Communism on Tomorrow Street

Communism on Tomorrow Street — Soviet housing after Stalin

Steve Harris-book-cover

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.[1. For a concise study of general continuity from Stalin to Khrushchev, see Alexander Pyzhikov, “Sovetskoe poslevoennoe obshchestvo i predposylki khrushchevskikh reform,” Voprosy istorii, no. 2 (2002):  33-43.  On parallels in the sphere of housing in particular, see Mark B. Smith, Property of Communists:  The Urban Housing Program from Stalin to Khrushchev (DeKalb, 2010).]  It also contributes to discussions about Soviet engagement with the West in the realm of architecture.[2. Catherine Cooke (with Susan E. Reid), “Modernity and Realism:  Architectural Relations in the Cold War,” Russian Art and the West:  A Century of Dialogue in Painting, Architecture and the Decorative Arts, eds. Rosalind P. Blakesley and Susan E. Reid (DeKalb, 2007), 172-194.]  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.[3. This is a key theme, for example, in Communism Unwrapped:  Consumption in Cold Eastern Europe, eds. Paulina Bren and Mary Neuberger (Oxford, 2012).]

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.[4. On the intelligentsia during the Thaw, see Stephen V. Bittner, The Many Lives of Khrushchev’s Thaw:  Experience and Memory in Moscow’s Arbat (Ithaca, 2008) and Denis Kozlov, “Naming the Social Evil:  The Readers of Novyi mir and Valdimir Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone, 1956-59 and Beyond,” The Dilemmas of De-Stalinization:  A Social and Cultural History of Reform in the Khrushchev Era, ed. Polly Jones (London, 2006), 80-98.  Socialist legality is central to Brian LaPierre, Hooligans in Khrushchev’s Russia:  Defining, Policing, and Producing Deviance during the Thaw (Madison, 2012) and significant also in Miriam Dobson, Khrushchev’s Cold Summer:  Gulag Returnees, Crime and the Fate of Reforms After Stalin (Ithaca, 2009).]  In fact, issues related to equality constitute the thread that, to varying extents, connects each of the points I wish to present. 

In tracing the evolution of Soviet housing policy, Harris delves into conversations among 19th-century architects, social reformers and hygienists across Europe (and even the United States) to unearth shared aims like reducing overcrowding, and the common role that civil society initially played in efforts to resolve the housing question.  It was after the First World War that Russia began to follow a separate path, for although governments in Western Europe at this point became more involved in the welfare of their citizenry, they did not have at their disposal the same capacity to house their people as did the Bolshevik regime, with its newly amassed stock of expropriated private apartments.  Taking charge of housing, Harris argues, thus laid the foundation for the realization in the Soviet Union of two objectives prominent in the established discourse on housing reform:  the institution of spatial norms and single-family occupancy.  While the former readily conformed to the egalitarian aspirations of the Soviet state, the latter surfaced only in the 1930s, driven in part by the determination to increase the birth rate, for which the restoration of the family was critical.

It would be interesting to learn where other parallels with western social policy ended.  How, for example, did postwar British council housing compare with the khrushchevka in terms of design and prescriptions for daily life?[5. The following, which focuses on Britain, suggests compelling possibilities for comparison in these regards:  Alison Ravetz, Council Housing and Culture:  The History of a Social Experiment (London, 2001).]  Where Harris does take the reader, however, is no less intriguing:  he asserts that the commitment to allot Soviet citizens a requisite amount of living space contributed to impeding the provision of separate apartments to individual families.[6. The ideal was nine square meters per person.]  In turn, his investigation of why the khrushchevka was so small notably positions its design as a corrective to this problem, as well as reveals how entrenched the separate apartment came to be in ideological conviction.

To elaborate, while the tipovaia malometrazhnaia kvartira (standardized, small-size apartment) helped the state optimize construction in some regards, it also increased costs.  Simply stated, whether small or large, flats require auxiliary spaces, and the lower the yield of living space in proportion to the space that kitchens, bathrooms and toilets occupy, the higher the cost of building one square meter.  However, while reducing costs was a chief consideration in diminishing the size of auxiliary spaces, this was not the sole rationale for minimizing the (usable) living space in a separate apartment.  Instead, being small in size was the best guarantee that a flat would be settled by only one family.  Harris thus convincingly demonstrates that although separate apartments of the Khrushchev era did not entirely escape communalization, housing design was determined not by financial practicalities alone, but also by ideology – most significantly, the vision to extend single-family dwelling to all citizens, not just members of the elite.

These elites, the beneficiaries of the “Big Deal” of the late Stalin era, did not of course disappear in the face of Khrushchev’s populist agenda.[6. On the “Big Deal” see Vera S. Dunham, In Stalin’s Time:  Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction (Durham, 1990).]  Furthermore, as historians currently examining the Brezhnev period suggest, some segments of Soviet society managed to retain a privileged status (e.g. through membership in the state and Party apparatus) or to construct it over successive regimes (as did, for example, successful participants in the “Little Deal” – a phenomenon that did not just suddenly emerge after Khrushchev).[7. On the “Little Deal” see James R. Millar, “The Little Deal:  Brezhnev’s Contribution to Acquisitive Socialism,” Slavic Review 44, no. 4 (Winter 1985):  694-706.  For a sense of the evolution of the unofficial economy – concomittant with consumerism, privilege and status – that characterized the “Little Deal” from the Second World War through the Brezhnev era, see Lewis Siegelbaum, “Cars, Cars, and More Cars,” Cars for Comrades:  The Life of the Soviet Automobile (Ithaca, 2008), 212-251.]  Throughout Communism on Tomorrow Street, Harris indicates that official resolve to provide each family a separate apartment, as well as to permit a degree of popular initiative, led to stratification and to the rendering of some Soviet citizens as “more equal” than others — quite contrary to the intention to realize Communism through mass housing.

This divergence might be attributed to the tension that socialist consumption generated among individuals with a relatively high disposable income, workers who were promised equal access to material goods based on their labor, and arbiters of taste emphasizing measured consumption – a dilemma of socialist consumption that is nicely delineated by Tamás Dombos and Léna Pellandini-Simányi in their exploration of the “lifestyle debates” that occurred in post-1956 Hungary.[8. Tamás Dombos and Léna Pellandini-Simányi, “Kids, Cars, or Cashews?  Debating and Remembering Consumption in Socialist Hungary,” in Communism Unwrapped, 325-350.]  The persistence of a sense of ownership might also have contributed to undermining the egalitarian ideals of Communism.  As Mark Smith illustrated in his study of postwar housing and welfare, popular assertions about rights, continued acceptance of a degree of individual housing on the part of the state, and disputes among tenants that entailed confirming the “owner” of the living space in question, suggest that the 1917 Revolution had failed to expunge individualism from Soviet society.  How then was this sensibility affected by the “consumer boom” of the Khrushchev years?   The evident striving for status that surfaces throughout Communism on Tomorrow Street sheds light not only on this question, but also indirectly on the inverse, a subject that has preoccupied my own research, and that is the extent to which collectivism permeated the Soviet mentalité.

In the case of housing after Stalin, Harris shows, those with established privilege aimed to protect it or sought still greater distinction.  This is especially apparent in his chapter “Class and Mass Housing” (pp. 154-187).  Here Harris explores the fate of the egalitarianism that Khrushchev endeavored to revive by comparing narodnaia stroika (people’s construction), which was undertaken mostly by industrial workers, with housing construction cooperatives, which were intended for the Soviet intelligentsia (e.g. white collar employees in industry, government and cultural institutions).  Although both approaches conflicted with contemporary norms for standardization, people’s construction was relatively egalitarian in that it permitted workers to build housing using their own labor and money, in coordination with their workplace, so that they could acquire a type of dwelling — the separate apartment — that mostly elites had enjoyed under Stalin.  Moreover, these enterprising workers did so without any change in their job or social identity, thereby making their efforts an embodiment of Khrushchevian populism (p. 160).  It is ironic then that it was codification that led to the demise of people’s construction, for this “stamp of approval” made it independent of the workplaces on which it had relied for access to the second economy.  Meanwhile, individuals with greater means preserved the class privileges they had amassed under Stalin by adapting to the new populist regime.  Effectively appropriating the rhetoric and principles of people’s construction for housing cooperatives, they cast their dwellings as “by the people” and “for a variety of workers,” even as they came to smack of gentrification.  That the regime nevertheless continued to tolerate housing cooperatives can be explained by the fact that they contributed statistically to reducing the housing crisis.  As Harris points out, the living space they provided counted as “state housing” (p. 96).  In this case then, practicalities trumped ideology, an inclination evinced also by the tenaciousness of osobniaki apparent in the recurrence of public critiques of the ostentatiousness of such “private residences.”[9. See for example, Iu. Alekssev, “Pansionat na kliukve,” Krokodil, 30 April 1960, 13.]

Elsewhere in Communism on Tomorrow Street, Harris demonstrates egalitarianism being compromised by the dominance of individuals of higher social and economic status among those able to heed professional prescriptions to acquire the latest, “tasteful” domestic wares.  Indeed he reminds us that it was still only in theory that Soviet citizens could equally “liberate” themselves from petit-bourgeois furnishings (pp. 253-265).  He also underscores the fact that when demanding a housing exchange, citizens did not necessarily appeal to notions of equality by emphasizing need; many also subscribed to a moral economy based on social difference (see pp. 131-133) — a phenomenon I characterize as entitlement or citizenship rights.[10. See “Forging Citizenship on the Home Front:  Reviving the Socialist Contract and Constructing Soviet Identity During the Thaw,” in The Dilemmas of De-Stalinization, 101-116.]

In emphasizing how Communism on Tomorrow Street places Soviet housing in the international context, presents strong links between material culture and ideology, and considers the evolution of socialism during the Thaw, I am admittedly steering readers toward my own interests in housing during the Khrushchev era.  While I look forward to comments on these subjects from other participants, I want to conclude that Harris offers much for fruitful discussion as well on subjects as diverse as the complex machinations that typified local Soviet politics; popular reception of contemporary design; and accord and discord between ordinary citizens and architects on the matter of standardized housing.  Others might therefore turn the conversation towards these topics during what promises to be a stimulating discussion about an excellent book.



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