The Utopian, Socialist Designs of Soviet Cities

Mod­ernist archi­tec­ture trans­formed the mod­ern city in the 20th cen­tu­ry, for good and ill. Nowhere is this trans­for­ma­tion more evi­dent than the for­mer Sovi­et Union and its for­mer republics. There, we find truth in the west­ern stereo­types of the Sovi­et city as cold, face­less, and soul-crush­ing­ly non­de­script — so much so that the plot of a 1975 Russ­ian TV film called The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!, hinges on a man drunk­en­ly trav­el­ing to Leningrad by mis­take and falling asleep in a stranger’s apart­ment, think­ing it’s his own place in Moscow. Rus­sians found the joke so relat­able, they began a tra­di­tion of watch­ing the film each year on Christ­mas, as the City Beau­ti­ful above video on Sovi­et urban archi­tec­ture points out.

Once it had elim­i­nat­ed pri­vate prop­er­ty, the exper­i­ment of the Sovi­et Union began with good inten­tions, archi­tec­tural­ly-speak­ing. Con­struc­tivism, the first form of dis­tinct­ly Sovi­et archi­tec­ture, was devel­oped first as an art move­ment by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexan­der Rod­chenko. Con­struc­tivists sought to bal­ance the nation’s need to build tons of new hous­ing under harsh eco­nom­ic con­di­tions with “ambi­tion for using the built envi­ron­ment to engi­neer soci­etal changes and instill the avant-garde in every­day life,” points out the Design­ing Build­ings Wiki. Draw­ing from Bauhaus and Futur­ism, the move­ment only last­ed into the 1930s. Many of its finest designs went unre­al­ized, but it left a sig­nif­i­cant mark on sub­se­quent archi­tec­tur­al move­ments like Bru­tal­ism.

The syn­the­sis of beau­ty and util­i­ty would fall apart, how­ev­er, under the mas­sive col­lec­tiviz­ing dri­ves of Stal­in. When his reign end­ed, pub­lic hous­ing blocks known as “Krushchy­ovkas” sprang up, named after the pre­mier “who ini­ti­at­ed their mass pro­duc­tion in the late 1950s,” writes Mark Byrnes at Bloomberg City­Lab. This was “a dis­tinct­ly banal archi­tec­tur­al type” built quick­ly and cheap­ly when Moscow “had twice the pop­u­la­tion its hous­ing stock could accom­mo­date. Five-sto­ry Krush­choyvkas popped up in new­ly planned microdis­tricts.” These, as you’ll see in the explain­er video, could be added on to exist­ing cities indef­i­nite­ly for max­i­mal urban sprawl “in hopes of alle­vi­at­ing the severe hous­ing cri­sis exac­er­bat­ed under Joseph Stal­in.”

As the pop­u­lar­i­ty of The Irony of Fate demon­strates, Krush­choyvkas intro­duced seri­ous prob­lems of their own, includ­ing their grim­ly com­ic same­ness. The film begins with an ani­mat­ed his­to­ry les­son on Sovi­et urban plan­ning. “The urban design was not flex­i­ble,” author Philipp Meuser tells Byrnes. “This was the first cri­tique of them dat­ing back to the ear­ly ‘60s.” Lat­er ver­sions built under Brezh­nev and called “Brezh­nevkis” intro­duced dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes to break up the monot­o­ny. All of the hous­ing blocks were built to last 20 to 25 years and were not well-main­tained, if they were main­tained at all. The ear­li­est began dete­ri­o­rat­ing in the ‘70s.

At their height, how­ev­er, Krush­choyvkas “were pop­u­lar because it was rev­o­lu­tion­ary for hous­ing pol­i­tics.” One U.S. offi­cial put it in 1967: “What the Rus­sians have done is to devel­op the only tech­nol­o­gy in the world to pro­duce accept­able, low-cost hous­ing on a large scale.” Cities around the world fol­lowed suit in build­ings like the Japan­ese danchi, for exam­ple, and the infa­mous­ly awful Amer­i­can pub­lic hous­ing projects of the 60s and 70s, built along sim­i­lar lines as the Krushchy­ovkas and the mis­guid­ed urban design the­o­ries of Swiss archi­tect Le Cor­busier, anoth­er mod­ernist who, like the Con­struc­tivists, reimag­ined city space accord­ing to a mod­el of mass pro­duc­tion.

The orig­i­nal Con­struc­tivist man­i­festo, pub­lished in 1923, promised art and build­ing “of no dis­cernible ‘style’ but sim­ply a prod­uct of an indus­tri­al order like a car, an aero­plane and such like.” The real­i­ty of Con­struc­tivist designs — like the designs of cars and aero­planes — involved a great deal of imag­i­na­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty. But the archi­tec­tur­al lega­cy of what Con­struc­tivists tout­ed as “tech­ni­cal mas­tery and orga­ni­za­tion of mate­ri­als” — under the mas­sive­ly cen­tral­ized bureau­cra­cy of the ful­ly real­ized one-par­ty Com­mu­nist state — cre­at­ed some­thing entire­ly dif­fer­ent than the ide­al­is­tic avant-gardists had once intend­ed for the mod­ern city.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Every­thing You Need to Know About Mod­ern Russ­ian Art in 25 Min­utes: A Visu­al Intro­duc­tion to Futur­ism, Social­ist Real­ism & More

When Sovi­et Artists Turned Tex­tiles (Scarves, Table­cloths & Cur­tains) into Beau­ti­ful Pro­pa­gan­da in the 1920s & 1930s

The Glo­ri­ous Poster Art of the Sovi­et Space Pro­gram in Its Gold­en Age (1958–1963)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (10)
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  • JC says:

    And yet, despite all it’s fail­ures, there are mil­lions of peo­ple in this coun­try that want the same for us. It bog­gles the mind.

  • Yardbird says:

    The plan­ning may look utopi­an in hind­sight (but prob­a­bly more a prac­ti­cal prod­uct of a lag­ging, unpro­duc­tive econ­o­my), and was cer­tain­ly social­ist, but that does­n’t make it “Utopi­an social­ist.” That phrase has a his­tor­i­cal mean­ing that this arti­cle seems unaware of. The author might want to take a look at Friedrich Engels’ “Social­ism: Utopi­an and Sci­en­tif­ic” and Charles Fouri­er’s designs for pha­lanstères.

    • OC says:

      We’re well aware of what Utopi­an Social­ism is. But it does­n’t mean that the term can’t be used some­what dif­fer­ent­ly in this con­text.


  • gwr says:

    Yes JC, and those mil­lions of peo­ple must be real estate devel­op­ers judg­ing by all the crap­py build­ings sprout­ing up like ugly, cheap mush­rooms in my once love­ly city. Hon­est­ly, I’d pre­fer Plat­ten­bau.

  • Robert says:

    One impor­tant thing the arti­cle leaves out is the fact that the USSR had a large amount of quick rebuild­ing required in the after­math of World War 2, and col­lec­tiviza­tion com­bined with eco­nom­ic plan­ning were uti­lized to con­struct this. The dif­fer­ence in design phi­los­o­phy where some­thing is pro­duced for peo­ple and not for prof­it is dif­fi­cult to under­stand to west­ern peo­ple. Amer­i­ca has nev­er seen any­thing on its lands com­pared to the tragedy of WW2 and could not even begin to under­stand.

  • Vasiliy says:

    At the begin­ning the bol­she­viks did not even need to build any­thing. They just killed all the reach and mid­dle class peo­ple- engi­neers, doc­tors, priests, police­mens of the pre­vi­ous government…they all were claimed an “ene­mies of the work­ing class”. After that their apart­ments were split­ted into sev­er­al rooms where the new peo­ple get their places to live. So all the peo­ple who left alive, start liv­ing in their own new room inside the big apart­ment (like a hos­tel for stu­dents). So noone built any­thing new until the end of WW 2.

  • gytis bickus says:

    To be hon­est, with the con­straints the designers/architects had at the time, what they achieved is unpar­al­leled in the west­ern world, still the UK strug­gles with hous­ing and can bare­ly reach a third of the 300k tar­get every year, yet the sovi­ets house twice the entire pop­u­la­tion. Im actu­al­ly writ­ing an arti­cle about this very top­ic myself, and pro­pose a way to mod­ernise these apart­ments, as they don’t need much ren­o­va­tion to bring them to the mod­ern era. Great arti­cle and video btw!

  • Dan says:

    Fun­ni­est thing is that those flats were giv­en for free. No rent, no mort­gage, no prop­er­ty tax­es just nom­i­nal fees for elec­tric­i­ty, gas, etc. Those crazy com­mies. Cap­i­tal­ism is obvi­ous­ly bet­ter.

  • Joe says:

    Absolute­ly right point, com­rade.

  • PDR says:

    Well, they did solve home­less­ness. Would you rather have all your Amer­i­can ameni­ties and treats know­ing mil­lions of your coun­try­men are starv­ing and dying out­side, or live in a gray iden­ti­cal build­ing like every­one else. The ques­tion isn’t a very hard one to answer if there’s an ounce of blood run­ning through your veins.

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