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Communism on Tomorrow Street – living, auxiliary and non-living

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.

Stalinist housing policy reinstated the family at the center of domestic life. ‘Living space’ became a metric for dividing large spaces into collective apartments. Families received a room adequate to the lowest possible measure of space per person. If an architect designed a domicile larger than the minimum measure of living space for the members of a single family, local officials would likely convert it into a collective apartment. Hygienic norms served as a guide and a justification for officials to redistribute space. Where was the surplus, auxiliary space that Bolsheviks had tried to extract from the private domicile and to collectivize? It seems to pop up only in apartments for the cultural and political elite. Under Stalin, different types of people had different needs and thus required different amounts of space (67-68.) Auxiliary, surplus space belonged to the higher classes. Elite apartments displayed their surplus culture in gaudy ornamentation and elaborate spatial arrangements – even servants’ quarters! – copied from pre-revolutionary aristocratic homes.

When Krushchev delivered the single apartment to the masses, the non-elite had access to a single-family home. However in the process everything shrunk. Architects’ calculus of cost and distribution required that they minimize auxiliary space. The krushchevka’s designers gave each family member room exactly equal to the measure of minimum living space. Any more and officials would likely turn the property into a collective apartment. Standard metrics of construction cost pushed architects to miniaturize all elements that came under the rubric of ‘auxiliary space’: kitchens, entryways, corridors, bathrooms, closets.

The contours of living space vs. auxiliary space begin to appear. Living space guaranteed people room to survive and, in the krushchevka, to be alone with their families. Auxiliary space contained surplus life: eating and socializing, culture and politics. Even the basic sites of hygiene and reproduction – the bathroom and the kitchen – were understood as surplus spaces. As the furniture maker above observed, the dinner table was not a priority. In the krushchevka restrictive spatial arrangements “came to dominate” the objects within them (238.) The new apartments’ furniture had to conform to the pressure of minimization by folding, collapsing, combining functions and hanging from the walls around it. Yet things had a way of fighting back. Most Soviets in the new apartments still had older mechanical consumer items and handmade ornamental furniture, which they jammed into their new spaces as well as they could (263.) Worse, consumer goods began to take over space designed for ‘living’. As one resident complained, “things such as coats, skis, a bicycle, and so forth have to be stored in a room. That room ceases to belong to a person” (103.) The history of the krushchevka is one of containing an expansive surplus, extra, auxiliary life.

I wonder what apartment design tells us about social design. Harris argues that the uniquely Soviet distinction between living and auxiliary life served as a tool of social normalization. Krushchev used the mass housing campaign as a displacement or substitution for systematic state terror. “Krushchev’s mass housing program was the first major campaign in Soviet history that did not result in the widespread destruction of human life” (10.) Harris tells us that planners designed mass housing to accommodate gender and generational diversity. Ethnic, national, class and religious diversity were designed out (247.) Rehabilitated citizens were likewise excluded from distribution lists. So we conclude with three categories of state housing design: living space, auxiliary space, and the space of absence or non-existence – non-living space.

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