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Moscow State University: History and Myths

11 September, 2015

This year, Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU) celebrated its 260th anniversary. It is therefore no surprise that this longstanding educational institution is steeped in history. Located on Sparrow Hills, the main university building has become an emblem of its worldwide prestige. As part of the Seven Sisters in Moscow, the main building acts as a domineering example of Stalinist architecture, embodying the idea of the communist future. The 36-storey building and its spire reaching 240m makes it the tallest educational building in the world and is home to the Faculties of Geology, Geography, and Mechanics and Mathmatics, as well as providing accommodation for thousands of students. Since the building’s official opening on the 1st of September 1953, the history and myths of its construction began to surface.

Architectural Arguments

In 1948, the Science Department of the Central Committee devised a memorandum proposing the construction of a “temple to Soviet Science” skyscraper. Initially, Moscow officials reviewed the proposals and deemed them to be unrealistic, owing to the fact that too many elevators are needed for skyscrapers. The officials concluded that this “temple” could be no more than four stories high. Given the importance of this project, Stalin held a special meeting to consider this “university issue”. Naturally, Stalin considered that a four-storey building would insufficiently represent the grandeur of Russia’s oldest university and ordered that a building no less than 20-stories would be constructed on Sparrow Hills.

Construction – Myths and Legends

The Ministry of Internal Affairs ordered the release of several thousand prisoners from gulags who were trained construction workers so that they could serve the rest of their sentence on parole working at the construction site. Once the construction got underway, the prisoners were relocated to a camp on the 24th and 25th floors of the building to prevent any attempts to escape. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1952 rumours emerged that a prisoner had created a hang-glider using plywood and wire to try to escape. One version of this legend states that the escapee managed to successfully glide to the other side of the river; another claims that he was shot down mid-flight. The most interesting account is that the escapee was captured by the KGB but that Stalin personally ordered his release based on the convict’s bravery.

Another myth is that Stalin planned an underground city to act as a bunker in case of a nuclear attack. The underground area of MSU continues to be hidden in mystery. Some people believe that this subterranean city connects areas under the Belarus train station, the Russian State Library, the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defence. Perhaps we will never know for sure…

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