Katherine ZubovichFeb 10, 2021
Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin's Capital
Princeton University Press 2020
In Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital (Princeton University Press, 2021), Professor Katherine Zubovich of the University of Buffalo of the State University of New York takes us into one of the more turbulent eras in the 874-year history of Moscow, the decades long effort to transform Russia’s ancient second city into the triumphant capital of the new socialist state.
Before the revolutions of 1917, Moscow was known for its “forty times, forty churches,” and by these distinctive onion-shaped cupolas, which once soared above the two and three-story skyline, Muscovites navigated their city. Today, many of those churches are only distant memories and the new markers of the city’s horizons are seven soaring skyscrapers, affectionately known as “Stalin’s wedding cakes,” or simply as the “vysotniye” or the “tall buildings.” Two are ministries, two are hotels, two are elite residential buildings, and one houses Moscow State University. Zubovich uses these iconic buildings as the skeleton of her story, taking us through the many iterations of the Soviet vision of an idealized capital. Zubovich’s grounding in Art History serves her particularly well in the first half of the book as she examines evolving vision for the new Moscow, including the government’s ambitious plans to construct a massive Palace of Soviets as the hub of the new architectural ensemble. Moscow Monumental is particularly interesting in its carefully researched account of the pre-war Soviet drive to involve Western architects and engineers in the construction projects.
Zubovich’s stamina as a field researcher pays off in the second half of the book, as her focus shifts to the human cost of this urban renewal in the post-war era. Here she weaves in narratives of the construction workers who built the skyscrapers, many of them newly released GULAG prisoners, and those of ordinary citizens whose lives were uprooted by the project. These voices of everyday Soviet citizens come to brilliant life through Zubovich’s adroit use of letters sent by ordinary Soviet citizens, petitioning the government for assistance in relocation as neighborhoods are razed to the ground to make way for the new skyscrapers. Zubovich does an excellent job portraying this ostensibly classless society, in which Muscovites are ironically divided between those who are literally moving “up” into elite skyscraper apartments and those who are being forced “out” to the hastily constructed, and barely habitable new neighborhoods of the city’s periphery.
Moscow Monumental is a fascinating story of architecture, politics, urban development, and social history, which perfectly captures the aspirational arc of Moscow’s first six decades as the capital of the USSR.
Katherine Zubovich is an assistant professor of history at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York. Zubovich is also working on a short book, Making Cities Socialist to be published as part of the Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History series. Follow her on Twitter at @kzubovich.
Jennifer Eremeeva is an American expatriate writer who writes about travel, culture, cuisine and culinary history, Russian history, and Royal History, with bylines in Reuters, Fodor's, USTOA, LitHub, The Moscow Times, and Russian Life. She is the award-winning author of Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow and Have Personality Disorder, Will Rule Russia: A Pocket Guide to Russian History.