A nearby subway station, built in 1935 as Palace of Soviets station, was renamed Kropotkinskaya in 1957.
The Soviet Union was officially formed at the first Congress of Soviets in December, 1922. Sergey Kirov, speaking at the Congress, proposed building the congress palace "on the sites of palaces once owned by bankers, landlords, and tsars." Very soon, Kirov said, existing halls would be too small to fit the delegates from new republics of the Union. The palace "will be just another push for the European proletariat, still dormant...to realize that we came for good and forever, that the ideas...of communism are as deeply rooted here as the wells drilled by Baku oilers.
In 1924, Lenin's death and the construction of the temporary Lenin's Mausoleum initiated a national campaign to build Lenin memorials across the country. Victor Balikhin, a graduate student at VKhUTEMAS, proposed to install Lenin's memorial on top of a Comintern building, on the site of Christ the Savior Cathedral. "Arc lamps will flood the villages, towns, parks and squares, calling everyone to honor Lenin even at night... Balikhin's concept, forgotten for a while, emerged later in Boris Iofan's design.
Six years later, in February 1931, the State declared the first contest for the Palace of Soviets, distributing preliminary proposals to 15 architectural workshops (avant-garde and traditional architects). This contest ended in May, 1931, with no winners.
June 2, 1931, a conference of Party elders identified the site of the future Palace and condemned the Cathedral. This was formally endorsed July, 16 by the VTsIK commission. July 18 (the day when Izvestia announced the second, international, contest), state commissioners started an inventory count of Cathedral properties. A small fraction of them were removed and stored at state expense and the expense of Donskoy Monastery; the rest perished. Demolition began on August 18; December, 5, 1931 the structure was finally destroyed in two rounds of explosions. Hauling out the rubble took more than a year.
Enormous publicity followed the project until 1941; in 1931-32, it was broadcast internationally, with reviews and reports published all over the world. The Council of Experts was chaired (at least formally) by old Bolshevik Gleb Krzhizhanovsky; Time magazine called it "a jury whose most noteworthy member was Dictator Stalin."
Public contest entries
Instead of announcing a clear winner, in February, 1932 the Council declared three leading drafts by Boris Iofan, Ivan Zholtovsky and a 28-year-old British architect living in New Jersey, Hector Hamilton. This outcome called for a third round of competition — or a state intervention. All three runners-up turned their backs on the avant-garde and leaned towards neoclassicism (or eclecticism). This "reactionary" decision caused an uproar among European avant-garde artists. Le Corbusier and Sigfried Giedion, leader of the CIAM, complained to Stalin, using communist rhetoric, that the "Decision of the council is a direct insult to the spirit of Revolution and the Five-year plan...[it is] a tragic betrayal.
The international contest was followed by not one, but two more rounds of closed competition. The third contest (March 1932 - July 1932) round invited 15 design teams, the fourth (July 1932 - February 1933) invited only five. On May 10, 1933, Boris Iofan's draft was declared the winner. A duo of neoclassicist architects, Vladimir Schuko and Vladimir Gelfreikh, were assigned to Iofan's team, and the design became known as the Iofan-Schuko-Gelfreikh draft.
Recently published correspondence between Stalin and Lazar Kaganovich, however, pinpoints the moment of selection as no later than August, 1932. On August 7, Stalin wrote a memo to Kaganovich, Molotov and Voroshilov, clearly naming Iofan's draft as the best, and proposing changes:
Evolution of the winning entry, 1931-1934
The foundation was completed in 1939. The builders drove a perimeter of 20-meter steel piles, excavated the pit, demolished and hauled out the old cathedral foundations. The new foundation was a slightly concave concrete slab with concentric vertical rings, intended to carry the main hall columns. By June, 1941, the steel frame for the lower levels was erected. Then the war interfered: the steel frame was cut in 1941 and 1942 and used for Moscow's defence fortifications and railroad bridges. The empty foundation stood unused, filled with seepage water, but well guarded, until 1958.
Meanwhile, Iofan's team, relocated to Sverdlovsk, continued perfecting the design. After the war, Iofan produced another iteration of the original concept, this time incorporating the Victory theme, literally: interior halls were decorated with Order of Victory motifs. These drafts remained unused; construction on the old site never resumed. Iofan bid for the design of the Sparrow Hills Skyscraper, but lost to Lev Rudnev. Interestingly, Rudnev and other post-war architects designed their towers as if the Palace existed, referencing all major projects to the Palace skyline. As an example, this 1947 placement map for the Moscow Skyscrapers is centered around the Palace.
The Palace project forced the development of new technologies, notably the DS (ДС, Дворец Советов) family of construction steel. ODS (ordinary DS) and SDS (special DS) steel were used in Moscow bridges built in the 1930s and Moscow Canal structures. A nearby subway station, a 1935 award-winning design by Alexey Dushkin, was named Palace of Soviets and renamed Kropotkinskaya in 1957.
As soon as the 1934 Iofan-Shuko-Gelfreikh draft was published, the Palace became a symbol in Soviet art, appearing in propaganda pictures like this by Alexander Deineka. The unbuilt Palace animation was inserted in films (including the 1944 Six o'clock after the war made when the Mosfilm studio was evacuated to Tashkent). Images of the unbuilt Palace were copied onto real buildings like the 1937 North River Terminal.
In 1958-1960, the Palace foundations were cleared of rubble and converted to the open-air Moskva swimming pool (see photo 1, post-1982, photo 2). The one-of-a-kind circular pool had a diameter of 129.5 meters.
In 1970s the State ran an architectural contest for the new V. I. Lenin Museum on a nearby site between the Pushkin Museum and the Kremlin. Some of the competitors, however, proposed building the Museum on the site of the Moskva pool, following the Iofan concept (see Drafts and site layout). This project never materialized.
The Cathedral was rebuilt in 1995-2000.
Stalinist Architecture Projects:
Books in English: