Communism on Tomorrow Street — the burden of class

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.

Harris uses class in more than one context to interpret the formulation, execution and experience of the post-Stalin housing drive. He argues that class identity often determined people’s access to housing: for example, white-collar workers gained preferential status on the housing queues of certain institutions at certain times. And, for Harris, class was important in other ways. The domestic interior could promote habits — such as how a person arranged her cushions — which signposted class identities and made them endure. And ‘people’s construction’ was a policy targeted at the industrial working class, granting workers the resources to build the apartment block which they would then inhabit; but cooperatives were a housing tenure aimed at urban elites. Such judgments can be found throughout the book, whose central chapter is called ‘class and mass housing’.

In such ways, Harris quite rightly draws our attention to social differences in Soviet society. But is class always the most appropriate means of imagining and conceptualizing them? In her opening post, Christine Varga-Harris refers to entitlement or citizenship rights, according to which people could make particular claims based on their membership of certain groups. Such groups might include wartime veterans or members of the same profession. Harris, who draws extensively on archival sources from Leningrad, shows compellingly how a person’s identity as a Leningrader could shape his or her encounter with the Leningrad housing economy. These more subtle points about entitlement, which Harris so successfully teases out, perhaps tell us more than his references to class. As a concept, class carries with it a heavy burden of past usage, and it conjures up highly varied images in the minds of readers. Can Harris’s version of class difference carry the analytical weight that he puts upon it?

In twentieth-century Britain, every last centimeter of the urban landscape was constructed by class differences. Was the same really true in the Soviet Union? Or to put it a different way: were not post-Stalin Soviet cities, more than cities in most other places, the cities of the working class?

 

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