Architecture for Command

The Russian Federation’s air campaign in Syria has led to some new video of the inside of the new Russian strategic command center opened late last year in Moscow. The National Defense Management Center (Russian acronym: NTsUO) is supposed to be a combined command and control facility for all Russian military, paramilitary, and emergency services, including the nuclear deterrent. The huge command center, much of which seems suspiciously immaculate, features enormous video screens, serried ranks of computer workstations, and a circular conference table that looks like it came straight from the set of Doctor Strangelove.

Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joshua Strang.

Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joshua Strang.

Most modern command centers are situated in well-protected bunkers, like NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain headquarters, or bland warehouses, like the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid, Qatar. The NTsUO, unusually, is built into an impressive heritage building on an embankment beside the Moskva River. No. 22 Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya, the former headquarters of the Soviet (and then Russian) Ground Forces, has the “stripped classical” style and gargantuan massing of the Stalinist-era building it is. Its architect, Lev Rudnev, is best known for two skyscrapers from the more baroque later stage of Stalinist neoclassicism: the Moscow State University main tower, one of Moscow’s “Seven Sisters,” and the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw.

Frunzenskaya Nab. 22. By Ikar.us (CC BY 3.0)

Frunzenskaya Nab. 22, before renovations. Photograph by Ikar.us (CC BY 3.0)

Of the three major military buildings in Moscow, Frunzenskaya Nab. 22 may be the nicest. The first, the M.V. Frunze Military Academy (constructed 1932–37), was a fortress-like bloc whose smooth mixture of neoclassical and modern features was marred by a mock tank on the roof and Stalin’s bombastic words – “We desire no foreign territory but will not yield one inch of our own“ – engraved on the wall (there’s a good photograph in the University of Michigan digital collection here).

The second, the People’s Commissariat of Military and Naval Affairs on Znamenka Street (1934–38), was less austere, with Italianate touches to its roofline. Historian Roger Moorhouse somewhat unkindly describes it as having “stucco walls, brutal bas reliefs of stylized tanks, and an elaborate central tower sporting red stars instead of clock faces.” (You can see several photos, from various angles, at Wikimapia).

Both buildings were clear symbolic statements of Soviet military strength. Neither was the worst architectural indignity inflicted on Moscow by the Red Army. That honor probably goes to the Red Army Theatre (1934–40) designed by Karo Halabyan, a pillared monstrosity whose floor plan traced out a red Soviet star.

Russian Army's Theatre by Vladimir OKC. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Red Army Theatre. Photograph by Vladimir OKC. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Although Frunzenskaya Nab. 22 was, in the words of Moscow News, ornamented “like a militaristic Christmas tree, with sculptures of helmets, swords and real-life tanks,” the building still cuts an impressive figure. A renovation seems to have added two towers in a similar style to the original building and a large glassed-in atrium complete with its own huge flat screen. The result is a command center that seems as much about sending messages by being seen as about sending messages to control operations. After all, who would put the command center for the Strategic Rocket Forces somewhere that is already ground zero in any nuclear war?

The atrium of the NTSuO. Getty Images.

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