Stalin’s Soaring Moscow Towers Sorely Need Body Work

MOSCOW — Mikhail Posokhin still remembers the lip-smacking displays in Grocery Store No. 5 from his boyhood, when in 1955 his family moved into one of Moscow’s seven new, gothic skyscrapers.

More cathedral than marketplace, the grocery boasted marble floors and pillars, high ceilings with elaborate chandeliers and stained glass windows. Fish circled inside a large aquarium, while brightly lit display cases presented rarities like caviar heaped in crystal bowls.

Unlike other Moscow stores, milk, sausage and chocolate bars were never scarce.

Muscovites came to gawk in droves, even if it was mostly the privileged elite — handed the high-rise apartments for free — who could afford to shop.

“These complexes presented a new life never seen by people before,” said Mr. Posokhin, a prominent Moscow architect whose father designed the building. “They were supposed to express the victorious spirit and the grandeur of the era.”

That was then.

Grocery Store No. 5, in the Kudrinskaya Square tower, now sits dusty and abandoned, some of its broken windows replaced with plywood.

Screens erected above the building’s entrance shield pedestrians from tumbling masonry. Up close, statues of muscular men and Madonna-like mothers look mottled.

Most of the city’s so-called “Stalin High-rises” — both residential and government buildings — desperately need renovating. They are stuck in limbo, however, over who will foot the substantial bill.

Since the residential apartments were privatized in the 1990s, the government considers the owners responsible. The residents, particularly the impoverished elderly who inherited apartments from the now deposed Soviet elite, believe that City Hall or the Kremlin should restore structures considered historical monuments.

“In Russia, there is still no culture of owning real estate,” said Elizabeth Lihacheva, director of the Schusev State Museum of Architecture, noting that even people who spend $1 million for an apartment often don’t want to pay one kopeck toward cleaning its courtyard.

Ideology inspired the construction of the Stalin High-rises, rechristened for tourists with the more palatable name of the Seven Sisters.

When World War II ended, large swaths of Moscow lay in ruins. Stalin thought the city, marking its 800th anniversary, lacked the grandeur required of a triumphant capital.

“Stalin was basically building a Soviet Empire,” Mrs. Lihacheva said. “It needed to be expressed in architectural terms.”

Prewar plans for a monstrosity called the Palace of the Soviets, topped by a statue of Lenin twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, were abandoned because the swampy ground would not support it. The idea was reconceived as eight buildings, a kind of expansive crown encircling the capital’s strategic points and echoing the Kremlin walls.

Then, as now, the Kremlin’s denizens measured themselves in comparison to the United States. Stalin thought people would find Communism deficient if Moscow lacked skyscrapers.

Yet simply aping American style would not do, either.

“They go to America and they say ‘Ah, the buildings are so huge’,” the Soviet dictator said, according to a 2011 history of the buildings. “Let them come to Moscow and see that type of building. Let them say, ‘Ah!’”

The government decree issued in 1947 to start construction ordered that the buildings look uniquely Russian. So the décor is Russian baroque, even if various American landmarks heavily influenced the architects, including the Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower in Chicago, as well as the Woolworth and Municipal buildings in Lower Manhattan.

Some people find the resulting confection magnificent, others eerie and intimidating. The heavy stone cladding and crenelations of their fortresslike exteriors would fit right into Gotham City. On a dark snowy night, with exterior lights casting deep shadows across their imposing facades, one almost expects the Batmobile to come roaring out of any one of them.

In a city previously dominated by church bell towers, the buildings’ spectacular scale reshaped the skyline. They became symbols of Moscow and defined the modern face of the Soviet Union. Clones were constructed in various outposts of the empire, including Warsaw, Riga and Bucharest.

After Stalin died in 1953, the new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, found the entire project ostentatious, so construction of the 8th building, just off Red Square, was canceled. The rest, costing what was at the time a staggering $500 million overall, were completed by 1957.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs tower originally had a flat top, and legend has it that Stalin, passing in his car, found that too American and ordered a Kremlin-like spire installed.

Mrs. Lihacheva of the Architecture Museum said that the true story was Stalin only inquired about the flat top. It was the head of construction, fearing the ruthless dictator, who ordered a metal spire jammed onto the completed building.

The federal government is paying for a gradual renovation of this building, due to be completed by 2026, with the massive hammer and sickle on the front to be preserved as a historical detail.

The government buildings have fared better than the residential blocks. In the 1990s, for example, when factories bought scrap metal by the kilogram, thieves hacked the original bronze Art Deco handles off many apartments in the Krasnaya Vorota tower.

The Kudrinskaya Square tower, known as the House of Aviators, housed numerous air defense officers and scientists.

Irina V. Pozdeeva, 84, and her late husband inherited an apartment there 14 years ago from her father-in-law, a lieutenant general who had helped develop missiles.

The 13-foot ceilings accommodate shelves for about 20,000 books. But the collective spirit of the place has ebbed, she said, with rich, often absentee owners buying up the 450 apartments.

This is the building that Mr. Posokhin moved into as a boy. The architect recently designed a giant Art Deco building with a flat top as a tribute to the original vision of the Stalin High-rises.

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