The age of modern architecture in the Soviet Union was ultimately very short — six or seven years long at most. It began in the early 1920s, and by 1932, it had already been destroyed on the government’s orders only to be replaced by the imperial structures of Stalinism.
Constructivism, as modern architecture of that era was known in the USSR and is still known in Russia to this day, had disappeared from social consciousness as early as the 1930s, and the monuments to it that remained standing were received by the next generation of city dwellers as the strange spawn of a lost civilization, something like the statues on Easter Island.
Early Soviet architecture could be mythologized as the most progressive in the world despite, not because of, the Soviet government.
The fact that Soviet architecture was not at the leading edge of its field in the 1920s is inarguable. Chronologically, the Soviet constructivists followed their Western counterparts. For example, April 25, 2019, marked the centennial of the Bauhaus: that school, which was founded in the German city of Weimar, changed the face of contemporary European art and architecture, and it set an example for the USSR.
Western architects wanted to build the cities of the future, but the Soviet government asked them to build barracks.
The first Western architect to receive an order from the Soviet government was Erich Mendelsohn in 1925. Unlike many of the architects who later moved from Germany to the USSR, he did not sympathize with the Soviet government at all.
At the time, Mendelsohn was known for producing the Luckenwalde hat factory. The Soviet government offered him the chance to design an entirely modern textile factory called Krasnoye Znamya, or Red Banner, in Leningrad. Two trips to the USSR in 1925 and 1926 only strengthened Mendelsohn’s distaste for the Soviet authorities. Unfounded quibbles about the project and personal attacks in the press, including accusations of unprofessionalism, led Mendelsohn to leave the project in 1927.
European architects designed socialist cities all over the USSR but quickly came into conflict with the Soviet government.
In October of 1930, Ernst May, Frankfurt’s former city councilor for construction, arrived in the USSR to find work. He did not come alone; instead, he brought along a hand-picked group of architects and engineers with various fields of expertise. May himself specialized in housing development, and he was responsible for a number of newly built German villages. Unlike Le Corbusier and Mendelsohn, May and his group did not maintain professional independence once in the Soviet Union, and they did not push back against their government clients. They became Soviet servicemembers who were obligated to obey the country’s leadership.
Foreign architects who stayed in the USSR were often sent to gulags, where many of them died.
In late 1930, the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer, who had recently been displaced from his post as the director of the Bauhaus in Dessau (where the school moved in the mid-1920s) due to his far-left political views, arrived in Moscow. Unlike the politically neutral May, Hannes Meyer was a fanatical communist. In February of 1931, a group of fellow communists who had also been his students at the Bauhaus joined Meyer in the Soviet capital.
One architect who went on to work for the Nazi regime wrote a detailed book that openly criticized the early Stalinist USSR.
All in all, a few dozen foreign architects worked in the Soviet Union during the era of the first five-year plans. Some of them, like Mendelsohn and Le Corbusier, were well known and received personal invitations. Other, lesser-known architects were often motivated by curiosity and a simple need for work. Rudolf Wolters was among the latter. He would later help develop the Nazi regime’s plan for rebuilding Berlin under the leadership of Hitler’s lead architect, Albert Speer, who met Wolters when they were both Munich Technical School students in the 1920s. In the early 1930s, though, finding work in Soviet Russia was easier than doing the same in Germany, and in 1932, the young Wolters moved to Novosibirsk.
The Kahn firm’s automobile, tank, and airplane factories left one of the most impactful legacies in Soviet architecture.
Erich Mendelsohn, Le Corbusier, Ernst May, Hannes Meyer, and other Western architects who left a significant legacy in Soviet urban planning were publicly visible people. They published articles in the Soviet and Western press and gave lectures on Soviet architecture when they traveled in Europe. Their Soviet projects received publicity both in the USSR and in the West. That said, the practical results of their work in the USSR were close to nil. Few of their designs were brought to life, and whatever was actually built has attracted more historical interest than artistic or architectural attention.