Architecture had a shifting status within Russian modernism: first younger sibling, then domineering older brother. The riot of avant-garde experimentation and iconoclasm began in painting and literature in the years before the First World War; many totemic works date from this period – Malevich’s Black Square, Bely’s Petersburg, Goncharova’s Cyclist. The Revolution brought an accelerating radicalism in the arts, but the devastation of the Civil War years meant that this creative ferment found expression mostly on paper, canvas or plywood. It wasn’t until after 1921 that Russian architecture produced its great modernist landmarks. The following decade and a half brought an astonishing wave of formal innovation, driven at once by utopian energy and dire need; across the USSR, scores of buildings went up – apartment blocks, schools, garages, government offices, workers’ clubs – marked by a combination of elegance and austerity. By the mid-1930s, however, the Party had brought all the arts to heel, and avant-garde impulses were constrained or cancelled by the emerging stylistic canons of Socialist Realism. Architecture now became a privileged realm for the development of a Stalinist visual idiom: a heavy, bombastic classicism that still dominates the streetscape of many Russian cities, overshadowing the isolated remnants of the 1920s.
LRB 17 November 2011 | PDF Download