Monthly Archives: September 2016

Building Man Through Material Culture and My Experience With It

What I have come to understand about Soviet material culture in the few years that I have dedicated to its study is that objects or systems, which are normally given very little thought beyond their immediate utility in western society, were imbued with deeper implications in Soviet society. This in all likelihood can be understood as an extension or at the very least symptom of Marx’s conception of the worker as an intellectual, whereby he or she is a synthesis of both, realizing an ideal of an educated proletariat. The objects or systems are an outgrowth of this conception on two fronts. Firstly, Soviet leadership believed that the material conditions in which the worker lived shaped his outlook and relationship with the world, ultimately defining him has a person. Because of this, those conditions must be adjusted in such a way as to mold him as the leadership saw fit. As such, each object or system was dealt with careful consideration so as to facilitate this outcome. Secondly, it can be argued that due to the proletariat centric approach that Marx takes, the Soviet worker himself was treated as one of the objects imbued with greater implications than he would normally have been in a western or capitalist society.

Plain Jane housing in Turkmenistan

Plain Jane housing in Turkmenistan

Stated simply, the Soviets took a methodical approach to every day monotony that for the most part would have been taken for granted in other circumstances. Everything physical around the worker had significant implications, whether it was the contents of his apartment, or the metro that he rode to work on. For more learned scholars and Sovietologists this is likely an elementary conclusion. Indeed, in my experience in the post-Soviet space I had noticed a difference in aesthetic and importance given to certain elements of the physical space that I was used to, primarily the grandiose nature of public systems, like the metro, against the ascetic nature of the average apartment.

Moscow metro https://friendlylocalguides.com/moscow/tours/metro-tour-moscow

Moscow metro
https://friendlylocalguides.com/moscow/tours/metro-tour-moscow

I could describe the general aesthetic that prevailed across the physical space in post-Soviet society and how it was different than the western aesthetic, but it had not occurred to me that there was a methodology behind it. After reading “Soviet Hygiene and the Battle against Dirt and Petit-Bourgeois Consciousness” by Victor Buchli and “An Introduction to the Design of the Moscow Metro in the Stalin Period: ‘The Happiness of Life Undergroupd'” by Karen L. Kettering, I finally was able to understand the rationale behind the extreme contrasts of grandiosity and asceticism in the Soviet/post-Soviet physical space.

In his work, Buchli presents the ideal conception of the Soviet household. Above all else, the concept of “nichego lishnego” (nothing superfluous) dominated the conceptual framework of what should constitute the ideal Soviet living space. It should be a place of quiet reflection, study, and cleanliness. Indeed, in my time in Central Asia the spartan nature of the apartments in which I stayed for months on end was not lost on me. Just like Buchli’s description, I had a non-wooden bed, large windows to let in light to supposedly kill bacteria, a simple desk and chair underneath them at which to become the perfect worker/intellectual, and a minimalist table with one chair in a communal apartment with 4 inhabitants. Upon first experience of my living space, I had assumed all aspects of society to be of a similar nature.

My home of 8 months

My home of 8 months

Kettering’s description of the Soviet built Moscow metro, complete with chandeliers, epic mosaics, and themed stations, as well as the rationale for such designs echoed my experience in metros in Central Asia, particularly in Tashkent and Almaty. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why each city had such clean,  impressive, and perhaps even excessive and gaudy public transportation systems while the average person was content to live with very few material comforts in their apartments. The grandiosity of the metros that I experienced pale in comparison to the description of Moscow metro in Kettering’s essay, however, when considered in their own ecosystems, the care and maintenance that each was afforded seemed inconsistent with the living conditions of the average person.

Bearded me in the unusually clean and decorated Almaty metro

Bearded me in the unusually clean and decorated Almaty metro

 

Judging by my experience and observations alone, it would seem that Soviet aesthetic conceptions have carried on in the post-Soviet space, as there was great consistency with the physical realms I inhabited in my time abroad and the literature of Buchli and Kettering. Perhaps this aesthetic carries on not so much as a means of cultivating an ideal Soviet person vis a vis manipulation of material conditions as it was originally intended, but rather through the momentum of its consistent implementation, leading to its ultimate acceptance as “normal” or “how things are supposed to look”. As I understand it, emphasis was placed on an ascetic private life and a more grand public life as a means of fostering a communal attitude in society in accordance with Marx’s principles. It would seem that the dynamic between home and public space, the metro in this instance, in Soviet society was meant to be an inversion of what was understood to be occurring in capitalist/western society at the time, with decadent and gaudy homes, and dirty neglected metro systems. As anecdotal as it may be, there was a nigh perfect consistency in Buchli and Kettering’s descriptions of the Soviet space and what I experienced in the post-Soviet space.

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Cities as Vessels of False Modernity

I can only imagine what it must have been like to live in a place that is suddenly proclaimed as a city. I would watch as it is constructed from ground up, from nothingness to so called greatness, and from ashes to grandiose factories and buildings. What if I watched as my city was reconstructed? What if the buildings and squares I recognized the most were being destroyed to be replaced by nothing more than a vision of a new city in the name of false modernity? What if I had lived through a revolution during which I envisioned an ideal new socialist city, only to find that reality does not always match up to imagination.

Demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior 1931

Demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior 1931

I was most struck in this week’s readings by the scope of the change that the Bolsheviks wanted to achieve in post-revolutionary Russia and by their incessant dream to modernize and industrialize through a state controlled mission to rebuild not only the Russian image through its grand cities and building projects but also through the brand new Soviet subject. Kotkin writes of Bolshevism not only as “an ideology but… as an ongoing experience through which it was possible to imagine and strive to bring about a new civilization called socialism.”

No where is the socialist dream of this new civilization more evident than in Anna Litveiko’s account of the revolution when she imagines life under communism. They imagine enormous public buildings and a communal living structure that would free people from minimal household chores, but they also imagine life under communism to be “beautiful—both spiritually and externally.” (Litveiko p.57)

That dream, however, of a beautiful and serene socialist society was hardly ever realized. The planning and later slow construction of the New Moscow or other industrial cities like Magnitogorsk was meant to show the world that socialism can create a modern society with an ideal modern subject whose life was maintained by the state and by the structures that surround him or her. Cities were meant to transform the system and transform the citizen. And yet, even though the Bolsheviks wanted Magnitogorsk to be the “epitome of [their] commitment to massive social transformation” and for the new socialist city to realize a “Soviet way of life.” (Kotkin 1995) The cities and building projects that were constructed during this era only succeeded in raising people’s hopes but in caring for and creating a truly socialist subject.

Palace of the Soviets with giant plaza and parades, 1934.

Palace of the Soviets with giant plaza and parades, 1934. The image of a grand New Moscow

Modernity was to occur not for the subjects but in spite of them. Most of these projects were built without bearing the citizen in mind. The Soviet state focused on creating grand projects that were meant to impress but not to serve the interests of the people who built them. People who were mobilized to Magnitogorsk thought of it as political exile. They expected to be greeted by a city only to be shocked by the empty steppes of Magnitogorsk. The Moscow Metro exhausted a huge budget not for the purposes the citizen, but for the state to show the world what socialism was capable of doing. Taubman points out that a more efficient plan that had the citizen in mind would have been to invest some of the money dedicated to building the greatest metro in the world in housing projects and services that directly benefited and aided the Soviet citizen.

First Dwellings Under construction in Magnitogorsk 1931

First Dwellings Under construction in Magnitogorsk 1931

I cannot help but draw parallels of these grandiose building projects that were meant to convey modernity with a very recent example in Saudi Arabia. I recently visited Mekka, a religious city that was meant to convey the ideals of Islam. It was meant to be a place in which people felt, lived, and behaved as if no class divisions existed, as if they and their brothers and sisters in Islam were completely equal. Instead, a huge clocktower was erected along with three tall international hotels that were meant to serve the interests of the rich, who could finally enjoy their Ka’abah view rooms, and the interests of the state, who wanted to show the world that Islam does not hinder modernity, that they too can become modern. They, just like the Soviet leaders who wanted to build and establish socialism through the erection of great tall buildings that served the interests of the few, largely missed the point of both Islam and socialism respectively.

The construction of the Clocktower in Mekka towering ver the Holy Mosque

The construction of the Clocktower in Mekka towering over the Holy Mosque

I think Litvikeo would shake her head in dismay if she were to see the conditions of the new socialist cities as they were being built and planned. They lacked both the internal beauty that she hoped for and envisioned as central to the future socialist state and the external beauty that was meant to show in the colors that people wore and that decorated the city. Instead, she would see an image of a half built city with people who were starving and whose values were deteriorating.

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Tashkent: The Sculpted City

Tashkent is a city of contrasts. In many ways it has all of the trappings of a stereotypical medium to large sized post-Soviet city. It has wide avenues that terminate in a central district, an extensive and seemingly immaculate metro system, various monuments to events of local historical importance, a tomb of the unknown soldier, an opera house, marginally well stocked shopping centers, and the ever common endless labyrinth of retro-futuristic apartment complexes that one immediately identifies as a marker of a Soviet past.

IMG_4833

On the other hand, the city has retained many elements of its pre-Soviet past as well, being vestiges of the city’s Turco-Persian or Imperial Russian heritage. These include a number of street bazaars, centuries old mosques, madrassas (which since have been converted into artisan’s shops), people wearing traditional Uzbek clothing, Russian Orthodox churches, and Imperial Russian palaces.

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Then in some instances there seems to be a collision of the city’s Soviet and pre-Soviet pasts. When looking upon the city’s monument to Tamerlane, the Turco-Mongol conqueror of old, who Uzbekistan has claimed as a fundamental axiom of its national identity since the collapse of the Soviet Union, one cannot help but see the shocking aesthetic similarity it has to the Socialist Realist style used in monuments to figures like Lenin or Stalin.

Comrade Tamerlane

Comrade Tamerlane

Or perhaps when one enters Tashkent’s main “bazaar”, and notices it holds little resemblance to the other more traditional ones in the country’s smaller cities, exchanging the tent covered lanes filled with merchants sitting on the ground, for a sterile indoor marketplace more resembling an American supermarket than its namesake.

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“Bazaar”

In his book Tashkent: Forging of a Soviet City, in the chapter “A City to be Transformed”, Paul Stronskii takes the reader into what can be described as the “primordial ooze” out of which the city of Tashkent as we know it was built. A central theme that he comes back to throughout the chapter is the notion that Tashkent had been treated as something of a project by both Imperial Russian and Soviet rule as a city. They thought that through the effort and grace of their superior cultures, they would be able to transform the city from being backward and Asiatic, to modern and European or Soviet in aesthetic and structure.

Considering this perspective against my own experience in Tashkent and Central Asia as a whole, a question I have long had has finally been answered: why is Tashkent so much more “Soviet” and “Russian” looking than Uzbekistan’s other cities, such as Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva? The aforementioned three have a uniquely well preserved pre-Russian and pre-Soviet downtown area, which by the layman would more likely be assumed to be in Iran, Afghanistan, or perhaps Pakistan. This is not to say that there are no vestiges of the recent Soviet past in these cities, rather, there is a clearly defined boundary between the “old city”, characterized by mosques and madrassas, and the “new city” in each.

Me in Samarkand

Me in Samarkand

It is interesting that Stronskii describes Tashkent during its Imperial Russian experience as something of a city that grew in two halves, with there being a clear line between the European and Asiatic halves of the city, with the former existing to inspire the latter with its innovation and technology to, as he describes it, “follow them into modernity”. From his description of what Tashkent was, I could better conceptualize that line between the Asiatic and the European elements of the city, as I had witnessed something quite similar in viewing the dichotomy between the “old towns” and “new towns” of Bukhara and Samarkand.

However, the modern day contrast and collision that characterizes the urban landscape of Tashkent, that is so absent in the other major Uzbek cities, certainly stems more so from its recent Soviet past. From how Stronskii describes it, the Russian Imperial forces aimed to build up modern Tashkent parallel to old Tashkent, while the Soviets sought to integrate their own designs into the already existing framework of the city, essentially seeking to augment and renovate it, rather than building a whole new city entirely. This involved integrating the Uzbek and Russian populations that lived there, destroying or replacing many symbols from the Imperial Russian past, creating a standardized street system, bringing in industry, electricity, and sanitation, and converting traditional spaces of learning, such as mosques and madrassas into more modern establishments. The Soviet Union considered Tashkent with the same status that the Imperial Russian forces did as a center piece of Central Asia and the main canvas upon which it would paint its designs, and because of that, the city bore the brunt of its machinations. Indeed, when one looks at the urban landscape of modern Tashkent, one doesn’t see a city that is explicitly Central Asian in the way one does with Bukhara. Similarly, one doesn’t see a completely Soviet manufactured city as well. One sees a collision of all aspects of Tashkent’s history. Through the narrative that Stronskii provided, I was better able to understand the journey that the city took, and how it resulted in such a startlingly unique urban landscape when considered against other cities in the region.

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How did Stalin build cities?

 

Bolsheviks seized power after the October revolution and formed the Soviet Union with the dream of constructing the first socialist country in the world. As Stalin took power following the death of Lenin, there was a national plan to build cities, which could realize socialist ideas and utopian dreams. During the early 1930s, a number of cities across the country were built from scratch. Two books, Khrushchev: The Man and his Era by Taubman and Magnetic Mountain by Kotkin describe vividly how the cities were constructed through the eyes of people and their lived experiences.

Although the two stories are set in different cities – Moscow and Magnetagorsk – there are many features that they hold in common. Not only were the cities built in a chaotic and inefficient manner under weak leadership, but the city planning was also aimed towards satisfying and fulfilling the state’s purpose, not the people’s needs.

In the early 1930s, Khrushchev was in charge of supervising the construction of a new metro in Moscow. Kruschev recalls, “When we started building, we had only the vaguest idea of what the job would entail. We were unsophisticated. We thought of a subway as something almost supernatural” (Taubman, p 94). In many cases, not only was there not a single professional staff member, but one department was responsible for supervising hundreds of institutes. Magnitogorsk was not an exception. Staff were often ordered to build barracks just a couple of days before the arrival of approximately 40,000 people. (Kotkin, p 81) Additionally, in Magnitogorsk every amendment to the city design, no matter how ostensibly trivial, ultimately required approval from Moscow, which made city building inefficient and slow.

In addition to the weaknesses of the leadership hierarchy and system, the fact that city planning was aimed towards satisfying the state’s purpose, rather than the people’s needs, was noticeable in both of the two cities. Taubman describes that the metro, which was to be the most expensive construction in Moscow at that time, was not built because the people of Moscow needed it, but because it served larger state purposes. (p 94) Since the metro’s deep tunnels and stations could be used as bomb shelters in wartime, Stalin was excited to show the country’s advancements to the world. On the other hand, constructions, such as housing and sewage services, which were indeed needed for people, were neglected and they lagged badly behind.

московское метро 80 лет назад      Moscow, platform of the Dzerzhinski Square subway station (ca. 1935)

Moscovskaya metro station in 1935

http://dobrafotografija.blogspot.ru/2014/03/1935_24.html

 

The state’s purpose is the most important factor when it comes to city building in Magnitogorsk as well. However, here, the state’s purpose is more specific and more ideologically-oriented. Turning peasantry and ordinary workers into the new ‘Soviet man’ and initiating collectivization was one of the most important state aims in Stalin’s era during the 1930s. Stalin believed that it could be achieved through massive collective construction projects, such as building dams. According to Stalin, the “Magnitogorsk Dam” was a school where hundreds of youths could become loyal partisans and truly recognize the miracle of Bolshevism through labor. Therefore, “heroes” among workers were decorated, busts of Lenin and Stalin were made, and speeches were given after the dam was completed. The state’s purpose in assimilating the peasantry under the banner of socialism is well reflected in its city planning in Magnitogorsk.

dam       statue

Concrete dam in Magnitogorsk              a statue in Magnitogorsk

http://fototelegraf.ru/78860-rossiya-glazami-margaret-berk-uajt-magnitogorsk-1931.html

However, again, other constructions, such as housing, sewage, heating, electricity, and other essentials for the population were neglected (p 129). For example, the majority of Magnitogorsk’s inhabitants took up residence in tents and waited their turn to move into one of the hundreds of barracks being built. However, the planned temporary barracks became the predominant form of shelter.

Палатки первостроителей Магнитогорска.

People sleep in tents in Magnitogorsk

http://vis0tnik.livejournal.com/500742.html?thread=721158

Reading Khrushchev: The Man and his Era and Magnetic Mountain reminded me of the piece by Anna Litveiko, who described the Bolshevik revolution as a wonderful holiday and she felt completely free for the first time. (p 50) Litveiko was happy imagining a beautiful life under communism where workers would build a good proletariat life and there would be enormous public buildings, including huge cafeterias, laundromats, day care centers, and kindergartens. However, it seems like the new city planning in Stalin’s era was different from what she had expected.

If Litveiko was one of the people who was excited to move to the new “modern” city of Magnitogorsk (as it was advertised in press), where she was introduced to tent-life and the hard labor conditions. I am wondering how she could have responded. Would she still be happy to do all those things, while still dreaming of a better future? Or would she be disappointed with the new city, turning away from the state’s orders, and earn the label of class enemy? Or… since she was already one of the leaders of the Bolshevik revolutionary movement in the end of her piece, she might work as one of the weak bosses or one of those busy thinking  about how to transform the peasantry into better soviets in order to advance the socialist crusade. Though I have no exact answer for this, one thing I can say is that city building across the country in Stalin’s era was conducted in a chaotic way under weak management, while workers’ basic needs were neglected.

 

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Life in the barracks, more of the same in Magnitogorsk

For my blog post this week, I am interested in comparing the communal living space in Kotkin’s ‘Magnetic Mountain’ to Zelnik’s translated edition of “A Radical Worker in Tsarist Russia’ in several different ways. How did the cramped living spaces compare in Tsarist Russia in the Stalinist city in the shadow of the Magnetic Mountain? How is the idea of personal space in the city presented in these two works? What can the different changes tell us about Stalinist society?

 

Coming into this week, I most enjoyed reading the piece about the young radical worker in Tsarist Russia. This firsthand account takes the reader directly into the noisy and grimy world of Moscow in the 1890s. Some of the passages really had a lasting impression on me, especially with sensory details like a courtyard that had the “acrid stench of carbolic acid” as well as “dirty puddles and discarded vegetables”. The young radical worker is overwhelmed at the scale and pace of the big city. For him, living in cramped, filthy, and depressing shared space is a very disorienting environment. Although the author decries his living conditions, it can at least be said that he still had a job and seemed to have enough to eat. Coming from an insular village life, he suffered a very shocking adjustment, much like newly arrived visitors to Magnitogorsk in the early 1930s.

 

In the city planning of Magnitogorsk, housing all of the laborers that came from all over the Soviet Union proved to be a difficult task.  After the planning fiasco with Ernst May and the construction delays, most laborers in Magnitogorsk lived in ‘temporary’ structures, the living spaces do not sound too far removed from the young radical worker from 40 years previous. The living spaces were incredibly diverse across the city, however in my blog for this week I want to predominantly focus on the barracks. Similar to the radical worker’s account, those living in Magnitogorsk had problems with hygiene, public drunkenness, as well as “mud and ceaseless noise” in the barracks. Kotkin cites a few different sources, his account is much more expansive than Zelnik’s, as Kotkin utilizes many primary and secondary sources. Kotkin provides the reader with a great deal of insight into the barracks in Magnitogorsk. Despite all of the plans for Magnitogorsk, it is interesting to note the rejection of some communal living situations as people instead crafted “mud huts” and turned back to village practices, dropping the new ideas for the city-to-be. All of the utopian plans and Stalinist rhetoric saw the city grow in fits and starts, however for the everyday laborers in the barracks, the city planning rhetoric did not line up with sleeping on wooden planks in the cold.

 

In Magnitogorsk, Soviet planners wanted to “mold” simple villagers into proletarians and model citizens, this is illustrated well with the photographic piece on Victor Kalmikov. However, sometimes things don’t always go according to plans, and this is nearly always the case when it comes to Magnitogorsk. The “red corners” were established to replace traditional Russian Orthodox icons, the portraits of Stalin and Lenin were omnipresent in the barracks. From most of the testimonies and evidence presented by Kotkin, the “temporary” structures housed people in cramped conditions for years at a time, and the insufficient housing may have played a role in the revolving door mentality in Magnitogorsk. For the workers to band together and build the city up from nowhere, personal comfort and security was never a high priority. Cramped factory workers in Tsarist Russia shared many of the same complaints as those in Magnitogorsk. Although a great many plans were drawn out for the large scale city, in some ways the communal living arrangements were stuck in the past, far from the futuristic, sweeping plans of the new model city. In my opinion, by focusing on other housing for elites as well as the planning and maintenance of blast furnaces and other industrial centers, the city planning left people, quite literally, out in the cold.

 

 

 

niegemanartikel2

I have included an image taken by Johan Niegeman, a Dutch architect that travelled to Magnitogorsk in the early 1930s. It is worth noting these are foreign architects as well as other workers. People are smiling; we can see someone playing music as well. There is also a man at work in the background, with shovel in hand! This is a very different picture than the people who actually lived in the cramped and squalid barracks, I think this shows a mixture of work and leisure to be projected to the outside world.

 

Netherlands Architecture Institute. “Niegeman in Magniotogorsk.” Web. Accessed September 19, 2016. http://en.nai.nl/collection/view_the_collection/item/_rp_kolom2-1_elementId/1_103025

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