Author Archives: Nicholas Murray

Golden Ghettos in Sofia, Bulgaria

From this week’s readings, I was amazed at how many old topics (who am I kidding, old friends!) from other classes came into sight: infrastructure, expanding homes into green spaces, gates and seclusions, and several other themes. With so many threads to choose from, it really took me a while to settle down onto one specific topic. Reviewing all of this week’s readings, I was most intrigued by the ‘golden ghettos’ in Sofia, Bulgaria. These new suburbs bring up a few different topics: space in post socialist Bulgaria, new security measures in the suburbs, and the suburban impact on women’s role in society. Although socialist cities had many pitfalls, Bulgaria in the post socialist space can shows deep implications and downsides when capitalism and housing intersect.

Sofia, Bulgaria showing the dense city.

Sofia, Bulgaria showing the dense city.

Beginning with space, the decentralization away from Sofia struck a cord-the new suburbs, according to Hirt, showed a total rejection of the old clustered socialist city. Instead of living and working in the city center, people commute to the more affluent suburbs and ‘get out of Dodge’ as quickly as they can. One memorable excerpt addressed a Bulgarian’s complaints about a traffic jam downtown…caused by sheep, so the old and the new were still very much clashing. I think the dislocation away from the urban center takes away from the sense of community, people did not know their neighbors as well and neighbors lived more secluded, private lives. Additionally, moving out from the city center gave the Bulgarians almost a dacha-like escape, once reserved for the party elite, now everyone (who can afford it) could escape the dirt and grim of the city for green space.

The Bulgairan 'burbs-actual picture taken by the Bulgarian state to nab homeowners for tax evasion.

The Bulgarian ‘burbs

Throughout our course, the term green spaces always sounds like a yeoman appeal for nostalgia and simpler times. However, just like the communal gardens in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, it’s a private green space complete with a high stone walls and security cameras. My thoughts immediately turned to the sheet metal car protectors and thick steel doors from last week’s readings. People at last have private property and ‘nice’ things, but across society people turned inwards to protect what they have. One can look at this two ways, as a negative since the public cannot enjoy green spaces and share in community experiences, or as a positive since families’ hard work was rewarded with “a nice big yard so the kids can play…it’s a better place, really, for the family.”












Yards, moats, gates, anything you want-just build it!

            Speaking of the family, I would lastly like to touch on the effect that these suburban neighborhoods had on the family and specifically on the role of women in society. It did not cross my mind before this reading, but in post socialist society women lost out on many state programs that assisted raising children such as daycare services. With the new neighborhoods far from the city center and not many two car families, women were increasingly isolated professionally and socially. Much like other aspects covered in this reading, the feelings were not universal as some women enjoyed more free time for themselves and more attention for the family. Regardless of how one assesses the suburbs and gender roles, one can observe a step backwards in terms of gender equality under the banner of increased wealth and prosperity for the family and Bulgarian society.


Photo one


photo two’Eye+Properties+from+Above’


Photo three

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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.

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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?

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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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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.





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.


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