New East Digital Archive

Visions of Volgograd: how the city became a drawing board for Soviet urban utopias

Volgograd was a cradle of the Bolshevik Revolution, and throughout the 20th century it has proved fertile ground for architects trying to imagine the ideal city of the future

7 June 2018

On the banks of the Volga River, next to an old brick house on Pugachevskaya Street, you can still just about find an old grave with the inscription: “Here lie the glorious defenders of Tsaritsyn” followed by nine names. This one-and-a-half-metre high monument is dedicated to the revolutionary soldiers who died here during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1919, a conflict between the nascent Red state and the forces of international reaction that claimed over 11 million lives. Another obelisk — on the Alley of Heroes in the heart of historical Volgograd — was built to commemorate the same heroes of the revolution a few years later, in 1920. Then it was replaced, reconstructed with new materials to broaden the symbolic legacy to make additional room for the soldiers of the Second World War.

Tsaritsyn, as Volgograd was known before 1925, earned the epithet “Red” thanks to its rapid and inspired embrace of the revolution. There was no bitter struggle inside the city, and in the military conflicts that followed the Bolshevik takeover, the city fought to protect the new status quo. Revolutionary ideas found fertile soil here. Due to intense industrialisation, the population of Tsaritsyn grew from 8,000 in the 1860s to 100,000 by the 1910. There were dozens of factories scattered along the Volga: woodworking, metallurgy, oil. Though factory workers were nominally free, they subsisted in poor living conditions, prevented from fleeing and dependent from their employers as bondsmen. And, as Karl Marx had observed in Britain, it was precisely this kind of industrial proletariat that would prove the natural constituency for the new, socialist social order.

If conditions caused people to dream of a new and better way of life, there remained a problem when it came to actually constructing the kind of city the new Soviet Republic was supposed to provide. Despite their plentiful human resources, the factories were poorly connected one with the other, and Tsaritsyn as a whole was barely held together with enough common infrastructure to be considered a single, coherent city. As the chaos of private business and ownership was replaced by the concentrated socialist intent to realise a new, ideal city, Tsaritsyn (which was renamed once again as Stalingrad between 1925-1961) became a testing ground for broader practical discussions on how to resettle workers along socialist lines.

Tsaritsyn, as Volgograd was known before 1925, earned the epithet “Red” thanks to its rapid and inspired embrace of the revolution

One specific problem presented by Tsaritsyn/Stalingrad was its peculiar shape — a long, narrow streak of settlements along the Volga. During the debate on the form of the future socialist city (or sotsgorod, as it was sometimes known in Russian) the structure known as the “linear city” was developed by Nikolai Milyutin. Milyutin’s big idea was to capitalise on the strip city’s space for unlimited horizontal development in two directions, in order to make room for segregated residential, industrial and recreational sectors. The city was conceived of here as a factory conveyer belt (nothing was more important, after all, than labour), with the various industrial facilities working in tandem: you put iron ore in at the left end of the city, and a tractor or tank comes out on the right. In real life the concept proved difficult to realize, not least because there were already existing plants next to the river, meaning the intended industrial and residential zones had to switch places. But today, when you look at the city from the above, you can still see the long, wriggling streak of a 100-kilometre long sandwich.

There were other attempts at new, socialist urbanism in Tsaritsyn/Stalingrad. The idea for the construction of the Stalingrad Tractor Factory is attributed to the secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky, who died in 1926, a week after the plant was founded. This factory was significant enough to get its own sotsgorod, which was mostly constructed in the 1930s. This settlement, attached to the factory, was entirely designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of the planned economic system; city planners in 1930s Stalingrad set themselves the task of creating a further four such sotsgorods, evidence that industry remained the dominant priority of the national economy. Workers themselves would have no need to make dinner, clean clothes or raise children — all this was to be rationed and organised centrally. Although these living examples of a new way of living were spatially separate from the existing urban fabric, their influence was far-reaching. Generations of people who worked at the plant or lived in the attached housing were raised into the social code imprinted by the urban environment.

By some estimates, only 12 per cent of the city’s housing survived the Second World War

The defining event in the urban history of the city, though, was the Second World War. The sacrifices Stalingrad made during the war were terrible: by some estimates, only 12 per cent of the city’s housing remained following the siege. The scars left on the city were so grievous that in the post-war period the idea of reforming the city centre captured people’s. It was to become a national symbol of honour, a reward equal to the great feat. In 1944, a national architectural contest was opened to design the central square; a monument to the defenders of the city was announced, and even soldiers still fighting on the front sent their proposals and sketches. The monumental message was intended to be encrypted into all ensuing architecture. While these works, planned while the war was ongoing, were not realised, they helped to build an influential mythology and narrative of the heroic city, which to this day remains the main ideological drive in the city’s identity.

The recovery plan for the centre of Stalingrad was formulated by the group associated with the academician Karo Alabyan in 1943-1945. Later, in the 1950s, the plan was further developed and supplemented with architecture in the Soviet Imperial style, proud, enthusiastic and full of pathos. Buildings’ facades are formed like renaissance palaces and decorated by reliefs with symbolic representations of glory. This first post-war masterplan was mostly concerned with urban regeneration and modest structural optimisation, because of the huge devastation caused by Nazi bombs and the urban warfare that had characterised the siege.

An Eternal Flame was added to the old Civil War obelisk on the Alley of Heroes, part of a process in which all surviving landmarks were retrofitted to incorporate the concept of the city’s “eternal” memory. This trend for sacralisation only grew over time: from bullet holes in buildings being emphasised rather than covered up, to the accelerated functional revival during Stalin’s lifetime, to an enormous central memorial ensemble that was planned but never realised in the late Brezhnev era.

According to a 1979 project by a collective featuring Yuri Kossovich, Vadim Maslyaev and others, the city centre of what was now called Volgograd would become a massive stone composition dedicated to the feat of the Soviet soldiers during the Battle of Stalingrad. These plans were only partly realised before funding ran out. The intended centrepiece, a hundred-metre-wide avenue culminating in the “Motherland Calls” sculpture that stands atop the Mamaev Kurgan memorial complex, can only be seen now in archival documents. But there are indications of the plan’s scope: an avenue named after Marshall Zhukov which you pass on the way into town from the airport, plus several other streets in the central Zapolotnovskaya district were built according to the 1979 project.

Given its history, it was inevitable that Volgograd was diminished by the end of the Soviet Union — both as a community that had been established and sustained by the ideas of 1917, and as a physical manifestation of the heroic Soviet city. The monuments are still standing, but their cultural foundations have been weakened as the concrete logic behind them has evaporated. Everything built in Volgograd nowadays is understood to be more or less temporary, and pales in significance when compared with the Eternal Memory of the Great Victory. This is a city whose architecture was created to dazzle, to inspire future generations, an urban lesson in patriotism. Now it has become a poor veteran who is no longer allowed to stay at home on the day of the military parade.

Text: Dmitry Boyko
Top image: Anastasia Tsayder