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.
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.
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.
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.
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.