Moscow begs a solution to a riddle: How can a place justly renowned for its wickedness and inequities manage not only to survive but to thrive?
The search for an answer invites a meditation on the role that contrast plays in the formation of urban character. Moscow has never been purely a city of decadence. Rather, it has been for centuries a city of flamboyant, jarring disharmonies. “A city so irregular, so uncommon, so extraordinary and so contrasted, never before claimed my attention,” reported an English clergyman visiting Moscow in the 1770s.
There is no greater testament to the hardiness of this city of disjointed parts than its survival under the rule of Soviet masters who seemed to believe that anything crooked could be made straight. Rote destruction was their method, and religious Moscow suffered most. Magnificent bells were ripped out of church belfries, and numerous cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and convents were demolished. All of Moscow, aglow with electric lights that transfixed visitors from the provinces, was meant to adhere to a triumphant, futuristic aesthetic, an architectural expression of a radical new phase of human existence. Though any clear-eyed understanding of Moscow would have suggested that its possibilities as a utopia were severely limited, some credulous Western modernists subscribed to the plan. The mammoth Cathedral of Christ the Savior, built in the nineteenth century to honor the expulsion of Napoleon from Russia, was blown up in 1931 to make way for a planned “Palace of Soviets,” and both Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius submitted designs. The winning entry, by the Soviet architect Boris Iofan, called for a massive structure, taller than the Empire State Building, topped by a giant statue of Lenin with his right arm raised in welcome.
The Palace of Soviets was never completed—in 1960, a heated swimming pool was instead put on the site—but Stalin nevertheless reshaped the city with assorted modernist concoctions, such as the seven “wedding cake” skyscrapers, whose ornate, terracelike exteriors harked back to Gothic cathedrals. Still, like Peter before him, Stalin couldn’t forge Moscow into a uniform type.
the disparate parts of a great city don’t have to match; sometimes, they merely have to chafe against one another.