Constructivism and Stalinism in Ekaterinburg : the June 2016 Slavonic item of the month

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The inside of the book’s dust jacket

A little later than planned, we look in this post at a recently published guidebook to Ekaterinburg’s 1920s-1940s architecture, the first in a projected series of architectural guidebooks produced by the Tatlin publishing house.  Ekaterinburg (or Sverdlovsk, as it was called from 1924 to 1991) boasts some extraordinary buildings from the first decades of Soviet power.

The last 100 years have seen a great deal of change in the physical appearance of the city.  ‘Ekaterinburg : arkhitekturnyi putevoditel, 1920-1940′ (Ekaterinburg : an architectural guidebook, 1920-1940) contains a huge number of photographs from the early Soviet period which show a city under serious reconstruction.  Intricate single-storey wooden houses on major streets sit cheek by jowl with new constructions.  The former eventually disappear; their counterparts further out from the city persist in part to this day although many have been pulled down in the last decade or two to make way for new skyrises, the latter of far less obvious architectural worth than the new builds of the 1920s to 1940s.

The city was visited by the late Dr Catherine Cooke, whose wonderful collection on Soviet design and architecture is held by the University Library.  Her interest there lay chiefly in the fine Constructivist buildings put up in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Moisei Reisher’s water tower (known conventionally as the White Tower) in the north of the city.  I had lived in Ekaterinburg myself for two years and returned in June this year for the first time since working closely with Catherine’s collection.  Thanks to this work, I could now begin to appreciate the architecture I had previously barely noticed.

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Walking along Prospekt Lenina, one of the city’s main streets, I stopped to admire the Constructivist complex shown on the book’s front cover and reproduced in the photo above.  The white buildings are part of the Gorodok Chekistov (Chekist Village) complex.  The prominent curved building closest to the camera was built as a hostel and converted into a hotel.  The similarly rounded building to its right now houses a local museum.

Walking further east along Lenina, I took several photos of a striking example of the Stalinist school (below) – the Urals armed forces headquarters.  Its front boasts grand pillars topped by a pediment with an engraved facade.  Looking more closely at the frieze, I exclaimed out loud.  To my great surprise and delight, I saw that it displayed in its middle, flanked by tanks and planes, a depiction of the Palace of the Soviets (Dvorets Sovetov).  The Palace of the Soviets was to have been the capital building of the Soviet Union.  Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was demolished to make way for it, and work was started to bring Boris Iofan’s design for an enormous building topped by an immense statue of Lenin to life.  The intervention of World War 2 and the privations that followed saw the project gradually dropped, and the dug-out foundations were used to create the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool (at which I stared through a coach window when I visited Moscow as a school child).  Full circle was eventually reached – the Cathedral was re-built and opened to the public in 2000.

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The guidebook’s entry for the headquarters is four pages long and is a nice example of the general set-up of the book. The basic details of the building are given (name, address, date of completion (1940), names of architects (A.I. Vilesov, A.V. Desiatkov, A.M. Dukel’skii, D.N. Koziaev, N.G. Neifel’d)), followed by a more detailed description illustrated by early and modern photographs and architectural plans.  Sections giving extra details of interest complete the entry, among these an overview of the Palace of the Soviets.  It is not very common to find the Palace depicted on buildings as it is here, and it was a huge delight for me when I saw it – the Palace of the Soviets is something of a personal obsession.

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A close-up of the facade.  The Palace of the Soviet stands, faintly, beneath the central plane. Lenin, at its top, raises his right arm.

Over 100 sights are covered by the book, divided into 8 suggested routes to take.  A statement on the title page summarises the range of locations covered, including 1 electric station, 5 parks, 4 hotels, 2 hospitals, 3 banks, and 1 airship port.  The book includes a 2-page bibliography and an index.  Its cover is in fact a folded map of the city, showing the 8 routes and the numbered locations, on the reverse of which is show the routes listed with small photos of each of the sights for each route (shown at the top of this post).  It is a lovely addition to our architecture collections, and the latest of many books published by the Ekaterinburg press Tatlin to be purchased.  To preserve its cover by avoiding the addition of a classmark sticker to its spine, the book will be added to the Upper Library (West Room consultation only) classification sequence early next week and the book’s catalogue record updated accordingly.

Books on the Palace of the Soviets can be found by doing a subject search for ‘Dvorets Sovetov’.  The vast majority of our holdings so far come from Catherine Cooke’s collection.

Mel Bach

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