Homemaking and the Aesthetic and Moral Perimeters of the Soviet Home during the Khrushchev Era

Article excerpt

In February 1956, at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced the Stalin "cult of personality" in his famous "Secret Speech," thereby providing official sanction for the de-Stalinization of Soviet society. (1) This process included the rehabilitation of individuals who had been unjustly accused of being "enemies of the people," greater liberty in the sphere of literary production, economic restructuring, and the revitalization of Soviet agriculture. (2) Because of these liberalizing reforms, the Khrushchev era assumed the moniker "the Thaw." In general terms, this reform spirit fostered a belated postwar "return to normalcy," something that had been delayed in the Soviet Union until the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, due to the continuation of the repression that distinguished his leadership. (3) In addition, it signaled a return to the task of building Communism, which had been interrupted by war.

Under the extraordinary circumstances of the Thaw, the establishment of normal daily living demanded nothing less than the complete "restructuring of everyday life" (perestroika byta). (4) The era of the 20th Congress was therefore distinguished not only by the dismantling of Stalinist terror and authoritarianism, but also by a general emphasis on ameliorating daily life for Soviet citizens. (5) This was evident in official commitment to advance nutritional standards (namely by increasing the output of meat and dairy products), to improve education and healthcare, to reduce the workday to seven hours and concurrently expand the leisure time of the average worker, and to raise the production of consumer goods. (6) The latter of these, particularly in the form of household wares, was integral to a major policy initiative that showcased the grand transformations of the era: a massive campaign to resolve the Soviet housing crisis and provide to each family a "separate apartment" (otdel'naia kvartira). (7)

Khrushchev launched his construction endeavor in July 1957, immediately after cementing his leadership. Characterized as "perhaps the most ambitious governmental housing program in human history," between 1956 and 1970, it yielded approximately 34 million units of living space, and more than 126 million people--more than half the country--moved into them. (8) This displaced the policy norm that, since the 1917 Revolution, in response to a persistent housing shortage, had minimally attempted to supply every family one room within a large flat. (9) In this type of apartment--the so-called kommunalka--the bathroom, lavatory and kitchen, as well as any storage spaces, were collectively shared with other tenants. (10) In qualitative terms then, the housing construction campaign that Khrushchev instituted entailed a broad transition from communal to "one-family" living.

Separate apartments had been built during the Stalin era, but they were largely reserved for members of the state and Party elite, or for hero workers. (11) What is significant during the Thaw is the extension of the promise of domestic comfort to the entire working class, a gesture representative of the egalitarianism that the Khrushchev regime sought to promote. (12) Official intent to provide each family its own flat--complete with amenities and domestic wares from appliances to folksy knick-knacks--also served as a concrete manifestation of Communism being built: from the perspective of the Soviet government and Communist Party, the home comprised an articulation of the vast difference between "us" and "them"--respectively, between the Soviet Union where the proletariat "owned" not only the means of production but also of habitation, and capitalist countries in which these were predicated upon exploitative private ownership. (13) Khrushchev highlighted this dichotomy on the international stage during the infamous "Kitchen Debate" that occurred at the 1959 American National Exposition in Moscow with then vice-president Richard Nixon. …