Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Forgone Memory of the Socialist City

I don’t remember much from my visit to Berlin at sixteen years old; what I do remember more vividly than anything is standing outside the Reichstag, the Berlin Cathedral, the Brandenburg Gate, and imagining rubble. These structures and monuments that felt as if they had been built centuries ago had barely been constructed or renovated a few decades ago. I almost felt cheated. I did not want to see reconstructions of what was once there, I wanted to see what had always been there. It did not take more than one museum visit and a quick google search to realize that almost nothing in Berlin had “always been there.” What does this mean for Berlin then as a city that carries with it and has always carried the burden to define, redefine, and justify its history to the world? What does the history of Berlin’s destruction and reconstruction mean for its image today? This week’s readings detailed the confusion that arose among architects and city planners as they attempted to reconstruct an image of their city after the collapse of communism.

The Brandenburg Gate in ruins following WWII

The Brandenburg Gate in ruins following WWII

It seems as if it were much simpler to reconstruct the cities of Berlin and Warsaw and others after the Second World War than it was following the collapse of Communism. It required much less debate, and it was easy to agree on and rally popular support behind reconstruction after the destruction that the Second World War brought to these cities. It was much more difficult to rally support behind the destruction of Soviet structures following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In Berlin, for example, the question of whether or not to destroy the Palace of the Republic to rebuild the Berliner Schloss was highly controversial at the time. Eastern Berliners, who were filled with feelings of Ostalgie (nostalgia for the times of the GDR) and who might have not necessarily had a negative connotation associated with the Soviet times, believed that the destruction of the Palace of the Republic was a daring attempt by the Wessis (the term used to refer to the Germans of the BRD) to get rid of something so essential to the Socialist mission, and reinstitute in its place the values of the Prussian Kings that eventually were used by the Nazis to justify their crimes. This debate stalled the destruction of the Palace of the Republic, but it did not stop it, and the construction of the Berliner Schloss began soon thereafter.

The Berlin Palace in May 1945

The Berlin Palace in May 1945


Palace of the Republic in the 80s.

Berliner Schloss as it stands today.

Computer projection of what the Berliner Schloss would look like once construction is completed

Those who argued for the Berliner Schloss believed that it was an innate symbol of the memory of Berlin’s imperial past. The Schloss was Berlin and Berlin was the Schloss. Those who argued against it believed that the Palace of the Republic also held historical significance and importance to those who lived through the times of the GDR. The fact that we see no traces of the Palace of the Republic today speaks volumes of the memories that the Berliners chose to uphold and of the image they wanted to portray of Berlin to its visitors. No longer are buildings designed and created for the purpose of advancing collective living and emboldening the Socialist mission. No longer are they built for the citizen or the state. In the Post-Socialist era, cities were, as Huyssen argues, created for the tourist.

I only agree with Huyssen because Berlin’s history did not simply encompass its imperial past, and so resurrecting an imperial structure in place of a socialist one seemed odd.  As Liebskind said in his interview with Wagner, the GDR housing of the Alexander Platz is “as much a home to the people of the GDR and so it is part of the history of Berlin just as much as the old streets of Berlin are part of that history.” It seems unfair to dismiss and erase forty years of Berlin’s history for the sake of regurgitating its grand imperial palaces and cute old towns that would eventually make for a better snap chat story but would destroy the essence of Berlin not only as an old city, but as one that has witnessed, as Huyssen outlines, empire, war, and revolution; democracy, fascism, Stalinism, and the end of the Cold War. All of these facets play into the memory of Berlin as a city and of Berliners as its inhabitants.

The memory of space is not one dimensional. It does not start and end with those who designed it. It is built and constructed across generational understanding of the space and everything it encompasses. It is perceived through the political climate of the time, and it is unfair to assume that one memory holds more significance and importance than another. Much of the Post-Socialist construction in Berlin favored a portrayal of Berlin as an image rather than a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional story that lives in the minds of those who live in Berlin and those who visit it.


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The Importance of Blats in Soviet Everyday Life

This week’s readings covered Soviet and post-Soviet citizens’ various difficulties in everyday life. The materials include people’s trouble in obtaining necessary goods in Soviet era and the emergence of New Russians such as entrepreneurs, who threatened people in the ill-structured market economy due to the rapid privatization after the fall of the Soviet Union. Here, I would like to focus on the difficulties in obtaining food and goods in the late Soviet era and how people reacted to this situation.

Bukovskii, who had been freed from Soviet camp and reached the West (Zurich), shares his instant feeling, “You see, Soviet people spend a great part of their lives in endless cares, how to get hold of, how to obtain, how to dig out the most elementary things. What trickery, what resourcefulness is needed to do things that over here take only five minutes.” (Cited in Humphrey’s article, p. 43)

This represents the clear difference between the capitalist city and socialist city. The life in socialist cities was much harder in terms of obtaining necessary goods. Kotkin describes it well in his book ‘Steeltown.’ In Magnitogorsk in the fall of 1989, there was always a gigantic queue of people waiting for hours in hope to buy sausages or cheese. Kotkin further provides a vivid picture of this, citing one of the customers in the queue, “My friend advised me, get what you can, soon there won’t be any. / Why am I buying so much? Because there will be none.”


(A long queue for food,


(A long queue for food 2,

In the Soviet era, as the centralized economy failed to meet the needs of the people, there were constant shortages of goods, which led to the difficulty for people to obtain even very necessary goods, mainly food. Therefore, many people had to rely on networks of acquaintances, family and friends to obtain goods. As Alison Stenning and Adrian Smith describe in “Domesticating Neo-Liberalism,” in the city Nowa Huta since shopping was commonly characterized as an unrewarding and difficult practice, many households received food produced by friends and family “through friendship we help each other, simply.”

In fact, especially during the Soviet era (and also in post-Socialist era) using networks of acquaintances and back doors were very popular to respond to this situation of having difficulties in obtaining goods. Humphrey very briefly mentions the term “blat” (p.44) and it is a useful term for describing this phenomenon.

Here, I present the definition of blat by Ledeneva, the author of a book “Russia’s Economy of Favours,” which is devoted to the concept of the blat throughout the book. According to Ledeneva, blat is the use of personal networks and informal contacts to obtain goods and services in short supply. In Soviet era, when there were constant food shortages, blat flourished and it became vital to the population and to the functioning of the Soviet system.

This photo is Natalia’s blat network from Ledeneva’s book (p.118). Due to the shortage of goods, she used her blat network to meet her various types of needs from food to having an access to the healthcare clinic. It clearly represents how Soviet people used blat to get things done where it was almost impossible to do so by oneself due to the dysfunctional system.


(A photo from “Russia’s Economy of Favours” by Alena Ledeneva, p. 118)

Similarly, this chart below is a weekly blat chores of a Soviet person from Ledeneva’s book as well. The left-hand column is the list of chores to be accomplished and on the right are the names of the people who helped the author of this blat list to circumvent the immense complexities presented in Moscow by each one. Similar to Natalia, this person used his blat networking to obtain goods.


(A photo from “Russia’s Economy of Favours” by Alena Ledeneva, p. 45)

As I presented, in the Soviet era, blat networking flourished and it was an essential way to get through all the difficulties to get tasks done. However, some people might argue that even though the purpose of blat is to help people, by doing so it deprives others of rations and opportunities. The next person who is waiting to obtain that certain good can be deprived his turn only because he does not have an access to the blat circle. Therefore, it cannot be regarded as only a positive cultural phenomenon.

However, as Ledeneva argued, I believe that blat is kind of white corruption. It is different from just bribery or corruption because decades of centralized economic systems made it almost impossible to obtain goods or food at the needed time. In addition, as you might have noticed in the weekly blat chores above, the author of that blat list rewarded Dostoevsky with a candy and flowers with a bottle, which cannot be considered as bribery. This shows that the network operates “through friendship [as people] help each other, simply.” The blat was how the society worked in that period and it made a positive contribution to the society and people’s lives. When everything was out of stock and it was almost impossible to get done, only the blat allowed individuals to help each other.

Lastly, I would like to end this blog with a cartoon from Ledeneva’s book. The blat was deeply submerged in the life of people in Soviet times. The one man who is packing clothes in the photo does not worry about starting his new life in Moscow because he will have his family (blat network) who can help him obtain permission for him to stay in Moscow. Although blats might have disadvantaged some people out of blat circles, they look like they operated as one of the best few options.

blat image

(A photo from “Russia’s Economy of Favours” by Alena Ledeneva, p. 126)


p.s. Thanks to “Law and Disorder” class by prof. Smith last year!


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khrushchevka, planning vs reality

This week’s materials covered the housing boom in the Soviet Union in the fifties and sixties, as well as communal living experiences and public/private spaces. I am most interested in discussing two takeaways from the Harris reading Communism on Tomorrow Street– the concurrent presence and absence of order in the placement of khrushchevka buildings, as well as the ability for Soviet citizens (and not the Party) to transform public spaces as they saw fit.

Following the death of Stalin, Khrushchev launched his housing transformation in the late 1950s, as a counter to the American postwar boom. I think it is an interesting shift in policy from the communal apartments to a plan where nuclear families could have their own space, and with it luxurious items like vacuums! The housing program reminded me somewhat of Magnitogorsk, it was a very large undertaking for the Soviet Union but the housing plan also came down to individual people and families. With prefabricated building materials, the structures could quickly come together, but many very not adequately integrated into existing urban spaces. The diagrams for the microdistricts did not always align with the final product of the buildings.

Screen Shot 2016-10-11 at 3.38.54 PM


In this example above, the building blocks are very orderly arranged, adequate spaces look reserved for other structures, and there is also clearly a very large organized sports area. This diagram reminded me of the utopian layouts for socialist cities, with clean green bands and uncluttered urban spaces that would differentiate the Soviet Union from the clutter and mess of 19th century capitalism.


No thanks, heard enough about this from Engels…

            Indeed, the high-level rhetoric and the renewed drive to improve housing (and subsequently fashion the New Soviet Man) did not line up with the final product. The results of the insufficient planning was evident with the tall buildings in Tashkent, as well as the lack of planning to tie in new housing developments with the infrastructure. I do not mean to completely discredit the construction of the khrushchevka housing, but I do want to emphasize how some of the microdistricts were so far on the outskirts that citizens finally had a place to call their own, but their homes were not integrated into public transportation or nearby stores. My personal takeaway is that there was simply a push to create living spaces and demonstrate how quickly the Soviet Union can overtake the West and give more autonomy to the Soviet people…it is just evident that other details would need to be worked out later on.

One such detail pertains to some unallocated tracts of land nearby newly built apartment blocks. Soviet Citizens molded these spaces, instead of the top-down delegation of space like monuments, war memorials, and other public projects. What to do with this land? Make it a small park? A sports arena? A garden? A “casino” of sorts?

Screen Shot 2016-10-11 at 3.38.07 PM

Housing unit, with space for soccer

            Given the blank slate for these open spaces, one can easily imagine disputes between sports areas, social squares, or any number of other uses. I see these empty lots as a very rare opportunity for small-scale civil society actors to have input on urban planning. Such a committee and transformative space was unheard of only a few years before. These “shared activities” were not provided for by the state, which must have been an exciting opportunity for Soviet people in the wake of the housing boom.

k building 1

Have to show one in the snow!

Picture references

Photo 1:

“Soviet Housing in Post-Soviet Europe”

Photo 2:

“Municipal Dreams”

Photo 3:

“Soviet Housing in Post-Soviet Europe”

Photo 4:

“Wandering Camera, notes about St. Petersburg”

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The Socialist Subject of Nowa Huta

Before taking this class I had no idea that a concept such as the “socialist city” existed. For an economic and political ideology to be imprinted upon the characteristics of the city seemed rather unattainable. However, to the citizens of the Soviet state, creating a socialist city was a dream they had always longed for. The exact meaning and image of a true socialist utopian city, however, varied and was often disagreed upon. The implementation of these grand ideas of a vague conception of the socialist city also faltered and often differed drastically from the plans that the Soviets held so dearly. Yet, the dream prevailed. The reality on the ground may have hardly reflected that of the grand plans, but the belief that things will eventually get better remained. These socialist cities continued to invite new citizens who began to see those cities as their new homes.

Andrew Day defines the socialist city as one “whose rational layout, modern infrastructure, and well-designed buildings would make it an efficient productive and administrative center; whose well-appointed apartment houses, parks, and cultural facilities would make it a pleasant place to live; and whose appearance would be so magnificent as to convince visits and residents of the power and historical progressive nature the Soviet Project.” Nowa Huta was one of those grand Soviet projects whose architects aimed to make it a modern socialist state in the outskirts of Krakow. Its mere location was a testament to the contrast that is to be drawn between the past of semi-feudalism in Poland and the future of equality and opportunity in the modern socialist state. Much like Magnitorsk, Nowa Huta was to be a symbol of modernity and socialist power. For the Poles, however, it would also be a symbol of reconstruction after the devastation of the Second World War.

The majority of Nowa Huta’s population were polish youth who often escaped their village lives in search of a better future. Katherine Lebow mentions the story of a young man named Chmieliński who embarked upon such journey and found a new home in Nowa Huta. He had been taken in as a slave laborer during the war by the Nazis, and upon his return found that his family’s farm had been burnt to the ground. He found himself forced to work as a herdsman for other polish farmers who he often equated with his German slavers. Nowa Huta then represented a chance of renewal for him as it did many of his peers. Lebow uses Chmieliñski’s story to prove that there was no desire for normalcy or no option of normalcy after the war. Reconstruction did not mean a return to the previous conditions that plagued Polish society— often that return was not possible— rather, it meant a break from the past, an establishment of a new vision, and a new hope for the future. Nowa Huta was to represent this vision for the Polish proletariat.

Those who arrived in Nowa Huta in the midst of its construction were often as disappointed as those who arrived in Magnitorisk were to see nothing but fields and peasant huts. Their vision of a socialist city did not match up to the reality of Nowa Huta under construction. The city was filled with mud that was a result of a lack of planning; the housing units often lacked the hygiene and order that is characteristic of socialist city, and theft was rampant. Nowa Huta seemed to resemble less and less the ideal vision of a socialist society. And yet, people remained. They saw themselves as an integral part of this soviet project. They took pride in their work, and in the buildings they helped erect. The women of Nowa Huta took particular pride in the work that they did that often matched that of the men’s. Nowa Huta may have not been the ideal socialist city, but it did seem to have succeeded in creating the ideal socialist subject.

We often think of the Soviet System as one that imposed ideals and ideas to the soviet subject without their approval and often with their dissatisfaction of the system. The Soviets, however, did not rule with a blind eye and a magic wand. The citizens of the Soviet Union seemed to believe in the mission to create a socialist state. They hoped for the advancement and the renewal that the Soviet Union promised. No matter how bad conditions were, they continued to work for the hope that things would get better. For the simple proletariat, socialism meant the realization of that hope. These cities could not have been sustained from a mere command; they were built by people who believed in them and who wanted to witness their success.

An Image of women workers in Nowa Huta crossing their arms in demonstration of power and pride

An Image of women workers in Nowa Huta crossing their arms in demonstration of power and pride


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