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  • Stalin's 'Seven Sisters'

    Kudrinskaya Square in Moscow
    David Hoffman—TWP
    No. 1 Kudrinskaya Square, now with a posh restaurant, once housed members of the Soviet aviation etablishment.
    By David Hoffman
    Washington Post
    Foreign Service
    Tuesday, July 29, 1997;
    Page A10

    MOSCOW—To roam in a circle around the base of the skyscraper at No. 1 Kudrinskaya Square is to walk through time.

    Veterans of the Soviet aviation establishment still stroll laconically around the apartment building's renovated, glassed-in terrace, passing "Club Beverly Hills, a Chuck Norris Enterprise," a posh night spot with a long white limo usually parked outside. Heroes of the Soviet Union who once lived here are commemorated on plaques at the entrances, while the new masters of capitalism park their Mercedes sedans and their bodyguards outside during lunch at the building's stylish restaurant, Le Gastronome.

    No. 1 Kudrinskaya Square, one of seven tiered, neoclassic Stalin-era towers that define Moscow's skyline, is a testament to Russia's abrupt but dramatic transformation as it struggles to give birth to a free-market system.

    When the massive tower was built in the early 1950s, there were four elegant food stores, or gastronomes -- for meat, fish, dairy products and bread -- at each of its corners. Modeled on a turn-of-the century Russian food shop in Moscow, they were resplendent with red and white inlaid marble, floor-to-ceiling windows, luminescent chandeliers and mighty central columns.

    The idea then was to create food "palaces" for the people. But by the time the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, it would have been hard to recall the original idea. The four corners had become grimy, dreary, smelly shops, the magnificent marble hidden under layers of dirt.

    Today, one gastronome has sprung back to life as the restaurant, modeled after the original fish shop. Yakov Zhislin, the architect, told the Moscow Times newspaper recently that the design looked to the Italian Renaissance, with wall mosaics based on Florentine models. The stained glass has been restored and the old enclosed cashier's cubicle turned into a telephone booth. Under the giant chandeliers, waiters and waitresses now carry sumptuous meals and desserts such as "Oceans of Chocolate" to Moscow's political and financial power brokers.

    But the next corner of the building is dark and abandoned. A lone sign promising renovation hangs from a door, its deadline long passed. Inside, the original food cases stand gathering dust. A third former gastronome is a skimpy flea market, still unrestored but with the original chandeliers and marble intact. The last was until recently a branch of Credit Suisse, a Swiss bank, which closed in a dispute with the landlord.

    The luxurious restaurant, often frequented for lunch by bankers and businessmen, is alien territory to the pensioners who live above it in cramped, one-room apartments. The building originally housed the cream of the Soviet aviation industry, including many famous test pilots. Tatyana Tarasova, 77, who moved into the building in 1955, has not set foot across the threshold of the new restaurant, nor does she want to.

    "It's hard to get used to the changes," she said, interrupting a stroll. "I've heard in America people go to cafes, and they pay for it. In Russia, it's customary to visit your neighbors, at home. I make food for 20 people!"

    Such contrasts between old and new are a motif for all seven of the Stalin skyscrapers, sometimes nicknamed the "seven sisters."

    They include the imposing Moscow State University tower on the Lenin Hills; the aging but revived Ukraine Hotel overlooking the Russian parliament building; and the Foreign Ministry headquarters, near the Old Arbat, central Moscow's lively pedestrian street. Two of the buildings are hotels; two house government ministries; two are apartment houses; the seventh is Russia's most prestigious university. But the blend of old and new is common to all of them. White satellite dishes turned skyward are nestled among neoclassical statues and stone emblems of Soviet power.

    In its post-Soviet revival, Moscow has become a city of construction cranes, as new steel-and-glass office buildings pop up with growing frequency. But none has challenged the distinctive imprint of these seven buildings on Moscow's contemporary skyline. From miles around, their spires, their silhouettes and their grandiose dimensions overshadow all.

    The towers owe their design to a monumental building that was never built, the Palace of Soviets. Starting in the early 1930s, planning competitions were held for the proposed 1,410-foot-high structure, which was intended to stand on the banks of the Moscow River where Stalin had destroyed the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 1931. But despite 25 years of plans and revisions, the gigantic palace never materialized. On the same site today, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is rebuilding the cathedral.

    As in many other realms of art and culture, Stalin pressed Soviet architects into the service of the state, which often meant the service of his personal tastes. In the early 1930s, independent architects were forced to close their practices and work for government design bureaus.

    Just after the end of World War II, Soviet authorities decided to erect eight tall skyscrapers here in a design similar to that of the Palace of the Soviets. Only seven were constructed. According to the book "Architecture of the Stalin Era," by Alexei Tarkhanov and Sergei Kavtaradze, the architects settled on a terrace-like or tiered construction, often referred to as a "wedding-cake" style, to give each building a sense of "upward surge" toward a central tower.

    Originally, most of the buildings did not have spires, but Stalin took a fancy to one that did, and soon they all had them -- made of metalized glass and sparkling in the sun. One political reason for adding the spires was to distinguish the towers from American skyscrapers of the 1930s. According to Tarkhanov and Kavtaradze, the design of the buildings and the external decoration recall 17th-century Russian churches, and the ornate exteriors are drawn from Gothic cathedrals.

    Beyond the towers and tiers, the buildings reflect the gradual transformation of Russia. Take the 1,000-room, 29-story Ukraine Hotel. A seedy place in the latter Soviet years, it has been renovated, and the exterior is now being sandblasted clean, revealing a nearly pink stone under years of grit.

    The old Soviet practice of having a dzhurnaya, or floor lady, on every hotel floor is also disappearing. Now, "we've got one for every other floor, and even that's too much," said Tatyana Mativsha, the green-smocked dzhurnaya for the Ukraine Hotel's 27th and 28th. In the old days, all guests had to ask the floor lady for the key. Now, computer-coded cards are given out at the front desk.

    The Moscow State University building was largely constructed by German prisoners of war. According to one legend, a desperate prisoner fashioned wings for himself from two boards and tried to soar off the top of the structure to freedom. The legend says he did not make it.

    For years, the university tower was the tallest building in Moscow. But it was recently surpassed by one of the the city's shiny new skyscrapers -- this one erected by the Russian natural gas monopoly, Gazprom.

    Today, the interior of the university building is badly worn in places, but lively, with book stalls chock full of how-to guides on economics and accounting.

    Alla Tatakonova, 53, a researcher in the chemistry department, recalled that when she came to the school as a student in 1960, the students did not need to work at outside jobs. But in the new Russia, the meager stipends of $15 a month are hardly enough to get by.

    "Now, everyone is compelled to work," she said. "Life is more expensive."

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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