More from Books

Boris Iofan – cunning apparatchik of a loathsome regime

30 April 2022

9:00 AM

30 April 2022

9:00 AM

Stalin’s Architect: Power and Survival in Moscow Deyan Sudjic

Thames & Hudson, pp.312, 30

The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces has rendered what might otherwise have seemed a fairly niche study of a Soviet-era architect rather more resonant. Boris Iofan was born to a Russian-speaking Jewish family in Odessa in 1891. After initial studies in his home city and a brief period working with his older brother Dimitri in St Petersburg, he fled the war engulfing Tsarist Russia for Italy, where he trained at the Istituto Superiore di Belle Arti in Rome. During his ten years abroad he married a half-Russian, half-Italian aristocratic divorcée, became a communist, palled up with the future Soviet premier Aleksei Rykov (who was to act as his political patron before being purged), and saturated himself in the odd melange of classicism, monumentalism and quasi-modernism which was to become his architectural style.

On his return to the recently consolidated Soviet Union, Iofan soon became an influential figure, one of his first commissions being to build a new town to house the families of power-station workers in the Donbas region of his native Ukraine. Most notably, he went on to design the House on the Embankment in Moscow, a proto-gated community for the Communist party’s nomenklatura; the Barvikha sanatorium (where they went for rest cures, voluntary or mandatory); and the Soviet Union’s two pavilions at the 1937 Exposition in Paris and the 1939 one in New York. These structures were all actually built; but the one with which Iofan became most closely associated was barely started, let alone completed. It is this building that preoccupied him for decades and which Deyan Sudjic places at the centre of his measured, unflashy account of the architect’s life and works.

While the House on the Embankment became a sort of pre-stressed concretisation of tyranny, as throughout Stalin’s successive purges its notionally privileged tenants informed on one another to his secret police, the Palace of the Soviets remained at best a model or graphic abstraction. Initially intended to both summate and symbolise the epoch-defining and world-girdling nature of the Bolshevik revolution, the Palace’s successive iterations – designed by Iofan and a series of collaborators and rivals – registered the alternations of priapism and impotence that characterised the dictator’s edifice complex.

At its highest, it was to have been a staggering 415 metres, which would have made it the tallest building in the world at that time. A series of stepped-back towers were to rise above a giant ziggurat of a base: the lowest and broadest would contain the Legislature of the Supreme Soviet, a massive auditorium within which the faithful would sing hosannahs to the Great Leader, and foyers, in which sculptures of martyred revolutionaries would be displayed. Atop the pinnacle would be a statue of Lenin, bigger than the one personifying liberty in New York.

The site chosen for the building was the footprint of the former Cathedral of Christ, a huge Russified neo-classical pile intended to celebrate the great victory of 1812 that took 40 years to build, and which reached its apogee at the exact point – the accession of Alexander III – that the Romanov regime began to implode. The cathedral was demolished in 1931 by Stalin’s fiat. But while Iofan worked hard to get the Palace built, all that was achieved before the second world war was pile-driving, some elements of the steel frame and a massive excavation (the riverbank site was subject to saturation). For years, a vast open-air swimming pool designed by one of Iofan’s rivals operated there, until, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the mayor of Moscow and the Orthodox patriarch raised public subscriptions with which to rebuild the cathedral, more or less in its original form.

This auto-cannibalisation of the built environment is surely what typifies the architecture of tyranny, as successive regimes demolish, build, demolish again and rebuild. Iofan’s design for the Paris Expo pavilion saw him create what was essentially a plinth for a giant sculpture of two idealised Soviet workers, rendered by the sculptor Vera Mukhina. If you want a sense of what this building was like – but are perhaps disinclined to visit Moscow, where the giant statues have been repositioned at an agricultural exhibition site – the effect must have been similar to that of the monumental memorial to the Soviet war dead in Berlin’s Treptower Park, designed by another of Iofan’s disciples, Jakow S. Belopolski.

Sudjic doesn’t shy away from the reality of Iofan’s situation – not least the phenomenally adroit footwork required simply to stay alive (let alone building) once the anti-Semitic character of the Soviet regime became all too obvious. Yet his meticulous noting of the waves of successive colleagues and associates who fell victim to Stalin’s purges has a curious bloodlessness; and his assertion that ‘the second half of [Iofan’s] career is a cautionary tale of how damaging it can be to come close to political power, especially for an architect negotiating an accommodation with tyranny’, still falls short of condemning him for the first half of that career.

The reason is twofold, I think. On the one hand, Sudjic’s unwillingness to provide any sense of his subject’s character or psychology renders Iofan ultimately as insubstantial as his unbuilt Palace; on the other, Sudjic’s determination to convince us of the merits of Iofan’s architecture begins – as the evidence of its unoriginality and bombast accumulates – to seem curiously like special pleading: please believe this stuff has some merit, because if it doesn’t my subject is clearly nothing but the disgusting apparatchik of a revolting regime.

Sudjic tells us he had access to Iofan’s papers, yet clearly there wasn’t much there to really justify the ascription ‘Stalin’s architect’. The comparison with Speer and Hitler isn’t instructive – not, as Sudjic suggests, because Iofan’s and Stalin’s admiration for American modernism rendered Soviet architecture fundamentally different to the Nazis’, but because there was remarkably little personal contact between the two men. And if Iofan wasn’t close to Stalin the way Speer was to Hitler, neither was he cruelly yet intimately toyed with – like, for example, his Ukrainian (avant la lettre) compatriot, the writer Mikhail Bulgakov, who spent the years of the Terror sitting by his phone, waiting on the off chance that Joseph Vissarionovich might ring, because he had once before. The assumption has to be that Iofan may indeed have actively betrayed his colleagues in order to preserve his own life, and that of his wife and stepchildren, who would otherwise have been obvious targets for Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s bloodthirsty, perverted enforcer.

Without a dangerously resurgent Russia, Sudjic’s account of Iofan’s career might feel like a dry exercise in the naming of bricky parts – which is, frankly, how all too much architectural history reads. But with Russian guns trained on the celebrated Potemkin Stairs in Odessa, the fact that the architect kept incorporating versions of them in his abortive Palace and his pavilions demonstrates quite how imperialist the Soviet ideology always was – an imperialism now being violently reasserted in Iofan’s native city.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments