Soviet Urban Planning, Housing Policies, and De-Stalinization

By Obertreis, Julia | Kritika, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Soviet Urban Planning, Housing Policies, and De-Stalinization


Obertreis, Julia, Kritika


Mark B. Smith, Property of Communists: The Urban Housing Program from Stalin to Khrushchev. 240 pp. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010. ISBN-13 978-0875804231. $40.00.

Paul Stronski, Tashkent: Forging a Soviet City, 1930-1966. 350 pp. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. ISBN-13 978-0822943945, $65.00 (cloth); 978-0822961130, $27.95 (paper).

The general character of the postwar and post-Stalin period in Soviet history has become a topic of much debate in recent years, The chronology and labeling based on commonly accepted subdivisions--"postwar years," "late Stalinism," "thaw" (Khrushchev period), and "stagnation" (Brezhnev period)--do not necessarily provide an adequate frame for the most recent research and have indeed been openly challenged. The period of "late Stalinism" for example, had previously been seen as a period of re's: reconstruction and recovery from the war losses followed by the reestablishment of the Stalinist repressive system. More recent contributions show a more nuanced picture of a dynamic society in search of new identities, including such contradictory phenomena as emerging youth cultures and an "obsession with control." (1) Concerning the "thaw" period, nowadays often labeled "de-Stalinization," the general narrative is moving away from concentrating on Khrushchev's dipsydoodling reform policies. Rather, scholars are now examining the emergence of new types of public spheres--albeit limited ones, forums of communication, and new forms of interaction between regime representatives and the broad population. (2)

One of the more recent approaches to the postwar years and the Khrushchev period is the analysis of citizens' voices as expressed in letters. As Christine Varga-Harris and others have shown, a new discourse appeared at this time. Soviet citizens called for adequate compensation from the state in exchange for the efforts and sacrifices they had made during and after the war. They insisted on their rights to food, adequate housing, and other material provisions, in many cases appealing to the state's own promises. (3) Citizens acted more self-consciously than they had in the 1930s, due to the abating of terror and the new source of legitimacy provided by victory in World War II.

Here the two studies considered in this review overlap. Both provide new insights into the postwar period with reference to the relationship between individual citizens and the state, especially in regard to housing. Neither limits the scope of its research to the 1940s and 1950s, though, reaching well beyond it. They thus make it possible to see the immediate postwar period in a broader chronological perspective. Yet the two authors use different strategies in creating a wider historical narrative. For good reasons, Mark B. Smith challenges the well-established chronology for the study of the postwar period, while Paul Stronski inscribes Uzbekistan into it.

Both monographs treat aspects of urbanization, urban planning, housing policies, and housing construction. While Smith addresses the entire Soviet Union, concentrating on the categories of ownership and the welfare state, Stronski's book is devoted specifically to the history of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Both authors place their findings in broader comparative contexts: Smith draws on the development of housing construction and property rights in Western Europe, and he tries to show that the Soviet experience did not stand apart from European-wide trends but developed out of them. Stronski presents the history of Tashkent and Uzbekistan as an integral part of the Soviet modernizing project with many parallels to other parts of the Soviet Union.

Smith departs from the well-known phenomenon of the urban housing construction boom in 1956-63 in stressing that the Soviet construction rate was the highest in Europe. The author seeks to account for the forerunners and historical background of this project, which is usually connected to only Khrushchev's name. …

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