New East Digital Archive

Beyond the plastic: an alternative history of Saransk in 4 buildings

Modern Saransk may be famous for its hard-to-love glass and plastic architecture, but the city has other stories to tell too — if you know where to look

14 June 2018

In the last 15 years the city of Saransk has changed almost beyond recognition. Numerous new sports facilities, shopping centres and churches have appeared, just as old buildings have been either restored or brutally disappeared. Many citizens, meanwhile, have been moved into new, multi-coloured concrete high-rises. Thanks to the introduction of hung ceilings and flat-pack furniture to Russia, homes in Soviet-era apartment blocks throughout the land have undergone comparable transformations, which can best be summed up under the slogan “better than it was, but not nearly as good as it should be”.

Such, at least, is the conclusion of those architects whose loyalty remains with the traditions of European Classicism and Soviet Constructivism. They weep over the memory of the historical buildings that have been shamelessly wiped of the face of the earth since the early 2000s, and consider the new buildings which have taken their place with emotions which border on physical disgust.

And yet the citizens of Saransk, by and large, are delighted. The memory cards of their phones are filled with photos of Millennium Square, the Cathedral of St Fyodor Ushakov and the new Saransk Campus of the Moscow State University. For those used to village life, these are wondrous structures. And in Saransk, the village which became a city in 15 years, that’s just about everybody.

Despite this, there is more to Saransk. Hidden amongst the popular new buildings of the city centre, there are some structures which are ignored by locals but may elicit interest from architectural historians. Through these buildings we can construct a history of the city that you won’t find in the new build glass and plastic.

The former wine storehouse

When a law regulating the sale of alcohol as a state monopoly was issued in Russia in 1894, private producers of grain spirit were obliged to deliver their alcohol to state storehouses, where quality checks were undertaken and the product stored until distribution. To enforce the law, 2,800 wine storehouses were built throughout the Russian Empire. A local academician, Vasilevich, was charged with designing a storehouse for Saransk.

By 1917, 16 years after its construction, the storehouse in Saransk had accumulated more than three million litres of spirit. The local peasants knew about these riches, and dreamt of getting their hands on it. When news of the Tsar’s overthrow spread through the city, their dream became a nightmare.

The city’s new authorities, faced with daily riots, fires and other acts of civil disobedience, ordered an armed guard of 300 soldiers to patrol the territory of the storehouse. Armed to the teeth and drawn from the same low social class as the peasants they were supposed to oppose, it was not long before their class sympathies got the better of their military loyalties. It all began innocently enough — with a demand to make up for their miserly pay with the distribution of a vodka ration. The authorities conceded, and at the end of the working day about 400 litres of vodka were distributed to the soldiers. The soldiers happily consumed their rations and set off to tear up the town.

By 1917, the storehouse had accumulated more than three million litres of spirit. The local peasants knew about these riches, and dreamt of getting their hands on it

By the morning the storehouse had been occupied. The soldiers had broken in, smashed the measuring equipment, drilled holes in the barrels and were literally swimming in vodka. At around the same time, the civilian population had freed the prisoners of the city jail, who, on hearing of the good fortune of the storehouse guard, decided to get in on the action. Over two long days the storehouse’s contents were fought over and carried out, as thirsty looters ran in and out, fists flailing, to quench their thirst. When someone tried to end the chaos by pouring the remaining vodka into a frozen river, the drunkards, unwilling to let their good fortune slip from their grasp, started packing barrels with the vodka-drenched snow.

Over the night of the second day the storehouse was looted and burnt. Yet such were the volumes of vodka stored, that a large number of untouched barrels remained. Local officers thus decided to destroy the storehouse once and for all. A saboteur was sent for who placed a bomb under the remaining barrels, the bomb was lit, and the brick façade of the storehouse went up in a blinding blue flame.

Today, 101 years later, there are few who remember these tumultuous events, nor their dramatic aftermath, when rivers of flame radiated out from the storehouse, engulfed the surrounding houses and took the lives of around 150 people. The storehouse’s architect, Vasilev, who witnessed the tragedy, could never have guessed that his structure would go on to serve as a typographer’s, a university faculty and a factory. Today it houses residential apartments, and is a protected heritage site.

The House of the Republic

The House of the Republic is a classic example of the monumental “electricity pylon” style of the Brezhnev era. It is an instantly recognisable symbol of the Soviet 1980s. Its bulky composition looks out onto the accompanying Soviet Square, and is made up of three nine-story buildings, each thuggish, squat and brutally chiseled. Lenin Prize recipient and nationally decorated architect Garold Isakovich designed the building. In his original plans, the form of the structure recalled the folds of a giant flag billowing in the wind, but he was forced to simplify the composition, hence the more box-like result.

The first building to stand on the site was a parish church, built in 1856. After the socialist revolution the parish was disbanded, and the church used as a granary. Restoration of the church was considered 40 years later, but the idea abandoned in 1979, when it was decided to knock it down and build a new regional headquarters for the communist party in its place. The huge white edifice we see today was the result.

Completed in 1987, the building holds two meeting chambers, a number of offices and a cinema with 2,000 seats. The cafeteria spreads over three halls. The central façade is decorated with the attributes of Soviet power — a giant stainless steel hammer and sickle sculpted by I. P. Kazansky. Austere and grandiose in equal measure, the height of the limestone façade is emphasised by step-like projections and rib-like partition walls. The decision to use limestone was taken during construction: Isakovich had wanted to use granite. Over the course of two years, a brigade of stonemasons from Moscow installed around 75,000 limestone tiles. Around 1,500 piles, 11 metres in length, were drilled into the ground to counteract the damp soil underneath. The workers labouring on the roof recall how they wore fur slippers even in the summer, carefully protective of the waterproof tiles they were working with. It is a testament to their professionalism that the roof has not leaked in 30 years. Throughout the project the quality of the construction work remained admirably high.

The Church of St John the Baptist

In 1934, there were 225 churches on the territory of the Mordovian Soviet Socialist Republic (of which Saransk is the capital). A year later 136 remained. A year after that the figure was only 71. The epoch of militant atheism was merciless on the faithful, who were sent to prison, had their property confiscated and, in the most unfortunate cases, ended up in the gulag. Peasants were typically the most religious, so it was they who most suffered. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could find the strength to resist under such circumstances. Then, as now, those who resist were often believed to be mad. And yet the Church of St John the Baptist is a testament in stone to the possibility of civil resistance and bravery in the face of even the most brutal regimes.

The Church of St John the Baptist was built in 1693, appearing during a construction boom that took place in Saransk in the last decade of the 17th century. As with most of the churches in Saransk, the church was built by architects from Moscow, who had imbibed Western artistic influences while not forgetting Russian church-building traditions. This Orthodox influence is felt in the keel-shaped decorations around the windows, and the entrances to the church, which are deeply set into the building and surrounded by a huge range of ornamental patterns and images that have been carved into the brick.

The Church is a testament in stone to the possibility of civil resistance and bravery

The Church of St John is the only historical church in Saransk that still functions in its original capacity today. Its survival was a very close run thing. In the 1930s, the local branch of the communist party in Saransk issued a decree ordering the church’s destruction. The decree was sent to Moscow, where it was soon after joined by an appeal written by the director of the St John’s church council and signed by 640 local priests. The letter refuted the claims of party officials in Saransk, who argued that the church was falling down anyway and was a danger to its parishioners. Following the church council appeal, the authorities in Moscow demanded evidence of the position taken by the Saransk officials. When that evidence was not forthcoming, the decision was taken to leave the church in place. The party officials did not take their defeat lightly. Having failed to destroy the St John Church, they ordered the closing down and destruction of a nearby church in its place, an act that seems to have been predicated entirely on desire for revenge. The second congregation were given no chance to appeal.

Such stories were once commonplace. Congregations often wrote to the party leadership in Moscow, but even when orders were given from the Kremlin to return a church to its congregation, local party officials would often render it inhabitable before handing it over. Many churches were repurposed as sporting facilities or granaries, but in the majority of cases no such attempts were made and the churches were simply destroyed. Such, for example, was the fate of the St Konstantin, St Tikhvin and Advent churches in Saransk. The Uspensky Church, meanwhile, became a workshop making boots, the St Vladimir Church became a museum and the Church of the Nativity of Christ — a bakery.

The railway station

The first railway to connect Saransk to the national network was built in 1893, when the town became a stop on the line from Moscow to Kazan. A new two-story brick building was erected to replace the old stone station in 1941. This, in turn, was enlarged and reconstructed 15 years later. By the beginning of the 21st century it was apparent that the building was not large enough to cater for the number of passengers travelling to Saransk. The building was taken down, and a new railway station building, with over 3,300 square metres of floor space, was erected in its place.

The picturesque form and generous stucco work are typical characteristics of the new railway station buildings built in Moscow in the late 1990s which most likely served as the prototypes for the Saransk station. The Saransk station is, however, unlike its predecessors in that even more of the façade consists of reflective glass windows. A glass dome and gold-leaf spire form the compositional centre of the building. The dome serves a functional purpose as well, delivering extra light to the vestibule below. The dome’s silhouette is supported by eight smaller domes in octagonal form and also crowned with spires. Glass domes and spires seem to have become the signature calling card of Saransk’s architects. This combination can be seen at numerous sites throughout the city.

One of the most popular symbols of the city of Saransk stands in the square in front of the railway station. The monument to the hero-stratonauts, created by the sculptors A. Pismenny and A. Dushkin, was built to honour the achievements of three pilots who managed to fly at a record height of 22 kilometres above the earth in 1934. Recognition of their achievements was delayed first by the war and later by more prosaic financial problems, and the monument was not actually built until 1963. The sculpture depicts a male figure in bronze, clothed in a pilot’s cap and warm fur boots, gaze striving upwards towards the open sky.