Author Archives: Shifaa Alsairafi

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 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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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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