When the German philosopher Walter Benjamin visited Moscow in 1926, he noted the city’s lack of grandeur, its absence of monuments, the persistence of “little wooden buildings” that made it seem as if “the Russian village is playing hide and seek”.

Thirty years later, however, the Soviet capital was crowned with seven monumental skyscrapers whose construction had transformed the social and physical fabric of the city.

Katherine Zubovich offers a richly illustrated account of how Stalin sought to turn Moscow into “the capital of all capitals”, a place that would proclaim the Soviet Union’s greatness to the world. The skyscrapers were to serve variously as apartment blocks, hotels, a university and ministries, the concrete expression of a new way of living. Yet as Moscow Monumental shows, the project typifies many of the contradictions and ironies of the Stalinist era.

The skyscrapers grew out of an even grander project, the proposed construction of a gargantuan “Palace of the Soviets” that would, at 415 metres, have been the world’s tallest building. Yet while there was no shortage of futuristic designs for this structure, and a site was earmarked — by dynamiting the 19th-century Cathedral of Christ the Saviour — Soviet architects lacked the necessary technical expertise and were forced to look to America. Zubovich’s account of their supportive reception during visits in 1934 to New York, Chicago and other US cities is a reminder of a period of collaboration later obscured by the superpower conflict of the cold war.

Though the palace was never built — after the second world war, the site was turned into an outdoor swimming pool; in the 1990s the cathedral was rebuilt — the bureaucratic and technical expertise from the project underpinned the skyscrapers’ construction. Yet by the time their construction was approved in the late 1940s, the ideological climate had shifted. The word “skyscraper” was too redolent of US influence, so their Soviet counterparts became simply “tall buildings”. The contrast was emphasised by claims that American skyscrapers — “symbols of the enslavement of man to the soulless machine of business” — swayed in the wind.

The greater contradiction was that whatever their symbolic benefits, these showcase giants did little to ameliorate the postwar privations suffered by ordinary Soviet citizens. Zubovich, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, argues that the project made things worse. To clear space for the skyscrapers, which were reserved for the elite, tens of thousands of people were forcibly resettled outside Moscow. While the construction workers were lionised as heroes — except those drafted in from the Gulag — they didn’t get to live there either. (Echoes of some of the practices detailed in Moscow Monumental can be found in China today as municipal authorities radically reshape the urban environment there.)

Under Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership, during the 1950s and early 1960s, the skyscrapers’ prestige declined, and they were held up as examples of “excess” and “individualism”. Yet the Stalinist monumental brand proved more durable. While western architectural styles shifted towards glass skyscrapers, the distinctive tiered “wedding cake” design and classical features of Moscow’s skyscrapers remained popular templates throughout the Eastern Bloc. The style has even survived the collapse of communism. In Central Asia it still connotes power and status, while in Russia the nationalism of President Vladimir Putin seems likely to continue to foster nostalgia for such symbols.

Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital, by Katherine Zubovich, Princeton, RRP$39.95/RRP£34, 288 pages

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