Soviet Architectural Avant-Gardes
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Soviet Architectural Avant-Gardes

Architecture and Stalin's Revolution from Above, 1928-1938

Danilo Udovicki-Selb

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Soviet Architectural Avant-Gardes

Architecture and Stalin's Revolution from Above, 1928-1938

Danilo Udovicki-Selb

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About This Book

Conventional readings of the history of Soviet art and architecture show modernist utopian aspirations as all but prohibited by 1932 under Stalin's totalitarianism. Soviet Architectural Avant-Gardes challenges that view. Radically redefining the historiography of the period, it reveals how the relationship between the Party and practicing architects was much more complex and contradictory than previously believed, and shows, in contrast to the conventional scholarly narrative, how the architectural avant-garde was able to persist at a time when it is widely considered to have been driven underground. In doing so, this book provides an essential perspective on how to analyse, evaluate, and "re-imagine" the history of modernist expression in its cultural context. It offers a new understanding of ways in which 20th century social revolutions and their totalitarian sequels inflected the discourse of both modernity and modernism. The book relies on close analyses of archival documents and architectural works. Many of the documents have been rarely – if ever – discussed in English before, while the architectural projects include iconic works such as the Palace of Soviets and the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris 1937 World Exposition, as well as remarkable works that until now have been neglected by architectural historians inside and outside Russia. In a fascinating final chapter, it also reveals for the first time the details of Frank Lloyd Wright's triumphant welcome at the First Congress of Soviet Architects in Moscow in 1937, at the height of Stalin's Terror.

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Year
2020
ISBN
9781474299855

CHAPTER 1

A CALL FOR THE PARTY TO DEFEND MODERN ARCHITECTURE: STALIN’S “CULTURAL REVOLUTION” AND THE APORIA OF “PROLETARIAN ARCHITECTURE”


In 1928, when Stalin ended Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP)—a mix of state capitalism and market economy1—he embarked in a system never tested before, a centrally planned economy. Lenin had introduced the NEP at the end of the Civil War in an effort to revive production and consumption. Antonio Gramsci, who addressed the Bolshevik Revolution in numerous writings, considered that this Revolution contradicted the logic of Marx’s political economy. It is not to be excluded that such claim may have played a role in Lenin’s decision to reintroduce some forms of capitalist economy after meeting Gramsci in Moscow in 1921. As founder of the Italian Communist Party, the latter saw the Bolshevik Revolution as premature, that is, “contradicting Marx’s Capital,” in a country with eighty percent of peasants, most of which were illiterate.
The reversal of the NEP meant no less than the overhaul of the entire economic and political system. Stalin referred to these transformations as perestrojka or “reconstruction,” also popularly known, later on, as “revolution from above.” To achieve such undertaking, he launched a vast social mobilization, including fabricated trials, to unsettle the economic and cultural protagonists of the NEP years.2 As a justification for such systemic upheaval, indeed a “cultural revolution,” Stalin declared that the successful building of socialism required an intensification of the “class struggle.” This thesis did not go unchallenged of course. The resistance to curtailing the NEP, followed by accelerated industrialization and forced collectivization of farmland came from top members of the Central Committee, including such figures as Aleksej Rykov, head of the government (SNK) until 1930, Nikolaj Buharin (1888–1938) or Nadezhda Krupskaja (1869–1939)—Lenin’s widow.3
As Sheila Fitzpatrick has claimed, “The party’s leading organs encouraged groups of militant young communist ‘proletarians’ […] to challenge, intimidate and humiliate their bourgeois elders and competitors in various spheres of cultural institutions.”4 This first mobilization of the perestrojka involved preexisting groups of party members associated, among others, in proletarian organizations of arts and literature. Stirring up such associations from behind the scenes was a way of legitimizing the perestrojka as an alleged spontaneous grass-roots movement. The associations’ simultaneous and “sudden rise to relevance and visibility between 1928–1929,” can hardly be explained otherwise than by an orchestrated action from a single source. What clearly points into that direction is the Central Committee’s swift creation of an additional “proletarian association”—the All-Union Society of Proletarian Architects (Vsesojuznoe Obshchestvo Proletarskyh Arhitektorov [VOPRA]) that Lazar Kaganovich, a top Politburo member, immediately put to task in the summer of 1929, in the wake of the Lenin Library controversy discussed later in this chapter.
Lazar Moisejevich Kaganovich (1893–1991),5 of Jewish Ukrainian descent, had been a relatively minor figure in the Bolshevik Revolution. He held until 1928 the post of Secretary of the Ukrainian party. As part of his secret campaign to surround himself with unconditional supporters, as he gradually increased his power, Stalin brought Kaganovich to Moscow in 1928 where the latter rapidly rose to the top of Soviet leadership, second only to Stalin. In 1930 he joined the Politburo, while also taking the position of First Secretary of the Moscow Party, which was dominated by the Buharinist Right Opposition. Under Stalin’s orders, he was to undertake an uncompromising purge of both Left and Right oppositions.
Adamantly devoted to his benefactor, he also played a sinister role in the forced collectivization that caused a devastating famine in 1932–1933, especially hitting southern Ukraine, the bread basket of the country. The confiscated wheat staple was used for the purchase of industrial machinery from the West. Stalin promoted Kaganovich to Secretary of the Central Committee in1928.6 This gave him ample means to act as a top party organizer. As a pivotal figure of the “revolution from above,” Kaganovich played a central role in the modernization of Moscow, notably the development of the subway, as discussed in the third chapter. While organizing the upcoming 16th Party Congress, he sought to obtain a rough estimate of how many party members were reliable, that is, how many were actually ready to fight for the new “party line.” In the months that preceded the crucial Congress, Kaganovich thus noted casually on the corner of his copy of the congress program, with a red pencil: “Expel twenty-five percent of party members”7—a rogue estimate with well-known consequences down the upcoming decade of arbitrary “chistkas” (purges).
While Stalin’s power was significantly increased at the end of the congress, his full, unchallenged control of the country occurred only at the next 17th Party Congress in 1934 soon christened, for good reason, “The Congress of the Victors.” Once all cultural associations were dissolved in 1932, the “proletarians” were automatically turned into virtually secret party cells (partgruppy) incorporated into the new, centralized unions. This was, notably, the case of VOPRA, as discussed further. It mattered that the public did not associate the actions of the proletarians with the party’s leading organs. Such “mobilization of the masses” and calls for an “increased vigilance against the counterrevolution” were essential aspects of what current historiography calls “cultural revolution”—albeit semantically very different from Lenin’s acceptation of the term, as Fitzpatrick has pointed out.8
To situate the circumstances that ultimately allowed modern architecture to survive against all odds under Stalin’s “revolution from above,” we will turn to the dramatic effects the initial cultural revolution had on the realm of architecture between 1928 and 1930. The institutions of the existing spontaneous movements were to be gradually infiltrated and dissolved. Contrary to what has been argued thus far,9 however, the actual circumstances need to be nuanced. Meaningful intellectual exchanges in architectural criticism and theory did survive almost to the end of the 1930s, prompting the visiting Frank Lloyd Wright to marvel about the Soviet architects’ intellectual sophistication in comparison to those he knew in the US as argued in Chapter 4.
***
The pivotal event to be addressed here is the competition for the 1928 Lenin Library. The controversy about the contested results of the competition brought for the first time a highly public clash between the forces of the architectural avant-garde and the rising conservative movement. The assumption of the moderns was that the party, as had been the case at least implicitly, throughout the 1920s, accepted progressive, thus revolutionary architecture.
In the wake of the Lenin Library dispute, the second crucial moment to be considered is the party’s creation behind the scenes of VOPRA—which aimed at monopolizing the public discourse on architecture. In what appeared as a paradox, VOPRA members adhered to a constructivist style all the way to and inclusive of the second competition for the iconic Palace of Soviets, while advocating the embrace of “proletarian architecture.” Without ever being able to define what did they mean by “proletarian architecture”—later replaced by an equally obscure “socialist” realism—VOPRA used the term to disqualify a priori anything beyond its own work, that is, to primarily undermine the work of the living avant-gardes.
With this goal in mind, the first and major victim was to be, logically, the hotbed of Soviet modern architecture—the art and architecture school the avant-gardes created in the wake of the revolution—the VHUTEMAS. Founded the same year as the Bauhaus (1919), the VHUTEMAS has often been compared to the former. VOPRA’s next move were to be, as will be discussed, the cynical attempts at destroying morally and professionally the icon of the second generation of constructivists, Ivan Leonidov (1902–1959), set to lead the architectural revolution into the 1930s and beyond.
The next victim in line would be the innovative journal Sovremenaja Arhitektura, as the main vehicle for the dissemination of new architectural ideas—edited by two of the founders and leaders of constructivism—Aleksandr Vesnin (1883–1959) and Moisej Ginzburg (1892–1946). Parallel to these actions was the fatef...

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