EH Carr: Kiev’s new railway station

In this article from 1929 the British historian EH Carr is excited to announce that Kyiv would be getting a new railway station. The station was constructed between 1927 and 1932 to update the old station and still stands today as part of the Central Station building of Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi station. The piece was written when Ukraine was under the control of the Soviet Union and Carr refers to the Ukrainian capital by its common English spelling at the time, Kiev, which in recent years, and especially since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war, has fallen out of favour because it derives from the Russian name for the city, rather than the Ukrainian. Carr appears unenthusiastic about the station’s baroque style, reporting criticisms of it as “expensive, non-durable, unhygienic and inconvenient”. Ukrainian baroque, he feels, may end up a historical footnote, but a different style could endure.

It is announced that the city of Kiev is to have a new railway station. The announcement is authoritative, and only the most hardened sceptic would question its veracity. For it has behind it all the weight of antiquity; it was first made in the year 1899, and has been repeated at frequent intervals ever since. Since that date the collection of buildings through which passengers reaching or leaving Kiev are compelled to pass on their way to or from the train has been degraded. It is no longer a railway station; it is a “temporary railway station”; and the passenger who might be disposed to complain of overcrowding or draughts or dirt is at once soothed and satisfied. His sufferings are not for all time; a generation or two may pass, but in the end all will be well. The city of Kiev will have a new railway station.

In 1918 an army of contractors and some workmen arrived on the spot. At the entrance to the “temporary railway station” excavations were made, foundations were laid, girders were swung into place. But the workers paused to consider the glory of their handiwork, and the pause was fatal; the next year dispersed them to four different fronts, and the city of Kiev has known them no more. The framework which they raised has not perished; it stands still, as the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

The Soviet authorities, as was to be expected, did not allow the grass to grow under their feet – or over the unfinished foundations of the Kiev railway station. More than two years ago they announced a competition for the best design for the new station. But this was the beginning, rather than the end, of their difficulties. The Russian intellectual has always regarded a railway station with a kind of religious awe. It is recorded of a famous Russian critic of the forties that, in order to revive his flagging faith in mankind, he used from time to time to go and watch the building of the first railway station of Petersburg, and returned from its contemplation encouraged and spiritually refreshed. Now that the building of churches is no longer in fashion, it may be presumed that the railway station of Kiev will become the symbol of the city’s greatness, a secular cathedral. Such a work is not undertaken without much discussion by committees, the modern substitute for prayer and fasting.

Now the city of Kiev, though it has long lost its ancient status as a political capital, still regards itself as the intellectual capital of the Ukraine and the seat of Little Russian culture. What therefore could be more appropriate than to make the new railway station of Kiev a living monument of that culture? So thought the local committee, and selected as winner in the competition a design for a station “in the Ukrainian baroque style.” We must await the next Russian text-book on architecture for a sympathetic definition of this form of art, uncatalogued even by Mr Sacheverell Sitwell. In the meanwhile, we have only the testimony of its opponents of the ferro-concrete school, who describe it as expensive, non-durable, unhygienic and inconvenient. The winning “Ukrainian baroque” design will, we are assured, cost 180,000 roubles more than a classical design; it must be executed in brick and stucco instead of ferro-concrete; it involves so much architectural detail that it can never be kept clean; and finally it omits to provide either a roof to cover the passengers who wait on the platform or a bridge by which they may cross the tracks. In short, whatever its claims to be called baroque, it all sounds eminently Ukrainian.

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But it must not be supposed that the ferro-concrete school have had the argument all their own way. The devotees of Ukrainian baroque have dealt a shrewd blow in return. Are not so-called classical designs in ferro-concrete typical creations of western Capitalism, symbols of its cold and grasping utilitarianism? Can they be admitted, not merely to the intellectual capital of the Ukraine, but to any self-respecting Communist republic? It required feminine wit to counter so overwhelming an attack; but the quality of the defence, which appeared over a lady’s signature in the Moscow Izvestia, may be judged from a single paragraph:

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“Style is a conception which embraces not only architecture but a whole series of objects of material culture, including for example modern dress. If we analyse the evolution of women’s dress during the last quarter of a century, we cannot avoid the conviction that, notwithstanding eccentricities here and there, dress as a whole has been inspired by the extensive introduction of female labour, by the influence on fashion of the millions of the female labouring masses. Hence is derived the simplicity, the practicableness, the lightness of modern dress and the absence of all artificial impediments to work (e.g. the corset, etc.).”

The lady develops her argument at somewhat tiresome length; but the application is clear. If the Paris model is merely the ultimate expression of the spirit of the “female labouring masses,” may not the Ukrainian workman and peasant be, after all, the true progenitor of the ferro-concrete sky-scraper? And should not the railway station at Kiev be constructed in a style which may with new significance be entitled “Ukrainian ferro-concrete”? The argument is, we feel, irresistible; and by the time the next handbook on architecture appears, “Ukrainian baroque” may, after all, be relegated to a historical footnote. For the moment, the wordy battle rages. The combatants, male and female, ferro-concrete and baroque, contradict each other with shrill emphasis. But from time to time, amid the clash of words, they pause to chant in unison the thirty-year-old slogan: “The city of Kiev is to have a new railway station.”

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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