important architectural discussions of the time: the competition for the design of the palace of Soviets, the construction of the Moscow metro and the general plan for the reconstruction of Moscow.

I’ll also discuss the reconstruction of the Soviet Union after the Great Patriotic War and post-war developments, and the related architectural issues. Lastly l’ll cover the destruction of socialist realist architecture by the Soviet revisionists khrushchevites-brezhnevites.

In this first part I’ll talk about the first policies of the Soviet government related to housing and construction and compare them to those of the Russian empire.


With the rise of capitalism poor people from the countryside were concentrated into terribly overcrowded cities, into constantly swelling slums. City workers lived in horrific housing conditions or were totally homeless.

In his classic work The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 Friedrich Engels wrote:

“The manner in which the great multitude of the poor is treated by society today is revolting. They are drawn into the large cities where… they are deprived of all means of cleanliness, of water itself, since pipes are laid only when paid for, and the rivers so polluted that they are useless for such purposes; they are obliged to throw all offal and garbage, all dirty water, often all disgusting drainage and excrement into the streets… They are given damp dwellings, cellar dens that are not waterproof from below, or garrets that leak from above. Their houses are so built that the clammy air cannot escape.” (Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844)

Karl Marx wrote figuratively that with the rise of capitalism “Man returns to the cave dwelling, which is now, however, poisoned by the mephitic, pestilential air of civilization, in which, moreover, he only dwells precariously, a foreign power which can slip away from him any day, out of which he can be thrown any day if he does not pay. He must pay for this death house.” (Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844)

As pointed out by V. I. Lenin, “side by side with the luxurious mansions of the rich… there grew up the slums where the workers were forced to live in cellars, in overcrowded, damp and cold dwellings, and even in dug-outs near the new industrial establishments.” (Lenin, Draft and Explanation of a Programme for the Social-Democratic Party)

Living conditions like that are still the norm for most people in capitalist countries today. Western imperialist countries, where about 20% of the world’s population lives, have better housing conditions in comparison, but in Asia, Africa and Latin America the situation is still as dire as described by the classics of socialism more than a hundred years ago. Even in the richest imperialist countries, there are millions of homeless people and very serious overcrowding exists.

Slum in South Korea

Anti-communists often say that in Russia socialism forced people into small unappealing apartments. But what were the living conditions in Russia before the socialist revolution? And what was really the result of socialism on housing?

With the development of capitalism in Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s “the housing distress among the greater part of the urban population reached catastrophic proportions. The dwelling area continually decreased in the factory towns and districts of the cities. For instance, in the large textile center of Ivanovo-Voznesensk (Ivanovo) it amounted to about 2 square meters per person… The already deplorable sanitary conditions worsened, since sanitary-engineering measures were applied only in the largest cities, and then only in the central districts. In smaller cities and in suburbs of large ones municipal services and public facilities were rarely available. In 1911, for example, out of 1,063 towns with a population of over 10,000, only 219 possessed water-supply systems. These conditions led to a high mortality rate, further aggravated by the complete lack of police control on building and housing conditions. Moreover, there was hardly any semblance of zoning or planning.” (Maurice Frank Parkins, City planning in soviet Russia, pp. 5-6)

“Moscow, like all capitalist cities, was characterized by the glaring contrast between the luxurious residences of the parasitic classes, on the one hand, and the slums, hovels and cellars of the urban poor, on the other. Of all European and American capitals and large cities, Moscow was the most backward and poorly laid-out city, and its population had the highest death rate (twenty deaths per annum per thousand inhabitants).

To give an idea of the level of the municipal “facilities” in pre-revolutionary Moscow, we cite a descriptive passage from the book of a certain I. Slonov, From the Life of Merchant Moscow (1914).

“At that time” (the end of the nineteenth century) “the central streets of Moscow were lighted with kerosene lamps, and the suburbs and outlying streets were lit with dim vegetable oil lamps. The lighting and cleaning of them was the duty of the firemen. A large part of the hempseed oil, which was supplied for lighting purposes and which was of a rather inferior quality, was eaten by the firemen with their porridge. As a result, what few lamps there were, barely penetrating the darkness of the night, went out early, and the streets were plunged into pitchy darkness, thus completing the picture of patriarchal Moscow.”

Old Moscow was built chaotically. There were no plans whatever; buildings were erected wherever and whenever fancy dictated.” (L. Perchik, The Reconstruction Of Moscow, pp. 13-14)

“That barbaric Russian capitalism not only did not improve, but, in a number of cases, actually rendered the old feudal plan of Moscow worse, is borne out by the following facts. Tverskaya, once called Tsar Street (now Gorky Street) from a straight street became crooked at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries as a result of the shameless filching of land by private owners. Bolshaya Dmitrovka, which at one time formed one straight thoroughfare with Malaya Dmitrovka, changed its direction at the end of the seventeenth Century as a result of the erection of a church and a number of merchants’ houses at the junction of these two streets. Petrovka was made narrower and crooked because at the end of the eighteenth century one Gubin, a merchant, appropriated a part of the area of the street to build his house, and on the other side the Petrovsky Monastery extended into the street. Thus, by the joint efforts of priest and merchant this street was hemmed in from both sides.” (Perchik, pp. 14-15)

“In an article by I. Vemer, “The Housing Conditions of the Poorer People of Moscow,” published in 1902 in the organ of the Moscow City Council of the landlords and merchants, we read:

“In Moscow, as in all big cities in general, there is quite a considerable group of persons who have not only sunk to an extreme level of destitution, but who have even lost all human dignity. Drunkenness, disease, chronic hunger, the influence of changes in temperature on their all-but naked bodies—all these deplorable and distressing conditions have made them physically and morally unfit for regular work, as a consequence of which they have no definite means of subsistence, neither property nor even a permanent abode. These outcasts of our society usually spend their days on the streets, and their nights in dosshouses, which they have to quit at daybreak [does this description differ at all from that of modern day USA?].

“The next class of the poorer population of Moscow constitutes a huge category of able-bodied and hardworking people. These are the factory and mill workers, small independent artisans and the people who work for them, cab-drivers, seasonal workers from the country employed by contractors, labourers, small tradesmen, clerks, domestic servants, low-paid railway employees, and the families of the people belonging to the professions we have enumerated and many other professions. The characteristic feature of this class of persons is that it has a somewhat fixed and steady income, although this income at times varies considerably; it has some sort of possessions, and is anxious to obtain a permanent place of residence. These are the people who occupy quarters which differ from the doss-houses only because they are tenanted by a settled population who hire premises for a fixed, more or less prolonged period. [Moscow City Council News, No. 19, October 1902, p. 2.]” (Perchik, pp. 15-16)

“According to the figures of the 1912 census Moscow had 24,500 rooms of this type, occupied by 327,000 people, -or more than 20 per cent of the entire 1,600,000 population of the city. An average of ten persons to a room lived in Moscow’s basement and semi-basement one-room apartments; in one-room apartments above-street level— six to a room, and in two-room apartments—three to a room. In old Moscow 88.2 per cent of the houses were constructed of wood, 91.2 per cent were one and two-storeyed” (Perchik, p. 17)

In tsarist Russia “in most cases the workers left their families home in the peasant hut and were crowded into factory dormitories. Others lived in the basements of the lower middle class apartment houses, or in peasant huts on the outskirts of the city. Workers’ families considered themselves lucky if they had a room for themselves. In many cases they could only rent a ‘corner’ divided by curtains from the other family occupying the balance of the room.

Only in Leningrad (then Petrograd) did a considerable part of the workers live in apartment houses. But even here there was an average of 3½ persons per room in the working class districts.” (Hans Blumenfeld, Planning in the Soviet Union, TASK Planning and Architecture, Vol. 3., p. 49)

In tsarist Russia “houses were of the most primitive type. No running water or sewers; an outhouse in the backyard; kerosene lamps.” (Blumenfeld, p. 50)

According to Cathy Porter, workers in the Krenholm factory in Estonia, one of the factories with the best conditions in all of the Russian empire “worked anything from twelve to eighteen hours a day. Imprisoned within the factory walls, they were allowed out only once a week, on Sundays; few workers had their own living quarters, and most lived in vast dormitory barracks — families, babies, single people and children all stacked one above the other on narrow bunk beds or on the floor… the great anxiety which preyed on them all was the air pollution. Most of them were stricken with tuberculosis after three or four years working in air thick with textile fibers, and they quickly tended to become listless and nauseous. Few of them expected to live to be thirty” (Cathy Porter, Alexandra Kollontai: A biography, p. 49)

“Here is one of numerous characterizations of the level of “municipal facilities” in old Moscow.

“The courtyards of the houses are usually very dirty and are paved only in very rare instances. Cesspools and garbage bins are rarely cleaned; investigators have noted many cases where the cesspools were absolutely overflowing, exuding vile odours, and where there was garbage scattered about the courtyard. Neither the courtyards nor the staircases are illuminated and on winter evenings you can cross the courtyard or descend into a basement apartment only at the risk of breaking your neck.

“The latrines in most of these houses are for common use, and are kept in a very filthy state. In the census forms a great many cases are noted where layers of excrement a quarter of an arshin deep covered the floor of the latrine, rising higher than the seat; there are not a few cases where the cesspools, overflow and the contents seep into the passages and sometimes under the floors of the apartments. The tenants prefer to relieve themselves in corners of the courtyard, and children are set down near the steps. In many cases latrines and urine-gutters adjoin an old wall, as a consequence of which foul fluid seeps into the apartments and contaminates the air to such an extent that after half an hour of it the census takers ‘developed nausea, became ill and dizzy.’” [Moscow City Council News, No. 19, October 1902, pp. 5-6, I. Verner, “The Housing Conditions of the Poorer People of Moscow.”]” (Perchik, p. 18)

In the peak year of the Russian empire (1913) “out of 700 large or medium-sized towns only 215 had a water-supply system (to which 90 percent of the buildings were not even connected)… only 23 towns had an effective sewage system and that only in the central district” (Anatole Kopp, Town and revolution; Soviet architecture and city planning, 1917-1935, p. 34)

So to summarize: the city masses in the Russian empire were either totally homeless or lived in tiny apartments with 2 square feet per person, in small shacks, dug-outs or holes in the ground, or in factory barracks where countless strangers, men and women, families with children and single people all slept next to each other on floors, boards or bunks. The cities had practically no zoning or city planning. Streets were crooked and narrow, muddy and not paved.

There were practically no municipal services. No effective sewers, but instead there was literal human excrement on the courtyards of homes, and it even leaked into homes and polluted the water. There was no plumbing or electricity. The conditions were not all that different from modern day African slums. In industrial work places the pollution was life-threatening, not very different from some places in Asia today. And there were basically no functioning street lights, at night the streets and courtyards were dark and dangerous.

Only with the October Revolution things began to change.


After taking power in the October Revolution the Bolsheviks immediately began to address the problem of homelessness and the terrible living conditions. They took immediate emergency measures:

“The emergency measures were simple but radical. Workers’ families were evacuated from their hovels and installed in the town houses and apartments formerly occupied by the bourgeoisie. Rents were fixed on the basis of income, and household equipment and furniture were requisitioned and distributed among the ill-housed. These were the measures proposed by Engels” (Kopp, p. 33)

Engels had written that the socialist revolution must eventually solve the contradiction between the town and countryside:

“How a social revolution would solve this question depends not only on the circumstances which would exist in each case… it is not our task to create utopian systems for the arrangement of the future society, it would be more than idle to go into the question here.” (Engels, The Housing question)

But he states that “one thing is certain: there are already in existence sufficient buildings for dwellings in the big towns to remedy immediately any real “housing shortage,” given rational utilization of them. This can naturally only take place by the expropriation of the present owners and by quartering in their houses the homeless or those workers excessively overcrowded in their former houses.” (Engels, The Housing question)

His suggestion was followed. Immediate action against homelessness was taken by confiscating mansions and large houses and dividing them into many small apartments, or turning them into collective housing units. Often the previous rich inhabitants were allowed to stay in one room, while the rest of the house was given for others to use. However, this was only an immediate emergency measure to get people off the streets, later once actual new homes could be built, many of these mansions and castles were turned into orphanages, vacation homes for various mass organizations etc.

“Housing space clearly in excess of reasonable needs was taken over to begin a massive scheme for resettling workers from huts, basements and makeshift barracks. By 1924, about 500,000 people were resettled in Moscow alone, and 300,000 in Petrograd. This whole programme… resolved the most acute housing shortage” (Andreĭ Vladimirovich Ikonnikov, Russian architecture of the Soviet period, p. 75)

During the civil war commune-homes and communal services became more widespread, basically due to extreme scarcity of resources and the need to share the little that was available. People had an immediate material interest to collaborate with their neighbors and friends and form collectives:

In the 1920s “new forms of community life were evolving as workers moved into tenement houses and set up common kitchens and cafeteria, laundries, kindergartens, reading and recreation rooms, all based on self-service and self-management. Such communes became widespread at that time, numbering 865 in Moscow alone by the end of 1921…

The Civil War, in which the young Soviet state had to cope with both internal counter-revolution and intervention from foreign powers, was not the time for a large-scale construction effort. Although these years saw the construction of around 300 power stations, a number of textile mills and an automobile plant in Moscow, these construction programmes were pathetically few compared to the needs of such a huge country. However, despite the forced curtailment of activity, despite the hunger and the exigencies of the grim war years, architects embarked on an unheard-of effort with great enthusiasm.” (Ikonnikov, pp. 75-76)

During the NEP (which began in 1921) due to the continuing shortage of good quality housing “the right to build one’s own home was encouraged by the government, and credits were granted to home builders by the state bank.” (Parkins, p. 12)

Due to the measures of evacuating people to better housing, some construction by the state and co-operatives, communes and also private construction by the peasants and workers, even supported by the government, living conditions had improved markedly and were much less crowded: “By 1923 the percentage of persons living more than two to a room, which had been 61.7 in 1912, was down to 36.7.” (Parkins, p. 32)

Barracks living and homelessness were being gradually eliminated, although this was still far from what would be achieved under socialism in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.


Modern city planning in Russia began with the October revolution, with the decrees nationalizing the land.

“Soviet city planning may be assumed to date from February 19, 1918, less than four months after the historic days of October. That, in fact, is the date of promulgation of the decree of the Pan-Russian Executive Committee proclaiming the socialization of the soil” (Kopp, p. 34)

Progressive architects – whom I will discuss in later parts – joined with the Bolshevik government in the monumental task of reconstructing the country on a rational basis:

“The first architects to come to grips with the realities of the early twenties saw their task as primarily an immense effort of modernization. Their aim was to raise the Russian cities, which had scarcely emerged from the Middle Ages” (Kopp, p. 38)

“the elementary city planning practiced in western Europe, however primitive and ineffective it may appear to us today, was several decades in advance of corresponding developments in prerevolutionary Russia. Indeed, it was scarcely possible to speak of city planning in the empire of the czars… the only function of city maps was to record the anarchic sprawl of new construction… there were virtually no specialists versed in these problems and no teaching facilities for training them” (Kopp, p. 34)

“Soviet architects were most concerned with achieving reasonable city and regional planning. Especially important concern was to produce designs for the reconstruction of Moscow and Petrograd. They started with the core of the problem, viz. the role of the major cities in the development of a socialist society, and their impact on population distribution patterns. By 1918 the engineer Boris Sakulin had designed the layout of the economic region around Moscow, outlining a system of satellite towns linked by a railway network. Between 1921 and 1924 a design for Greater Moscow, embracing the city and its suburban area, was mapped out by Professor Sergei Shestakov. His concept was that the new large building areas surrounding the Moscow nucleus were to be alternated with radial parkland strips linked by an outer green belt. This idea was developed later in the master plans of the city and determined its eventual structure. The alternation idea was linked to a certain extent with the garden-city concept that was popular at the beginning of this century, but, more importantly, it emanated from the Russian national tradition of city blocks penetrating the surrounding area in a radial pattern.

In the spring of 1918 a group of Moscow architects, headed by Ivan Zholtovsky and Alexei Shchusev, set up a studio to develop the design of a “New Moscow”, the First Master Plan for the city’s development. Such things as a scientific basis for modern town-planning and design, and a national economy model to guide Moscow’s development, were all but non-existent because of the continuing Civil War. But the youthful team (Leonid Vesnin, Ilya Golosov, Victor Kokorin, Nikolai Kolli, Nikolai Ladovsky, Konstantin Melnikov, Sergei Chernyshev and others) had on their side the talent and the revolutionary romanticism of the period. Despite the fact that the principles for reconstruction evolved largely through intuition, life vindicated many of the solutions found. Thus, for instance, it was decided not to depart from the historical layout of Moscow: the city’s centre was thought of, in Shchusev’s words, as akin to the sun with rays emanating from it, i.e. as a nucleus with a system of smaller centres issuing radially from it.

In accordance with the “New Moscow” layout, the first housing construction site— the Sokol, designed by Nikolai Markovnikov— was started in the city’s north-west in 1923.” (Ikonnikov, pp. 77-78)

“In Petrograd, an architectural studio was set up in May 1919 under the Council for Streamlining the Layout of Petrograd and Its Suburbs. Headed by Ivan Fomin, the group included, among others, Alexander Nikolsky (1884-1953), Lev Tverskoi (1899-1972), and Noi Trotsky (1895-1940). A general plan for Greater Petrograd was one of the group’s first works (1919-1921). The idea was to complement the city with a web of satellite towns united into linear groups; between the satellite towns and the city’s historical nucleus there was to be an area of semi-autonomous housing complexes separated by parkland strips. The plan, left unrealized, anticipated the principles of the master plan for Stockholm which three decades later left a lasting impact on town-planning worldwide. The general layout also provided for the expansion of the city’s historical nucleus towards the Gulf of Finland to form a coastal front; this idea was in fact implemented after the Second World War.” (Ikonnikov, p. 78)

Although these plans were often quite modest or were not realized, they marked the beginning of town planning.


Besides the evacuation of poor people into tolerable housing, and the first step towards city planning, there was another important project launched by Lenin, which would be very significant for decades to come – the idea of monumental propaganda. Lenin realized that the built environment was part of the societal superstructure, imposing a certain class viewpoint on the people.

In the Russian empire the environment literally looked semi-feudal. There were churches and monasteries and religious artifacts everywhere. The were monuments and statues glorifying monarchy and medievalism. Lenin called on artists and architects to begin changing the tsarist cityscape, by creating palaces of labor, places where workers could hold meetings and events, and by creating monuments to the revolution. The change of the built environment was also intended to leave a lasting impact on the minds of people, even if the revolution was defeated in the civil war.

The communist poet Mayakovsky took up Lenin’s call and proclaimed in a poem “Street-brooms our brushes, and public places our palettes.” (Mayakovsky, “Order to the Army of the Arts”)

“Lenin was keenly aware of the historical need for a radical, albeit temporary [many of the decorations were thrown up quickly and were temporary], transformation of the urban environment through art. He put forward the idea of “monumental propaganda”. To implement this idea, the Council of People’s Commissars— the Soviet Government— proposed, in its decree of April 12, 1918, that the artistic community be mobilized to participate in a broad competition for designs of monuments to commemorate the great days of the socialist revolution.” (Ikonnikov, p. 93)

“Architects with professional credos shaped by the pre-revolutionary years felt a natural urge to borrow from the traditions of classicism. Now, however, classicism was being revived in designs full of pathos and even of high emotion. The forms sought to glorify the spirit of the Revolution, and it was considered that they should match its grandeur by giant volumes, mind-boggling sizes, and impressive monumentality. Piranesi’s emotional and tragic phantasmagorias became one of the chief sources of inspiration. The works of architects of the French revolution— the laconic symbolism of Ledoux, the fantasies of Boullee and Peyre— also came as natural prototypes.” (Ikonnikov, p. 79)

“The first designs, in which romantic ideas materialized most fully, were drawn in the quest for new types of public buildings. One such design was that of the workers’ palaces. As early as 1918, workers’ clubs began to spring up in every Russian city, housed in nationalized mansions. Rearrangement of such buildings was a difficult enterprise, and even after significant reconstruction had been undertaken, they remained inadequate for the everyday work of education, amateur artistic productions and recreation. To provide a radical solution to this social need, a competition for the construction of a Workers’ Palace in Petrograd was held in 1919 on the initiative of the workers of the Putilovsky Plant, then the city’s largest industrial complex” (Ikonnikov, p. 80)

Many of the early monuments were temporary decorations or temporary monuments, which were constructed hurriedly to spread the revolutionary message. Some high quality works were created, such as statue of the Bolshevik scientist Timiryazev by Merkurov. Lev Rudnev’s monument to the martyrs of the revolution (in the Field of Mars) was also highly important.

“Architects enthusiastically set to work. A competition was announced for the execution of a monument to the victims of the Revolution. It was the first commission from the state. M. Gorky, A. Lunacharsky and A. Blok headed the first jury and selected the project of L. Rudnev. The work was completed in 1920 and is an outstanding example of Soviet architecture.” (V. Khazanova, “Soviet Architectural Associations 1917-1932” in Building in the USSR, 1917-1932, ed. O. A. Shvidkovsky, p. 19)

Its rather odd for Khazanova, a bourgeois writer to call it a monument to the “victims of revolution”, when it would be more accurate to call it a monument to the fighters who died in the revolution, or “victims of counter-revolution”!

“Leningrad collaborated in carrying out Lenin’s monumental plan of propaganda. Norberg, Chernyshev, Ladovsky, Osipov, Vsavolsky, Efimov, Vasiliev, Dokuchaev, the Vesnin brothers, Kokorin and Kolli competed for the design for a monument for the Soviet constitution and other sculptural embellishments. The Sovnarkom published decrees on 9 May and 18 June 1918 for the administration of VSNKh and proceedings and regulations for building and planning. Many meetings and regular conferences were organized. The first All-Russia conference for productivity and building took place in 1923. By 1925 the delegates included Shchusev, Malinovsky, Semenov, Ginsburg and others. The Petrograd association worked on the Petrosoviet building under I. Fomin and jointly with MAO [Moscow Association of Architects] on planning and cultural projects…

In 1922 they launched architectural competitions. In 1924 Lunacharsky organized one for the construction of Lenin’s mausoleum. They planned dwellings for workers, a garden city (1922), a communal house in Ivano-Voznessensk (1925), a Palace of Work in Rostov-on-Don, a workers’ club in Briansk, public buildings, such as banks, in Moscow (Arcos), Novosibirsk, and Sverdlovsk, post offices, a university in Minsk, the Republican Hospital in Samarkand, a monument to Karl Marx and the 1923 Exhibition.” (V. Khazanova, “Soviet Architectural Associations 1917-1932” in Building in the USSR, 1917-1932, ed. O. A. Shvidkovsky, p. 20)

In the next part I’ll discuss debates between different architectural schools of thought in the Soviet Union.


Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844

Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

Lenin, Draft and Explanation of a Programme for the Social-Democratic Party

Maurice Frank Parkins, City planning in soviet Russia

L. Perchik, The Reconstruction Of Moscow

I. Slonov, From the Life of Merchant Moscow

Cathy Porter, Alexandra Kollontai: A biography

Hans Blumenfeld, “Planning in the Soviet Union”, TASK Planning and Architecture, Vol. 3.

Moscow City Council News, No. 19, October 1902, I. Verner, “The Housing Conditions of the Poorer People of Moscow”

Anatole Kopp, Town and revolution; Soviet architecture and city planning, 1917-1935

Engels, The Housing question

Andreĭ Vladimirovich Ikonnikov, Russian architecture of the Soviet period

Mayakovsky, “Order to the Army of the Arts”

V. Khazanova, “Soviet Architectural Associations 1917-1932″in Building in the USSR, 1917-1932, ed. O. A. Shvidkovsky

Parkins, Kopp, Porter and Khazanova are anti-communist bourgeois writers, Ikonnikov is a Soviet revisionist writer. I recommend the work of Perchik (a marxist author) and Blumenfeld (sympathetic liberal writer).