Stalin Curb Appeal, in Desperate Need of Repair
Mikhail Posokhin still remembers the lip-smacking displays in Grocery Store No. 5 from his boyhood, when in 1955 his family moved into one of Moscow’s seven new, gothic skyscrapers.
More cathedral than marketplace, the grocery boasted marble floors and pillars, high ceilings with elaborate chandeliers and stained glass windows. Fish circled inside a large aquarium, while brightly lit display cases presented rarities like caviar heaped in crystal bowls.
Unlike other Moscow stores, milk, sausage and chocolate bars were never scarce.
Muscovites came to gawk in droves, even if it was mostly the privileged elite — handed the high-rise apartments for free — who could afford to shop.
“These complexes presented a new life never seen by people before,” said Posokhin, a prominent Moscow architect whose father designed the building. “They were supposed to express the victorious spirit and the grandeur of the era.”
That was then.
Grocery Store No. 5, in the Kudrinskaya Square tower, now sits dusty and abandoned, some of its broken windows replaced with plywood.
Screens erected above the building’s entrance shield pedestrians from tumbling masonry. Up close, statues of muscular men and Madonna-like mothers look mottled.
Most of the city’s “Stalin High-rises” — both residential and government buildings — desperately need renovating. They are stuck in limbo, however, over who will foot the substantial bill.
Since the residential apartments were privatized in the 1990s, the government considers the owners responsible. The residents, particularly the impoverished elderly who inherited apartments from the now deposed Soviet elite, believe that City Hall or the Kremlin should restore structures considered historical monuments.
“In Russia, there is still no culture of owning real estate,” said Elizabeth Lihacheva, director of the Schusev State Museum of Architecture, noting that even people who spend $1 million for an apartment often don’t want to pay one kopeck toward cleaning its courtyard
Ideology inspired the construction of the Stalin High-rises, rechristened for tourists with the more palatable name of the Seven Sisters.
When World War II ended, large swaths of Moscow lay in ruins. Stalin thought the city, marking its 800th anniversary, lacked the grandeur required of a triumphant capital.
“Stalin was basically building a Soviet Empire,” Lihacheva said. “It needed to be expressed in architectural terms.”
Prewar plans for a monstrosity called the Palace of the Soviets, topped by a statue of Lenin twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, were abandoned because the swampy ground would not support it.