Part 1: The Rise
When Lenin and his Bolshevik friends took over Russia in 1918, they inherited a country with a lot of problems. People were starving, the economy was annihilated by the First World War, hardly anyone outside of a couple major cities had electricity, there were dozens of armies of various nationalities rampaging across the countryside, and no one in that countryside had any idea when those armies might show up because communication across Russia’s vast territory was almost non-existent. If you lived in Siberia, the world could end in Moscow and you might not know about it for months.
How it is one goes about feeding a 100 million people in the middle of a civil war is a tricky problem, but the solution to the communication problem was obvious: Russia desperately needed radio. Over in America, radio towers were broadcasting news programs made in New York City all the way to California, tapping millions of people into the movements of the entire world and tying them together into a single nation.
Trouble was Russia couldn’t exactly go building a USA style radio network. They simply lacked the resources necessary to go about building hundreds, if not thousands, of radio towers. So, instead, Lenin decided to build one gigantic radio tower.
Meet the Shukhov Tower:
The man Lenin commissioned to build his gigantic radio antenna (and from which the tower gets its name) was Vladimir Shukhov. Shukhov was, since well before the Fall of the Czar, the most famous engineer in Russia. He designed all sorts of new industrial processes, barges, pipelines. He built a new glass and steel roofs for Moscow’s largest markets and museums. He was an avid and innovative photographer. He invented what we now call fuel oil, the cheap, thick petroleum product many people still use to power their home furnaces.
Shukhov’s most famous invention, however, was an architectural one: the hyperboloid tower. The standard way in the late 19th century to build a tower was to build to build it upward in a series of squares and triangles in the lattice work style of the Eiffel Tower.
The trouble with that system is that it requires a great deal of metal. You need all these massive metal beams, and metal joints, and metal rivets. 7,300 tons of iron were needed to build the Eiffel Tower. At the time that was hailed as astoundingly efficient, but in the barely industrialized Russian Empire, 7,300 tons of iron was still a difficult amount to come by. To deal with this problem, Shukhov came up with an even more efficient way of building towers.
Instead of being built in the lattice work style of the Eiffel Tower, hyperboloid towers are built out of thin steel bars assembled in a sort of conical spiral. Using the same principles of Euclidian geometry as a piece of pizza when you curve it in your hand, this shape allows the structures to be sturdy while having comparatively little weight and using considerably less steel.
Shukhov built his first hyperboloid tower in 1896 at an exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod, but so long as the Russian Empire lasted his towers never really caught on. A few were built at exhibitions here and there to show off Russian engineering know how, but—except for a lighthouse in Ukraine—Shukhov’s towers were seen mostly as a novelty. Cool, technically impressive, but not something terribly useful in the very limited architectural world of Czarist Russia. Shukhov went back to designing boilers and building fancy roofs. Czarist Russia went back to slowly collapsing.
All that changed (like most everything else) with the Russian Revolution. Though Shukhov had very lucrative offers from all around the world, he purposefully chose to stay, writing “We should work independently from politics. Buildings, boilers, beams would be needed and so would we.” And he was right. For all their innumerable flaws, Lenin and his cronies weren’t scared of new ideas. They craved new ideas. They desperately needed new ideas.
The initial project Lenin and Shukhov cooked-up was to build—during the apex of the Russian Civil War—the tallest manmade structure on earth. Built out of not one, not two, but nine hyperbolic towers stacked on top of each other, the structure would have been 1200 (350 meters) feet tall and yet weigh only 1/3 of what the Eiffel Tower weighed.
This initial design, however, had to be scaled back. With steel in short supply and his lieutenants (like Trotsky and Stalin) complaining that what steel they had was better used for military purposes, Lenin was forced to order Shukhov to reduce the tower to only 524 feet, about the same height as the Washington Monument.
Even at that diminished height, the project was still a massive undertaking. The Eiffel Tower may be bigger, but the Eiffel Tower was built during a time of considerable prosperity and industrial might for France. The Shukhov Tower was built during the nadir of Russia, when it was locked in a desperate and brutal civil war, when starvation was a serious problem, when resources were unbelievably scarce, when the country looked like it might dissolve at any moment. Imagine the Washington Monument if it had been built by the Confederacy during the siege of Richmond. And yet, a couple miles south of the Kremlin, the Shukhov Tower rose out of the trees. In only two short years, Shukhov and his workers were able to take the tower from nothing to the tallest manmade structure outside of Western Europe or the United States. When, in 1922, the Shukhov Tower began broadcasting its first radio signals out across Moscow and deep into the depths of the Soviet hinterland, it was a triumph, a triumph of engineering, a triumph of a new political and economic system, a triumph over adversity, a triumph of sheer will—a giant, gleaming middle finger to everyone in the world who was actively fighting and hoping for the Bolshevik experiment to fail.→