Modernism through the prism of Stalinist architecture 1918-1940


The October Revolution in 1917 did not only change the political structure of Russia; it also transformed culture and arts. Prior to the Revolution, the Russian Arts reflected through their architecture had been assimilating Western tradition. The Revolution changed this trend by adapting a Communist ideology that is against Western Capitalism. In response, Russian government supported new types of architecture that shall reflect their own culture and style. The government’s intervention on architecture prevailed during the rule of Josef Stalin. Stalin’s New Utopia resulted to the creation of the Socialist Realism that are reflected in monumentalism, patriotism, and use classical motifs, with the expression of socialist content and national form.

It is therefore important to start this paper with a short history of Russian politics to show how the society and politics shaped Stalin’s perspective. This will reveal how communism was transformed by its leaders to advance their personal goals and ideology. The discussion shall help the reader understand how socio-political ideals of communism were demonstrated by Stalinist architecture. It shall further illuminate the development of Russian architecture, in consideration of Stalin’s socio-political agendas.  Stalinist architecture was built to reflect the communist propaganda of the Soviet Union.

History of Russian Art

The influence of Western Art to Russia was encouraged by Peter the Great during the 18th century. The 19th century art is defined by Byzantine Art focusing on icon painting (Charlton, 2003 p. 23). During this era, the Peredvizhniki movement was born. This movement emphasizes “art as a force for national awareness and social change” (Richmond, 2009 p. 98). Peredvizhniki or Wanderer’s movement captured Russian historical scenes, landscapes, social criticisms, and portraits. Some of the prominent Peredvizhniki painters were Isaac Levitan and Mikhail Vrubel. As the 20th century begins, the influence of Western culture heightened. Impressionism, symbolism, and art nouveau were introduced as modernist styles that focus on “art pure and unfettered” (Richmond, 2009, p. 98). Other types of artistic movements and style emerged such as neoprimitivism and suprematism. Futurists avant-garde movement developed as Russian artists absorb and incorporate the different styles into their own culture. More particularly, there is a great tendency to move toward abstract arts until 1920s.

History of Russian Architecture

Early Russian architecture was marked by wooden homes known as “izba or single-storey log cottage” (Horton, Richmond, Elliot, & Kokker, 2006, p. 92). The architectural landscape under Imperial Russia was dominated by classic and vernacular designs. The ecclesiastical architecture was introduced by Vladimir the Great when he embraced Christianity. As a result, Russian architecture is reflected through their Orthodox churches that are characterized by iconostasis (Charlton, p. 24). The early churches have “eastern apse, a dome or cupola over the central aisle, high vaulted roofs forming a crucifix shape centred on the dome (Horton et al, p. 93). In 15th and 16th centuries, the architectures were largely influenced by Italian tradition through the introduction of kokoshniki or pointed arches, zakomari or semicircular gables, beveled domes, and shatyor or tent-roofed tower (Charlton, 2003, p. 24). By 17th century, tiles and bricks were use to add color and pattern on the churches in Moscow. When Peter the Great embraced the Western arts, baroque and rococo styles were created in St. Petersburg. At the end of 18th century, Catherine the Great chose classicism. Classicism is derived from Roman and Greco architecture that made use of mathematical proportions. This was further elaborated to grandiose Russian Empire style during the time of Alexander and Nicholas I. After the October Revolution in 1917, Russian architect started to apply several historical styles. Nonetheless, the most prominent were Art Nouveau and Neoclassicism. Art Nouveau or stil’ modern “was bound up with the efforts of the new bourgeoisie to express its ambitions in visual terms” (Gleason, 2009, p. 139). Neoclassical architecture are use to represent the authority of the imperial family. It is considered as “a civilizing style controlled by the sovereign…combined with the rediscovery of national roots and continuity in the life of the Russian tsardom” (Shvidkovskiǐ, 2007, p.292).

20th Century Art Movements

Two movements associated mainly in architecture arouse in the beginning of the 20th century: Formalists and Constructivists. Both of which accentuate the impact of “art, science, and technology” to “social, political, and economic dimensions of society” (Greer, & McCalla, 1994, p. 364). The Formalists or Rationalists, on the other hand, believe that architecture is “an expression of abstract form, the result of composition based on certain predetermined rules” (Guillen, 2006, p. 76). The Formalists believe that there are two elements in a work of art: inner or psychological perception and the outer or the composition. The Constructivists focus on the utility of the parts. Between this two, constructivism revealed the social role of architecture as a means of collection, rationalization, and utilization of its elements. In applying constructivism, the role of architects was to create designs that fuse industrial production and everyday life (Bray, 2005, p. 85). Nevertheless, the Association of Contemporary Architects argued that housing problems must be prioritized by the government. They created communal living spaces known as “Stroikom units” that are suitable for the gradual development of “worker’s cultural life and collective consciousness” (Bray, 2005, p. 85). To increase the phase of social transformation, T. Kuzmin introduced the idea of social condensers that was “intended to concentrate the nature of social interaction among the human subjects who passed through it” (Bray, 2005, p. 85). Kuzmin believes that social condenser can help transform and develop the new proletarian lifestyle. Another type of communal space is the zhikombinat, which are communal housing complexes created to solve the housing crisis in urban areas (Castillo, 2003, p. 137).

The Socio-Political Milieu

The October Revolution in 1917 precipitated from the weakness and inept rule of Tsar Nicholas II, who was the absolute monarch of Russia (Hosking, 1993, p. 35). Tsar Nicholas suppressed his enemies by prosecuting them through the Okrana or secret police. The Tsar and his family hold absolute power over the vast Russian empire. Nevertheless, the absence of democracy, the poor working conditions of the laborers, the poverty of the peasants, the failure of the Tsar to lead the Army, and the issue surrounding the influence of Rasputin to the government, all led to the dissatisfaction of the citizens. During this moment, Communists ideals proliferate. Marxists ideology argued that capitalism is unjust and that the Proletariat or the workers must take control of the country. This ideology fits the need of the lowering Russian morale. In 1917, V.I. Lenin led the Bolsheviks Revolution and drove the Imperial family out of power. Lenin created the “Cheka”, a group of secret police that shall arrest or even execute those that are against Communism (Hosking, 1993, p. 38). In 1918, the communists executed the Tsar and his family. The communist army known as the red army was engaged in a civil war with the white armies or the allied supported Russian armies. This civil war started in 1918 and ended in 1921. The workers and the peasants became poorer because they are asked to work for longer hours in order to supply the needs of the red army. As a consequence, rebellions arouse and millions died due to sickness. In order to gain back the support of the masses, Lenin instituted the New Economic Policy that allow capitalism and market competition (Hosking, 1993, p. 79). It helped the Russian Economy but it was rendered as a betrayal of communism. When Lenin died in 1924, the leadership was fought by Stalin (General Secretary) and Trotsky (Leader of Red Army). After four years of struggle, it was decided that Stalin will be the successor and Trotsky was exiled. Stalin won over Trotsky because of his popularity and ability to control the Communists Party by appointing and removing members. During his rule, Stalin was known to commission the death of millions of Russians. Stalin created a personality cult and make use of propaganda by influencing all types of Arts with his ideology. Art tradition during Stalin’s period was known as Soviet arts.

New Russia

Under the rule of Josef Stalin, the New Economic Plan initiated by Lenin was dismissed and a command economy took its place in 1928. Stalin aspired to transform Russia into a powerful nation, therefore, he created three five year plans, which aimed to increase heavy industry, improve transportation, and increase agricultural output (Hosking, 1993). Moreover, Stalin implements collective farming. With the use of a secret police, censorship, and propaganda, Stalin managed to stay in power and establish dictatorship.

Five Year Plan

The First Five Year Plan was not accomplished without casualties. Its main objective is to increase production and profit, which is inconsistent with Marxist contempt of capitalism. The autonomy of the peasants was removed as collective farming was introduced. Industrialization increased rapidly, “doubling coal and iron output” (Rappaport, 1999, p. 91). All of these were supervised by Gosplan or the State Planning Commission. Since the government censor all publications, music, film, and any form of visual arts, the government can control the information and the images it would like to project. In this sense, the control of mass media to advance the goals of Stalin corresponds to the use of Propaganda.

Role of Propaganda

As stated above, the Russian political system had long established censorship and the use of secret police to control the people and to deal with the opposition. Nonetheless, at the dawn of the 20th century, mass media had slowly gained popularity as a tool for propaganda movements (Groys & Hollein, 2003). In order to Edward Mousley (2007, p. 162), explained that “to propagandize really means to build up a mass-mindedness stolidly biased so as to be proof against counter-bias; or to manipulate the mind of the masses in regard to some view or course of action.” Lyn Gorman and David McLean (2009, p. 87) asserts that print media, mass meetings, agitation, carnivals, parades, public theaters, posters, and films were the major forms of propaganda used by the Bolshevik Party. Charles Hauss (2008, p. 211) argued that Stalin succeeds in using “the party, the mass media, and campaigns of terror to subjugate the population and then mobilize the people in pursuit of leadership goals.” The government propaganda movement allowed Stalin to project a positive image of the five year plan and collectivism. In particular, Stalin forced artists and writers to conform to Socialist Realism as an art movement of the Socialist Union.

Socialist Realism

Socialist Realism is a method supported by Stalin that required writers, artists, architects, etc. to give a positive depicting of the life in the Soviet Union and a rejection of avant-garde (Wood, 1995, p. 167). Catherine Cooke (1993) enumerated four principles of Socialist Realism. First, Cooke (1993) emphasized that Socialist Realism is not a style but a method. Second, it is a method that synthesizes elements of the past with the present. This method also requires the creative artists to “show the whole of his class what the world is like at the time…he should help his contemporaries to gain an understanding of the reality around them, to help in the creation of the new man” (Lunarcharski as quoted by Cooke, 1993, p. 87). As a third principle, Socialist Realism positioned the artists in a leading role in the realization of collective psychology. The last principle holds that Socialist Realism creates art that are “National in form and socialist in content” (Cooke, 1993, p. 88). David Crowley asserts that the socialist content can be attained simply by “acknowledging a building’s function and incorporating symbolic motifs” (1993, p. 141). National in form refers to historical reference and myths; for example during the “Great Patriotic War, the legend of ancient Rus, dominates murals and marble panels” (Crowley, 1993, p.142). Socialist Realism, according to Pravda (as quoted by Brooks, 2000, p. 108), “demands truthfulness from the artist and a historically concrete portrayal of reality in its revolutionary development…combined with the task of the ideological remaking and education of the working people in the spirit of socialism.” Socialist Realism represents “images of striving workers, heroic soldiers and inspiring leaders” (Horton et al., 2006, p. 97).

Stalinist Architecture

The Propaganda and the Socialists Realism were methods exhausted by Stalin in planning and developing architecture. The notion of “radiant future” and “out of backwardness” (Gorman and McLean, p. 85) were some of the themes that Stalinist Architecture revealed. After the Great Depression of the 1930’s, monumental architecture in the United States and Europe were financed by the government or other institution to express nationalism and to create new jobs. Nonetheless, in Soviet Russia, the creation of monumental architecture is meant to reflect Stalin’s authority and fuel his personal cult and appeal to the masses. According to Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal (2004, p. 403), “Socialists Realism in architecture entailed not a copying, not a reproduction of forms taken from life, but a creative reworking and artistic formulation of realistic forms that utilized the Russian historical style.” Modernism and other forms of arts were considered as bourgeoisie art. Stalinists architecture aimed to outlast and dwarf the monuments of capitalist societies (Haggett,2001,  p. 1980). Leonid Zagalsky (1994) reported that “Stalin was obsessed with the idea of building the tallest building in the world” (p. 70). The Moscow State University was the tallest structure in Russia during the 1950s. Stalin used prison labor in rebuilding the major cities destroyed after World War II. Moreover, “national style architecture” was created by Stalin as “a patriotic representation of socialism” (Bray, 2005, p. 227). The creation of “national character” was done through incorporating traditional styles and motifs that has strong patriotic content. For example, red corners are instilled in classrooms with Stalin’s photos and his accomplishments.


Arts and architecture were largely influenced by the politics of their time. As revealed in the discussion of history of Russian politics, arts, and architecture, it is blatant that the people in power have the ability to influence the culture of the society through patronizing styles and methods, through manipulating mass media and using propaganda, and by the implementation of a political ideology that influences the lives of the citizens. Stalinist architecture is used as a communist propaganda that represents the aim of its leader to excel and outlast other government through monumental architecture. It also made use of patriotism to attract supporters and support traditional motifs to depict the Soviet’s national character.


Moscow State University (Ganske, 2008)


From J. Meades(2006)

From Geldem(2010).

Red Corner





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