In revolutionary climates, literally anything seems possible. Not only can streets, cities and states be renamed, even the calendar can be reorganised. Everything can be engineered towards the goal of reforming and reformulating existence.
The Bolshevik-led October Revolution ushered in a new era in what would become the USSR. Not only would political and economic systems be abolished and replaced by Communism, there would be a project to create ‘Soviet Man’, which would entail re-education of men and women previously shackled by the bourgeois capitalism that existed under Russia’s monarchical tyranny. The individual was no longer considered a private person with concealed (and potentially suspect) beliefs and selfish interests; Soviet Man would control the means of production and govern the state as part of a collective. But in return he must forgo his private self-interest.
Architecture was to play a crucial role in the revolutionary intention to create Soviet Man. This is captured by Imagine Moscow, a new exhibition of art, textiles, posters and architectural plans at London’s Design Museum, which examines six Soviet architectural projects for Moscow, dating from the 1920s and 1930s.
The USSR of 1917 to 1926 was a land where the most radical of ideas were taken seriously and even encouraged by the new regime. It was also a largely rural economy with an impoverished, under-educated population. In its early years it was also fighting a bitter civil war. The imagination of urban intellectuals and city planners far outstripped the resources, knowledge and funds available for many projects, even those that were relatively modest. And the most ambitious plans were those most likely to be shelved.
Prior to the revolution, a small group of vanguard Russian Modernists had worked in Tsarist Russia. They were inspired by the developments in Western Europe, and had developed their own styles, such as Constructivism and Suprematism. They were keen to have their ideas reach fruition in more public forms. In the early years of the revolution, political leaders were attracted to these radical ideas for two principal reasons. First, they demonstrated a break with religious and bourgeois tradition. Modernism embodied precisely the aspirational adventurousness that the Bolsheviks were keen to harness in order to inspire worldwide progression to universal co-operation, and to realise mankind’s full potential. Second, Modernism proposed some ambitious pragmatic solutions to problems that had previously seemed insoluble due to political, social and religious constraints. The inertia of capitalism in Tsarist Russia that had prevented wholesale change was no longer applicable in the USSR.