Soviet art and architecture as a vehicle for social change in the 1920s and 30s

This essay focuses on the tumultuous period of the 1920s and 30s in the Soviet Union. Competing architectural and urban movements emerged proceeding the communist revolution of 1918 as a direct result of the dramatic shift in the prevailing cultural and political ideology. The wide range of new ideas in urban thinking of this time can be broadly captured by two distinct paradigms, Socialist Realism and Soviet Modernism. Whilst Soviet Modernism — emerging in the early 1920s — was developed by groups of architects and artists who saw the potential in emerging artistic trends to be applied across all creative disciplines; Socialist Realism — formulated in the 1930s to supersede constructivism — was a political device created by the communist party to assert creative control over art, architecture and urbanism.

The essay will explore their origins, their motivations, their similarities, their differences and the means by which they attempted to answer the question of how best to generate a realm for social change to promote the communist agenda. For this analysis the Soviet capital of Moscow will serve as the primary battleground as it harboured many significant projects for both movements.

Fresh Beginnings

The period immediately following the October revolution of 1918 was one of a great flurry of new ideas and experimentation in art and architecture. It was clear to all that the spatial arts required a new identity that would bring forth the promises of communism and a new method that would allow the Soviets to build their radically new society. There was, however, no consensus on the form that this new movement would take; some believed that it was necessary to look to the past, to revive classical orders lost to the eclecticism preceding the revolution and apply them to a contemporary framework; others believed that the answer lay in artistic trends such as Cubo-Futurism, containing tradition-breaking formal and aesthetic innovations along with politically charged ideals, that bore the potential to define a new built environment (Khan-Magomedov 1983).

The latter movement of the avant-garde was what eventually led to the development of a refined Soviet modernism, though the journey there was complex and winding, involving the collaboration and culmination of much experimentation from numerous artistic disciplines. There were many artists and architects involved, who were united and divided by ideas that shifted and developed as investigations forayed into unknown territories. It is thus unavoidably difficult to capture in short form the many contributions of this period, though an attempt will be made to shine a light on those which mattered most. For a broad depiction of the landscape of ideas during this period, along with their interdependencies and the people and institutions involved, reference can be made to Diagram 1.

The Journey
A brief historical analysis shows that the modernist architecture in Russia emerged out of the gradual convergence of socio-political aspirations and technological and artistic innovations. From the beginning of the avant-garde movement there was a desire to generate a new built environment that would shape a modern, prosperous society through the synthesis of leftist ideology, industrialisation and cubist aesthetics. These ideals have their roots in leftist art movements such as Cubo-Futurism, which consisted of artistic and literary provocations, designed to challenge the old order and advance industrialisation. Led by the polemical figure Vladimir Mayakovsky, its art depicted dynamic, abstract compositions full of movement and energy (refer Figure 1), recognising the necessity for a new means of expression for the new social role that art was to play. Developments in abstract compositions led Cubo-Futurist Kazimir Malevich to his formulation of Suprematism, which was critical in establishing a body of work that dealt with the composition of abstract geometry.

Malevich departed from the futurist notions of movement, speed and violence, and emphasised the importance of art to express “pure feeling” (Malevich 1927). He rejected that this could be achieved through the objective representation of reality and as such his compositions were devoid of representation, consisting solely of coloured Euclidean geometries (refer Figure 2). His later volumetric experiments and those of El Lissitsky in the early 1920s (refer Figure 3) pointed to a new direction in architecture, revealing the possibility for plain geometric shapes to be combined inexhaustibly to form effective and complex compositions (Khan-Magomedov 1983).

Figure 1. Kasimir Malevich The Knife Grinder (1912–13). Figure 2. Kasimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition (c.1916). Figure 3. El Lissitsky Proun (c. 1922)

Though Malevich was critically influential in his compositions, his views of art as an end in itself, proved controversial and unproductive to futurists who sought to utilise art to further their political agenda. Several other artists and designers at the time, such as Vladimir Tatlin and the Stenberg brothers were taking the abstract art form away from the easel to the creation of three-dimensional objects in an attempt to put the innovations to productive use.

Early on, Tatlin in particular made a conscious effort to shift from the depiction of abstract forms to the creation of the human environment. His design for the Monument to the Third International in 1919 (refer Figure 4) was a colossal steel structure that was intended to stand 400m tall — dwarfing the tallest structure in the world at that point, the Eiffel Tower, by some 76m — and house international conferences and government proceedings (Khan-Magomedov 1983). The work of Tatlin and others led to an appreciation for the aesthetic potential inherent in their construction materials. Steel and timber structures gave rise to open, permeable spatial compositions sharply contrasting with Malevich’s Arkitectons (refer Figure 5). Tatlin’s oeuvre demonstrated the application of art to productive endeavours and in doing so provided both the theoretical and methodological basis for the approach that became known as constructivism.

The dichotomy of construction versus composition continued to divide artists and architects and became the basis for two competing doctrines within Inkhuk, the Institute of Artistic Culture at the heart of the movement from 1920–24. Constructivists — primarily sculptors and painters at the time –predominantly felt that form-generation should result from the manifestation of constructive reality, whilst Rationalists — many of which were architects — maintained that formal problems in their work necessitated abstract composition (Khan-Magomedov 1983). Some architects began siding with the constructivists and by 1924 teaching groups for each of these doctrines had been formed at Vkhutemas (Higher State Artistic and Technical Studios), the leading avant-garde school, challenging the existing traditionalist teachings led by Ivan Zholtovsky (Khan-Magomedov 1986).

Figure 4. Vladimir Tatlin, Monument to the Third International (1919). Figure 5. Kasimir Malevich Arkitectons (mid-1920s)

Curiously, the works produced during this time for the betterment of one creed, in my view, were sometimes indiscernible from works of the other (refer Figures 5–6). Thus, one wonders whether the preoccupation with doctrinal purity resulted from architects having to differentiate themselves with words rather than bricks and mortar, since dire economic conditions of the time severely limited the number of construction projects. In any case, unbound by the pragmatics of built work, the imagination of architects and students on both sides of the debate had free rein, producing designs that according to Anatole Kopp, urged “toward maximum ideological and emotional ‘expression’” (1970, p.51).

Growth on the Horizon
By 1925 the New Economic Policy, implemented by Lenin in 1921 had succeeded in stimulating growth in the economy through the permission of some private enterprise and by 1928 agricultural and industrial production had been restored to pre-WWI levels (Service 1997). The construction of the new Soviet state became increasingly possible and architects were empowered to put (some) of their radical innovations to the test. The question then, of how best to transform the nation’s way of life became increasingly relevant as it was evident that the poor living conditions of the proletariat demanded a restructure. Architects sought to facilitate this change through proposals for the dramatic alteration of the built environment across scales of furniture, buildings, complexes and cities. According to Khan-Magomedov, this next stage in the modernist movement “involved the reconciliation of uncompromising attitudes in the quarrels between Rationalists and Constructivists […] to achieve an organic synthesis of all that had been secured by the Constructivist Functional Method and Rationalist experiments in formal aesthetics.” (1983, p.196). Neither group had all the ingredients for a complete architecture, constructivists had (rather ironically) developed a rational approach to deriving form from function, whilst the Rationalists had generated a large body of work that dealt with perception and emotional impact.

Figure 5. Constructivist studio work (1924). Figure 6. Rationalist studio work (1924)

Many of the modernists attempts at this time to master the city scale were far more speculative and little of it was realised in part due to it being on the one hand highly conceptual — impressively innovative as it was — and on the other highly ambitious given the size and capacity of the Soviet economy, despite the fact that the leaders of the country shared their convictions (Kopp 1970). Two cases in point are Lavinsky’s and Khidekel’s respective proposals for a ‘city on springs’ and a ‘city on pilotis’, which seem somewhat farfetched even 90 years later, and their rough sketches do not seem to provide any hint of technical resolution (refer Figure 7–9). An insight into their work may be provided in what was perhaps the sentiment of the time, as captured by Alexander Pasternak: “concealed in that which today appears utopian is often the potential that distinguishes the incisiveness of fresh ideas from the mediocre everyday reality with which they are incompatible” (cited in Kopp 1970, p.178). This, in addition to the following quote, begin to capture the conditions under which architects became dreamers: “The novelty of the problem, the lack of research facilities, and the desire to find an immediate solution from which projects already under way could benefit — this was the combination of factors that nudged a number of first-rate architects along the slippery path to utopia” (Kopp 1970, p.168).

Figure 7. Anton Lavinsky City on Springs (1921). Figure 8–9. Lazar Khidekel City on Pilotis (1927)

This is not to say however, that debates on town planning were any less thorough or serious than those on architecture. Throughout the discussions of the 1920s, there was a strong focus in addressing the perceived problem of the division of town and country. According to Khan-Magomedov, “Marxist-Leninist positions concerning the treatment of large capitalist cities, the relatively equal distribution of the population across the country and the abolition of opposition between town and countryside […] indicated the directions explorations should take” (1983, p.271). This was essential according to Lenin (cited in Khan-Magomedov 1983, p.271), “so as to make [science and art] accessible to the entire nation, so as to destroy this alienation from culture of millions in the rural population”.

However, there was once again no consensus on how this would be achieved. Investigations in the early twenties by established town planners and architects such as Vladimir Semenov, Ivan Fomin and Zholtovsky, drew upon Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept, as an attractive model that could be applied to anything from cities to suburbs and villages (Khan-Magomedov 1983). The idea of breaking up cities and injecting them with green space to provide a connection to nature and sanitary living conditions made practical sense at the time, given that the populations of cities were declining due to famine and epidemics (Khan-Magomedov 1983). One example of an extensive Garden City proposal was that of Zholtovsky and Alexei Shchusev in their work for the Moscow City Council (refer Figure 10). “New Moscow” called for the complete deurbanization of the city through the general dispersal of building mass, widening of streets, and a generous allocation of green space to every block. This approach set the trend for the first half of the decade until it was sharply criticised as being socially unacceptable and economically inefficient due to its emphasis on peasant-type habitations and a limited ability to allow for growth (Khan Magomedov, 1983).

Figure 10. Ivan Zholtovsky and Alexei Shchusev Moscow Garden City Proposal (1918–24). Figure 11–12. Mosisei Ginzburg and Mikhail Barshch Green City (1930)

A number of factors including the First Five Year Plan and the reversal of migration from out of the cities to back into the cities, led to a change in attitude towards town planning problems in the second half of the 1920s. Garden cities were no longer sufficient for the rapid industrialisation occurring, and as such the focus was shifted to developing new and existing settlements around centres of production. Emphasis in discourse of this period was also placed on finding the precise nature of a socialist city as distinct from a capitalist one. This was in part what led to propositions rejecting the organising principles of existing capitalist settlements for the construction of something entirely new. According to Kopp, the objective of the ensuing debate at the time was to determine the path to “rebuilding the cities along new lines in the image of a society in which the disappearance of class antagonisms was to be reflected, in city-planning terms, in the disappearance of the contrast between center and periphery, between fashionable districts and workers’ slums, and even, in the last analysis, between city and country” (1970, p.168).

This fact alone explains the utopian appearance of many of the schemes and theories produced at the time, since it was unchartered territory into which the Soviets were venturing. One example of this was Moisei Ginzburg and Mikhail Barshch’s design for the “Green City” for the development of a large regional area outside Moscow (refer Figure 11–12). The design features the linear arrangement of individual dwellings along highways that connect to industrial precincts. This scheme highlights key points of contention at the time, demonstrating the position of the “deurbanists” who were opposed to the “urbanists”. It for one features single-family houses as opposed to shared-facility communal apartment buildings, as it was felt that firstly, private space was necessary, and secondly, their ability to be prefabricated would allow for their flexible development and redevelopment in turn leading to a participation in a fast-moving and changing life (Kopp, 1970). The linear arrangement of dwellings along high-speed transport routes was a strategy to “draw men closer to nature”, however, one can additionally imagine that it was a means of disassembling the perceived inequality inherent in nodal arrangements as previously mentioned by Kopp.

The urbanists evidently felt on the other hand, that urbanity should be arranged in nodes centred around Industry and housing should be formed communally, where the family unit would effectively break down, children would be raised collectively, and all would be united by their individuality (Kopp, 1970).

Figure 13. Ilya Golosov Zuev Worker’s Club (1928)

Redemption in a power plant
For my part, the combined efforts of the modernists in shaping Soviet life were most successful in the creation of a new typology, namely the worker’s club, since they were in fact successfully implemented across the Soviet Union and achieved what they had purported to. These communal facilities were critical incubators for the development of socialist culture but were perhaps not the type of establishment that would typically be associated with the word ‘club’. These “social power plants” as El Lissitsky referred to them, were intended in his opinion to serve as schools of culture, to engage a collective spirit and to “liberate men from the old oppression of church and state” (cited in Kopp 1970, p.116). In a society where all labour is treated as equal, the worker’s club, provided a transference of cultural development from the hands of the elite to those of the masses. These ideas were epitomised in the great “Palace of Labour” that was intended — though never built — to serve as a monumental worker’s club as well as a meeting place for the General Assembly.

Ilya Golosov’s Zuev Worker’s Club, built in 1928, is one example of a club that still exists today and has stood the test of time. It, unlike earlier clubs was conceived as a constructivist building composed by a series of plain intersecting geometrical solids featuring a glazed cylinder the height of the building, which acts as a grand entrance, sitting at the most prominent corner of the site (refer Figure 13). The internal layout is organised by a series of multi-purpose halls and theatre, suitable for numerous forms of cultural activity. This arrangement was characteristic of clubs shifting from simple places of assembly to hubs of activity where members would to play an active role in the creation and curation of events (Kopp 1970).

Despite the success of this building, there were many other schemes that failed to achieve or failed to be realised with the still limited resources of labour and material. By the early 1930s the transformation of Soviet life as promised was nowhere to be seen and as such there was a growing tiredness for asceticism in the population. The First Five Year Plan, heavily focused on industrial development, had failed to improve the living conditions of workers, still living in overcrowded and underserviced housing and in fact made things far worse through the cataclysmic failure of the centralisation of agriculture, leading to the death of several million people (Library of Congress 1992). In addition to this, efforts to shape the new culture by the leaders of the nation and the avant-garde creatives had failed to dissuade the general population from the splendours of the previous ruling class as standards of taste and ambition (Kopp 1970). Thus, a reversion to traditional architectural forms began to emerge, promoted by groups such as Vopra (All-Russian Association of Proletarian Architects) who sharply criticised the work of constructivists as ignoring “both artistic content and the influence of art itself”, eventually leading to the emergence of Socialist Realism (cited in Kopp 1970).

Figure 14. Serafima Riangina Higher, Ever Higher! (1934)

A Look Forward to the Past

Socialist Realism was an approach to art, architecture, urban planning and literature that was formulated and gradually enforced by the Soviet Union in the 1930s. It became the official method for architecture in the USSR in 1937 as a result of the First Congress of Soviet Architects (Anderson 2015). The doctrine consolidated the control of the State in architectural design at a time when the Communist Party feared rebellion, since poor living conditions in both rural and urban settings had still not improved. Its implementation coincided with Stalin’s Great Purge, a two-year period during which “according to declassified Soviet archives, the NKVD arrested more than one and a half million people […] of whom 681,692 were shot” (Thurston 1998, p.139). Although Stalin had already monopolised urban development through the eradication of the private sector and the end of Lenin’s NEP in 1928, officials sought to enforce a return to traditionalism, arguably as a means of forming a decisive break from the shortfalls of the modernist period to deliver substantial material outcomes. It was decreed that architecture must ‘critically assimilate’ its heritage in order to produce “authentically new (not simply novel) architectural forms” (Arkin 1933 p.25). A desire to draw on the past was bolstered by the Marxist-Leninist view that the proletariat would build its new society on the legacy of human knowledge and experience. Stalin agreed on the importance of heritage but as he narrowed Lenin’s international ambitions for the USSR to building ‘Socialism in one country’ he emphasised the importance of the local traditions declaring that architecture need be ‘socialist in content’ and ‘national in form’ (Cooke 1997).

Some constructivists themselves, such as Moisei Ginzburg and the Vesnin brothers, perhaps delirious or coerced, expressed that economic conditions no longer required an architecture of the bare essentials. In the communist party publication Arkhitektura SSSR they stated: “we have become richer; we have more possibilities; we can now allow ourselves a broader scope of activity and a break from asceticism” (1934, p.69). These architects did not however wish to concede to the change of stylistic preference and maintained the primacy of their functionalist approach:

We should be familiar with the architecture of the past, but we should not merely transform its forms in our plans and buildings. Rather, after having rethought former architecture, we should create a new socialist architecture in keeping with our great era. I believe that the primary purpose of architecture is to give the building’s social and utilitarian function a spatial, architectonic, expressive, and artistic form created from constructive materials. (Alexandr Vesnin cited in Khan-Magomedov, 1986, p.187).

A Radiant Future
The desire for the built environment to shape the life of the Soviet was certainly not lost in this transition, as it was asserted that architecture needed to “contribute ‘as an active force’ to the larger political and social programme of the Soviet Union” (Cooke 1997, p.138). The nature of this force was intended to be in part didactic, as attitudes shifted in large part from attempting to deliver a utopian future to creating works that transmit myths and messages to the people and heighten their aesthetic sensibility. This complemented and reinforced the primary goal of capturing Stalin’s promise of a ‘svetloye budushcheye’, a radiant future, but also show that he had to some extent already delivered it as he famously claimed in 1937: “Life has improved Comrades, life has become more joyous” (cited in Bowlt 2002, p.46). The challenge became manifesting in built form the affluence and buoyancy that was to eventually permeate all of society.

Eternal sunshine and eternal youth became important metaphors for prosperity that repeatedly appeared in socialist realist artworks. In Serafima Riangina’s 1934 painting Higher, Ever Higher! (refer Figure 14) two young workers, man and woman, climb atop a steel-framed utility tower in a picturesque landscape, bathed in sunlight as they bring forth the illumination of Russia through electrification. Petr Konchalovsky’s Spanish Pioneers at Soviet Summer Camp (1939) equally represents a bright future, depicting a warmly lit outdoor scene of a group of boys socialising in the sun.

It is evident that through the application of familiar and historical forms and the rejection of the ‘alien’ avant-garde, Stalin intended for his message to be clearly understood by all. Historians such as Hugh Hudson (1994) have criticised socialist realism for destroying the creative and experimental spirit that pervaded modernism and replacing it with a pedestrian desire for beauty and a simplistic fascination with classical forms. However, as has been mentioned, architectural heritage was intended to be assimilated not appropriated in order to produce authenticity. In addition, the rejection of the esoteric and the desire for a universally understood creative medium has historical merit and in fact, is not dissimilar to the beginnings of the baroque, a style that flourished in Europe for over a century.

Figure 15. Alexei Dushkin Ploschad Revolyutsii Station. Figure 16. Alexei Dushkin Palace of Soviets Station
Figure 17. Alexei Dushkin Mayakovskaya Station

An Underground Palace
The Moscow Metropolitan is an example of a significant urban project that demonstrates the aspirations of the socialist realist method. Construction on the metro began in 1932, and the first line, named after the chair of the Moscow Soviet, Lazar Kaganovich, was opened in 1935. According to Mike O’Mahony “during the 1930s the metro became one of the key arenas for the production and consumption of official visual culture, and many of the nation’s most respected architects, sculptors, and artists were employed in its design and decoration” (2003, p.139). The unique designs of each station and their accompanying artworks, united in their rich embellishment, enabled a radiant display of social and political messages and a symbolic transference of wealth and opulence from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat. The Ploschad Revolyutsii, Palace of Soviets and Mayakovskaya stations — all designed by architect Aleksei Dushkin — are of particular importance as they each demonstrate a key component of the socialist realist method.

Ploschad Revolyutsii station is well known for its life-sized bronze sculptures designed by artist Matvey Manizer, that flank its vaulted corridors (refer Figure 15). Whilst the architecture lacks the embellishment of other stations, the sculptures are rich with detail, and as a series demonstrate the strategy of communicating a cultural myth through narrative (O’Mahony 2003). O’Mahony describes the station as an underground archaeological fantasy and argues that it was intended to be perceived as just that: the retelling of a historical story, namely the evolution of the Soviet citizen, revealed through the medium of discovered artefacts. Successive pairs of sculptures take commuters on a journey beginning in the revolution, and ending in the bright future, touching on the development of industry, agriculture, education, all the while capturing the purposeful, forward-striving nature of the Soviet individual (O’Mahony 2003).

The Palace of Soviets station (later Kropotkinskaya) is notable for its widely praised critical assimilation of history into a coherent design for an authentically new vaulted solution (refer Figure 16). Dushkin took inspiration from the flared columns of the Ancient Egyptian temple of Amun in Karnak and translated their expanding capitals into faceted forms that spread into five-pointed stars as they reach the ceiling (Anderson 2015). What results is a quite simply formed, open platform with curiously little ornamentation or embellishment when compared to other stations such as Komsomolskaya and Elektrozavodskaya. This demonstrates that within Socialist Realism their lay an ability to generate outcomes whose features were subtle and considered, an attribute not often recognised historically.

Mayakovskaya station (refer Figure 17) was the first to be constructed in steel, the use of which allowed the columns of its archways a smaller footprint, creating a sense of generosity of space connecting the central hall and the side aisles (Anderson 2015). Transverse archways divide the hall into 35 bays, each of which is crowned with a dome that floods the bay below with light. This station conveys the lightness and buoyancy that so described the promise of a radiant future. It was equally praised for its successful synthesis of the depictive arts and architecture, an attribute which was considered highly desirable, since it was believed that both disciplines were required to effectively convey specific ideas and give them maximum ideological potency (O’Mahony 2003; Cooke 1997). There were many more significant projects that further elaborated on these strategies, however these three neatly capture those ideas which were most highly valued. Further investigation into Stalin’s replanning of Moscow can be found in diagram 2.


It is clear from this brief historical analysis of Soviet Modernism and Socialist Realism that the period in question was marked by a desire to radically transform the nature of existence for the Soviet population, and both movements were united on this front. They differed in obvious ways such as their fundamental rejection or appreciation of the past; the desire to innovate versus the desire to assimilate; the characterisation of Soviet society as, on the one hand, austere and utilitarian, and on the other, opulent and prosperous. In both case, the Soviets attempted to dramatically improve all aspects of society, but ultimately failed. Kopp captures brilliantly the issues that, in my opinion, were experienced by both movements:

[…] architects (and the authorities) had been victims of the inevitable contradictions that afflicted and still afflict a society obliged to make up serious economic and technical arrears at a time when on the social level it has already progressed beyond the stage in which such problems should be a major preoccupation (1970, p.165).

The more interesting differences lie in how they attempted to deal with this problem. Within the modernists I detect perhaps a more genuine ambition to improve the living conditions of the general population through the promises of industrial efficiency and a rigorous functionalism. However, the implementation of many of their innovations in art and design was contingent on dramatic economic growth and future technological innovations. As a result little was realised, and the immediate needs of the people were not addressed. Perhaps if their work was more grounded in the available resources of the time, it would have remained more relevant. The vision for a city on pilotis is of little use to a country that cannot afford to feed itself.

The shift to Socialist Realism, however, did not seem to make any attempt to address this problem either and simply adopted known symbols of affluence and prosperity to form the appearance of improved living conditions and provide hope for what was to come. This is not to say that this symbolism was not applied in a sophisticated way. The desire to construct Potemkin villages does not preclude a genuine design process from occurring — any message conveyed in architecture requires careful consideration no matter how contrived. In fact, a rigorous discourse would have been necessary to achieve the architectural and urban outcomes required for the particular message that Stalin and his officials sought to convey.

It is fair to say that proponents of both movements went to great lengths to attempt to manifest a communist society, one that would break free from the ills of capitalist oppression, where all would be shared, and all would prosper. In the end, their efforts could not deliver on their dreams, but their contributions have certainly not been lost; they served as an important launchpad for modernism across the globe and continue to be a source of inspiration for architects today.


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