A new book explores the life and career of Boris Iofan, the Jewish Soviet architect who designed for Stalin's regime

Architect of the State

A new book explores the life and career of Boris Iofan, the Jewish Soviet architect who designed for Stalin's regime

Iofan’s unsuccessful design of an office tower on the Zaradye, a prominent site on the river front next to Red Square, in the late 1940s. (© Tchoban Foundation, Museum of Architectural Drawing, Berlin)

Stalin’s Architect: Power and Survival in Moscow
By Deyan Sudjic | The MIT Press | $39.95

The year 2014 marked the return of socialist realism in the art world. That winter, Sotheby’s auction house in London held a noncommercial exhibition titled Soviet Art. Soviet Sport., which featured 40 socialist realist paintings with a particular focus on the late Alexander Deineka. Later, in June, just months after Russia invaded Crimea, Sotheby’s held a successive auction and sold two dozen paintings by socialist realists like Deineka, Alexander Samokhvalov, and others, this time around for a total $7.7 million. “The value of socialist realist works over the past 10–20 years has risen 10- to 20-fold[!]” rejoiced Yury Tyukhtin, a Moscow-based art dealer, after the auction ended (emphasis added).

Later in 2014, when a retrospective for Victor Popov, another prominent Soviet artist, at London’s Somerset House drew crowds of over 3,000 people in less than a week, British curators began drawing up plans for a whole museum dedicated entirely to socialist realism, although the museum never materialized. London hasn’t been alone in its socialist realist mania, however. In recent history, crowds have filled museums in New York, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Rome to see art from the USSR made from the 1930s to the 1950s. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev derided socialist realist art as kitschy and wasteful, and most artists associated with the style were declared personae non gratae and cast aside as relics of a past many wanted to forget. Today, after a long historical interval, socialist realism is reappearing in museums and books around the world, a trend that aligns with the rise of conservatism and Russia’s attempted subjugation of Ukraine in particular.

The craze also extends to architects, particularly Boris Mikhailovich Iofan (1891–1976), the Soviet Union’s best-known socialist realist architect, who has recently been the subject of a handful of books. Maria Kostyuk authored Boris Iofan: Architect Behind the Palace of the Soviets in 2019, and earlier this year Vladmir Sedov completed Stalin’s Architect: The Rise and Fall of Boris Iofan. (Both were published by DOM Publishers.) Now Deyan Sudjic’s book Stalin’s Architect: Power and Survival in Moscow arrives to again tell Iofan’s story. The experts are at least a bit coordinated: This spring, Sudjic and Sedov cocurated a retrospective of Iofan’s sketches and renderings at the Museum for Architectural Drawing in Berlin sponsored by the Tchoban Foundation.

cover of stalin's architect
(© The MIT Press)

Writing in an accessible, journalistic style, Sudjic—an established writer, editor, and former director of the Design Museum, London—successfully illustrates his subject’s tumultuous life with impressive detail.

At times, however, Stalin’s Architect is prey to the sensationalism that Western observers have fallen back on since the Cold War when describing Soviet life, which distracts from Sudjic’s historiographical work. Sudjic invokes George Orwell in the book’s introduction and in following chapters, and he leans on a classic Orwell quote: “Poetry might survive in a totalitarian age, and certain arts or half-arts, such as architecture, might even find tyranny beneficial, but the prose writer would have no choice between silence or death.” This is problematic, as Orwell, a lapsed Trotskyist turned neoconservative figure, secretly informed the British government about people he believed to be “crypto-communists” or somehow deviant as Black, Jewish, queer, and/or leftist individuals. Later, his 1984 was roundly criticized for its surface-level understanding of life in the USSR, most scathingly in a book review by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

Sudjic’s tale starts with a colorful description of the young Iofan’s middle-class Jewish milieu in prerevolutionary Odessa, Ukraine. After changing his name from Borukh to the more fashionable Boris, a common practice for Ukrainian Jews, Iofan traveled to Italy, where he studied architecture from antiquity for the next decade, joined the Italian Communist Party, worked for the Fascist Armando Brasini, and met his beloved wife-to-be Olga Sasso-Ruffo, the daughter of aristocrats. Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy forced Iofan to Moscow, where he spent the rest of his life on some of the most important commissions in the Soviet Union.

Shortly after relocating to Russia, Iofan found early success thanks to his close friendship with Aleksei Rykov, Lenin’s successor. Iofan got his start in the USSR after receiving a commission from Rykov to design a sanatorium for party officials, which he successfully completed in 1929 with great fanfare. Shortly after, Rykov hired Iofan to realize a gargantuan 505-unit megastructure on the Moskva River, later dubbed the “House on the Embankment.” Upon the project’s successful completion in 1931, Iofan was selected by the Central Committee to represent the Soviet Union at both the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris with his friend Vera Mukhina and again at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

black and white photo of architect boris iofan
Boris Iofan in his studio in Moscow, with a study for a representation of Lenin, planned for the top of the Palace of the Soviets. (© Shchusev Museum of Architecture, Moscow)

Despite Rykov’s execution for treason in 1938, Iofan’s good fortune remained intact. After an international competition that saw contributions from Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn, and Albert Kahn (as well as lesser-known local talent like Hector Hamilton, a 28-year-old British-born, Cooper Union–educated architect residing in New Jersey), Iofan won the commission for the Palace of the Soviets. Upon the announcement in Moscow, Iofan’s winning entry stirred debate around the world about the future of modern architecture. Moscow’s Central Committee praised it as the “Vatican of Socialism,” while Sigfried Giedion and Le Corbusier railed against it as a “betrayal to the Revolution” for its unabashed Greco-Roman ornamentation and excessive idolatry.

Had Iofan’s proposal been constructed, the Palace of the Soviets would have used “as much electricity as is required for the whole of Moscow,” an engineering consultant on the project said. André Gide, a lapsed French communist, commented: “The Russian worker will know why he starves in front of the 415m-high monument crowned by a statue of Lenin in stainless steel.” The Palace of the Soviets was the most important commission of Iofan’s life, but it remained on paper after World War II brought construction in Moscow to a halt. Later, its site would be repurposed by Khrushchev to build the world’s largest open-air swimming pool, among other contentious uses after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

While dodging allegations by his rival Karo Halabyan—who attempted, multiple times, to have the secret police execute Iofan in order to secure commissions for himself—Iofan avoided the most perilous moments in Russia’s 20th-century history, only to see his reputation dragged after Stalin’s death for having worked so closely with him. Following 1953, Iofan’s commissions largely dried up. He completed three rather inconsequential built works between then and the time of his own death. In 1976, Iofan was found slouched over in an armchair, lifeless, by a nurse in the Barvikha sanatorium, completed in 1929, the first building he designed after moving to Moscow. Sudjic poetically notes that when Iofan was found in his room, he was clutching a sketch of Worker and Kolkhoz Woman—the statue by his friend Vera Mukhina that adorned his design at the 1937 Soviet Pavilion in Paris.

archival photo of a monumental head being stalled
Vyacheslav Andreyev’s sculpture under installation for Iofan’s Soviet Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. (© Photo Bill Wallace/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Stalin’s Architect is stocked with intimate vignettes like the one above that reveal personal details of Iofan’s life and shed light on the difficult choices one has to make in order to stay in favor with power. Or, as Sudjic himself puts it, “about how damaging it can be to come close to power.”

Rendering Iofan as neither a hero nor an antihero, Sudjic portrays him as a relatable Kafkaesque character operating within a massive bureaucracy in which he had little control over design decisions but nevertheless persevered to make his mark as an artist. While reading Stalin’s Architect, readers can’t help but ask themselves what they would do in Iofan’s shoes.

In comparison to previous literature about socialist realism that locates Iofan at center stage, Stalin’s Architect has, indeed, both its contributions and shortcomings. It pales beside Vladimir Paperny’s cult classic Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two, published in 1985, which offers cultural theory as to why tastes shifted from the avant-garde to socialist realism and how the two artistic movements were, in fact, far less antipodal to one another than history has showed.

Contrasting Sudjic’s book with Vladimir Sedov’s Iofan monograph, Stalin’s Architect doesn’t cover as much ground as the latter: Sedov unearths a treasure trove of projects by Iofan from the 1920s, including lesser-known architectural and furniture designs that were purged from the canon. While the projects Sudjic describes in Stalin’s Architect should be already familiar to casual observers of Soviet socialist realism, they are animated by telling accounts that describe the hard decisions Iofan made in order to stay close to power. He was an architect whom history overlooked, until now.

Dan Jonas Roche is a lecturer at Kean University School of Public Architecture, curator, and writer in New York City.