Soviet utopia: Constructivist legacy of Yekaterinburg

A guide to signature architectural landmarks of the Urals constructivism capital.

Photo: Chekist Town

Born early in the Soviet era and fully subordinate to Soviet ideology, the constructivism movement was meant to form the foundations of the brave new world. The introduction of the Five-Year Plans coincided with the time when constructivism was adopted as the official architectural style. These circumstances allowed many architects to implement their daring projects across the entire Soviet Union. The Urals region became one of the major attraction centres for these projects.

Today constructivism remains among major historic topics discussed in Yekaterinburg. Local residents love to learn new things about their city and enjoy participating in tours through Yekaterinburg’s numerous constructivist landmarks. Officials strive to turn the avant-garde architecture into a tourist attraction. A constructivism apartment museum is about to open in the city. Jewellery designers create rings shaped like the White Tower and necklaces resembling Iset Hotel’s famous semicircle. Strelka Magazine has gathered the stories of 14 most interesting constructivist buildings in the city. The stories are arranged in a way to allow this article to be used as a guide.

This sightseeing guide consists of two parts. The second part is available here.

Chekist Town

Photo: Iset Hotel (former dormitory for young NKVD officers)
Photo: Iset Hotel (former dormitory for young NKVD officers)
Photo: Iset Hotel (former dormitory for young NKVD officers)

Location: City block formed by Lenin St., Lunacharsky St., Pervomayskaya St. and Kuznechnaya St.
Built: 1929 – 1936

This complex in the very heart of Yekaterinburg was built to a project design by Ivan Antonov and Veniamin Sokolov. Originally called the NKVD living quarters, the complex was nicknamed Chekist Town by the common folk. The project involved the construction of an extensive network of residential and public purpose buildings, including residential housing, cultural centres and health and educational facilities.

Communal houses for workers were regarded as an important socialist achievement made through a working class initiative. The working class strove to do away with inequality in living space distribution and rejected the former household order. The collectivisation commandments urged Soviet citizens to wash at public bath houses and eat at public factory-kitchens. Therefore lack of personal kitchens and bathrooms became a distinguishing feature of these houses. Nowadays apartments at the revamped Chekist Town, of course, do have bathrooms: they usually occupy former bedrooms and have inherited their large windows.

Built in the shape of a semicircle, Iset Hotel is the Chekist Town’s central architectural landmark. A top-down view reveals that the hotel, a former hotel-type dormitory, resembles a sickle, while the adjacent Sergo Ordzhonikidze House of Culture (currently housing the Urals Local History Museum) looks like a hammer. However, this subtle tribute was never officially recognised.

Photo: Chekist town city block
Photo: Chekist town city block
Photo: Chekist town city block
Photo: Chekist town city block

Residential buildings forming the outer border of the block are aligned towards the surrounding streets by 10 degrees, imparting a certain rhythm and dynamism to the block space. Urban legend says that hidden deep in the bowels of the Chekist Town lie former torture and execution rooms. However, no firm evidence supporting this legend has been discovered. Current residents of the Chekist Town describe the block’s overall condition as ‘satisfactory’. Iset Hotel is only used part-time: for example, in September 2015 the hotel hosted the third Urals Industrial Biennale. The future of Iset remains uncertain: the hotel is currently in search of a new renter.

Urals History and Archaeology Museum

Location: 69/10 Lenin Avenue
Built: 1929 – 1936

The Urals History and Archaeology Museum is yet another part of the Chekist Town deserving special recognition. The museum building once housed the Dzerzhynsky House of Culture and a public cafeteria and was a meeting place for the Town’s residents. In an unusual fashion, the cafeteria menu used to be announced via an internal public address system. The block residents could reach the cafeteria directly from their homes via a special passageway and a spiral stairway. The club’s staircase is one of the few constructivist era interior elements, which have managed to survive to this day in their original form. The ceiling beams atop the stairs are crossed to form a five-pointed star, and the staircase itself runs counterclockwise, ignoring the unspoken architectural rule.

Local old timers say that when the Iset Hotel construction project was finished, the club became a prime dating spot for the young NKVD staff. The hotel also housed a dormitory for single NKVD officers and officers with small families. The officers travelled to the club through a passageway connecting the hotel with the club.

During the early 1990s the building was officially given to the Sverdlovsk Local History Museum (Yekaterinburg was named Sverdlovsk between 1924 and 1991 – Strelka). The museum was to move there from the Church of the Ascension, which was being returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. The original avant-garde interiors were wiped out during reconstruction, with only the stairway remaining intact. The building still accommodates the local history museum to this day. Its centrepiece is the Shigir Idol, a five meter high sculpture twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids. In 2004, the building’s basement provided the famous Urals playwright Nikolay Kolyada with his first stage. Kolyada later said that the museum basement had a 100 metre long shooting range with a sloping ceiling mere half meter high at one end. Rumour has it that the range was actually the aforementioned secret NKVD chamber where those considered enemy of the Soviet government were executed.

Sverdlovsk Film Studio

Location: 50 Lenin Avenue
Built: 1929 – 1933

Facing the Chekist Town stands another constructivism era building, formerly occupied by the Builders Club and Sverdlovsk Film Studio, which nowadays accommodates the City Centre Mall. The building was allegedly designed to resemble a tractor in shape, but this theory never received any official confirmation. The building is an outstanding example of Soviet architecture of the late 1920s, featuring open balconies, wide stairways, passageways and roomy inner space made unrecognisable by small shops located in the building today. The studio façade was luckily preserved in nearly pristine condition; however, nowadays shopkeepers use its purely geometrical forms to display their advertisements.

The building is split in two parts: a hall part protruding into the inner yard and a club part occupying two stretched sections. The club had a steam heating system, a café, a theatre, a cinema and rooms to accommodate various hobby groups. Club loggias double as observation decks. During the war, the building housed the Sverdlovsk Film Studio. As the building was not originally designed for filmmaking purposes, several adjustments were made, including redecoration of interiors, demolition of walls and bricking up the windows. In 1944, the Sverdlovsk Film Studio produced its first film Silva, a musical comedy based on an Austrian operetta. During the hard years following the war, the studio stayed largely desolated.

The Sverdlovsk Film Studio gained wide recognition during the 1950s – 1970s period thanks to its innovative approach towards documentary and popular science genres. In 2004, the studio produced First on the Moon, one of its best recognised works and the first fiction film directed by Alexey Fedorchenko. The film tells the story of the first manned flight to the moon being prepared and launched by the Soviets.

The Printing House

Location: 51 Lenin Avenue
Built: 1929 – 1930

The Urals Worker Printing House is one of the Urals’ oldest printing houses built in 1926. The building was designed by Georgy Golubev, who was later appointed Sverdlovsk’s chief city architect. The building’s distinctive elements, including continuous windows stretching along the entire perimeter, a rounded façade supported by a single column and protruding stairwells encased in semicircular glass cages, later went on to become the hallmark of constructivist architecture. However, here these features appeared out of necessity: printing workshops required to stay well-lit all day long. Printing facilities occupied three bottom floors of the building. The fourth accommodated newspaper offices and a publishing house.

In March 1934, the Printing House provided its space to a publishing house, a printing office, offices of the Uralsky Rabochii, Sverdlovsky Rabochii and Na smenu! newspapers and a local branch of the TASS photo agency. During the Great Patriotic War these offices had to be fit closer together in order to make room for the evacuated Soviet writers. Back then, following a proposition from Soviet Writers Union Chairman Alexander Fadeyev, a Writers Centre was created there. In the wartime, Agniya Barto, Lev Kassil, Alexei Novikov-Priboy, Olga Forsh, Marietta Shaginyan and a number of other prominent writers worked at the Centre. In 2010, the Printing House became a venue for the first Urals Industrial Biennale. After that, the building was almost entirely rented out. Nowadays the Printing House houses cafés, restaurants, a large bookstore and a namesake nightclub, Yekaterinburg’s largest, which occupies a former storage facility. Despite extensive gentrification, large space within the building remains unoccupied.

General Post Office

Location: 39 Lenin Avenue
Built: 1929 – 1934

The House of Communications, also known as the General Post Office, is located two blocks away from the Chekist Town. The building was designed in the shape of a tractor to glorify agricultural workers, collectivisation and kolkhozes. The project was developed by Konstantin Solomonov and Veniamin Sokolov on behalf of the People's Commissariat for Communications of the USSR. The project Solomonov and Sokolov designed in 1933 was more than merely the city’s major post office. The building also housed a kindergarten and a day care centre, an 800-seat radio theatre – a place to socialise and learn recent events – and rooms for hobby groups so that Soviet citizens could develop without leaving their workplaces.

The building also housed a post office, an intercity phone station and a telegraph. A separate building accommodated an automatic phone station serving 10,000 phone numbers spread across major city institutions and residential houses of the central district. The General Post Office still serves its main purpose today.

Dinamo Sports Center

Location: 12 Yeryomin St.
Built: 1931 – 1934

Located upon a small peninsula in the city pond and shaped like a moving ship, the Dynamo Sports Centre was designed by Veniamin Sokolov, one of the most prominent Urals constructivists. A fully glazed rounded façade helps create resemblance to naval architecture. A V-shaped bay window looks like a bow, windowed balconies resemble lifeboats and a roof structure atop the main pavilion makes one think of a captain’s bridge. During the 1930s the rooftop was dotted with long antennae one could mistake for ship masts from afar. These antennae were later dismantled.

In 1980, the local government considered demolishing the sports centre in order to clear ground for a monument honouring the victims of the Great Patriotic War. Back then Sverdlovsk citizens managed to save one of their city’s landmarks. Nowadays the constructivism era monument, managed by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, is going through hard times: the majority of its original interiors did not survive multiple restoration and redesign projects.

House of Defence

Location: 31d Malyshev St.
Built: 1930 – 1934

The DOSAAF (Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Air Force, and Navy – Strelka) sports complex was constructed on the site of a former busy market near the Church of St Maximilianin the old city administration center. A whole block between Malyshev, Voevodin and 8 Marta streets and the Lenin Avenue was granted for construction. During this time – the early 1930s – sports construction boom took place in Yekaterinburg (for instance, Dynamo Sports Centre was built in 1934). The House of Defence was meant to become a strong symbol of sports as well as symbolise the power of the Soviet army and navy.

The original project was extremely ambitious and in addition to the club and a sports college also included a residential area, a gym and a sports arena. The city was indeed awaiting its new symbol. The sports complex was expected to fill an entire city block, with its central piece, the stadium with its giant dome rising above the neighbourhood. The project was never completed, with only a club and a college being constructed. The club building received a ship-shaped design, the constructivists’ favourite. When observed from the adjacent Malyshev street, the building does indeed resemble a ship. A U-1 training biplane was installed on the rooftop of the protruding first floor. The rooftop U-1 was later replaced with a Yak-55 aerobatic aircraft.

Today the building is squeezed between new residential houses, a business centre and a reconstructed church and looks a bit less prominent. Still, one can hardly miss the House of Defence. Anyone willing to take a closer look at this constructivist architecture monument is allowed to enter the building and even take a walk up the fully-glazed staircase, a typical element of constructivist architecture.

The second part of this guide is available here.

Author: Sasha Zagryazhsky
Translator: Philipp Kachalin
Photos by Fyodor Telkov