Why Joseph Stalin Never Got His Soviet Palace
This is part of our weekly series, Lost Masterpieces, about the greatest buildings and works of art that were destroyed or never completed.
When Joseph Stalin tells you, “Don’t be scared of height, go for it”—there’s really only one option.
In 1931, the Soviet Union held a competition for a design for a building called the Palace of the Soviets.
The selection was to be made by “a jury whose most noteworthy member was Dictator Stalin,” crowed Time magazine. Its purpose was to house all meetings for the Supreme Soviet and serve as the monument to Lenin in Moscow.
Then-‘starchitects’ including Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Albert Kahn took part, as the Soviet Union had become one of the centers, if not the center, for modern architecture.
The prize money for the design, however, was in rubles, which had to be spent in Russia, as there was a prohibition on their export.
The winning design would be built on the freshly razed grounds of the iconic golden-domed Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, once described by a New York Times journalist as “like the Paris Eiffel Tower…the first object to strike the eye of a visitor to Moscow by land or air.”
The cathedral had been constructed to commemorate victory over Napoleon, and took nearly 100 years to build. (In a side note, for generations Russians thought the dome was made up of real gold given by the devout, but the Bolsheviks found that it was mere brass.)
After the second round of the competition for a winning design for the Palace of Soviets, a three-way tie was declared between Boris Iofan, Ivan Zholtovsky, and Hector Hamilton.
All three designs were neoclassical at heart. Feeling betrayed, the modernist starchitects, most notably Le Corbusier, accused the Soviets of betraying their modernist principles by choosing such a conservative style. Finally, in 1935, after even more rounds of design competitions, the winner was declared—Boris Iofan.
His final design for the palace was staggering. The tower’s height was to reach 1,362 feet (inspired by Stalin, up from an initial 853 feet), making it taller than the Empire State Building and thus the tallest in the world. Iofan declared it would “dwarf Radio City.”
Not to be left out of the catty sniping, Frank Lloyd Wright declared, “This structure—only proposed, I hope—is good if we take it for a modern version of Saint George destroying the dragon.”
Iofan, it should be noted, was understandably smug. After a visit to New York City in 1939, he sneered that Manhattan was a depressing sight, its skyline made of “fantastic disorder” which was not architecturally impressive due to his belief “it has merely commercial character.”
For good measure, he added that the city’s best feature may be been “its many slums,” as they “produce a terrific impression on the visitor.”
The final designs for the final palace were terrifying. The structure was a pyramidal skyscraper made up of seven ascending concentric cylinders. Each of those hulking cylinders was to “be decorated with allegorical sculptures of heroes of the Soviet epoch.”
Crowning this monstrosity was no less than a 328-foot statue of the deceased Vladimir Lenin.
Work on the Palace began in 1938, with the government spending roughly $18.9 million to get it started. The Soviets declared that it would open on Nov. 7, 1942, the 25th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, leading even The New York Times to snicker and write, “The building cannot possibly be completed by that date.”
The base of the building was to be 460 feet in diameter. It would be filled with offices, museums, restaurants, and a main hall with a capacity of 20,000.
It was also to have 148 elevators and 62 escalators. According to Time there would also be a library with 500,000 books.
The base was to be made of marble and granite, the rest of the building clad in a purple-red tufa (a type of limestone) from the Caucasus, and the statue would be made of aluminum or chrome steel.
Due to its height up in the clouds, engineers “estimated that on only ninety days out of the year will the head of the Lenin statue be clearly visible from the ground.”
The foundations were completed and the steel frame for the lower levels put in place, but alas, WWII got in the way. In 1942 the steel frame was dismantled to provide steel for the Red Army and more urgent infrastructure projects.
In 1945, the foundations still intact, Stalin announced plans to resume the project.
But it wasn’t to be. In 1957, the government announced it was tossing the plan for the Palace of the Soviets entirely and would instead build two separate buildings for the Palace’s intended dual role.
The foundation was turned into an open-air heated swimming pool, the largest in the world. Beginning in 1995, the cathedral was rebuilt on its former site.
It was completed and reconsecrated in August of 2000. It has regained its iconic status, both for the establishment (Yeltsin, who was born the year it was destroyed, lay in state there) and those once again seeking dramatic change (Pussy Riot was arrested in 2012 for an unwanted performance there).
Stark white with shining golden domes, the cathedral is once again the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world—and a poignant reminder of how much history has moved on from Stalin’s destructive dreams.