Moscow’s Seven Sisters: Ten Myths and Facts

PHOTO by Depositphotos
Fascinating facts about the Stalinist skyscrapers (aka the Seven Sisters) in Moscow

Plans have been announced for the reconstruction of the spire on the building of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow. The original decoration is to be replaced with an exact copy that will be manufactured with the help of modern technologies. The famous building will have to spend nearly half a year “bare-headed” before the spire is back in its place late in 2017.

“The spire reconstruction project has been under discussion for about 15 years. The concept has received approvals from professional architects and restoration experts and is ready for implementation,” said Acting Director Vladimir Potapkin, Construction and Overseas Property Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in his statement to the press.

The project was slightly delayed for a reason that was both convincing and touching. “There was a family of falcons nested on top of the Ministry building,” Potapkin explained. “We invited ornithologists to climb the spire and find out where the falcons lived. The dismantlement didn’t start until the fledglings took to the wing. It is believed that they have moved to the top of the former Hotel Ukraina building – falcons often make their homes on Moscow skyscrapers. However, the ornithologists promised that the birds would come back.”

All on One Day

The seven skyscrapers (vysotki in Russian) were all founded on the same day, Sept. 7, 1947, in a symbolic gesture to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Moscow. Nearly all the Sisters are believed to have twin “brothers” in the USA. The high-rise apartment block on Kotelnicheskaya Embankment, for example, is considered to have been inspired by Wrigley Building.

An Unin-‘Spired’ Design

The initial 1949 designs for the Seven Sisters did not include spires. For example, the Moscow University building was supposed to have a statue on top; the MFA headquarters had a flat-roof; the building in Vosstaniya Square was to be crowned with an octahedron. According to anecdotal evidence, the spires were added on behalf of Joseph Stalin’s order: while the dictator was driving past the new office tower of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he vehemently cursed and insisted that the building be decorated with a spire. The design was hastily revised, with alterations made to the top five storeys.

The MFA tower is the only Stalinist skyscraper that does not have a five-point star. Experts believe that a massive star would have considerably increased the structural load on the building.

Depth of Knowledge

There is an urban legend that a huge bronze sculpture of Stalin lies buried beneath the foundation of the Moscow State University tower, which was supposed to be placed on top of the building in accordance with the initial design but was replaced with a spire after the autocrat died.

However, the legend is not based on fact as works on the foundations were completed during Stalin’s lifetime in 1950, and the new MSU building opened its doors to students within several months of his death in 1953.

The sculpture representing the infamous Communist party leader could have reached a height of 35-40 metres, which would have made the university building look like a giant pedestal; a similar design concept was proposed for the Palace of the Soviets. In the end, however, the statue was made more modest in size and nature and was placed in the garden near the fountains. The proportion of the present University building looks much better with a gilded 58-meter spire and a star on top.

Jasper Columns and German War Trophies

It is often claimed that the design for Moscow State University’s Faculty of Chemistry building incorporated jasper columns removed from the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour before it was destroyed in compliance with Stalin’s orders in 1931. Some even believe that the faculty hides fragments of other ruined buildings, including the Reichstag. The only grain of truth about this is that the Faculty’s labs used to be equipped with ventilation hoods that were obtained in Germany during World War II. As for the jasper columns, there is no historical evidence that the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour even had any in the first place.

Do It in Hypostyle

The Kropotkinskaya station, Moscow’s largest underground vestibule, is based on the hypostyle design that was commonly present in the architecture of Ancient Egypt, Iran and other countries of the Ancient East. One typical example of the hypostyle form is the Temple of Karnak in Egypt, which has a vast hall supported by numerous closely spaced pillars. The Kropotkinskaya station was intended to serve as an underground vestibule for the colossal Palace of the Soviets – an ambitious construction project that was halted shortly before the beginning of World War II and never resumed. The foundations of the Palace of the Soviets were later converted into the Moskva Swimming Pool, which functioned until the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was rebuilt on its original site.

Hotel Ukraina: A Story of Losses

The construction of the Hotel Ukraina was fast but not entirely problem-free. First, the hotel lost its original name. Joseph Stalin meant to call the new facility Dorogomilovskaya, but Nikita Khrushchev thought otherwise. The hotel also lost part of its guest room stock as Khrushchev ordered that some of the accommodation space be converted into 250 apartments for permanent residence. Rumour has it that the top storeys of the Hotel Ukraina are inferior in quality compared to the lower part of the building, because the spire was built by prisoners and the supervisors did not like to face them at such heights. One of the hotel’s towers collapsed in 2007 – allegedly, the workers added salt to the concrete mix in order to speed up the completion of the project for the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students in 1957.

Despite all of this, the hotel has many interesting features, which include a unique collection of paintings and sculptures produced by Soviet artists and the newly restored diorama Moscow – The Capital of the USSR that was specially created for the New York Exhibition in 1977 (it is rumoured that astronaut Neil Armstrong wanted the diorama for himself but his request was declined). Among other architectural landmarks, the diorama includes a depiction of the now-razed Rossiya Hotel - the only detailed image of the building that has survived till today.

‘The Big Brother’

According to some historians, when the US Embassy first opened in Moscow, residents of the top two storeys in the central part of the Kudrinskaya Square building were relocated to make room for a KGB surveillance centre which monitored the Embassy’s operations using cutting-edge equipment.

The Kudrinskaya Square Building

Too Spooky for Words

The Red Gates Administrative Building is especially popular among parapsychologists and ghost story lovers. The tower is believed to be haunted by “a laughing ghost” – the spirit of a minor civil servant within the Soviet Ministry of Transport Construction, which was formerly stationed in the building. One day, in an attempt to win the favours of the wife of a high-ranking official, he told her a political joke. The lady then repeated the joke in front of her husband. The latter somehow found it unamusing and had his subaltern sent to a psychiatric clinic for a lifetime of coerced treatment.

The Red Gates Administrative Building

The Slums in Zaryadye

Another skyscraper which never materialized was to be situated in the Zaryadye district. Despite being located near the Kremlin walls, Zaryadye used to have a bad reputation and was covered with medieval slums that had to be removed for the construction project. The 275-metre-tall skyscraper was supposed to house the USSR Ministry of Heavy Machinery. However, the construction works were frozen soon after Stalin’s death. Between 1964-1967, the site was used for the construction of the Rossiya Hotel.

Today the area is being redeveloped into a large landscape park.