The previous century’s best-known totalitarianisms — Stalinism and Nazism — were both defined by architectural pipe dreams, from Moscow’s Palace of the Soviets to Berlin’s Volkshalle. Stalin made especially effective use of speculative architecture in his program of rapid industrialization, seeking to leapfrog the West through a series of frenetic Five-Year Plans.
Valentin Kataev’s novel Time, Forward!, published just as the first Five-Year Plan came to an early close in 1932, perfectly encapsulates Stalinist impatience. A lightly fictionalized chronicle of construction at Magnitogorsk, Time, Forward! follows a ragtag band of true Soviet believers over 24 tumultuous hours as they attempt to beat a concrete-pouring record set by the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Our heroes confront a standard assortment of “wreckers” and naysayers (including a stereotypically smug American millionaire), but their greatest obstacle is common sense. Could “socialist competition” — the practice of making brigades of workers race to beat production quotas — increase industrial output without forfeiting quality? Could intuition and will yield better, faster results than technically correct calculation? When Nalbandov, Kataev’s skeptical chief engineer, confronts the rich American, he quells his own misgivings to present an ideal vision of the radiant socialist future. Where once was void, he asserts,
“[T]here will soon be a socialist city of 150,000 workers and officials.”
“Yes, but will humanity be happier as a result? And is this prospective happiness worth so much effort?”
He’s right, thought Nalbandov.
“You’re wrong,” he said, looking at the American coldly. “You lack imagination. We will conquer nature and restore to humanity its lost paradise. We will surround the continents with warm currents, we will force the Arctic Ocean to produce energy in the billions of kilowatts, our pines will grow to kilometer-tall heights…”
In 1932, the Soviet Union was far from accomplishing even the stated goals of the first Five-Year Plan, much less these utopian objectives. The forced agricultural collectivization that attended Stalin’s breakneck industrialization produced not a 200 percent increase in labor productivity, but famine, violence, and social upheaval. Regardless, the Plan was declared “completed in four years,” according to the anti-mathematical formula 2+2=5. This “alternative arithmetic,” as it was called, appeared on propaganda posters that touted the time-warping effects of worker enthusiasm, which could supposedly make seas boil or flowers bloom in the Arctic.
Where rhetoric outpaced reality, narrative would fill in the gaps. Socialist Realism, promulgated as the official Soviet aesthetic in 1934, required creators to show reality not as it was, but as it ought to be. This was not an invitation to untrammeled modernist fantasy.On the contrary, the writer or artist still had to hew close to “objective reality,” just not in a “dead, scholastic way.” The world was instead to appear “in its revolutionary development” — as a place that had already attained the endpoint of socialist progress while paradoxically remaining en route. It is in proleptic service of this vision that Kataev’s engineer speaks so confidently of “restored paradise” while gazing at a landscape littered with debris and swarming with exhausted, malnourished toilers.
In the Soviet Union, shortages of consumer goods and food, even to the point of famine, easily coexisted with images of fantastic abundance. The narrative of unstoppable Soviet production, which culminated with the glorification of norm-busting miner Alexei Stakhanov, maintained its dominance amid mounting reports of “wrecking” and sabotage. But nothing bridged the frustrating gap between present and future, between glorious result and tedious process, better than speculative architecture. Even (or perhaps especially) when Stalinist constructions remained unfinished, they assumed larger-than-life proportions in art, writing, and propaganda. Rome is never built in a day, and even the most efficient building projects shade into materiality only gradually. Stalin’s palaces and canals could therefore remain perpetually incomplete without ever losing their progressive momentum. Soviet speculative architecture hovered in the space between imagination and reality, making up for its physical nonexistence with overwhelming discursive presence.
The ill-fated Palace of the Soviets, conceptualized in the early 1930s and scheduled for completion by the end of the third Five-Year Plan in 1942, presents an illustrative case. Slated to replace Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was unceremoniously blown up in 1931, the Palace was envisioned as an expansive Gesamtkunstwerk, the incarnation of triumphant socialist will. According to a 1940 volume dedicated to the still-unfinished creation,
The entire centuries-long culture of human art will become part of the walls of this people’s building — from the golden faience tiles of Moorish Spain to American architectural glass; from Florentine maiolica ornaments to nickel alloys; from the mosaics of Byzantium to the modern plastics industry. The ancient art of tapestry, carvings in black oak, the reborn fresco, the photoluminescent achievements of light engineering, the popular art of Palekh — it is impossible to enumerate all the riches of artistic ornament. Amid the porphyry and marble, crystal and jasper, the cutting-edge 20th-century technologies of comfort will do their inconspicuous work.
As the crowning achievement of human civilization, the Palace was designed to impress. Its scale may be deduced from the dimensions of its most important ornament: a monumental statue of Lenin pointing (depending on the diagram) either heavenward or out, toward Moscow. Palace-topper Lenin would weigh 6,000 tons and stand 100 meters tall — about a quarter of the height of the entire building. His head, large enough to house a meeting hall, was to be 14 meters in diameter. His index finger would measure four meters. “It is no wonder,” writes philosopher Mikhail Ryklin, “that such a building could never be built.” Indeed, its only finished element is a diminutive gas station located on the prospective compound’s periphery.
The specter of the Palace, meanwhile, lived on long after Stalin’s death. In Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign of the mid-1950s, it served to exemplify the dictator’s “senseless gigantomania.” In the 1960s, the building’s enormous foundation pit, dug in haste three decades earlier, became the world’s largest open-air swimming pool. The fall of the Soviet Union brought the erasure of even these physical traces: in 2000, a reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Savior opened to the public, banishing the Palace of the Soviets to its original home in discourse. Today, the structure appears exclusively in speculative maps of Moscow and science-fiction films.
Yet even completed Stalinist projects retained an element of utopian fantasy. The Moscow Metro, for example, was putatively produced through sheer enthusiasm. In fact, Party bosses conscripted hundreds of thousands of reluctant Muscovites into “voluntary-compulsory” weekend labor during the final months of construction. At the underground’s opening on May 14, 1935, Politburo member Lazar Kaganovich equated enthusiasm with more tangible raw materials:
Our Moscow Metro is remarkable precisely because it’s composed not just of marble — not just of granite — not just of metal — not just of concrete — no! Every piece of marble, every chunk of metal or concrete, every escalator step reveals the new soul of man, our socialist labor. The Metro is our blood, our love, our struggle for the New Man, for a socialist society.
Kaganovich’s vampirically tinged speech was soon immortalized in the hagiographic volume How We Built the Metro. In addition to celebrating the Metro’s beautiful stations and the self-sacrificing heroism of its builders, the book also noted that “this grandiose and technically complex feat of engineering, attempted in the Soviet Union for the first time, was completed in record time and without foreign help.” In reality, “foreign help” was instrumental in both the planning and execution stages of Metro construction. Specialists from the London Underground designed many of the Metro’s technical underpinnings, though by 1933, six of them had been arrested and deported as “wreckers” in the Metro-Vickers Affair.
In another telling episode, the Soviets tricked the British Otis Elevator Company into disclosing the technical parameters of its escalators by pretending they were going to place a large order with the firm. In the end, the Soviets purchased a single escalator (though Otis, by then mightily suspicious, charged them for 12), which they disassembled and copied in a frantic race against Party deadlines. By January 1935, escalators based on the British prototype — though greatly exceeding it in length — graced several Moscow Metro stations. The same obsession with autarky animated the design of the Palace of the Soviets, whose 415-meter height was specifically intended to surpass that of the Empire State Building.
Perhaps the most important instantiation of Stalinist architectural ambition, however, was a project predating both the Metro and the Palace: the White Sea-Baltic Canal. One of the centerpieces of the first Five-Year Plan, the waterway was to connect the White Sea in the Arctic Ocean with the Baltic Sea, becoming a commercial and military thoroughfare rivaling the great channels of the West (especially the Suez and Panama canals). Since Peter the Great, Russian rulers had toyed with the idea of building such a canal, but numerous proposals foundered because of the high costs involved.
For Stalin, cost was not an issue. The materials, he decreed, would be the wood, granite, peat, and dirt from the surrounding Karelian wilderness. And no machines would be used — turning the USSR’s catastrophic lack of industrial apparatus into an opportunity to showcase the mountain-moving potential of worker enthusiasm. Labor power was also not a problem. Since the project was overseen by the secret police (then known as the OGPU), all it took to meet the burgeoning demand for what Maxim Gorky called “human raw material” was to make a few thousand arrests. By 1932, Belbaltlag, the camp that serviced the canal construction site, had “absorbed 26 percent of the entire camp population in the Soviet Union, which then numbered 278,500 strong,” according to historian Oleg Khlevniuk.
Slave laborers built the canal almost entirely by hand over a mere 20 months, completing it in August 1933. At first glance, the final outcome was impressive: at 227 kilometers, the Soviet waterway was longer than both the Suez or Panama Canals. On the other hand, it was only about five meters deep and 30 meters wide. After touring the site, Stalin reportedly called it “a senseless undertaking, of no use to anyone.” The decades that followed proved him right. Cheaply built, shallow and narrow, and largely destroyed by the Finns and Germans during World War II, the canal is today more of a historical curiosity than a functional waterway. It is also a testament to the wastefulness of Stalin’s Gulag-based economy, which, as Khlevniuk notes, owed its few successes to “massive, uncontrolled exploitation of forced labor.”
Like the Palace of the Soviets and the Moscow Metro, the White Sea-Baltic Canal performed its most important functions not in physical reality, but in discourse. The fanfare surrounding its construction and opening, not to mention the physical objects created in its name (like Belomorkanal-brand filterless cigarettes, still popular today) produced a long-lasting legacy.
The Canal established itself in propaganda before the first shovel hit the frozen Karelian ground. Stalin’s collectivization campaign, accompanied by mass arrests and internment in labor camps, produced an international outcry and calls to boycott Soviet exports. At first, the Soviet government ignored the bad press, but starting in January 1931, Russian papers began calling reports of forced labor “filthy slander” concocted by an “anti-Soviet front.” By March of the same year, however, the authorities had ceased to deny the obvious. Instead, Vyacheslav Molotov, chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, stated that forced work “is good for criminals, for it accustoms them to labor and makes them useful members of society.”
The same speech features the first public mention of the White Sea-Baltic Canal as a future exemplar of successful “reforging” (perekovka), a term that gained increasing currency in Soviet penal rhetoric. In intentionally violent language that called to mind hammers, anvils, and extremely high temperatures, reforging referred to the transformation, through labor, of recalcitrant, undisciplined, “spontaneous” human matter into “conscious,” non-spontaneous, highly controlled Soviet citizens.
Newspapers, posters, and speeches all touted the benefits of reforging. But the discursive coup de grâce was a massive volume called The Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal: A History of Construction, 1931-1934. Shortly after the canal's official opening on August 2, 1933, a diverse “brigade” of 120 writers and artists toured the site for six days. Participants included such illustrious figures as satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko, novelist Boris Pilnyak, and Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky. The project was overseen by none other than the father of Socialist Realism himself, Maxim Gorky.
The writers funneled the meticulously staged scenario of “reforging” they encountered at Belbaltlag — happy brigades of workers, earnest reformed criminals, docile political prisoners — into a 600-page paean to corrective labor. A subset of the original 120-strong group (which included both Shklovsky and Zoshchenko, but not Pilnyak) produced the volume over just six months in the spirit of the same heroically rapid “shock work” that had allegedly animated the digging of the canal itself.
Like How We Built the Metro, the History of Construction equated human beings with the natural environment they were supposed to conquer. A section titled “Stalin’s Plan” declared that the finished canal would be “a key blood vessel in the body of the Russian North.” The volume’s authors all emphasized the channeling of natural and bodily liquids as a means not only to successful socialist construction, but to reshaping the personality. Indeed, the White Sea-Baltic Canal volume depicted the conquest of nature as both contributing to and requiring the conquest of the self. In one memorable episode, a criminal-turned-baker/shock worker uses his hand, rather than a thermometer, to test an oven’s readiness for bread. So attuned is he to the vagaries of the labor process that he himself becomes the best instrument, rendering technology useless. Similarly, the engineers in charge of building the canal’s locks deal not with technical measurements but with the “living force of water,” which the text claims is best channeled through intuition and practical testing rather than calculation or theory.
Throughout the volume, the authors deliberately blur the line between criminals and ordinary citizens, extending the lessons of the White Sea-Baltic Canal to everyday Soviet life. One passage discusses the long-term effects of even a brief stint at Belbaltlag, contrasting the benefits of Soviet penal labor to the experience of imprisonment in the West. Following release from a Western prison, the authors claim, the former convict feels himself unmoored, unstable, and directionless. The years spent behind bars seem to him “like a chunk crudely cut” from the flesh of his life. Meanwhile, the liberated “canal armyists” — as OGPU functionary Lazar Kogan christened the Belbaltlag inmates — experience an internal wholeness, their previously unruly energies now reforged into useful skills. In his old life, a criminal’s “daring” might have found expression in robberies, his “breadth of nature” in undisciplined carousing. But canal-building teaches him to guide these proclivities, along with the waters of the canal, in the right direction. “Daring” can now be applied not to breaking and entering, but to breaking up boulders, while “breadth of nature” extends itself “across the whole labor front stretching from Lake Onega to the White Sea.” The Gulag, the volume suggests, is just another stage in a greater Soviet pedagogy applying to innocent and guilty alike.
The White Sea-Baltic Canal — and its namesake volume — had far-reaching significance in Soviet history. The reality of Soviet penal practice, in which human life was reduced to a figure on a page, had to be brought into line with the humanistic utopianism of revolutionary ideals. Accordingly, the public relations campaign surrounding Belbaltlag depicted forced labor as a favor the state was doing for its most troublesome citizens. Most importantly, the volume made explicit the connection between individual human energies, mass forced labor, and the transformation of society and nature in the socialist image. That set of associations would come to underpin the entire Soviet “Gulag archipelago,” as Alexander Solzhenitsyn called it, with its unmechanized labor, unfulfillable work quotas, and exhaustive exploitation of “human raw material.”
Even as it provided a blueprint for future repressions, however, the White Sea-Baltic Canal marked a unique and unrepeatable moment in Soviet history. For the first and last time, the Gulag was displayed to the public, advertising the transformative effects of Soviet penal practice. Later projects, like the Moscow-Volga Canal (built by convicts between 1932 and 1937), were relegated to the background as the leadership became increasingly preoccupied with “enemies of the people.”
In fact, toward the end of the 1930s, even the documentation of speculative architecture became speculative. Though a 352-page Moscow-Volga canal volume was prepared for press in 1937, it could never be published. Many of those it extolled — like Semyon Firin, who had overseen both the White Sea-Baltic and Moscow canal projects — had fallen victim to the Great Purge of 1936 to 1938 and become unmentionable. The “human raw material” that populated every sphere of Soviet society, from the lowest bunks of the Gulag to the highest ranks of the Party, had now completed its painful reforging — not, as promised, into exemplary New Men, but into extraneous “human ballast” to be discarded.
Efforts to grapple with the aftermath of Stalinism, underway since the ruler’s death in 1953, accelerated during Gorbachev’s experiment with societal openness in the late 1980s. That period saw the release of previously unpublishable memoirs, the unlocking of archives, and the opening of memorials dedicated to Stalin’s victims. Among these diverse creations, Ivan Chukhin’s alternative history of the White Sea-Baltic Canal, Canal Armyists (1990), stands out for its peculiar hybridity. Though he emphatically rejects the “ends justify the means” logic undergirding the Stalinist vision of the world, he cannot quite bring himself to part with Stalinist practices.
Chukhin was well positioned to observe the growing obsolescence of Soviet ideology. Born in 1948, he spent much of his life in Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Republic of Karelia. Trained as a manual laborer and engineer, he served in the army and worked in construction. In 1974, he took a job with the criminal investigation unit of the Karelian Ministry of Internal Affairs, where he remained until 1992. In the late 1980s, he joined Memorial, a historical and civil rights society established in 1989 with the aim of documenting Soviet political repressions and preventing their recurrence. A year later, Chukhin earned a spot in the recently democratized Supreme Soviet and began channeling his commitment to human rights into political activity. In 1993, he won a seat in the State Duma of the Russian Federation, where he represented Karelia until 1995.
As a policeman, Chukhin served the Soviet establishment. But he was also an amateur historian who dedicated years to gathering and publicizing information on the victims of Stalinist repressions. He thus contributed to the tide of revelations that helped discredit Soviet ideology and hasten the collapse of the regime. Over the course of the 1980s, his research gained focus, and he soon became known as an expert on the history of the White Sea-Baltic Canal. Toward the end of the decade, a historian friend arranged for him to speak at the Institute for History and Archives in Moscow. According to Valerii Verkhogliadov, a longtime friend of Chukhin’s who accompanied him to the event,
A flyer hung at the Institute entrance: “History of the White Sea-Baltic Canal. Speaker: Police Major I. Chukhin.” Underneath, someone had stuck an empty pack of Belomorkanals.
The audience met us with suspicion, almost hostility.
Here, in the domain of first-wave democrats like [Institute rector] Yuri Afanasyev, the attitude toward representatives of law enforcement was mistrustful, to put it mildly.
“Chin up, Ivan Ivanovich, or they’ll eat us alive,” said [our host].
“I’ll try,” said Chukhin, and began his talk.
He spoke for more than an hour, citing the names of inmates and guards, recounting from memory all the inhuman statistics of the canal’s construction.
He left the stage to thunderous applause.
Shortly after his Moscow visit, Chukhin published his findings as a book, which he named after the prison laborers of Belbaltlag.
Canal Armyists is simultaneously a companion piece and an antidote to The Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal: A History of Construction, 1931-1934. The latter is effectively anonymous; with the exception of the final section, credited to Zoshchenko, its chapters were collectively written and thus lack a single author. The only human name on the cover is Stalin’s, and even that is a pseudonym. Chukhin’s book, by contrast, bears the unmistakable marks of individual authorship — his name appears on the cover and he uses the first-person singular throughout.
Prioritizing transparency over artfulness, Chukhin seeks to refute decades of lies about the costs of early Soviet industrialization. His book is no mere narrative; rather, as we read on the title page, it is “A History of Construction in Documents, Numbers, Facts, Photographs, and Accounts by Participants and Eyewitnesses.” Written by committee, the 1934 volume maintains a monologic tone throughout (except, again, the section penned by Zoshchenko), whereas Chukhin frequently cedes the floor to his many informants. His manuscript is not even half the length of its 600-page predecessor, but what it lacks in pages, it makes up for in diversity of voices. By the end, Chukhin ceases to narrate entirely. His final section, called “Dialogue with the Reader,” alternates selected letters of gratitude and inquiry with the author’s heartfelt replies.
Nor does Chukhin’s deep commitment to documentary accuracy, born of his time in the Karelian archives — and on the local police force — preclude forays into lyricism and lamentation. Halfway through the book, he takes stock of the decades separating him from his subjects:
Sixty years have passed since then — a long time, especially considering the many terrible events that occurred in the interim: the famine of 1933 and the black ice of 1937; the war with fascism and the new war against our own citizens; the drunken 1970s, stagnant to the point of timelessness …
But time did not spare even those who survived all these troubles. It was possible to locate only a very few canal armyists.
Their police files are much better preserved. But where to begin with these enormous shelves filled with purple (Solovetsk) and grey (Belbaltlag) folders? How to read millions of pages of human fates? And how can we then avoid error and assure the reader: this many guilty people worked on the canal, while that many were innocent. This many were successfully reforged, while that many couldn’t withstand the process — which, after all, is meant for metal, not humans.
The question of guilt evidently haunted Chukhin, his research forcing him to acknowledge the presence of genuine criminals among the tens of thousands toiling at Belbaltlag. Did the murderers, rapists, and thieves deserve to suffer for their crimes — and even if they did, was “reforging” too harsh a punishment? Writing at the dawn of the post-Soviet era, Chukhin openly struggles with the enormity of the Stalinist legacy. Even the most fastidious sourcing cannot compensate for the ravages of time and the vicissitudes of oral history, given how few former “canal armyists” were available for interview. To avoid even the appearance of ideological partisanship, Chukhin begrudgingly gives the canal its limited due, noting the ingenuity of its designers and the “unique technical achievements” of the finished product.
Ultimately, however, he comes down firmly on the side of condemnation. At best, he argues, “reforging” of the type practiced in Belbaltlag created the class of ruthless informers that so prolifically denounced “enemies of the people” during the Purge. The “hypocritical mask” some canal armyists adopted to survive their time in the camp “soon clung to their faces and souls in a death grip.” How many of the “reforged,” Chukhin asks, “returned to ordinary life only to poison everything around them with viruses of duplicity and denunciation, hastening the arrival of 1937 [the height of the Purge]?” Here Chukhin finds himself in unexpected concord with the authors of the 1934 volume. He similarly emphasizes the continuity of life inside and outside the Soviet Gulag, though he finds it horrifying rather than salubrious.
Perhaps the most contradictory part of Canal Armyists is its penultimate chapter. Here, Chukhin sloughs off his “journalistic” guise and returns to a more familiar, police-style protocol. Invoking his status as “Lieutenant Colonel of the Petrozavodsk Militia and CPSU member since 1987,” he issues a “closing indictment” against Stalin and the OGPU leadership. He lists “the facts of the case” and the resulting “charges,” but stops short of issuing a verdict. “The case,” he instead asserts, “will be tried in the Court of History.” In a surprisingly optimistic gesture, Chukhin defers to a post-Soviet future he assumes will be more sagacious and humane than the Soviet past. If history is written by the victors, Chukhin seems to assume that post-Soviet Russia will be ruled by those who agree with his negative assessment of Stalinism.
Yet in order to debunk one of the most enduring Soviet myths — the myth of successful “reforging” through penal labor — Chukhin appeals to the same legalistic structures that enabled the system’s most egregious abuses. It is in this moment that Chukhin dons his most impressive official regalia, assessing socialist construction not as an independent citizen, but as a Communist Party member and mid-ranking Chekist.
Stalinist habits die hard. And the same can be said for the discourse of speculative architecture, which cannot simply be toppled like so many Lenin monuments. Belomorkanal-brand cigarettes continue to be sold throughout the former Soviet bloc, the words SMOKING KILLS unironically emblazoned on their packaging. The 500-ruble note, first issued in the 1990s, bears an image of the first Soviet Gulag, housed from 1923 in the former Solovetsky Monastery in Russia’s Far North. As cultural historian Alexander Etkind points out, the image of the monastery on the bill features the “atypical cupolas” dating to the late 1920s, when the camp was at its most populous. The Soviet regime excelled at transforming “human raw material” into “human ballast.” Its collapse ushered in an even stranger development: the conversion of memory into commodity.
For all its utopian promise, authoritarian “gigantomania” is inherently wasteful: of raw materials, of institutional capacities, and of human lives. Speculative architectural projects, with their propensity for accident and error, veer quickly into paranoia about “enemies of the people,” be they incompetent organizers or insufficiently obsequious journalists. Projects like the Palace of the Soviets and THE WALL are united by a kind of compulsory irrationality, what historian Karl Schlögel calls an “obliteration of the distinction between the real and the fantastic.” Those who refuse to participate in the fantasy are branded, like the doubters in Time, Forward! or certain technical experts working on the Moscow Metro, “unimaginative” or “faithless.” For those in charge, the enthusiasm of “the masses” — real or fabricated — is sufficient proof of concept, calculations be damned.
A similar disregard for empirical evidence afflicts contemporary US penal practice. We know that private prisons are more costly, violent, and ineffective at reforming prisoners than their publicly held equivalents. Yet even after extensive review, the Obama administration took only tentative steps to eliminate them, which the next administration promptly reversed. We know THE WALL cannot be built, yet funds continue to be allocated for related projects. It seems the grandiose irrationality of high Stalinism (“2+2=5!”) is not out of place in our own time.
Maya Vinokour is a writer, editor, and translator based in New York City. She is the co-translator and co-editor (with Ainsley Morse and Maria Vassileva) of Linor Goralik’s Found Life: Poems, Stories, Comics, a Play, and an Interview (Columbia University Press, 2017).