Stalin's Seven Sisters

One of the most distinct features of the Moscow skyline, Stalin's so-called seven sisters are still amongst some of the tallest buildings in Europe.
By Jennifer Fell

Defining the post-war skyline

Poor old Stalin. After the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, legend has it he was convinced that everyone in the world would now want to visit Moscow. But Uncle Joe had a little problem. Disregarding the city’s dearth of cheap hotels and non-Cyrillic signage, the great leader had a rather Freudian complex about his capital’s lack of tall buildings. “What if they come to Moscow and don’t see any skyscrapers?” he is reported to have complained.
The results of all this angst are known by some as the ‘Seven Sisters’, but most Moscovites rather more prosaically refer to them as the Vysotniye Zdaniye - the tall buildings. Despite huge demands for housing and infrastructure following the war, early fifties Moscow devoted the bear’s share of its energy to creating these buildings. Being great propaganda magicians, the Soviet leaders used the flurry of construction energy to show the world that, from the ashes of war, the Soviet capital was renewing itself not only better than before, but doing it better than everyone else. The sisters went on to become the dominant feature of Moscow’s post-war skyline and, in defiance of the growing competition from the current building boom; they remain the definitive architectural statement of the city’s contemporary identity. 

Grand plans

Whatever Stalin may or may not have said about tourists and skyscrapers, plans for a Moscow makeover were in fact already afoot as early as 1931. That year, the Communist Party approved a number of mega building projects including the reconstruction of Moscow and the Moscow Metro. The next year, when Stalin created the Union of Soviet architects was created, he gave them their mission. More than simply emulating the skyscrapers of America, he wanted to exceed them by creating his own versions - Moscow versions. The first project, a clear forerunner of the sisters, was the ill-fated Palace of the Soviets, approved in 1933. Though never built, this 415m-high monster set the tone of grandiose classicism that dominated the post-war period.
For first-time arrivals to Moscow, these mammoth creations certainly make a memorable impression. Emerging from Leningradsky Station off an early Petersburg train into a pre-dawn neon haze, you immediately behold the Hotel Leningradskaya, one of the smallest of the sisters, completed in 1954 and now part of the Hilton hotels chain. All in all there were eight such buildings planned; two hotels, two government buildings, two housing apartments and the University. The eighth, the Zarayadye, was to have adorned Red Square but, mired in delay, was eventually abandoned.
Trademarks of the Stalinist style of architecture embodied in these buildings are the obvious wedding cake structure that pulls the eye toward the central, massive spire, and the patriotic decorations and mouldings. Critics generally agree that the Stalinist period dates from the 1933 Palace of the Soviets competition to 1955 when Khrushchev disbanded the Architects Union. Super-buildings for a super people, the buildings also utilised new building techniques of building with steel frames with concrete walls upon a concrete slab, which allowed for their massive size.

The Moscow State University 

The looming edifice of the Moscow State University (MGU) was the first of the seven sisters to begin construction and was finished second in 1952. In total more than 400 architects worked on the project, submitting countless plans and designs which in turn amounted to a great advertisement for communal process back then. With a height of 235.7m, this squat giant is topped by a 12 tonne star and its massive dimensions ensure that a walk around the perimeter lasts for three kilometres. The MGU was built using the labour of gulag prisoners and German POWs, some of whom were even housed on an upper floor when not involved in building work. One Daedalus is even supposed to have tried to escape by strapping wooden wings to his arms and springing off the side of the building in an attempt to fly away.

Hotel Leningradskaya and Hotel Ukraina

Historically the hotels have weathered the last half-century best. The Hotel Leningradskaya underwent a complete renovation in the mid-2000s to become quite the palatial masterpiece. Rightly treating it as a museum piece, the hotel’s restoration has seen much of the original fittings retained - note the long bronze chandelier suspended in one of the corner stairways, and the copies of the gates of the Verkhospassky Cathedral in the Kremlin. The bomb shelter did not receive such historical respect, though, and was transformed into a luxury swimming pool. 
Restoration of the 29 storey, 1,000 room Hotel Ukraina was completed in 2010 transforming the building into a 5 star luxury hotel with Rolls Royce's for sale in the lobby. Described as a seedy hotel in the Soviet days as well as awe-inspiring and historical, the renovation of the building has played close attention to the building's original period details and a vast collection of Soviet realist art is proudly displayed as well as a huge diaroma showing how Moscow looked in the 1970s.

Homes for the Soviet elite

In accordance with such a prestigious project, both apartment buildings were destined to have only elite tenants. Reserved for the best of the best, Kotelnicheskaya was home to sculptors, painters and artists as well as senior officials while the scientific elite, cosmonauts and pilots filled up the apartments at Kudrinskaya pl. Without one common owner, these buildings have suffered the most in the post-Soviet period due to unregulated privatisation and lack of central administration.
The building on Kotelinichseskaya seems to be have been abandoned by the city authorities. Reports in the Russian media reveal long standing disputes over the building’s administration or lack thereof. Literally rotting from the inside, this 32 story monstrosity is a mini-city with 700 apartments, a cinema and a beautiful park inside. With today’s mix of owners, new owners buying part of the building and embarking on renovation schemes which involve demolishing the walls and visitors to the theatre have even removed parts of the granite foundations and door handles.
Whether they are worthy for restoration or enormous monstrosities that only serve to remind the people of the Soviet era already past, these buildings cast an impressive shadow. They capture the past and the present together, these mega buildings standing as witnesses for the last fifty years. Their immense appearance speaks of faded glamour and of resurrection.

The new Vysoti

The residential apartment building Triumphal Palace, near Sokol metro station was completed in 2005 with a height of 264metres. Although it's one of the new generation of Moscow’s skyscrapers it takes its inspiration from the seven sisters and is said to be the tallest residential building in Europe.

The coming years will see intense development of the Moscow skyline in particular as the various towers of the 'Moscow City' international business centre near completion. Plagued by delays and financing droughts, this huge 12 billion dollar project will boast, when completed, Europe’s tallest building the Russia Tower (612.2m), Mercury City (532m) and the Federation Tower (506m) as well as the city's largest shopping centre Afimall. There’s also the planned City Palace Tower designed by London architects RMJM, which will is intended to be a dedicated Wedding Palace (Registry Office) venue.

Admiring the Seven Sisters

With the exception of the hotels, most of the seven sisters are closed to the general public, although they can still, of course, be admired from the outside.
Moscow State University (MGU) - metro station Vorobyevy Gory
Hotel Leningradskaya - Ul. Kalanchevskaya 21/40, metro station Krasnye Vorota/Komsomolskaya, tel. (+7) 495 627 55 50,
Hotel Ukraina - Kutuzovsky pr. 2/1, bldg. 1, metro station Kievskaya, tel. (+7) 495 221 55 55,
Kotelinichseskaya - Kotelinichseskaya nab. 1, metro station Kitay Gorod
Kudrinskaya - Kudrinskaya pl., metro station Barrikadnaya
Look out for the impressive Russian canteen in the ground floor where you can eat cheap Russian food whilst admiring the Soviet murals and grand chandeliers.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Smolenskaya-Sennaya pl., metro station Smolenskaya
Krasniye Vorota - Lermontovskaya pl., metro station Krasniye Vorota


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