The Haunted Home of Soviets Will get a New Life
KALININGRAD, Russia – Yevgenia Kvasova was young when she observed what inherently resembled a gigantic head rise in the center of her city on the westernmost edge of Russia.
“It gives me the evil eye every time I leave the house,” said Ms. Kvasova, now 62, referring to the offensive structure, the House of the Soviets, which actually has a series of eye-like balconies extending from its facades look out.
Even architects who admire the original, bold design in a mix of modernist and brutalist styles admit that the House of Soviets failed to fulfill its promise as a symbol of the Soviet Union’s control over the former German land conquered in World War II.
Instead, the building became a symbol of flaws in the Soviet system, as poor construction and structural defects meant that it could never be occupied.
Now, 42 years later, a regional governor has announced that the House of Soviets will fall for good. The demolition is planned for this spring.
But its ugliness made it strangely loved by young people in town, who viewed the building as a peculiar landmark of their homeland and the Soviet Union, which they never knew firsthand.
“It’s like a monument to the Soviet Union that we should keep,” said Yevgenia Kryazheva, a waitress at Tyotka Fischer, a German restaurant with windows that overlook the Soviet house. “I don’t like the way it looks,” she admitted. But “People like things with flaws. It’s ugly, but it’s ours. “
Kaliningrad, a pleasant port city with seagulls fluttering over the wide central squares and steep-roofed houses that line the green side streets, was once German and known as Königsberg, the seat of power in East Prussia, as the region was called.
After the Soviet Union conquered Nazi territory in World War II, about 80 percent of the buildings were in ruins. In the 1960s, the Soviet authorities, who wanted to rid Kaliningrad of its German heritage, blew up part of a Gothic castle that had survived to make way for the house of the Soviets.
Construction began a decade later. The building is reminiscent of a head because it was intended as the headquarters.
The protruding balconies are eyes above which rise an oversized cluster of office space dedicated to Communist Party officials who would run the economy. They never settled in because of the structural defects.
Critics say the concept is nothing more than authoritarian. Locals called it the “robot head”. In addition to its problems, the building was never completed. Rain trickled in. Soaked concrete swelled and blocks of it fell off. For a while, market traders stored goods in abandoned rooms. Nobody has ever used it as an office space.
But even in the post-Soviet era, local governments shied away from taking the politically tense step of removing the empty building, as doing so would essentially admit a flaw in Soviet efforts to replace Germany’s cultural heritage.
So the House of Soviets went to the seed. These days the wind whistles through broken and missing windows. On a recent visit, two shaggy, wicked tempered guard dogs barked viciously behind storm fences.
“Actually it would be better if they built something else,” mused Aleksey Levanyuk, who was standing next to his parked van, while he looked up at the building as if he was noticing it for the first time. “It’s really awful. But it’s been here so long that we all got used to it. “
To be fair, the building, loosely modeled on the futuristic national congress in the Brazilian capital, Brasília, is featured in several anthologies of outstanding modernist designs and is admired by some architects around the world.
Over the years, the fate of the abandoned house of the Soviets became intertwined with competing ideas about the future of Kaliningrad itself, a Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania.
In the immediate post-Soviet period, President Boris N. Yeltsin launched the concept of a Russian Hong Kong, a banking and investment center open to Europe.
During this time, plans arose to tear down the house of the Soviets and rebuild the royal Königsberg as a symbol of the consideration of the German past and the European future – and to attract tourists. President Vladimir V. Putin even endorsed the idea early in his term in office.
Back then, “we had utopian visions,” said Aleksander Dobralsky, a lawyer and supporter of the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who, like other liberals, advocates that Kaliningrad integrate into its European neighbors.
After relations with the West deteriorated in the Ukraine crisis, Poland canceled visa-free travel for Kaliningrad residents as the region emerged as a security threat. A former American national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, called the Russian exclave “a dagger in the heart of Europe”.
Moscow deployed nuclear-capable missiles called Iskanders in the region. A little south of the city is one of Europe’s new security hotspots, the 64-mile-wide Suwalki Gap between Kaliningrad and Belarus, the only overland route for the organization of the North Atlantic Treaty from Western Europe to the Baltic states.
In Kaliningrad, nationalist groups championed the unloved house of the Soviets, regardless of its shortcomings. The building shows “our Russian power on the former German land,” claimed one such group, Russian Society, in a statement.
But it has never really been made clear how that power is being used.
“We are either a front line position for the military, a base for missiles or a gateway for the European Union to Russia,” said Pyotr Chernenko, chairman of an architects’ union in Kaliningrad. “You can’t be both.”
However, some see the building as an important reminder of history.
40-year-old graphic designer Maksim Popov has done a brisk business with the House of Soviets selling tote bags and t-shirts, sometimes with fanciful body parts such as legs and arms under his head.
“The House of Soviets was built as a symbol of victory over our history,” said Popov. “But if we destroy it, as we did at the castle, have we really learned any lessons?”
What’s the plan now?
Governor Anton A. Alikhanov, who announced the demolition last November, has promised a so-called “new house of the Soviets” in his place. It will be a close copy – but with the difference that it will work this time. “It is being reconstructed,” he said in an interview.
The new building will be built on the original foundation and at the same height and size and will have similar architectural motifs, he said. The plumbing, elevator shafts and other technical elements will be modern. It won’t be an exact replica, he said.
“We can’t leave this place empty,” he said. “Before the Germans arrived, there were Prussian cities. Then the Teutonic Order came and built a castle. When we conquered the country, Soviet symbols appeared. Now has come a new time, a new Russia, and new symbols should appear. “
But he said he could keep the name, the house of the Soviets. “Branding is important,” he said.
Vadim Chaly, professor of philosophy at the Baltic Federal University, said this was a telling solution to the decades-old problem of the house of soviets in the city.
“Now they want to tear it down and put a copy in its place,” said Mr. Chaly. “That’s exactly what happens to us. You want a copy of the Soviet Union in many ways, but with a few tweaks. A more modern version. “