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Kazan and Bishkek: Same Peaceful Coexistence, Different Histories

This week’s readings centered around the various faults in cities, which most often occur along lines of culture between different groups of people. For me these readings hit close to home, particularly those concerning issues related to the battle of multiculturalism vs integration. As always, all that I read and study I try to relate back to my own experiences at home or abroad, and for this week Only by learning how to live together differently can we live together at all’: readability and legibility of Central Asian migrants’ presence in urban Russia by Emil Nasritdinov was particularly germane to my own travels in the former Soviet space.

A core tenet of Nasritdinov’s work is the notion that, in certain instances, pressure to get varying groups of culturally diverse peoples occupying one urban space to conform to one overarching identity or allegiance is fraught with danger and in turn can cause greater friction between the different groups rather than a more tolerant environment. Conversely, he posits that allowing these different groups to keep their cultures and traditions and live parallel to each other, acting as symbiosis more than synthesis, fosters a more peaceful environment with less culture clash.  He uses the interplay between the different peoples in St. Petersburg and Kazan as case studies to exemplify his central point.

Kazan's "Temple of All Religions", Photo Credit:

Kazan’s “Temple of All Religions”

In Nasritdinov’s description of the interplay between the Christian Slavs and Muslim Tatars in Kazan and their simultaneous, yet peaceful, coexistence, I was brought back to my time in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where I noticed a similar phenomenon. In my experience there, I saw an entirely heterogenous city, not divided along the lines of two main demographics like in Kazan between Slav and Turk, but rather, multiple peoples from nearly every corner of the former Soviet Union. It was just as normal to see a Russian, as a Ukrainian, as a Kyrgyz, as an Uzbek, as one of the many peoples of the North Caucasus, or any other person who may have had ancestors in the Soviet space. What is more, while all having their distinct communities and spaces that they inhabit, it was completely normal to see members of each group keep friends and relationships with those outside their ethnicity.

This interplay that I witnessed superimposes shockingly well in practice over Nasritdinov’s description of the relationship between the two main groups in Kazan, instead with numerous in Bishkek. Interestingly though, the catalysts that made Bishkek and Kazan comparatively tolerant cities seem to be quite different. Kazan has existed in some form for nearly 1000 years, extending back to the period of the Mongol invasions. Due to its position as a frontier region that existed between Slav settlers and Tatar invaders, a natural equilibrium grew between the two peoples through a shared urban area with soft cultural segregation and tolerance of the other group to essentially “mind its own business”. Conversely, Bishkek is an incredibly recent settlement, having been founded as a military outpost in the 19th century by Russian settlers. The majority of the different ethnicities present in the city beyond those of Kyrgyzstan’s native peoples and the historical Russian settlers came to be due to mass deportations and resettlements instituted during the Soviet period.

Kazan, a welcome place for both Slavic churches and Turkic mosques

Kazan, a welcome place for both Slavic churches and Turkic mosques

Sad though the circumstances may be, I would posit that a mutual lot of misfortune and the necessity of survival through cooperation had something to do with the cordial, if not wholly warm, relations between the different ethnic groups in Bishkek, at least by my own observation. From my vantage point, there was very little impetus for the different peoples to conform to some larger identity of being “Kyrgyzstani”. In fact, those that I had experience with, devoid of ethnic origins, seemed to hold higher their identity as being someone from Bishkek as a sentimental focal point than the Kyrgyz national identity. Different peoples practiced different cultural traditions and no one seemed to step on anyone else’s toes, while everyone was a proud Bishkeker. While my experience is in no way officially studied or tested and is wholly anecdotal, it affirms the notion that peoples can live differently and also live together, as Nasritdinov would put it.

Me (looking terrible) with my two teachers in Bishkek, both of whom were long time friends, one ethnically Russian and one Balkarian (from the North Caucasus).

Me (looking terrible) with my two teachers in Bishkek, both of whom were long time friends, one ethnically Russian and one Balkarian (from the North Caucasus).

This post has been anecdotal indeed, and I will add to it with one more. Every saturday I would eat at the Uyghur restaurant “Faiza” during my time in Bishkek. It wasn’t uncommon to see Slavic faces, Turkic faces, Dungan faces, North Caucasian faces, and everything between all relaxing to enjoy a good bowl of boso lagman. One time I was joined at my table by three guys, one Russian, one Kyrgyz, and one Avar from Dagestan, and all members of the Kyrgyz national soccer team. The story doesn’t go much further from here, apart from there being an enjoyable lunch with three guys all of whom were obvious friends and teammates and their acceptance of me as something foreign with my at the time poor Russian. Their ethnic identities were simultaneously at the forefront, yet didn’t really matter, and certainly didn’t impede their capacities to enjoy each other’s companies. Nasritdinov would certainly have smiled upon us. While the circumstances that created the tolerant multiethnic nature of Bishkek differed from those of Kazan, both arrived at a similar state of equilibrium of peoples. Perhaps further study is required to observe what similarities both cities have in catalysts rather than differences.

Faiza: the Uyghur restaurant in Bishkek where everyone is united in the deliciousness of lagman, in spite of ethnicity

Faiza: the Uyghur restaurant in Bishkek where everyone is united in the deliciousness of lagman, in spite of ethnicity


Temple of All Religions photo source:

Kazan skyline photo source:


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How Many Rooms Do You Have In Your Apartment?

It was fascinating to read Jane Zavisca’s piece on Housing the New Russia. This reading includes a number of interesting stories, such as the great desire of Russian people to have their own space, Russians’ opinions on house rentals, mortgage, and legal property rights. In addition, it was interesting to see how contemporary Russian people think there were only pluses with regard to housing in the Soviet era and how they feel disappointed in the current housing policy and situation.

However, throughout the reading there was one thing that grabbed my attention. Though it might have seemed trivial to other readers, the expression that the author used to describe the apartments, such as “two-room apartments” or “three-room apartments” piqued my curiosity. For example, on page 107 the author says that “Mikhail was living with his mother in a two-room apartment” and on page 109 “Svelana was living with her children, her mother, and two adult sisters in a four-room house.”

People in the US usually say a “two bedroom apartment” instead of “two-room apartment.” Even if they say two-room apartment, it usually implies two bedrooms plus some kind of communal space, like a living room. It is the same in Korea, too. When we say “three bedroom apartment, it is common to imagine that there are three bedrooms and a living room.

However, in Russia a living room is also regarded as a room (комната) and it is included in the two or three room count.

In fact, it drew my attention because I have an experience regarding this when I was in Russia. It was a basic Russian conversation class with a Russian professor. There were some exercises in the textbook where I had to answer the question, “How many rooms do you have in your apartment?” However, it turned out that I had to add one more room because the living room is also counted! The professor even looked surprised when I asked why the living room is regarded as a separate room in Russia.

However, it actually makes sense because there are many cases in which Russian citizens, who are neither wealthy nor poor, live in apartments which do not have a living room. For example, in the reading on page 108, the author talks about a young couple living with their parents and their child in a two-room apartment, where the grandparents live in one room  and the couple and their baby live in the other. Considering that the author says the couple and in-laws only meet in the corridor and the kitchen, there is no living room in this apartment.

It reminds me of my experience in Novosibirsk, Russia. I rented one of the rooms in a three-room apartment. There was a kitchen that we shared together and a bathroom. However, there was no such space that could be classified as a living room. Of course, there are many better apartments with living rooms in Russia, but I want to emphasize that the apartment I lived in was just an average apartment located near Lenin Square (the center of the city) and the rent was not much cheaper than that of the other apartments in that area. In fact, I paid 8,400 roubles which was equivalent to around 350 dollars, cheap by DC standards but reasonable by Novosibirsk standards.

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                                                                My room in Novosibirsk

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               Apartment that I lived in                                     Apartment door in the winter


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Of course, there is living room in expensive apartments (My friend’s place)  

Considering that there are many apartments without living rooms in Russia, it is understandable to count a living room as a bedroom, since it can provide extra space to an apartment. However, if we think about the Soviet Union period, communal space was always prioritized. How did Russia, which emphasized the communal life style for decades (in the Soviet Union era), not build the living room in average Russian apartments?

Residents in a communal apartment

The answer is simple. As we read in the previous reading, the space that one person can have in Russia was only 7 (?) square feet, which is much smaller than in any other country. In this kind of situation, it might have been a luxury to build living rooms in all the average apartments in Russia.


Photo Credit

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A playground in the apartment complex that I lived in

It just reminded me of the previous class discussion on playgrounds in Russia.

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A metro station in Novosibirsk

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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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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.

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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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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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Building Man Through Material Culture and My Experience With It

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.

Plain Jane housing in Turkmenistan

Plain Jane housing in Turkmenistan

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.

Moscow metro

Moscow metro

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.

My home of 8 months

My home of 8 months

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.

Bearded me in the unusually clean and decorated Almaty metro

Bearded me in the unusually clean and decorated Almaty metro


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.


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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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Tashkent: The Sculpted City

Tashkent is a city of contrasts. In many ways it has all of the trappings of a stereotypical medium to large sized post-Soviet city. It has wide avenues that terminate in a central district, an extensive and seemingly immaculate metro system, various monuments to events of local historical importance, a tomb of the unknown soldier, an opera house, marginally well stocked shopping centers, and the ever common endless labyrinth of retro-futuristic apartment complexes that one immediately identifies as a marker of a Soviet past.


On the other hand, the city has retained many elements of its pre-Soviet past as well, being vestiges of the city’s Turco-Persian or Imperial Russian heritage. These include a number of street bazaars, centuries old mosques, madrassas (which since have been converted into artisan’s shops), people wearing traditional Uzbek clothing, Russian Orthodox churches, and Imperial Russian palaces.


Then in some instances there seems to be a collision of the city’s Soviet and pre-Soviet pasts. When looking upon the city’s monument to Tamerlane, the Turco-Mongol conqueror of old, who Uzbekistan has claimed as a fundamental axiom of its national identity since the collapse of the Soviet Union, one cannot help but see the shocking aesthetic similarity it has to the Socialist Realist style used in monuments to figures like Lenin or Stalin.

Comrade Tamerlane

Comrade Tamerlane

Or perhaps when one enters Tashkent’s main “bazaar”, and notices it holds little resemblance to the other more traditional ones in the country’s smaller cities, exchanging the tent covered lanes filled with merchants sitting on the ground, for a sterile indoor marketplace more resembling an American supermarket than its namesake.



In his book Tashkent: Forging of a Soviet City, in the chapter “A City to be Transformed”, Paul Stronskii takes the reader into what can be described as the “primordial ooze” out of which the city of Tashkent as we know it was built. A central theme that he comes back to throughout the chapter is the notion that Tashkent had been treated as something of a project by both Imperial Russian and Soviet rule as a city. They thought that through the effort and grace of their superior cultures, they would be able to transform the city from being backward and Asiatic, to modern and European or Soviet in aesthetic and structure.

Considering this perspective against my own experience in Tashkent and Central Asia as a whole, a question I have long had has finally been answered: why is Tashkent so much more “Soviet” and “Russian” looking than Uzbekistan’s other cities, such as Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva? The aforementioned three have a uniquely well preserved pre-Russian and pre-Soviet downtown area, which by the layman would more likely be assumed to be in Iran, Afghanistan, or perhaps Pakistan. This is not to say that there are no vestiges of the recent Soviet past in these cities, rather, there is a clearly defined boundary between the “old city”, characterized by mosques and madrassas, and the “new city” in each.

Me in Samarkand

Me in Samarkand

It is interesting that Stronskii describes Tashkent during its Imperial Russian experience as something of a city that grew in two halves, with there being a clear line between the European and Asiatic halves of the city, with the former existing to inspire the latter with its innovation and technology to, as he describes it, “follow them into modernity”. From his description of what Tashkent was, I could better conceptualize that line between the Asiatic and the European elements of the city, as I had witnessed something quite similar in viewing the dichotomy between the “old towns” and “new towns” of Bukhara and Samarkand.

However, the modern day contrast and collision that characterizes the urban landscape of Tashkent, that is so absent in the other major Uzbek cities, certainly stems more so from its recent Soviet past. From how Stronskii describes it, the Russian Imperial forces aimed to build up modern Tashkent parallel to old Tashkent, while the Soviets sought to integrate their own designs into the already existing framework of the city, essentially seeking to augment and renovate it, rather than building a whole new city entirely. This involved integrating the Uzbek and Russian populations that lived there, destroying or replacing many symbols from the Imperial Russian past, creating a standardized street system, bringing in industry, electricity, and sanitation, and converting traditional spaces of learning, such as mosques and madrassas into more modern establishments. The Soviet Union considered Tashkent with the same status that the Imperial Russian forces did as a center piece of Central Asia and the main canvas upon which it would paint its designs, and because of that, the city bore the brunt of its machinations. Indeed, when one looks at the urban landscape of modern Tashkent, one doesn’t see a city that is explicitly Central Asian in the way one does with Bukhara. Similarly, one doesn’t see a completely Soviet manufactured city as well. One sees a collision of all aspects of Tashkent’s history. Through the narrative that Stronskii provided, I was better able to understand the journey that the city took, and how it resulted in such a startlingly unique urban landscape when considered against other cities in the region.


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