Before heading up to Boston tomorrow for this year’s ASEEES conference, I wanted to add a few more thoughts on the conversation regarding Communism on Tomorrow Street. First, Karl Qualls raises an excellent point in his post about the motivations architects had in pursuing the ever-smaller dimensions of the single-family separate apartment.
Category: Communism on Tomorrow Street
In his very stimulating post, Steven Harris emphasizes again the egalitarian nature of Khrushchev’s housing drive. He goes on to suggest that this egalitarian approach, and especially the waiting list which filtered people’s broadly egalitarian expectations of access to housing, can at least partly be explained as a feature of the ‘Soviet social contact’, or the ‘state-society contract’. All of these issues are controversial, and I’m glad that he’s raised them.
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.
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.
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. 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.] 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. 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).]
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.
Let me echo Christine’s congratulations to Steve Harris for a remarkable book. Christine has provided a superb summary of some of the main arguments in the text. So, rather than cover the same ground, I would like to address some of the ideas raised in the early chapters and to suggest some new questions for us to consider.
Consistent with much recent scholarship, Harris dismisses artificial boundaries and chronologies that historians have foisted upon events. He searches for the roots of the khrushchevka both before Khrushchev and 1917. Similar to David Hoffmann and Peter Holquist, Harris argues, in the case of housing, that the Bolshevik Revolution was not truly revolutionary. Rather, Bolshevik housing policy shared much, although not everything, with Europe and tsarist Russia. Rapid industrialization, urban overcrowding, and the increasing fixation on public hygiene brought the “housing question” to the front pages in numerous European countries. World War I found many emerging welfare states, to varying degrees, constructing public housing for workers and returned soldiers. The Bolshevik Revolution created a “rupture in historical time” (p. 46) as Russia’s new regime began forcibly expropriating and redistributing private property. This break from the pan-European norm also led to the dreaded communal apartment in which a large (or not so large) house or apartment would be divided into several residences. However, architects and officials in Russia continued to discuss minimal living space norms much as did their European counterparts.
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.
Irony of Fate, or “Enjoy Your Bath!” has always been among my favorite Soviet films, and my students have always so loved it. (Click on the title for an English-subtitled version of the film freely available on the Mosfilm Channel of YouTube, an absolutely incredible source for Soviet films.) The premise of this romantic comedy, if you are not familiar, is that a newly-engaged doctor named Zhenya goes off to a Moscow banya on New Year’s Eve to drink with friends. Intoxicated in the extreme, Zhenya is mistakenly sent on a plane to Leningrad in place of one of his buddies. Passing in and out of consciousness on the plane and after arrival in the Leningrad airport, he does not even realize he is no longer in Moscow. Zhenya hails a cab, gives his address, and emerges in front of a Leningrad apartment building with the same street address as his Moscow flat. Still inebriated, he enters the building, rides the elevator to his usual floor, and to the door of his usual apartment number. The building is so similar to his own that he still does not realize he is in Leningrad rather than Moscow. His key even works in the door. Zhenya flops into the bed in the darkened apartment, only to be awakened when the beautiful Nadya returns home to find this stranger in her bed. Over a night of hilarity and misunderstandings that destroys each of their relationships with significant others, Nadya and Zhenya fall in love. It’s a wonderful film and well worth watching if you’ve never seen it.
Of course, the entire premise of the film works because of the mass, uniform construction of Soviet apartment blocks. These buildings, the product of enormous state-led housing construction projects, still hover over the urban cityscape all around the former Soviet Union. These mass housing construction campaigns and the subsequent changes in the lives of their new residents are the subjects of our sixth blog conversation here at Russian History Blog, as we will discuss Steven E. Harris’s beautifully written new book, Communism on Tomorrow Street: Mass Housing and Everyday Life after Stalin (Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
Organizing these blog conversations is perhaps the most fun I have as a blogger, and I am very excited about the group of scholars gathered for this conversation. In this case, I have asked one of the conversation participants, Christine Varga-Harris, to serve as something of a “guest-host” for the conversation. Check below the fold for introductions of the participants in this conversation, and I invite you all to join the conversation by commenting on the various posts.