Moscow’s skyline is largely defined by the seven towering skyscrapers nicknamed “The Seven Sisters.” Also known locally as “Stalinskie Vysotki” (Сталинские высотки – Stalin’s Highrises), they are one of the leading architectural legacies of the Stalinist period. The Soviet Baroque architecture that The Sisters embody is seen by some as unattractive; the buildings themselves are somewhat controversial due to the fact that some see them, with their looming size and sinister-looking spires, as grim reminders of the Stalinist repression. However, while debate still continues on whether these buildings are beauties or beasts, there is no doubt that they have become a major representation of the Soviet era and modern-day Moscow.
After WWII, the Commuists had to rebuild large portions of their cities and villages. Stalin believed that Moscow should be updated to compete with the modern cities of the western allies which the USSR had fought alongside. According to nearly all historians of the time, Stalin took a personal interest in each building and argued that if westerners came to Moscow, they would see that Moscow lacked the skyscrapers that western cities of capitalist countries held. This, Stalin believed, would be humiliation.
Stalin enlisted some of the USSR’s top architects to turn Moscow into what he believed would be seen as a contemporary, European city. The crowning glory of this plan was to be eight skyscrapers that would rival recently completed skyscrapers in the USA and Europe.
Stalin’s desire to transform Moscow was not new. The 1930s were a time of active construction and reconstruction of many Soviet cities. Included in these plans was a grand Palace of Soviets, a 415 meter tall structure crowned with a 100 meter statue of Lenin – which would have been the world’s talest building, had it been completed.
Although construction was begun, WWII saw it abandoned and it was never to be realized. However, the grandiose style developed for it was then used as the inspiration for the eight massive skyscrapers. The architects were guided by the The All-Union Academy of Architecture of the USSR, which was created to solidify state control over Soviet architecture in much the same way that organizations had already been created to “organize” the work of writers, actors, and most other creative professions.
Much of Stalin’s personal taste is reflected in the era of “Stalinist Architecture,” a term that has come to refer to the period between 1933 (the year when the Palace of Soviets was designed) and 1955 (when the Academy of Architects was disbanded under Khrushchev). The Stalinist period saw modernity largely abandoned in favor of a combination of Russian Baroque and Gothic styles. This style is exemplified in the Seven Sisters’ trademark “wedding-cake” design with large, stout bases and a sweeping crown. At the peak of each is a central spire. The original plans for most of the Seven Sisters did not include the trademark spire. Reportedly, Stalin took a liking to one that did and subsequently ordered that all of the sisters should include one in part to set them apart from the skyscrapers being built in America at the time.
In 1947, the 800th anniversary of Moscow, Stalin approved Resolution #53 “On the Construction of Multi-Storied Buildings in Moscow” («О строительстве в городе Москве многоэтажных зданий»), while the actual day of the anniversary was commemorated by laying a foundation stone in each of the eight new construction sites. Later that year, construction was begun.
The last of the Seven Sisters was completed in 1957, four years after Stalin’s death. Soon after, the Academy of Architects was abolished and the period of Stalinist Architecture came to an end.
The eighth sister, the Zaryadye Administrative Building, was to be placed in the historic Zaryadye district near Red Square. However, after the district was demolished to make way for it, plans were canceled (partly due to the difficulties of building a massive 32 story building on the soft soil of the Moscow River banks, partly due to a shortage of resources). The Rossiya Hotel, a relatively bland and modern architectural piece, was later constructed in its place (and has itself since been torn down to turned into a massive park.
The Seven Sisters which were completed include Moscow State University, Hotel Ukraina, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Leninsgraksaya Hotel, the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building, the Kudrinskaya Square Building, and the Red Gates Administrative Building.
Visiting the towers (at least face-to-face with their imposing facades) is easy. The skyscrapers were built in the form of a ring to emphasize the radial layout of the city. Consequently, The Sisters may best be seen by taking the metro’s ring line. Alternatively, the vysotki may be viewed from afar from Sparrow Hills in the south near Moscow State University where much of the city can be seen at a glance if the weather is clear.
Below, we will briefly describe these buildings and their histories.
Moscow State University
Московский Государственный Университет
Standing 240 meters tall, Moscow State University (MGU) is the largest of The Seven Sisters. Able to house some 30,000 students, this building has 36 floors and was the largest building in Europe upon its inauguration on September 1, 1953 until 1990 when the Messeturn in Germany was built (256.6 meters).
Boris Iofan, the architect for the Palace of Soviets, was the first architect commissioned to design the plans for what many thought should be the finest of The Seven Sisters. However, he lost the job due to a decision to locate the building on the edge of Sparrow Hills. This ill-fated decision placed the future home of MGU in an area thought to be a landslide hazard. He was replaced by Lev Rudnev who decided to set the building 800 meters further from the ridge and construction was begun in 1949. However, the building still faced hazards from being positioned so close to the water table. This was solved by installing a system of pumps and pipes to continually push water away from the building’s foundation. These pumps continue to operate today to keep the building upright.
MGU was built in part by Gulag prisoners and German POWs, with some 14,290 workers at the peak of construction. These workers were housed on the fourteenth floor so as to prevent their escape – and some rumors say that this floor in the central part of the building is still haunted by their ghosts. One other popular myth describes an inmate trying to escape by creating a wooden glider and flying out of the building.
MGU was the second of The Seven Sisters to be completed. Today, the central tower holds classrooms and student quarters as well as a concert hall, various administrative offices, stores, cafeterias, museums, hair salons, a post office, and a swimming pool (among other things). The four large wings which extend in all directions from the central building hold still more student accommodations, classrooms, shops, and cafes.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs Building
Здание Министерства иностранных дел
Standing just off the famous Old Arbat Street looms the imposing Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Designed by V. G. Gelfreikh and M.A. Minkus, early drafts ranged from 9 to 40 stories, but the building was eventually built with 27. Completed in 1953, it now houses The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government offices. This building’s defining characteristic is the huge Soviet crest on its façade which measures 144 square meters in size. The spire wasn’t in its original blueprint but was added later, again, reportedly by Stalin’s personal orders. The spire was constructed with steel framing and, even after painting, remained a slightly different color from the rest of the building.
After Stalin’s death, Minkus wrote a letter to Khrushchev asking for the spire to be removed since it was not part of his original design and didn’t match the rest of the building. Khrushschev supposedly denied this request with the retort: “Keep the spire there as a monument to Stalin’s stupidity.”
This 136 meter, 26-storied building was designed by Leonid Polyakov to be Europe’s finest hotel. Polyakov won a Stalin Prize for the design, but then lost it seven years later after Khrushchev asserted in his 1955 decree “On the Liquidation of Excesses in Design Planning and Construction” («Об устранении излишеств в проектировании и строительстве») that at least 1,000 rooms could be built at the same cost as the hotel’s 354, that only 22% of the total space was rentable, and that the cost per bed was 50% higher than the Moskva Hotel.
Many of these excessses can be seen in the hotel’s ornately decorated interior. For a time, the building was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having one of the largest chandeliers in the world: the one that hangs in the main lobby runs the length of seven stories.
After the collapse of the USSR, hotel was purchased by Hilton Hotels and, after major renovations, was reopened with 273 guest rooms in 2008.
The second largest of the Seven Sisters stands at 206 meters tall with 34 levels. It was designed by Arkadi Mordvinow and Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky. Upon its completion on May 25, 1957, it was Europe’s largest hotel with a capacity for 1,630 people. An observation deck was opened at the top of the hotel in 2004 and it is said that from there one can see all the way to the city’s outskirts on a clear day. It also has a very unique fire-safety system: in the event of a fire, a chute on the outside of the building is opened which allows guests to slide down to safety. The chute is made of kapron, a material similar to nylon, and can hold up to 10 people at a time.
After the collapse of the USSR, the Hotel Ukraina fell into disrepair. It was later, however, purchased by Radisson Hotels. It was closed in 2007 for renovation and reopened in 2010 with two names. It is now still called the “Hotel Ukraine” but also is marketed by Raddison as the “Radisson Royal Hotel.”
Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building
Жилой дом на Котельнической набережной
Where the Moskva River meets the Yauza River stands the sprawling Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building.
Designed by Dmitri Chechvlin and Andrei Rostkovsky, the building is 176 meters high with 32 floors, 26 of which are for apartments and the rest for offices and utilities. While the main building was intended as an elite housing project, it was soon turned into “komunalki,” or multi-family living areas in which multiple families were settled in the large apartments. The building is also used for meteorological observations and houses equipment used for weather research.
Red Gates Administrative Building
на площади Красных Ворот
The smallest of the Seven Sisters stands at 133 meters with 24 levels. Designed by Alexei Dushkin, designer of some of Moscow’s most impressive metro stations such as Mayakovskaya and Kropotkinskaya, the building was completed in 1953 and houses administrative offices and apartments. Its right wing houses one of the two vestibules of the Metro station Krasniye Vorota as well as retail shopping space; a children’s daycare center is located in the left wing.
Visitors to the Red Gates Administrative Building will notice that the building is tilted to one side. This is not an optical illusion. The building was constructed with its frame tilted to one side to compensate for the frozen soil below. When the soil thawed, the building settled down but not enough to make it perfectly upright.
Kudrinskaya Square Building
Жилой дом на Кудринской площади
Designed by Mikhail Posokin and Ashot Mndoyants, the Kudrinskaya Square Building was intended to house apartments for Soviet cultural leaders.
Its apartments were elegant and the four corners were designed to hold “food palaces” that would be open to all. However, upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this 160 meter high, 22-storied building fell into disrepair. The shops deteriorated and the high-class apartments became cramped one-room units. Today, parts of the building are being repaired and hold stores and restaurants that largely strive to mirror and market the building’s former glory.
Located near the US embassy, it is reported that residents of the top two floors of the Kudrinskaya Square building were evicted durring the embassy’s construction. These floors were then used to house KGB monitoring equipment to eavesdrop on the embassy’s activities.