Sofia, Bulgaria


from russia with love

stalin palace architecture in the eastern bloc

The instantly recognisable architecture of the Stalin Palace was teleported from Russia into other USSR satellite countries as a potent hallmark of communism, some of the greatest and largest being reserved for outposts of the USSR's 'near abroad', a building used by the Union to mark its boundaries and territory from the West. It is no surprise that Poland's Stalin palace is one of the most imposing in size and design, Poland residing, as it does, on the boundary between Eastern and Western Europe. The truly gigantic House of the Free Press, which I hope to be visiting in the summer of 2012, in Romania's capital city Bucharest is another example of how architecture was used to stake geographical and ideological claim to large swathes of Europe.

This is Soviet machismo and arrogance crystallised in architecture: the large phallic turrets, the Gothic curls and points, the symmetrical arrangement. Manly and uncompromising - and almost so ugly they're beautiful! I love them. However, you can't shake off the feeling that the USSR was trying just a little too hard to rival some of the grander architecture to be found outside of the the iron curtain in the West. It was, I have no doubt, about trying to build Russia into a great nation, with the operative word being 'build': building prowess, building a past narrative, building a tradition. Russia's October Revolution of 1916 which did away with the Tsarist order kinda swept away the past too, and so a new past was needed. Enter stage left, The Soviet Academy of Architecture.

The Gothic style of these Palaces means that they look older than they actually are - this is completely intentional, dating back only to the start of the 1930s onwards. It was about building prestige and catching up with the West. Ironically,  one of the architectural precursors and part inspiration for these fascinating Gothic/Baroque monsters and their copy-cat versions all over Europe, was the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool (to see a photograph I took on a recent trip to  Liverpool, click here). The parallels between the Liver Building and Stalin's Palaces are clear: strange how the Soviets' building of a new post-revolutionary identity through an architectural revolution should centre around a style formed in England's north western corner. Indeed, the Soviet Academy of Architecture spearheaded this revolution before being disbanded in 1955 by Nikita Krushchev, the then leader of the USSR. He deemed the Palace style excessive and too flamboyant. The machismo of the Stalin Palace was castrated and replaced with Russian constructivist architecture: functional, boxy and truly amazing in its own right. 

My first encounter with a Stalin Palace was in Warsaw back in 2005 on a trip to Poland. Unceremoniously rising up out of a car park which seemed to surround it, Warsaw's Palace of Arts and Culture is still the tallest building in Poland at 230 metres high with 3000 rooms spread over 42 floors. This building was a 'gift' from the Soviet Union during Poland's iron curtain days. The largest building in Warsaw, by far, stands as a constant reminder to the Polish that their country has been the terrain of constant occupation for decades since the Nazis invaded in 1939. This explains the oxymoronic feelings Polish people have for the Palace of Arts and Culture building - a blatantly symbolic construction of the USSR's grip on the country when it was built, mimicking the classic features of Stalin's palaces back in Moscow. Whilst the building is remarkable, it symbolises and reminds the Poles of an unpleasant part of their past. The Poles haven't built anything as yet to rival this large, arrogant Soviet imprint on their skyline. The story goes that the Polish were given a choice of two famous Soviet exports: a Palace, or a USSR-style metro system like those in Moscow, St Petersburg and Kiev. Poland opted for the metro system. They got the Palace instead. Classic Soviet mind games.

In 2009 I travelled to Ukraine's capital Kiev - a country once at the heart of the Soviet empire. Sure enough, at the end of Vul Krechatyk, the main shopping boulevard, stands an apartment block with its star-topped turret and symmetrical form. It is also a classic bit of Soviet town planning where large streets were plugged at the ends with imposing buildings for maximum wow factor. In Lithuania's capital Vilnius, which I visited in 2011, a Stalinist-inspired apartment building along the River Neris cuts a remarkable silhouette on the skyline. Another fantastic specimen of this breed of building can be found in Riga, Latvia. Built between 1953 and 1956, the Academy of Sciences is decorated with several hammers and sickles and was designed by Lev Rudnev - although what exactly it was he 'designed' I'm unsure of as it seems a complete carbon copy of the Seven Sisters Palaces in Moscow. Local nicknames for this, Riga's contribution to Soviet Classicism, are 'Stalin's Birthday Cake' and, unsurprisingly, 'The Kremlin'.

The former Communist Party House in Sofia, Bulgaria, was humiliatingly turned into a cinema, concert hall and now innocuous government offices following the fall of Communism in the country in 1991. Suitably neutralised and emasculated, unlike its brothers back in Moscow, which brazenly sport their star tops with pride and incongruous arrogance, the Party House in Sofia still cuts a remarkable sight at the end of a principal boulevard in central Sofia and remains one of the capital's most striking, and infamous, buildings. Its imposing structure engenders a power and authority which garners a rose-tinted view of communism in some of the Bulgarians passing by. For some Bulgarians, Party House holds a prominent place in their memory where the stability of their Communist past jockeys for space alongside memories of the lack of social and political freedoms, relative poverty and economic sterility Bulgarians endured. The endurance of the falsehood of Communism in the Bulgarian national consciousness continues to resonate with those who hanker after what they perceive to be the golden age of Bulgaria - a cause exacerbated by the rocky road to a market economy experienced by the republic in the decades following the collapse of Communism. Remove all the Communist symbols you like, but such symbols are not mere physical manifestations easily deleted from the Sofia landscape - they have left indelible marks, psychological imprints of a world which exists not in reality, but in the minds and memories of a country struggling to find its feet on the European and international stage. This struggle is represented in the buildings around Sofia; Party House becoming a public canvas upon which uncomfortable personal and national memories are collectively erased - architecturally at least.




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