Dream Commune: Socialist Town in Avtozavodsky District

This city inside a city, founded concurrently with the Gorky Automobile Factory (GAZ), was built primarily for the factory’s workers. In 1930s Russia, this was a pioneering experience of a full-blown “dream commune” – the utopia incarnate, the socialist city of the future, rigorously partitioned into utility areas: living, working, and “green.” This route takes in the key landmarks of Sotsgorod, or “Socialist Town,” namely: the impressive 55-stairs apartment house that occupies a whole block, the radial house, the department store, which was very cutting-edge for its time, and one of Nizhny’s biggest parks.  

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Park Kultury, the last Metro station on the Avtozavodskaya Line, seems like a good starting point for the tour. It takes about 20 minutes to get here by Metro from the city centre. The station is right next to the neighbourhood’s main square, Ploshchad Ivana Kiselyova, named (in 2005) in honour of the GAZ director who stood at the helm of the enterprise in the 1960s through the 1980s. The former name, Dvortsovaya (or Palace) Ploshchad, was owed to the GAZ Palace of Culture, built in 1961 to mark the enterprise’s 30th anniversary.  

The cinema and concert space (currently Mir Cinema) next door, built in 1937, was one of the first public buildings in Sotsgorod. The idea was that the culture club should become a second home for a working person. It was this building that was conceived as the future Palace of Culture. It was designed by Alexander Grinberg, the creator of numerous Constructivist buildings across Russia. This project was unique, though. Grinberg had planned to pack a 1800-seat theatre, 800-seat cinema and concert space, a club and a fitness centre, totalling over 130,000 square metres between them, into a single complex. In the end, only the cinema and concert space was built. For consolation, the space consistently booked the best acts in the country, making its Moscow-based rivals jealous: Leonid Utyosov’s jazz orchestra, Pyatnitsky Choir, recitals by the nation’s favourite actors Nikolai Kriuchkov, Pavel Kadochnikov and Lubov Orlova. The tickets were hard to come by. The building’s façade displays the sculptures of a female athlete, a worker, a pilot, and a female kolkhoz worker. 

Pavel Novikov/Welcome2018.com

Mir Cinema adjoins the Culture and Recreation Park. The Sotsgorod planners reasonably assumed that the workers and their families would want to go for a stroll after the movie. The park was planted in 1935 by GAZ workers themselves, who would plant lindens and poplars after their shift. Every factory shop was assigned its own area of the park to plant. In its first years, one had to pay to go in the park, which had the city’s first carousel and dance floor, as well as a summer theatre and a large outdoor stage. The park currently exceeds 80 hectares and has a classical layout: vistas irradiating from the central oval plaza with a fountain. Entry is free. 

Pavel Novikov/Welcome2018.com

The key thoroughfares of Sotsgorod irradiate from Ploshchad Kiselyova. One is Prospekt Oktyabrya. The central shopping complex of the GAZ district, opened for the 20th anniversary of the October 1917 Revolution in 1937, is located at the inception of this traffic artery. This late Constructivist edifice with a glass front must have looked very impressive in a neighbourhood still partially covered with low-rise wooden structures. Avtozavodsky Department Store was considered one of the best shopping spaces in the Soviet Union. Its shopper flow management was particularly praised. While it is still a shopping centre, the choice of goods at Avtozavodsky Department Store is no different from any other shopping centre in town. If anything, it’s probably inferior to those other places, and yet Avtozavodsky is worth a look inside, if only to appreciate the surviving original interiors and particularly the awesome bow-shaped staircase connecting the three floors of the department store. 

Pavel Novikov/Welcome2018.com

These two signature blocks of Sotsgorod are named Busyginskiye in honour of the GAZ blacksmith Alexander Busygin, credited as one of the initiators of the Stakhanov Movement. Rumour has it that Busygin, who consistently exceeded production targets with his crew, was offered a job in Detroit by the US specialists who advised the GAZ management. Busygin refused, and was given an apartment in one of the new houses as a reward for his loyalty.  

The “yellow Busygin houses” is a block of buildings with identical Constructivist façades.  This used to be sought-after housing. The apartments here had high ceilings, typical for the style of architecture known as “Stalin’s Empire,” as well as in-house bathrooms and all the attendant infrastructure. There were shops, hair salons, libraries, bank offices and post offices on the ground floors.   

The "gray Busygin house," facing Prospekt Oktyabrya 21, consists of several sections five to eight stories tall, numbering 55 staircases and 450 apartments, forming a vast enclosed backyard. This complex occupies a whole block.  The sections are joined by gigantic arches six stories tall, which are visible from the Prospekt. Whereas the more valued employees were given apartments in the “yellow” Busygin houses, the “gray” house was reserved exclusively for the GAZ elite: top management and highly merited employees. Designed by the celebrated Moscow architect Ilya Golosov, the gray Busygin house is a late Constructivist landmark.  

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This building was constructed in 1939 as the end of the line station for a children’s railway: Schastlivaya (or Happy) Station. In the 1970s, however, it was decided to put the building to a more relevant use, converting it to a Wedding Palace. Its Italian Palazzo interior was just the thing: a roomy staircase, spacious well-lit solemnization hall, numerous rooms where to prepare for the ceremony… The Avtozavodsky Wedding Palace is to this day considered ideal for couples who really go for the solemn atmosphere of an official ceremony. This Wedding Palace, which is also a vital records office, upholds its tradition of celebrating the couples who stay together for 25, 50, 60 or more years. 

Pavel Novikov/Welcome2018.com

The block of this seven-storey building was designed by another stellar tea.m. of architects, the Moscow architectural studio of the Brothers Vesnin. Both the arched shape and the front of this building are unusual: the balconies placed in a checkerboard order, the colonnade underneath the roof... This colonnade – the highest point of the block - was where they deployed antiaircraft guns to shoot down Nazi warplanes during the Great Patriotic War. Similarly to the gray Busygin houses, no random person could get an apartment in the radial house. Only merited GAZ employees and members of the intelligentsia qualified.