Rebuilding of Moscow

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The capital city of both the RSFSR and the USSR, Moscow also served under Stalin as a beacon for world socialism. But Moscow was a nearly 800-year old city, with dozens of churches and residential structures dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many narrow twisting lanes, and in a preponderance of wooden, brick, and stone buildings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The “Master Plan for the Reconstruction of the City of Moscow,” devised by a commission under Lazar Kaganovich and co-signed by Stalin and Viacheslav Molotov on July 10, 1935, was intended as an “offensive against the old Moscow” that would utterly transform the city. Four years in the making, the plan called for the expansion of the city’s area from 285 to 600 square kilometers that would take in mostly farmland to the south and west beyond the Lenin (a.k.a. Sparrow) Hills. It involved sixteen major highway projects, the construction of “several monumental buildings of state-wide significance,” and fifteen million square meters of new housing to accommodate a total population of approximately five million. Surrounding the city would be a green belt up to a width of ten kilometers.

Even while the master plan was being drawn up, old Moscow was giving way to the new. One of the showpieces of the new Moscow was to be the Moscow Metro[politen] which broke ground in March 1932 and went into service on May 14, 1935. A second project begun in the early 1930s was the Moscow-Volga Canal, built by an army of prison laborers numbering 200,000 and opened in July 1937. Yet another project, for a monumental Palace of Soviets capable of hosting meetings of up to 15,000 people, was the subject of an architectural competition held in 1931. Entries were received from 160 Soviet and foreign architects including Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. In June 1933, the jury headed by Molotov awarded the project to the Soviet architect, Boris Iofan. His terraced, colonnaded palace was to be the tallest building in the world, soaring eight meters above the recently completed Empire State Building. It was to be crowned with a massive, 90-meter-tall statue of Lenin.

The site selected for the colossus was, symbolically enough, the ground on which the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer had stood before its demolition in 1931. This was one of many churches and religious abbeys destroyed in the frenzy to make over the capital. Work on the Palace of Soviets commenced in 1935 and continued until the Nazi invasion. In 1960 a giant outdoor heated swimming pool, the biggest in the Soviet Union (and reputedly, the world), opened on the site. It, in turn, gave way in the 1990s to a replica of the cathedral which was constructed under the auspices of Moscow’s flamboyant mayor, Iurii Luzhkov.

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