It was the greatest building that never was. A towering construction that was meant to exemplify the very best of the mighty Soviet Union. The Palace of the Soviets was to be a structure of grandiose proportions and prestige. Had it been built, this magnificent Administrative Centre and Congress Hall would have been the highest building in the world, topped with an enormous statue of Lenin pointing staunchly out over Moscow.
But with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, construction, which was still in its early stages, ground to a halt – and never recommenced. It would have been the ultimate temple to Soviet power, but alas, it will forever remain a glorious dream.
Congress of the Soviets
The Soviet Union was officially formed in 1922 with the Congress of Soviets, attended by delegations from around the new union. It was here that Soviet politician Sergei Kirov first mentioned the possibility of a titanic congress building, that would surely be needed for the torrent of new inductees that would soon be welcomed into the USSR.
Two years later, the nation went into mourning with the death of Vladamir Lenin and the Soviet Union saw a great drive to immortalise the revolutionary hero in various memorials. A temporary mausoleum was quickly installed to house his embalmed remains, but some thought things should go much further.
Viktor Balikhin, a graduate student at Vkhutemas, an art and technical school in Moscow, suggested placing the memorial at the top of a giant congress building that would sit at the site of the Christ the Saviour cathedral near to the Kremlin. While nothing happened for nearly ten years, this was an idea that planners eventually came back to.
The Contests & Destruction
In 1931, the Soviet Union announced a competition to design the long-heralded congress building. Preliminary proposals were sent out to 15 different workshops around the USSR, but this was a design of the utmost importance, and when the competition ended in May 1931 – none of the designs submitted were deemed worthy enough.
Soviet rulers knew they had to widen the net and in July 1931 a second contest was announced that would be open to designs from all over the world. 160 separate architectural designs were submitted (134 Soviet and 26 foreign) with the government managing to narrow it down to three proposals, two of which were Soviet citizens, Boris Iofan, Ivan Zholtovsky while the third was the little known Hector Hamilton, a 28-year-old British architect living in New Jersey.
The three designs were returned to the architects who were encouraged to improve where possible. If this is starting to sound as drawn out as a season of Pop Idol, then bare with me, we’re only about halfway there.
Two further closed competitions were held, the first of which invited 15 design teams, while the second just 5. I’ll have to be honest here, we can’t say for sure how a final design was chosen, but after going from 15 designs to 160, to 3 to 15, to 5 – a winner was finally chosen.
But while all of this back and fro was going on to build a new grand building, the death sentence of another had also arrived.
The destruction of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral may have been met with sadness by some, but for the Soviet regime who had instigated a vehement anti-religious campaign during the 1920s, there may have been a twinge of satisfaction to see this great house of God brought down to make way for the glorious Palace of the Soviets.
The Cathedral was first picked bare of anything of value, with the gold dome proving to be particularly rewarding. On 5th December 1931, the cathedral which had been consecrated just under fifty years before was dynamited and quickly reduced to rubble. And what mountains of rubble were left – it is said to have taken a full year to remove the remains of the church.
We (finally) Have a Winner
With the rubble finally cleared and the bizarrely complex series of competition drawing to a close, a winner was chosen and announced to the world on 10th March 1933.
The design by Boris Iofan, a Jewish Russian who a studied architect in Italy and had recently completed the House on the Embankment, a vast government building situated in Moscow, was chosen – on the condition that two neoclassicist architects, Vladimir Shchuko and Vladimir Gelfreikh, joined his team. Unsurprisingly, Iofan accepted and the project team came to be known as the Iofan–Schuko–Gelfreikh draft.
It does, however, appear that a decision was made almost a year before with a letter that was later discovered written by Stalin to Lazar Kaganovich, one of his closest confidants, in which the Soviet leader clearly stated that Iofan’s design was to be chosen. He even helpfully made a few suggestions also, which were:
- Drive the main tower upward, like a column
- Make it as tall as the Eiffel tower or even taller
- Crown the column with a brightly lit Hammer and Sickle
- Place monuments to Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in front of the building
So essentially turbocharge the communist sentiment and make it a world-beater in terms of its size. Stalin even made a public speech in which he proclaimed,
“The Palace of the Soviets is a monument to Lenin. Don’t be scared of height; go for it.”
Changes in Design
I’m sure there must have been a small amount of professional pride in being told to change a design you had already put years of hard work into, but if Iofan had any reservation he certainly didn’t voice them.
All of the changes that Stain had “suggested” were incorporated into the final design. The tower, which had measured 260 metres (853 ft) in his first design, now stood at 415 metres (1,362 ft). In case you are wondering, that’s 115 metres taller than the Eiffel Tower. But nearly a quarter of this height would be thanks to the colossal statue of Lenin that would sit on top. Though we don’t believe it was ever actually constructed, had it been it would have measured 100 metres (328 ft) in height and weighed over 6,000 tons – about half as heavy as the whole Eiffel Tower. The outstretched arm alone would have measured 30 metres (98ft), with even the index finger totalling 4 metres (13ft).
The vast Main Hall would reach 100 metres (330 ft) in height with a diameter of 160 m (525 ft) and a capacity of 21,000 seats. A smaller hall, known as the ‘Little Hall’ in the Eastern wing could accommodate a further 6,000 people.
But this would not simply be awe-inspiring from the outside, it was also set to be one of the most technologically advanced buildings in the world, with high-speed elevators, air purification systems, and huge media screens. There was even talk of being able to transform the stage into a swimming pool at some point, though whether that made it into the final design we aren’t entirely sure.
The foundations for this gargantuan palace were completed by 1939. A perimeter of steel piles 20 metres (66ft) high surrounded a concave concrete slab with concentric vertical rings inside which is where the vast columns of the place would eventually sit.
As of June 1941, the steel frame for the lower levels was in place, and eyes began to drift upwards to where this glorious structure would soon rise.
Unfortunately, Stalin’s one-time pal Adolf Hitler had other ideas. On 22nd June 1941, the Nazi leader launched Operation Barbarossa with over three million Germans eventually crossing the border and quickly steaming through the Soviet Union. It was and still is, the largest land invasion in history, and the Soviet Union quickly began to buckle under the pressure.
The speed at which the Nazi crashed through the Soviet Union took many by surprise. Plumped up by Soviet propaganda, many assumed the German war machine could be halted far from any major cities. But this proved wildly ambitious.
It quickly became apparent that the Red Army was failing, and with every mile with which the Nazis breezed through Soviet territory, it was another mile closer to Moscow. The skeletal form of the Palace of the Soviets remained, but the steel was soon hauled down to be used in defence efforts around the city. The building site was cordoned off but remained heavily guarded. All eyes were now looking westward to the advancing German army.
A Glorious Triumph
The Battle for the Soviet Union pushed everybody to the extremes. As many as 20 million Soviet citizens died during the conflict, with 140,000 Soviet soldiers and over half a million Germans perishing as the hellish Russian winter set in.
Heroic stands had been made at Leningrad and in particular at Stalingrad and soon Soviet forces were pushing the hated Nazis backwards. By early 1945, the Germans had been forced out of Soviet territory, and the long march on Berlin had begun as Soviet forces pursued them mercilessly. On 2nd May the German capital was finally captured, and the European conflict finally quickly came to an end.
The cost to the Soviet Union and its people had been catastrophic, and while there was certainly a sense of triumph, the USSR was a shattered land.
An Abandoned Dream
There has never been any definite explanation as to why the Palace of the Soviets was not completed, but with nationalistic fever at its high point after World War II, we can only imagine the enormous costs associated with such a construction proved too much even for the mighty ego of Joseph Stalin.
After the death of the Soviet leader in 1953 there was a brief spark of hope that the building would finally be completed but in a different location on the outskirts of Moscow. Once again a design contest was held (don’t worry, this was short-lived) but this idea was quickly scrapped, once again with the daunting costs a major issue. With the Soviet Union entering the Cold War along with a costly space race, there was simply not the money for the vast vanity project that had been envisioned.
Instead of the Palace of the Soviets, the site was turned into – and I’m willing to bet you would never guess this – an open-air swimming pool of all things. The Moskva Pool, which opened in 1958, sat on the very foundations that had been laid for the Palace. So probably not the glorious symbol of Soviet power that had been planned, but it was at least a mighty impressive swimming pool measuring 129.5 metres (424 ft 10 in) in diameter.
There is something comforting about a story that comes full circle. When the end of a tale brings you happily back to where it all began it leaves you with a sense of completion – and this is one such tale.
In 1990 the Russian Orthodox Church was granted permission to rebuild the Christ the Saviour Cathedral – and what better place to build it than directly over where the Moskva Pool currently was, where the Palace of the Soviets should have stood, and of course, where the original Cathedral had been. The bizarre merry-go-round was entering its final phase.
Over a million people living in Moscow donated to the fund to rebuild the Cathedral and construction was finally started in 1995. Five years later, a new and improved cathedral had appeared and it was as if the past seventy-years had never happened.
And that concludes the ambitious, yet barely even started story of the Palace of the Soviets. A building that was set to be the envy of the world – a communist beacon whose flame could be seen far and wide.
In the end, it all came to absolutely nothing. The steel frame never rose above the lower level and would eventually be put into use as makeshift bridges and tank obstacles. The designs we see of the Palace of the Soviets shows a structure that seems to be of a different era. A grandiose ode to a Soviet-era that has come and gone. You couldn’t possibly build such a building in the modern era, but as it happens, even in the afterglow of World War II, the Palace of the Soviets was seen as a step too far.
The most glorious building that never was.