Vignette 7.1 The Moscow State University Building: One of the Projects of Stalinism

If you have been to Moscow, you probably have seen the main building of Moscow State University, with a spire soaring to 250 m (Figure 1). The building was completed in 1954, the year after Stalin's death. It looks like a wedding cake, and its neo-Empire design is rather similar to that of some New York skyscrapers of the 1920s. The spire is topped with a massive five-pointed star, which is almost 9 m across! The original plans called for a statue of Stalin to be placed on the top, but this plan had to be scrapped because of the danger that the wind would topple it. The building has 33 floors and houses the schools of mathematics, geology, and geography, as well as numerous dormitories, about 150 apartments for professors, a few cafeterias, a radio station, and a few large assembly halls. The building not only goes above ground; it goes below the ground surface for about seven floors and has a massive bomb shelter at its base. The entire complex is almost 300 m wide at ground level; one would have to walk for over 20 minutes to get around it.

The Moscow State University building was constructed with prison labor. Thousands of workers toiled for about 5 years to complete the project. (A few escaped their misery by jumping off the walls to a certain death.) Inside the building, massive oak panels cover the walls, and the floors are marble and granite. According to one estimate, it took almost one-third of the entire country's hardwood production in 1952–1953 to produce enough wood for the paneling. Although we may disagree about its aesthetics, the mere fact that Moscow's tallest building in the past was not a bank or even a palace of Soviet delegates, but a university, testifies to the Soviet emphasis on science and education—an emphasis that many observers see as lacking in post-Soviet Russia.