In the Soviet times, the architecture of the Stalin period, a sort of “the grand style” of totalitarianism, was nicknamed “fantasies of an insane confectioner”.

Looking at the bizarre, cyclopean architectural creations of the Stalin era, their mammoth size, overabundance of decorative elements, you get a feeling you are looking at a cross between a Babylonian ziggurat and an enormously huge cake. Whether you like it or not, these architectural behemoths of “the totalitarian Empire style” are there to stay as part of our culture. Once, on a visit to a friend who was an architecture historian, I leafed through albums with pictures of the twentieth century architecture, and I could not help noticing that government buildings, “palaces of culture,” “palaces of liberated labour,” stadiums and other typical architectural landmarks of the Stalin era, looked very much like similar structures built at about the same time in Nazi Germany and in Italy of Il Duce. I was struck by this similarity, but upon reflection, I realized there was nothing surprising in it. These edifices reflected the very spirit of the totalitarian regimes and we must give credit to the architects who designed them for their skillful rendering the spirit of totalitarianism in architecture. Standing close to these monstrous architectural creations, you feel dwarfed by gigantic columns, huge statues of the heroes of the totalitarian myths, flamboyant moldings, you feel your insignificance, you feel oppressed and belittled by the might of the power that created these edifices.

Pantheon of the communist mythology; (formerly EAAPE - the Exhibition
of Advanced Achievements in People’s Economy), Kyiv.
The idea is not so new, after all. Back in ancient Egypt, Babylonia and China, great pyramids, ziggurats and walls were creations inspired by the same sentiment — to dwarf and belittle. The last Khmer Emperor Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181-1215) had a temple the size of a town, Angkor Thom, built in his honour. There were hundreds of representations of Bodhisattvas (Bodhisattva is one who has achieved great moral and spiritual wisdom and is a potential Buddha, especially such a person who rejects nirvana in order to assist suffering mankind) all around — at the end of every lane stood a pillar with twelve-foot faces of Bodhisattva on four sides. Can you guess whose face was used by the sculptor as a model for Bodhisattva images? You’ve guessed right, it was the Emperor.
In the late thirties, Stalin’s “court architects” worked out plans of “total reconstruction of Soviet cities,” with Moscow “to be completely renovated” first. Reading those plans now, you get a feeling that the architects were criminally insane. In Kyiv, these plans called for the destruction of the most ancient and most revered architectural landmarks in the centre of town, Holy Sophia Cathedral and St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery among them. Upon the land thus “cleared” a number of communist party and government buildings, “Stalinist temples,” were to be erected. The authorities began putting this plan into action by razing St Michael’s to the ground (it was built anew last year as an exact replica of the destroyed monastery). A huge building was built close by and it housed the central committee of the communist youth organization (now it is headquarters of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs). They say it was Lavrentiy Beriya, top KGB (secret police) boss, who saved the ancient architectural landmarks remaining in Kyiv from destruction. At the time when the demolitions began, he was not yet the all-powerful KGB chief, he headed a department charged with providing security for the red elite. He ordered to halt the construction of other buildings in the vicinity of the ruined St Michael’s — and consequently suspended destruction of other architectural landmarks in the area — because he saw a certain danger in the fact that the government buildings would be clustered close together on top of one of Kyiv's many hills.
Typical totalitarian idol (a monument to a Bolshevik uprising).

Deities of the Soviet collective farms: Herd, Agronomist,
and Animal Farmer with Calf. EAAPE, Kyiv.
Collective farm goddess of fertility. EAAPE, Kyiv. Muse with backpack, patroness of tourism. EAAPE, Kyiv.
He was a pedantic man and analyzing the projects, he realized that escape routes from the top of that hill could be easily blocked.

Communist hero (statue at the Metro Construction Department), Kyiv.
It alarmed him and the demolitions were halted, not as we see, because Beriya cared one bit for the culture of the past — he did not, but he cared for the safety of the red bosses. Totalitarian art was marked by some features which make it a fascinating study: there were rules which prescribed, what size a monument of Lenin should be depending on the importance of the place the monument was to be erected at, and varied from stupendous giants in big cities to small, mass-produced things in villages. A great number of artists, a separate caste indeed, specialized in producing official art which included not only the portrayal of the leaders but also Soviet mythology types: muscled workers in overalls; happy, ruddy and smiling farmers; valiant soldiers; thoughtful scholars, always bespectacled; well-fed children with idiotic smiles on their thoughtless faces. The yard of practically every school was “decorated” with a statue of a “young Leninist pioneer” blowing a horn, or reading a book. Almost every park in the Soviet Union, whose territory extended over one sixth of the globe’s dry land, had a sculpture of an athlete with an oar – usually a robust woman made of white plaster which, probably, was meant to symbolize the excellent health and athletic aspirations of the Soviet people. The days of totalitarianism are gone.

In a wave of democratic exuberance and excesses, the Eastern European peoples pulled down thousands of monuments of the “great leaders” and of other symbols of totalitarianism, including the innocent plaster idiots with horns and oars. Some of them should have been left. They are part of our history, no matter what kind of history it was. Besides, some of the monuments of the Soviet era were good works of art and not just mass-produced ugly, badly made things. We have forgotten the names of those Pharaohs, kings and emperors who made their subjects erect gigantic pyramids, temples and palaces but we appreciate these creations as great contributions to the world culture.

By Andriy Hlazovy
Photographs by Oleksiy Onyshchuk

Classical temple of the totalitarian epoch. EAAPE, Kyiv.