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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2 Responses to Cities as Vessels of False Modernity

  1. Kathleen Smith

    It seems like both Mekka and Magnitogorsk are divided by class. In Magnitogorsk, too, there is the special settlement for the foreign experts and the nicer housing for managers (and secret police)–so there is privilege but allotted not by market means. Perhaps the Bolsheviks would say someday everyone will have access to this higher standard, but we can’t tell if people then believed it. What do you think about Mekka, are people accepting of divisions in class in this world with the idea of a paradise beyond?

    • Shifaa Alsairafi

      I don’t think anyone can accept such class divisions in a place that is meant to be an exemplary location of utmost equality. The pilgrimage to Mekka is a journey unlike any other that is meant to strip you of your materialism. All pilgrims dress in simple white clothing and perform the rituals of the Pilgrimage together regardless of their race or class. Mekka is meant to be the only place on earth where these class divisions are not apparent, and where muslims of all backgrounds feel equal with their brothers and sisters under the name of God. The mere image of these tall towers where the wealthier pilgrims in their Ka’bah view rooms look down upon others who are forced to beg for change on the streets is a disgrace to the image and sanctity of a place like Mekka. The mission to “modernize” it with big ben like clock towers built upon the ruins of what once used to the prophet’s historic home is shameful to both the history and rituals of Islam. Ali Shariati along with many Islamic modernists argued that Islam is a socialist religion that looked down upon vast class distinctions. Mekka is meant to be an example of that. Instead, it became a tool in the hands of the Saudi monarchy to show the world that Saudi Arabia can create great buildings that were quite ironically built and designed by non-Saudis. The biggest clocktower in the world they called it–an architectural wonder. Its mere existence stands in obvious contrast to the message of a city like Mekka.

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