Communism on Tomorrow Street–some thoughts on egalitarianism and the Soviet social contract

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. The quest for and resistance to egalitarianism in housing also produced unintended social tensions, some of which can be understood along traditional notions of class (e.g., the case of people’s construction and its replacement by the cooperative). But different social fault lines were also exposed in the process of distributing housing such as those illustrated by the native Leningrader phenomenon, as Mark Smith points out in his post. What I’d like to explore here are some of the implications that arise from the fact that there were different notions of what equality actually meant both in housing and more broadly in Soviet society. Varga-Harris draws attention to this toward the end of her first post when she notes that in my book “citizens did not necessarily appeal to notions of equality by emphasizing need; many also subscribed to a moral economy based on social difference … a phenomenon I characterize as entitlement or citizenship rights.”

These were actually two competing notions of equality that drew my greatest interest in the chapter, “The Waiting List.”  Khrushchev’s regime attempted to overhaul housing distribution by drawing upon an egalitarianism based on objective measurements of need (e.g., square meters of living space per person). Residents, such as native Leningraders, and their supporters in district soviets in Leningrad based their claims to the waiting list on what distinguished residents from one another based upon what they had suffered or contributed to Soviet society. Some of these residents fell into officially recognized entitlement categories (e.g., war invalids, rehabilitated persons), which illustrates how the state was itself conflicted over how to define need and did not only use quantitative criteria. In addition, some of these residents constituted categories steeped in the traumas and emotions of wartime survival but were never codified as entitlement categories (for example, most glaringly, the native Leningrader). And at times, residents and local authorities contested and rejected the legitimacy of entitlement categories mandated by the regime. The most charged example here was the category for rehabilitated persons. But while these categories emphasized social differences on the surface, in a sense those residents and district soviet officials who leaned on them or contested them in attempts to get people on the waiting list (not even getting housing, just getting on the waiting list!) were making arguments for a different kind of egalitarianism: one based on the notion that everyone had an equal right to what was their due in Soviet society depending on what they had done and/or suffered in building or protecting Soviet socialism.

What this second notion of egalitarianism helps us see is how ordinary residents and their district soviet deputies insisted that the waiting list do much more than its basic function of distributing housing. They essentially used the waiting list as a register of social differences, thereby carrying into the Khrushchev years what Golfo Alexopoulos calls a “hierarchy of states of civic belonging” from the Stalin era. 1 But they also transformed the waiting list into a settling of accounts between citizens, some of whom were owed something while others were obligated to give something in return. And what was the currency of such settling of accounts? Time, or more exactly, the time one was asked to spend on a waiting list for housing. The waiting list thus served, in theory at least, as a way to police the boundaries and ensure the integrity of the second notion of egalitarianism: that residents had an equal right to what they were due, but that what they were due was different because of their different contributions and sufferings in the name of Soviet socialism. From the regime’s perspective in Moscow, this was not how the waiting list was supposed to function in theory or in practice. And despite the regime’s attempts to strip the waiting list of these auxiliary meanings and functions, this was precisely how it continued to operate.

But the waiting list operated in these auxiliary manners rather imperfectly. Many native Leningraders, the rehabilitated, war invalids, and other entitlement groups remained frustrated that the waiting list did not function as they hoped and failed to represent accurately their contributions and sufferings in relation to those of other citizens. This brings me to another issue related to the question of egalitarianism: the Soviet social contract. In Soviet historiography, we tend to use the term “social contract” to denote a constellation of implied agreements and exchanges between state and society that essentially boil down to society providing loyalty or acquiescence to the state in exchange for better living standards or a modicum of liberty. 2 Insofar as Khrushchev’s mass housing campaign is concerned, Varga-Harris effectively uses the term in this sense to describe how the “socialist contract,” as she calls it, was reinvigorated and expanded after the Stalin era when it had largely served only elites. 3

The fact that the word “state” is actually missing from the term “social contract” hasn’t kept us from using it to describe what we really mean: a “state-society contract.” I’m not pointing this out to be pedantic or to propose a revision of the term insofar as we already use it. But given its formal claim to be about the “social,” I think we can also use the term to explore more deeply relations between citizens or groups of citizens, and not just between citizens as a whole and their state. In other words, it’s time we put more of the “social” in our examinations of the Soviet social contract. The distribution of mass housing under Khrushchev and how it got tied up in competing notions of egalitarianism is a case in point. 4 Here’s what I mean.

In ideal representations of residents’ move to the separate apartment (see the beginning of my book chapter, “The Mass Housing Community”), Soviet citizens entered a new civil state in which housing construction, inspection, and distribution, as well as moving-in day and actual habitation were carried out in discrete phases. In theory, every family waited patiently in line for their turn to inhabit their own separate apartment. What this new civil state–also known as the “communist way of life”–also entailed was that citizens were called upon to give up whatever unfair or unequal advantages they might use in getting a separate apartment before it was time according to their place in line. These advantages included blat, bribery, the ability to take a new, empty apartment by squatting in it, or intentionally overcrowding their housing to get under minimum space norms in order to get onto a waiting list. In other words, the waiting list bound citizens in theory to a tacit agreement or social contract to adhere to the same set of rules. But the social contract in this case was not only about respecting rules on housing distribution. As my discussion above illustrates, the waiting list also represented a social contract among citizens to acknowledge that some people had endured and contributed more than others and that the waiting list was meant to reflect that.

But as we all know, the incentives and opportunities for breaking the rules on housing distribution were quite high and citizens, as well as local soviet officials, did so routinely through blat, patron-client relations, bribery, squatting, and disingenuous tactics establishing one’s dire need for more and better housing. Or, to put it another way, the benefits of manipulating the system to one’s advantage outweighed the cost of breeching the social contract that the waiting list embodied. This is an aspect of (good) Soviet citizenship we know little about.

  1. Golfo Alexopoulos, “Soviet Citizenship, More or Less: Rights, Emotions, and States of Civic Belonging,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7, no. 3 (2006): 487-528.
  2. See, for example, Linda J. Cook, “Brezhnev’s ‘Social Contract’ and Gorbachev’s Reforms,” Soviet Studies 44, no. 1 (1992): 37-56.
  3. Christine Varga-Harris, “Forging Citizenship on the Home Front: Reviving the Socialist Contract and Constructing Soviet Identity during the Thaw,” in The Dilemmas of De-Stalinization: Negotiating Cultural and Social Change in the Khrushchev Era, ed. Polly Jones (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 101-116.
  4. This discussion of the social contract is not one I raise in my book. What I write here elaborates instead on a brief mention I make about this issue in my article, “Soviet Mass Housing and the Communist Way of Life,” forthcoming in the volume edited by Choi Chatterjee, David Ransel, Mary Cavender and Karen Petrone, Everyday Life in the Russia. Past and Present (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014).
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