Modeling Moscow : life, architecture, and the composite shot in Soviet films of the 1930s

Professor Anne Nesbet opened the new academic year’s CamCREES seminar series with a wonderful talk on Moscow architecture and Soviet films.  In these bibliographical notes for the talk, we take the opportunity to look at books about the legendary Palace of the Soviets, the megalithic giant planned for central Moscow but never completed.

Frame diagram of the Lenin statue to stand at the top of the Palace of the Soviet (Atarov, Dvorets Sovetov; CCC.54.383)

Frame diagram of the Lenin statue to stand at the top of the Palace of the Soviets (Atarov, Dvorets Sovetov; CCC.54.383)

The 2014/15 set of CamCREES seminars started on 14 October with a fascinating talk by Professor Nesbet, in which she demonstrated that close readings of the “complicated composite shots” some 1930s Soviet films contained of Moscow’s architectural future could tell us “not only about the techniques used to construct such visions of the future, but also about cinema’s relationship to architectural history and architecture’s reciprocal interest in animation” (text taken from the talk’s abstract).  Professor Nesbet works in the Department of Film & Media at UC Berkeley.  Her 2007 book Savage junctures : Sergei Eisenstein and the shape of thinking is in the University Library’s South Front (415:3.c.200.1917).

Professor Nesbet started the seminar by talking about the plans of Sergei Eizenshtein (normally anglicised as Eisenstein) in the 1930s to make a film about Moscow, which met with criticism because his vision focused too much on Moscow’s past and too little on its Soviet present and future.  The film was never made.  Professor Nesbet showed an article which appeared in Literaturnaia gazeta (Literary paper) at the time, telling Eizenshtein to re-focus and illustrated by a montage picture of new Moscow architectural landmarks.

She went on to talk us through particular sections of two films.  The first was Kosmicheskii reis (Cosmic voyage, 1935) directed by Vasilii Zhuravlev.  The film is set in 1946 and opens with a sweeping view of the All-Union Institute of Interplanetary Communications on the outskirts of a futuristic Moscow, with the enormous Palace of the Soviets in the background.  The film (which can be found here) is full of visual treats, many based on intricate models, from the scene in which its young hero is shown the two rockets built in preparation for space exploration, to a wonderful section set on the moon.

The second film was Aleksandr Medvedkin’s Novaia Moskva (New Moscow, 1938).  Now widely available online (here, for example), the film was never originally released.  It contains a fascinating mixture of old and new.  As Professor Nesbet pointed out, the film’s scenery was accomplished by a fittingly disparate pair: Dmitrii Bulgakov, a young Moscow architect, and Andrei Nikulin, a landscape painter from the provinces a generation older than Bulgakov.

Its opening scene shows a “living model of Moscow” made by characters working on a new building project.  Surrounded by what is still rural wilderness and plagued by mosquitos, they have created an animated model which shows the removal of old structures and the construction of new, modern buildings.  Later, the film’s young heroes show a film along the same lines, a montage showing old Moscow replaced by the new and futuristic (although an initial malfunction sees the film play backwards, to the heroes’ horror).

The two topics of Professor Nesbet’s talk (film and architecture) are particularly richly covered in the University Library’s collections.  Thanks to donations made in recent years, the Library has an incredible Soviet architecture collection (the Catherine Cooke collection) as well as very strong cinema holdings thanks in particular to the Schobert and Glynne Parker collections currently being catalogued.

Montage plan for Kominternovsk (Sovremennaia arkhitekura, 3/1930; CCA.54.1045)

Montage plan for Kominternovsk (Sovremennaia arkhitekura, 3/1930; CCA.54.1045)

The Cooke collection contains endless examples to look at in the context of this CamCREES seminar.  Among its holdings, for example, is the 1930 Sovremennaia arkhitektura (Modern architecture; CCA.54.1045) number which Professor Nesbet used to show us an example of montage used in architectural plans.  The picture (the middle illustration here) shows the communal houses in G. Vegman and M. Latyshev’s project for the town of Kominternovsk.  The montage is hard to see in detail on this page, but it contains overlapping images of various plans and views of the building as well as photos (including a man with a discus!).

Both films Professor Nesbet talked about contained shots of the Palace of the Soviets (Dvorets Sovetov), and it is impossible not to take the opportunity that gives us to look at related Cooke material.  The Palace of the Soviets was to be the capital building of the Soviet Union and the greatest building in the world.  The vast Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was demolished in Moscow to make way for it, but the Second World War saw the metal used to start construction removed for the war effort, and appetite for the project waned post-war.  The space cleared for the building was eventually re-used to create the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool.  In post-Soviet times, the space was cleared again, and the cathedral destroyed for the Palace has now been reconstructed there.

20141014 Vysotnye

Silhouettes of Moscow skyscrapers with the Palace of the Soviets in the background (Vysotnye zdaniia v Moskve : proekty; CCA.54.5)

The first and third illustrations on this page are from two of the many items in the Cooke collection which relate to the Palace.  One of the two items is an incredible portfolio set dedicated to the Moscow skyscrapers known commonly in English as the Seven Sisters.  There were originally in fact meant tp be 8 of these great buildings, but the last was never completed.  Vysotnye zdaniia v Moskve : proekty (High-rise buildings in Moscow : projects; CCA.54.5) contains a portfolio dedicated to each building, made up of plans, views and mock-ups.  The image used here, though, comes from the set’s introductory volume, which talks in part about the construction which would dwarf these buildings – the Palace of the Soviets.   The picture shows the silhouettes of the eight with the vast Palace a ghostly shape in the background, topped by an enormous statue of Lenin (at one point, this statue was designed to make up a quarter of the Palace’s total height).

The Lenin statue is the subject of the illustration at the start of this post, which shows a diagram of its internal frame.  This is taken from Nikolai Atarov’s 1940 book Dvorets Sovetov (Palace of the Soviets; CCC.54.383).  The immense aspirations which made the Palace such an enduring idée fixe can be understood from just a glance at the book’s contents – the first two chapters, for example, are called ‘A monument to Lenin’ and ‘For thousands of years.’  The book contains four parts.  The first covers the background of the Palace, including the architectural competitions its final design (by Boris Iofan) came from, the second covers major structural works, and the third looks at the Palace’s internal layout.  The fourth considers the Palace in the context of the new Soviet Moscow.

Earlier above, I mentioned the fact that Professor Nesbet discussed an article published in Literaturnaia gazeta.  Although we collect this periodical actively now, the University Library does not have a full set, with its fullest holdings starting only from 1967 (NPR.B.995).  To look at earlier holdings would require a trip to another library, or at least one to our inter-library loans department.  The title, though, has recently been made available as an electronic backfile by East View, through whom we have already bought access to several other backfiles.  The Literaturnaia gazeta backfile is clearly a significant desideratum for the Library, but first we must be able to demonstrate that the resources we’ve already purchased are being well used.  I strongly urge Russian-reading Library users to explore these backfiles, of which an apt example here is that of the journal Iskusstvo kino (The art of cinema), which is available from its very first issue in 1936.

The CamCREES bibliographical notes aim to link Cambridge library resources with the fortnightly seminars hosted by CamCREES (the Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies) in the Michaelmas and Lent terms of each academic year.  Each set of notes starts by looking at the specifics of a seminar and then goes on to explore related research tips and library issues.  The CamCREES bibliographical notes were introduced in February 2011 on the University Library’s Slavonic webpages, where all earlier notes can be found.

Mel Bach

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