Almost Lovable

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • BuyLandscapes of Communism: A History through Buildings by Owen Hatherley
    Allen Lane, 613 pp, £25.00, June 2015, ISBN 978 1 84614 768 5

Back in the day, everyone knew that Stalinist architecture was hateful. The Poles notoriously loathed the Palace of Culture and Science that was the gift to war-ruined Warsaw from the Soviet elder brother or – as the Poles saw it – master. Foreigners and sophisticated Russians sneered at Moscow’s wedding-cake buildings and lamented the old Tverskaya that had undergone a Stalinist remake as Gorky Street. Some people cherished the onion domes of 17th-century Muscovy, others the grand classical façades of 18th-century St Petersburg, and a few even idolised the dilapidated remnants of 1920s Constructivism in Moscow, but there was a general consensus that Stalinism of the 1930s-50s was the pits. I was one of those trekking around Moscow in the late 1960s, a worn copy of P.V. Sytin’s 850-page From the History of Moscow Streets in hand, to see what monstrous acts had been committed against innocent buildings in Stalin’s time. I don’t know how Sytin ever got that book published. It first came out in 1948, illustrated with smudgy non-glossy photographs, light grey on the yellowing pages, with new editions in 1952 and 1958, each adding hundreds of pages of street by street and building by building close description. I suppose the censor accepted it as a celebration of Stalinist transformation, even if the intelligentsia read it as a lament for the pre-Revolutionary imperial Russian past. It’s been reprinted several times since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but who knows in what spirit of Stalinist nostalgia people read it these days. Now, Owen Hatherley tells us, the Poles actually like their Palace of Culture.

Moscow State University in its heyday (c.1953).
Moscow State University in its heyday (c.1953).

I’ve noticed before the strange tendency of hateful buildings to become almost lovable after the passage of decades. Not all of them, of course. Some, like the 1960s highrise clones lining Moscow’s New Arbat (Kalinin Prospekt) become more annoying as they get shabbier. But the Moscow State University building on Lenin Hills, one of Moscow’s seven late-Stalinist wedding cakes, has definitely undergone a metamorphosis in my mind. When I lived there in the late 1960s, I regarded it as an anti-people monster, guarded by dragons who, if you had lost your pass, would throw you out to die in the snow. (According to Hatherley, they now use swipe cards to protect the building against invasion.) But I noticed a while back that I had started regarding the wedding cakes with something like affection; apparently the passage of time has naturalised them.

But Hatherley is young, and so are the Poles who like the Palace of Culture; their reassessment must come from somewhere else. Actually it seems to come from two different places. One is the Western pop/youth phenomenon that might be called Soviet ruin chic – a fascination with Soviet imperial ghosts or, as Hatherley puts it, ‘tourism of the counter-revolution’. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, with its memorable imagery of the Zone, is a reference point here, as is real-life Chernobyl, now a tourist destination for those with a ‘ruin chic’ sensibility. Hatherley distinguishes his own position from that of the admirers of Totally Awesome Ruined Soviet Architecture, and his ideological and personal baggage is definitely not counter-revolutionary. But there’s some family – or perhaps more accurately, generational – resemblance.

The other place this re-evaluation comes from is Eastern Europe, specifically young people who grew up in the Soviet bloc at the end of the communist era, and don’t share their parents’ bad memories. Hatherley travelled around the old Soviet empire with his Polish partner, Agata Pyzik, who in 2014 published her own take on East-West culture clashes, Poor but Sexy. Freelancers in their early thirties, they live with one foot in London and the other in Warsaw. Agata is the one with Russian and, as a reading of Poor but Sexy suggests, a penchant for film and cultural theory. Hatherley is the one with the eye, the architectural knowledge, and a childhood background in Militant Tendency. They make an entertainingly observant couple as they wander round Moscow, Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Vilnius, Kiev, Riga, Tallinn, Bucharest, Sofia and the rest, on the look-out for good cheap meals as well as striking cityscapes and ‘weird’ (a favourite word, generally approving) buildings.

Hatherley has quite a weird background himself. Son of Trotskyists and grandson of members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, he grew up in the 1980s on a Southampton council estate whose ‘cottage’-style buildings he disdained. The brutalist 1960s tower blocks nearby, with their concrete walkways and windswept precincts, seemed by comparison excitingly modern and glamorous. Poignancy was added when some of the towers were demolished during his childhood. He first made a splash with his love song to architectural brutalism, Militant Modernism (2008), and the larger-scale A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010), reviewed in these pages by Will Self. Hatherley confesses to ‘nostalgia for the future’ in Militant Modernism, ‘a longing for the fragments of the half-hearted postwar attempt at building a new society, an attempt that lay in ruins by the time I was born’. It makes sense that he should follow up New Ruins of Great Britain with a survey of the ruins and residue of the Soviet empire.

Hatherley didn’t go round Moscow with Sytin in his backpack, and indeed it’s hard to imagine any point of connection between his sensibility and that of the Russian intelligentsia. Žižek is a hovering presence, and there is a dash of Boris Groys as well. Hatherley would like to think the communist regimes did something right in creating living space for their people and hopes to find some elements of ‘real socialism’ in their built environments. But there’s always something like a wry grin on his face when he hints at these hopes. ‘Like many Soviet ideas,’ he writes in frustration at one point, ‘it is so obviously right and so obviously botched.’ Architecturally, his core allegiance is to modernism (the brutalist and utopian kinds, not the defanged ‘Ikea modernism’, which he disdains), but he has developed a certain affection for Stalinist monumentalism.

Reading the book, I felt sure that Hatherley had done most of his travelling in summer because, despite his affection for Stalker, he seems relatively unaffected by the sense of existential insignificance, exacerbated by cold, that the vast empty spaces of Stalinist city planning can induce. For me, the quintessential meaningless Soviet space was the illegible void between Manezh and the National, Metropol and Moscow hotels near Red Square. (Now it’s bad in a different way, with multiple lanes of traffic shooting through en route to somewhere else, and a vast commercial mall underground.) As my Sytin told me, the illegibility was the result of the wholesale destruction of the streets and houses that used to make sense of the space, the result, that is, of a violent, apparently purposeful activity that wasn’t in any real sense planned. I took that as a metaphor for a lot of things in the Soviet Union.

Hatherley has a tough-minded approach to huge empty spaces, although he acknowledges that crossing them can be daunting. He views my bête noire, the 1960s-modern Kalinin Prospekt, with relative equanimity, finding it a plus that its wide pavements, lined by ‘ridiculously priced department stores’, bring in the crowds. Old Arbat, running parallel, has kept its early 19th-century buildings mainly intact in what is now a kitschy pedestrian zone where foreign tourists buy matryoshka dolls and drink beer. The (post-Stalinist) ruin of the Arbat was a great cause of intelligentsia outrage in late Soviet times, but it’s typical of Hatherley’s sensibility and frame of reference that this doesn’t even rate a mention; it’s not his form of nostalgia.

Stalinallee (now Karl-Marx-Allee) in Berlin is more in his line, a monster that can inspire admiration and disapproval at the same time. Hatherley nails it as ‘by its very existence an indictment of the vainglory, hypocrisy and dubious claims to “socialism” of the Soviet-backed state’ but can’t deny ‘that every time I have visited it I’ve found it hugely exhilarating’. He compares it to the Paris boulevards, and finds that it expresses ‘a socialism with real generosity and grandeur, all its hierarchical features subordinated to the rule of the public’s footsteps’. The street may be too wide for pedestrian comfort, but at least it is a street, and a ‘surprisingly convincing’ one.

I’m confused by Hatherley’s perspective on streets. I would have thought that as a modernist and an admirer of council tower blocks in Britain, he would have been against them. But he seems to make an exception for the Soviet-bloc version of grands boulevards, and sometimes he even likes smaller streets, including (surprisingly) those in East Berlin’s Nikolaiviertel or Warsaw’s old town that have been rebuilt with more or less fake ‘historic’ buildings (Mariensztat in Warsaw is ‘surely the cutest thing ever implemented by the Six Year Plan of an iron-fisted Stalinist regime’). Where he seems most conflicted is on Soviet-bloc housing estates, whose streetlessness is one of the depressing things about them, especially for visitors tramping around in the dark trying to find, say, No. 25, block 5, entrance 3, without benefit of footpaths, adequate lighting or a clear numbering system. The problem is that, on the one hand, Hatherley is bound to reject ‘the architectural views of Charles Windsor’ (elsewhere, he gives him his title) that such housing estates are ‘impersonal, mechanistic, inhumane, boring, ahistorical’. On the other hand, Agata spent part of her Warsaw childhood on one of these council estates, and ‘I defer to [her] judgment: it was incredibly depressing living here and she would never do so again under any circumstances.’ So he concedes that ‘something went seriously wrong when these places were made.’ Their current Warsaw residence, where he wrote the book, seems to be a compromise, strategically located just on the break point where the (mostly 1930s) houses and streets stop and the housing estates begin. Some visitors find the towers looming outside their window intimidating, but to Hatherley the area ‘has a certain bleak big-city frisson to it, the feeling that you are in some Varsovian remake of Wong Kar-Wai’s Hong Kong’.

His perspective on Stalinist architecture and aesthetics is also a bit confusing – in a lively and entertaining way. This architecture, he says, can be ‘scary’, even ‘evil’, unambiguously related to Stalinist despotism, with ‘the psychoses that created them easy to read’. Of Moscow’s wedding-cake buildings, he writes that ‘the city centre is literally encircled by six advancing skyscrapers, each with a towering, scraping spire, all of which bear down on you, paranoid and threatening, like an Inquisition; try to escape, and another is waiting for you, wings outstretched, at the Lenin Hills.’ The meeting hall of the Czech National Memorial in Prague ‘is one of the most memorable, and terrifying, spaces created by Stalinism anywhere in Europe’, with ‘its cyclopean scale and use of so much red marble that you’re practically irradiated as you walk around’. The House of the People in Bucharest (now Palace of the Parliament), a 1980s Romanian-designed pyramid, is ‘compellingly alien and sinister’. Fronted with a ‘defensive escarpment dense with trees’, its monumental front entrance is impossible to approach on foot. Hatherley and Agata both instinctively hate it, but that reaction worries them – evidently they aren’t meant to be knee-jerk haters of Stalinist monumentalism. Why not, I wonder. But that becomes clear when we get back to Warsaw, their central point of reference in the Soviet empire.

*

Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science was designed by the Soviet architect Lev Rudnev in 1952, the last year of Stalin’s life, and completed in 1955. Once, Hatherley notes, it was hated, but now young Varsovians are passionately attached to it. Agata’s ‘support of the building is unyielding – when she saw the Moscow Seven, she immediately pronounced them inferior to their Russo-Polish sibling.’ It’s not only the devotees of radical chic who are attached to the palace but also the city’s PR people. ‘A generational shift has happened in the appreciation of the tower, which now appears on mugs, on the city’s promotional literature, on hipster T-shirts, on adverts, on election campaign posters, as ubiquitous as St Paul’s or the Eiffel Tower.’ Hatherley concedes that ‘only the most dogmatic modernist or most devoted anti-communist could possibly prefer the adjacent office towers that were built to break its emphasis from the 1960s onwards,’ and judges the building to be ‘weird, authoritarian, excessive and absurd’, which in his lexicon comes across as fairly positive. He only wishes that it had been possible ‘to design something that is as all-encompassing and magnificent, terrifyingly dreamlike as this without recourse to myths and lies’.

Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw.
Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw.

The saving grace of the Warsaw Palace, in Hatherley’s eyes, is that, in contrast to the Moscow Seven, it is a ‘social condenser’, a label borrowed from the Moscow avant-garde of the 1920s for public buildings offering citizens a range of activities (including, in the Warsaw case, a multiplex cinema, a swimming pool, a concert hall, museums complete with dinosaurs, an art gallery and cafés) and thus inculcating collective ideology. The pleasures of being socially condensed are left a bit vague, probably because Agata was not much exposed to them as a child, but there are some very likeable riffs about Polish ‘milk bars’ that appear to be public cafeterias (known in Russian as stolovye) where you line up for food and don’t tip. Hatherley and Agata particularly like the one in the Bratislava Trade Union Headquarters, where anyone who walks in can get an enormous three-course meal for about three euros. What Hatherley values, despite the absence of airs and graces, toilets and any encouragement to linger over your food, is ‘that sense of filling, slightly stodgy comfort which features so often in the memories of those who remember “real socialism”’. Perhaps that’s so in Eastern Europe, but I’m not sure it’s how Soviet citizens would remember stolovye. For Russians in late Soviet times, ‘filling, slightly stodgy comfort’ was to be found at home, not in the outside world. Homes, and, for that matter, dachas, are absent from Hatherley’s landscapes of communism. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed, it was the ‘old apartment’ (the title of a long-running television programme of the 1990s) that was the focus of nostalgia for a lost ‘socialist’ world. Hatherley’s ‘Memorial’ chapter includes Berlin’s curious Museum of the GDR on the Spree, presenting consumer goods of the 1970s and 1980s in a spirit combining Ostalgie and condescension, but not the nostalgia-infused old apartment museums that sprang up in some Russian provincial towns.

Come to think of it, those home-made museums could also have gone into the chapter called ‘Improvisation’. For Hatherley, popular creativity has to be part of a real socialist environment – hence the chapter – but it turns out to be quite difficult to find. He has a nice discussion of kiosks, a characteristic feature of late and post-Soviet-bloc life apparently on the wane in Eastern Europe but still alive and well in Russia, where it remains the basic commercial unit in many squares, underground passages, and around metro stations. My sense of the Soviet kiosk was that it had squared corners and came in drab colours, but in the Eastern Bloc they did things better: the K67 kiosk, mass-produced for the Comecon market until the 1990s, was created in Yugoslavia in 1966 and visibly ‘from that Barbarella period of pop futurism where everything was curved, brightly coloured and made of wipeclean surfaces’. The kiosk discussion made me think of the chaotic post-Soviet transformation of apartment-building courtyards into parking lots and the multiplication of those little car-sized portable garages that look as if they could be part of a 1920s avant-garde project for modular living, but that hasn’t caught Hatherley’s eye. He does give us a nice description of another kind of apartment improvisation, the filling in of balconies by builders capable of creating a monstrous architectural joke by sticking ‘a mammoth new room … into the front façade of a three-storey neo-Byzantine block’.

Graffiti, something new and shocking in a Soviet context when John Bushnell’s Moscow Graffiti came out in 1990, is not one of the forms of popular creativity Hatherley embraces, perhaps because its absence was (and remains) such a feature of the Moscow Metro, the focus of Hatherley’s greatest enthusiasm. After lovingly describing the Stalinist opulence of its different stations, he concludes that ‘these palaces really are for the people,’ that they offer ‘a glimpse of the practice of everyday life being completely transformed and transcended, with mundane tasks transfigured into a dream of egalitarian space’. Incontestably better than their counterparts in the West, they are the ‘most convincing microcosms of a communist future you can walk through, smell and touch’, a ‘transformation of the everyday that went further than any avant-garde ever dared’, even though, he concedes, ‘a democratically controlled socialism’ might have produced environments ‘that don’t feel quite so flung in people’s faces, that are not quite so monolithic and dominating’. Post-communist consumer capitalism has sheathed the marble columns in the Kiev Metro with giant advertisements, a development he dislikes. In Moscow, the only advertisements are for luxury products, each in a neat standardised frame on the walls beside the escalators. All things considered, the old socialist-palatial aesthetic has survived the transition surprisingly well – the spectacular cleanliness and absence of graffiti in Moscow bespeaking unbending official rejection of popular creativity.

Actually Hatherley underestimates the Metro’s socialist potential in one respect, as he seems to think that public transport more or less accidentally took the central place occupied by cars in the West because of the Soviet Union’s industrial incapacity. In fact, a decision for the public over the private form was taken under Stalin; Khrushchev did his best to continue it, until, under Brezhnev, car pressure on the part of the citizens proved irresistible. Hatherley might have given more thought to the way people use the Moscow Metro. There is the recent and rather extraordinary fact that the whole thing now has wifi, with the result that people sit smartphones in hand as they once, in Soviet times, used to sit reading books. Metro stations are still widely used as meeting places, usually on a designated part of the platform (ignorant of this Soviet-bloc lore, Hatherley once made the mistake of waiting for Agata outside, near the ticket office, when she, naturally, was down on the platform).

Hatherley is obsessed by the socialist city, and whether parts of it got built, or ever will be. This ideal socialist city is, of course, quite different from the ‘real socialist city’ that the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc produced. It’s a utopian future that never arrived; an archaic modernism, like Grand Central Parkway in New York, evoking brief pangs of nostalgia as you zip out to the airport. But there’s another part of Hatherley that can forget socialism and simply revel in the weird transmogrifications of the Stalinist architectural aesthetic – for example, in Shanghai, where ‘Le Corbusier meets Lev Rudnev meets neoliberal bling, the Stalinist city gone high tech, its pinnacles and swags slathered in neon.’

The China excursion, which comes as a kind of coda at the end of the book, is a surprise, but underlines one of the book’s most valuable aspects, its illumination of a Soviet cultural empire whose imperial motifs were repeated, transposed and subverted all along a far-flung periphery. The scholarly world has been slow to develop this theme. True, the concept of ‘empire’ came to the fore when the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc collapsed into their constituent national parts, but most of the ensuing scholarship focused on the recovery/reinvention of the national. It’s works like this one, closer to pop culture and addressed to a broader audience, that most successfully demonstrate the cultural commonalities that – as with the British and French colonial empires – outlived the imperial institutions that created them.

The Soviet cultural empire, however, is something of an odd case, in that the Moscow metropolis didn’t always succeed in imposing its aesthetic will, hard though it tried, because of the Eastern Europeans’ strong sense that Russia was ‘backward’ in comparison with them, a sense that the Russian intelligentsia to some degree accepted. Thus the cultural traffic ran both ways, and some roads in the Soviet cultural empire led not to Moscow, but to Berlin, Warsaw and Prague. Hatherley doesn’t examine this in any depth, but his Warsaw-centred perspective makes it obvious. He says at the beginning that his book is about ‘surfaces, and about the many political and historical things that can be learned from surfaces, especially in states as obsessed with surface as these’. That’s not wholly true, in that his anxious and ambivalent feelings about ‘real socialism’ periodically lead him into discussion of political and economic depths, but it’s true enough to be a welcome relief. I’m tempted to say that anyone can do depths – that is, launch into generalisations and wrestle with ideology without too much fear of empirical contradiction – but surfaces are harder. Ideological preoccupations aside, Hatherley has a wonderful eye for buildings and space, a good grasp of the history that spawned them, and a deft way of describing them. Sometimes, reading this book, I recognised things I’d noticed myself; at other times, he showed me something I had missed or understood differently. Either way, I’d better take his book, big though it is, in my backpack next time I go to Warsaw, Lviv, Bucharest or elsewhere in the old Soviet empire. I might even throw out Sytin and take it to Moscow.