Communism on Tomorrow Street – On complaints …and a bit more on “class”

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.1  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.2

At the same time, I tried to avoid overemphasizing the term “class” in my first post because I wanted to showcase the insight that Communism on Tomorrow Street provides into the egalitarianism that Khrushchev proffered.  Moreover, I wished to commend Harris for approaching housing and furniture as the consumer commodities that they are – after all, recognizing this basic fact is essential to “unwrapping” the complex nature and position of consumerism in a purportedly egalitarian society.  Indeed although new housing and the rise in availability of consumer wares generated privilege, the khrushchevka itself was meant to be attainable to all Soviet citizens.  This, Harris demonstrates, is what distinguished it from the separate apartment of the Stalin era.3

I would also like to add that mass participation in the realization of mass housing is an overriding theme of Communism on Tomorrow Street.  That people had a public say in this endeavor – to the point of building their own homes – is what cemented the Thaw as a popular, rather than an elite, phenomenon (p. 16).  Criticism was one manifestation of popular participation, as evident in the chapter “The Politics of Complaint” (267-299). Here Harris shows that jotting down comments at exhibitions of household goods, voicing dissatisfaction or offering recommendations during meetings with architects and housing officials, and writing letters to congresses of architects – much like submitting letters of complaint to various authorities – stemmed from discontent.   He recognizes, however, that they also signaled support for official policy.  As such, actions like these suggest that the hope of the average “working” family to acquire a separate apartment – represented by the gleaming newlyweds ambling through the mud in “A Wedding on Tomorrow Street” – was also a vital feature of Soviet mass housing.  Harris does not at all discount this, even as he underscores critical shortcomings.  And the elegant way that he navigates through such incongruities further recommends Communism on Tomorrow Street as an important addition to understandings of the Khrushchev years.

 

  1. Susan Reid discusses the parallel matter of the position of interior design professionals after Stalin in her article “Destalinization and Taste, 1953-1963,” Journal of Design History 10, no. 2 (1997):  177-201.
  2. The following pivotal works on class during the New Economic Policy, Cultural Revolution, and collectivization and industrialization are what came to my mind:  Diane P. Koenker, “Factory Tales:  Narratives of Industrial Relations in the Transition to NEP,” The Russian Review 55, no. 3 (July 1996):  384-411; Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain:  Stalinism as Civilization (Berkeley, 1995); Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Ascribing Class:  The Construction of Social Identity in Soviet Russia,” Journal of Modern History 65, no. 4 (December 1993):  745-770; and Hiroaki Kuromiya, “The Crisis of Proletarian Identity in the Soviet Factory, 1928-1929,” Slavic Review 44, no. 2 (Summer 1985).  Where class in the postwar era is concerned, I should note that Donald Filtzer has provided an impressive portrait of the condition of the working class, and  David Ruffley, of the advancement of Soviet professionals.  See, respectively, Soviet Workers and Late Stalinism:  Labour and the Restoration of the Stalinist System After World War II (Cambridge, 2007) and Children of Victory:  Young Specialists and the Evolution of Soviet Society (Westport, 2003).  Class also figured into various remarks during the fourth blog conversation on Donald Raleigh’s book, Soviet Baby Boomers:  An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation (Oxford, 2011).
  3. Although I alluded in my previous post to the elitism that the “Big Deal” of the postwar period signified, the Stakhanovite movement offers a more complicated illustration of privilege in Soviet society for an earlier part of the Stalin regime, the 1930s.  In short, while those who followed the example of Alexei Stakhanov came to enjoy special rewards (including even separate apartments), the identity “Stakhanovite” was, theoretically, equally open to all.  Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Stakhanovism and the Politics of Productivity in the USSR, 1935-1941 (Cambridge, 1988).
This entry was posted in Communism on Tomorrow Street, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with Facebook