Museum of Memory of the Victims of Repression in the Dolinka Settlement (Karlag Museum). Photo by Steven A Barnes
I recently had the pleasure of presenting a paper at a conference entitled “Legacies of the Gulag and the Memory of Stalinism” at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam. My paper focused on public memory of the Gulag in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstani experience differs significantly from that in Russia, a topic discussed at the conference by Arsenii Roginskii, Nanci Adler, Alexander Etkind, Nikita Petrov, Andrei Sorokin, and others.
While the paper is perhaps too long for this forum, I wanted to share the portion of it discussing the “Night in Karlag,” a fascinating (and disturbing) recent moment in Kazakhstani public memory of the Gulag. The event raises interesting questions about the appropriateness of the experiential museum and historical reenactment for the portrayal of atrocity.
(Given recent news, it is certainly worth highlighting that this paper was made possible through in-country research supported by the U.S. Department of State’s now defunded Title VIII program via the American Councils for International Education.)
Alright, I admit that title was a mouthful. Basically, I just wanted to alert readers who may not have heard of it that there’s a new, web-based digital authoring tool called Scalar that they may find useful. It’s an open-source application built by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture at USC. Unlike many authoring tools, it was designed by scholars for scholars, and more particularly by new media scholars for the new media environment.
Before heading up to Boston tomorrow for this year’s ASEEES conference, I wanted to add a few more thoughts on the conversation regarding Communism on Tomorrow Street. First, Karl Qualls raises an excellent point in his post about the motivations architects had in pursuing the ever-smaller dimensions of the single-family separate apartment. Continue reading
A few weeks ago I was contacted by The New Press and offered a copy of their new publication, Koretsky. The Soviet Photo Poster: 1930-1984, for a prize draw to be launched from this site. This beautiful edition includes 200 colour images as well as interesting commentaries from Erika Wolf, a visual historian based in New Zealand. If you would like to enter the draw, all you need to do is to read to the bottom and leave a post! Continue reading
In his very stimulating post, Steven Harris emphasizes again the egalitarian nature of Khrushchev’s housing drive. He goes on to suggest that this egalitarian approach, and especially the waiting list which filtered people’s broadly egalitarian expectations of access to housing, can at least partly be explained as a feature of the ‘Soviet social contact’, or the ‘state-society contract’. All of these issues are controversial, and I’m glad that he’s raised them. Continue reading
First, I’d like to thank Steve Barnes for organizing this book discussion of Communism on Tomorrow Street, as well as the participants for their commentary thus far. They’ve provided far more food for thought and questions than I can address in one post, so I’ll address a couple now and save more for later.
In her original post, Christine Varga-Harris discusses the emphasis that I place on egalitarianism as a central feature in Khrushchev’s mass housing campaign. As it evolved over the course of Khrushchev’s years in power, this issue led to political embarrassment for Khrushchev personally (albeit behind closed doors) when party-state elites just a rung or two down from the Presidium overcame his resistance to the cooperative, which he claimed represented inequality. Continue reading
It gives me great pleasure to read the culmination of Steven E. Harris’s important work on Soviet mass housing, and to crash this Russian History blog party. Two images from this book continue to haunt me. First, dead and living bodies. Stalin-era architects foresaw a change in apartment size as a result of the law banning abortion, as if apartments functioned like honeybee cells and expanded to hold new state-mandated babies (64.) Later residents of krushchevka units complained that they could not carry a corpse out of the building except if it was standing up (272 and 296.) Second, missing dining tables. “They [state planners] have completely forgotten the dinner table,” lamented a Krushchev-era furniture maker. (232.)
These images point to the structuring principles of Soviet housing from the Bolshevik to the Krushchev era, as Harris shows us: living space and auxiliary space. As far as I know this distinction is uniquely Soviet and does not appear either in Europe or in the United States (where hygienic norms simply take the total square footage of a domicile and divide it by the number of residents.)
What does this binary between (domestic) life and extra-life, ‘living space’ and ‘auxiliary space’, mean? Harris gives us several paths to an answer. Bolshevik planners used sanitary norms as a guide for reshaping the family. Individuals, not families, would receive an allotment of ‘living space’; all social interactions would ultimately take place in public spaces, in collective dining halls, kitchens, crèches and laundries. In this Bolshevik plans echoed contemporary left-wing modernists’ visions for hotel-apartments of the future. In living space one was meant to breathe and sleep, no more.
Thanks to Karl Qualls and Mark Smith for the thought-provoking comments that each has contributed to this discussion of Steve Harris’ Communism on Tomorrow Street. Drawing on his expertise on (re)construction and urban planning, Qualls raised significant questions about the evolution of prefabricated building, as well as the ways in which the architectural profession strove to reassert its authority after Stalin. Smith, whose work I noted in my initial post, echoed my implicit interest in class. This is a subject I would like to address further – specifically in relation to the politics of complaint, another strand of scholarship that Communism on Tomorrow Street enriches, as Qualls aptly indicated.
As Smith rightly pointed out, class is a weighty category of analysis bound up in much more than “difference.” I also appreciated him reinforcing the significance of entitlement and citizenship that I have emphasized in my own study of Soviet housing. To elaborate a bit, my work has aimed to deconstruct the discourse employed in housing complaints and requests to determine what “home” meant in the aftermath of war and Stalinism, to investigate the contours of Soviet identity, and to explore popular investment in socialism in general. From these perspectives, demands for better housing certainly reveal more about a broader Soviet subjectivity than about class per se. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by Harris’ attention to class for the simple reason that the intersection of (socioeconomic) class with consciousness, social identity, values and culture has not enjoyed the same degree of scrutiny in scholarship on the postwar Soviet Union that it has been afforded in studies on earlier periods of tremendous flux.
I hate to interrupt the fascinating blog conversation on Communism on Tomorrow Street, but I feel it imperative to help spread this distressing news. The U.S. State Department’s Title VIII program has long supported studies of Russia and Eurasia, primarily though not exclusively by providing financial support for language studies and field research.
News today is that the budget for Title VIII has been cut in its entirety for the 2013-14 fiscal year. Carl Schreck of RIA Novosti covers the impact in some depth.
It’s really difficult to describe what a blow this is to my personal research agenda as a scholar and to the long-term state of the field. Title VIII funding via IREX supported the research trip to Russia and Kazakhstan that resulted in my own doctoral dissertation and first book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society. I spent four months last winter again in Russia and Kazakhstan with support from the Title VIII program via ACTR to complete the research for my current book project, The Wives’ Gulag: The Akmolinsk Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland. (I suppose I should count myself lucky that I managed to complete research for the second book just before the program was zeroed out.)
So, I have personally benefited from the Title VIII program, but it has been much more than that. A tremendous proportion of the books written by Americans in the field of Russian and Eurasian studies have depended on research underwritten by the Title VIII program. It would be truly frightening to go through my bookshelf and yank out all of the books supported by Title VIII and imagine the incredible loss of knowledge that the defunding of this program represents. The Russian History Blog itself is a secondary product of Title VIII, as much of the research we share, the books we discuss, the ideas we explore have resulted from the language and research training supported by Title VIII.
One can only hope that the program will be refunded in the future, but the political climate in Washington, DC, these days, so hostile to government spending in support of the production of knowledge, leaves one pessimistic.
Historians have taken proper account of the Soviet mass housing program in recent years, and I’m grateful to Steve Barnes for the invitation to discuss an important and original new book on the subject. Steven Harris’s Communism on Tomorrow Street ranges deep, going back before 1917 and explaining precisely how the Khrushchev-era solution of small separate family apartments emerged. And it ranges wide, analyzing such topics as the apartment waiting list, the local ‘communist’ neighborhood, and the supply and design of furniture. All this makes for a central contribution not only to the study of the housing program, but to the growing field of post-Stalin history more generally.
The book is based on a rich body of sources and its arguments are distinctive and interesting, so it throws up a whole range of controversial issues. But I will confine this post to a category to which Harris repeatedly refers from page 1 of chapter 1 onward, a category which also connects with Christine Varga-Harris’s interest in citizenship. This category is class. Continue reading
Let me echo Christine’s congratulations to Steve Harris for a remarkable book. Christine has provided a superb summary of some of the main arguments in the text. So, rather than cover the same ground, I would like to address some of the ideas raised in the early chapters and to suggest some new questions for us to consider.
Moscow Communal Apartment, 1983
Consistent with much recent scholarship, Harris dismisses artificial boundaries and chronologies that historians have foisted upon events. He searches for the roots of the khrushchevka both before Khrushchev and 1917. Similar to David Hoffmann and Peter Holquist, Harris argues, in the case of housing, that the Bolshevik Revolution was not truly revolutionary. Rather, Bolshevik housing policy shared much, although not everything, with Europe and tsarist Russia. Rapid industrialization, urban overcrowding, and the increasing fixation on public hygiene brought the “housing question” to the front pages in numerous European countries. World War I found many emerging welfare states, to varying degrees, constructing public housing for workers and returned soldiers. The Bolshevik Revolution created a “rupture in historical time” (p. 46) as Russia’s new regime began forcibly expropriating and redistributing private property. This break from the pan-European norm also led to the dreaded communal apartment in which a large (or not so large) house or apartment would be divided into several residences. However, architects and officials in Russia continued to discuss minimal living space norms much as did their European counterparts. Continue reading
I am delighted to have the opportunity to begin the sixth conversation on Russian History Blog, this one on Steven Harris’ superb book Communism on Tomorrow Street: Mass Housing and Everyday Life after Stalin. Its cover, a reproduction of the Yuri Pimenov painting “Wedding on Tomorrow Street,” hints at the muddy portrait of Soviet housing that Harris presents: construction and settlement occurred not in ordered sequence, but simultaneously, as impatient citizens rushed into housing that was incomplete or had not yet passed inspection; citizens and officials clashed over housing allocation principles; and residents of new neighborhoods found themselves competing for sparse resources, rather than basking in the glow of the harmony that urban planners had plotted out for them.
Communism on Tomorrow Street corresponds with recent historiography displacing the notion that the Thaw constituted a clear break from the Stalin period. It also contributes to discussions about Soviet engagement with the West in the realm of architecture. And, it addresses the implications of socialist consumption, contemplating the position of the collective good in a society where taste and desire were beginning to be afforded as much attention as need.
Rather than describe how Harris directly addresses each of these strands of scholarship I would like to highlight the novel ways in which he enters into dialogue with them. First, in considering the basic historical question of continuity, Harris does not limit himself to the Soviet context. Instead, he ventures into the 19th Century to firmly situate Russian social policy, the foundation for Bolshevik approaches to the housing question, in the pan-European context. Secondly, he depicts a solid link between material culture and social ideals; this is most striking in his meticulous study of why the separate apartment came to be small, an account that dispels general presumptions related to economizing. Thirdly, Harris offers rich insights into a crucial facet of the revival of socialism under Khrushchev that has escaped rigorous scrutiny: egalitarianism. As such, he adds another important barometer of the Thaw to those that have already received a fair amount of scholarly attention, for example, liberalization in the sphere of arts and literature, and socialist legality. In fact, issues related to equality constitute the thread that, to varying extents, connects each of the points I wish to present. Continue reading
Irony of Fate, or “Enjoy Your Bath!” has always been among my favorite Soviet films, and my students have always so loved it. (Click on the title for an English-subtitled version of the film freely available on the Mosfilm Channel of YouTube, an absolutely incredible source for Soviet films.) The premise of this romantic comedy, if you are not familiar, is that a newly-engaged doctor named Zhenya goes off to a Moscow banya on New Year’s Eve to drink with friends. Intoxicated in the extreme, Zhenya is mistakenly sent on a plane to Leningrad in place of one of his buddies. Passing in and out of consciousness on the plane and after arrival in the Leningrad airport, he does not even realize he is no longer in Moscow. Zhenya hails a cab, gives his address, and emerges in front of a Leningrad apartment building with the same street address as his Moscow flat. Still inebriated, he enters the building, rides the elevator to his usual floor, and to the door of his usual apartment number. The building is so similar to his own that he still does not realize he is in Leningrad rather than Moscow. His key even works in the door. Zhenya flops into the bed in the darkened apartment, only to be awakened when the beautiful Nadya returns home to find this stranger in her bed. Over a night of hilarity and misunderstandings that destroys each of their relationships with significant others, Nadya and Zhenya fall in love. It’s a wonderful film and well worth watching if you’ve never seen it.
Of course, the entire premise of the film works because of the mass, uniform construction of Soviet apartment blocks. These buildings, the product of enormous state-led housing construction projects, still hover over the urban cityscape all around the former Soviet Union. These mass housing construction campaigns and the subsequent changes in the lives of their new residents are the subjects of our sixth blog conversation here at Russian History Blog, as we will discuss Steven E. Harris’s beautifully written new book, Communism on Tomorrow Street: Mass Housing and Everyday Life after Stalin (Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
Organizing these blog conversations is perhaps the most fun I have as a blogger, and I am very excited about the group of scholars gathered for this conversation. In this case, I have asked one of the conversation participants, Christine Varga-Harris, to serve as something of a “guest-host” for the conversation. Check below the fold for introductions of the participants in this conversation, and I invite you all to join the conversation by commenting on the various posts. Continue reading
The words in the title of this post come from a description by Donald M. Kendall, CEO of PepsiCo from 1971 to 1986. Kendall met Brezhnev in August 1973 in the Soviet Union and reported back on his meeting to Nixon and Henry Kissinger — who were both close to Kendall. Kendall — who had also played a critical role in the overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile — used those connections to penetrate the Soviet market during Nixon’s detente and thus counter Coca Cola in the epic sugar water wars (Jimmy Carter was later close to Coca Cola and aided its penetration of the Chinese market in 1979). Kendall’s enduring influence in Russia is suggested by his receipt in 2004 from Vladimir Putin of the Order of Friendship medal.
The result of Kendall’s meeting with Brezhnev is a fascinating read: 15 typed pages of his observations of Brezhnev’s personality, political inclinations, and endearing qualities — endearing, that is, for certain types of males who like sports, drinking, hunting, fishing, boating, and cars (Brezhnev’s favorite was the iconic 1970s muscle car, the Dodge Charger).
The document below comes from the National Security Council, Henry Kissinger/Anatoly Dobrynin files at the Nixon Presidential Library and Archives in Yorba Linda, Ca. I came across them as part of my latest research project on international collaboration in space as a window into detente and the late Cold War. Soviet/American collaboration, leading to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project of 1975, played a critical role in the creation and unfolding of Nixon’s policies of detente (referred to as peaceful coexistence by the Soviets). While providing insight into Brezhnev and the Soviet political leadership, the document also illustrates the shared culture of male bonding and machismo on both sides of the Cold War divide. Continue reading
Like most people studying Russian history, I’m sure, I’ve been asked many times what drew me to the subject in the first place. I give different answers depending on my mood and the person asking. They include: TV coverage of the 1989 revolutions, which provoked lots of adolescent questions about why the Berlin Wall had been built and how politics in the communist bloc were different to those in the UK (was Gorbachev left or right-wing, I wondered); an eye-opening school trip to Moscow and St Petersburg a few years later; my passion for Anna Karenina (my well-read copy unravelling to the point it had to be carried around in what my Dad fondly called “Anna Karenina’s body bag”)… But recently I have realized that it all started much earlier. Continue reading
Over the past couple of months, I have been following with increasing apprehension the news from Russia about its treatment of its gay population. Yesterday, a blogger at Gawker summarized the recent events in a good (but disturbing) entry. I won’t rehash the information since the links are all embedded there, but it’s been hard to see the escalating violence documented. It’s going to be interesting to see if this starts to affect the upcoming Olympics. How long will the world be willing to ignore the human rights’ violations (much less the arrests of gay foreigners)?
Many thanks to Alexander Geppert, a leading figure in the history of space flight and European culture, for this review of two recent volumes on Russian space flight and culture (in which I and fellow blogger Asif Siddiqi have essays). It’s nice to see a scholar from outside our field address our scholarship.
What I find most interesting about this outsider’s perspective is that it confirms something that many of us perhaps already know – or should know: the parochial nature of our scholarship and scholarly community (as an aside, it’s great that the Russian History Blog has included scholars from outside the Russian field to comment on our scholarship in the Blog Conversations). The point was driven home to me at the April 2012 conference in Berlin put on by Alexander (http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/tagungsberichte/id=4303). I was the lone Russianist at the conference. I was struck by the marginalization of Russia in the European context (even as the papers devoted to the United States, in a conference dedicated to European visions of space and utopia, dominated parts of the agenda). I think we Russianists share some of the blame for this, precisely because of our tendency to eschew transnational or global approaches to writing the history of Russia and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. But what would a transnational history of space flight and culture look like? It’s a question that consumes me now as I attempt to research the space race in a transnational context — focusing on collaborative moments such as the Apollo-Solyuz Test Project, the Interkosmos flights beginning in 1979, the Association of Space Explorers in the 1980s, and the Mir and ISS space stations. If anyone feels so inspired, perhaps they could point me to interesting examples of attempts to write Cold War Russia and the Soviet Union into a more global — or at least — pan-European history.
Our panel of distinguished commentators have raised a number of very interesting points related to Eric’s book. Alison wonders whether the emotional aspect of citizenship and the decision where to live might well be worth additional consideration. Her post and Eric’s response highlight some methodological issues that confront researchers addressing these themes, but I think there is more to say on this issue. Students of nationalism and national identity have long tried to come to terms with the affective aspects of the phenomenon. I find myself wondering now more acutely how questions of citizenship intersected with nationalism on the “emotional plane.” This is a question not only for Eric, but for all of our blog readers.
Similarly, I am thinking much more about the question of economic autarky and physical borders as a result of the posts of Ari, Golfo, and Andrey. Ari suggests that the intensifying global restrictions on migration and citizenship in the interwar period might have played a role in Soviet practices of autarky. Golfo was struck, as I was, by Eric’s tale of the victorious police lobby in the early Soviet period and by the link between ascendant police forces and tighter border controls. Andrey, on the other hand, issued a thoughtful challenge to the very premise that the Soviets wanted to pursue autarky. He aligns himself with Michael Dohan’s argument that the decline in foreign trade was the result not of a Soviet intent to isolate their own economy, but from a collapse in exportable goods (such as grain) and the isolationism of Depression-era capitalist states. At the same time, Andrey warns us not to think of the increasingly militarized Soviet border as a means to enforce blanket restrictions on emigration but as a result of particular campaigns related to specific security concerns. He expresses doubts about consistent anti-foreign sentiments during terror campaigns as well and suggests that, much like Eric’s description of the imperial situation, these police-state measures were often “separate deals” as well.
We have a number of concepts floating around in time-sensitive relationships with each other: citizenship, nationalism, protectionism, autarky, capitalism, globalization, migration, and border, to name a few. Again, I would like to know if blog readers have thoughts on these issues, even if they have not yet had the opportunity to read Lohr’s book.
In October 2010 influential filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov published an extensive “Manifesto of Enlightened Conservatism” which was published as “Right and Truth” in polit.ru. (Read in Russian here.)
The defense of serfdom attributed to Mikhalkov, which I posted yesterday, may well be a fake, but his conservative views are well-known and worth reading. A shorter overview (and critique) of his Manifesto was published in Vedomosti and translated in The Moscow Times. I am taking the liberty of copying that article in full (below) as it might be interesting for our students in Russian history classes. Lest they (students) think the debates and views of Russian conservatism are archaic, they can see them returning in the extremely conservative new laws on homosexuality, on diversity within the Russian Orthodox Church (the rules on “insulting believers” are very broadly construed), and in the takeover of the Russian Academy of Sciences (long a bastion of independent thinking). Continue reading
Posted in Current events in the Putin Era, Films, Imperial Russia, Nostalgia and Memory, Post-Soviet Russia, Russia in World History, Russian History in Popular Culture, Russian Orthodoxy, Teaching Russian History, Uncategorized
Tagged conservatism, film, imperial russia, Mikhalkov
According to a website called “Tsenzor.Net” filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov told a group of journalists that he is preparing to make a film praising serfdom as “the wisdom of the nation.” His comments show a romanticization of history that is pretty hard to believe:
After all, what was serfdom? [he told the journalists]. Serfdom was patriotism, secured on paper. A person was tied to his mother-earth not only by a feeling of duty, but also on paper [in documents]. Serfdom is the wisdom of the people. It is 400 years of our history. And now, when people suggest we should erase 400 years of our history, I say to them, “Brothers, do you think our ancestors were idiots?”
“I am very happy that Putin is now reviving our historical memory,” said the director. “The law on registration [propiska] is exactly what our people are missing, what was torn out by the roots.”
Posted in Current events in the Putin Era, Films, Historiography, Imperial Russia, Nostalgia and Memory, Post-Soviet Russia, Russian History in Popular Culture, Teaching Russian History, Uncategorized
Tagged film, Mikhalkov, Putin, serfdom