Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Ideology in Infrastructure: Architecture and Soviet Imagination

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Ideology in Infrastructure: Architecture and Soviet Imagination

Article excerpt

The relation between early Soviet ideology and infrastructure appears straight-forward--yet it has a breathtaking audacity if one thinks about it. According to Marxist materialism, the base determines the superstructure, and the task of Soviet construction was to build material foundations that would mould nothing less than a new society. This reminds us that ideology is found not only in texts and speeches; it is a political practice that is also manifest in constructing material objects. After the Revolution, architecture became one of they key arenas of ideology. In the 1920s, it was actually believed that carefully designed living quarters, for example, could eliminate the conditions for individualistic and meshchanskie (petty-minded bourgeois) ways of life, and on this basis a new human type would become the norm: Socialist Man and Socialist Woman. (1) A new kind of building, the House Commune (dom kommuna), would provide the infrastructure. Previous ('obsolete') social groupings, such as the patriarchal family, the private firm, or the peasant household, would give way to the new ideal, the labour collective. (2)

For anthropology, the Soviet case is significant because it makes clear not only that political ideology can take material form, but also that artefacts are not material objects divorced from social relations. The latter point has long since been made with regard to 'the house', which, as Carsten and Hugh-Jones (1995) have argued, both embodies and generates sociality. But the house built by people for themselves is different from the case of state construction projects in which housing is allocated and the inhabitants are mere passive recipients (Semenova 2004). What the Soviet example requires us to think about is the particular situation where there is a definite pronounced intention of the state to make use of the materiality of dwelling to produce new social forms and moral values. What happens in such a case?

By now it is a familiar idea in the literature that this early Soviet goal fell to pieces, and in different ways. For one thing, the disorganized economy was often simply unable to provide the necessary infrastructure. In the pioneering city of Magnitogorsk, it was not rational efficiency but disorder and poverty that reigned in the communal barracks of the workers (Kotkin 1995). Further, it is argued that even if the ideal infrastructure was built, the anticipated social and psychological metamorphosis failed to take place. The comforts of everyday domestic practices (byt) gradually invaded the austere spaces of even the exemplary Soviet Nakomfin apartment house (Buchli 1999). Senior managers at Magnitogorsk, far from being suffused with socialist values, were tempted by the forbidden bourgeois comforts of the village built to house foreign specialists (Kotkin 1995). In later, more prosperous periods, when it was possible to construct infrastructure more or less as the planners had designed it, the evidence again seems clear: the material base for a socialist way of life was there; it is just that people did not quite live that way. The dominant trend in the literature explains this by non-compliance, popular agency, and the subverting of official ideology with a host of everyday practices of survival (Fitzpatrick 1999). To put it very crudely, we have a now more or less accepted picture of the ideology of infrastructure as having become rapidly irrelevant, overwhelmed not so much by overt opposition as by the teeming practices of life that had their own and different logics.

This article will argue that the image thus produced is misleading. This is partly because the picture is generalized, when it is clear that some people did become virtually ideal Soviet activists while others were resolutely opposed to socialist values from the start (Fitzpatrick 2004). But more pertinent to this article is the fact that the recent debate among historians, (3) in which a new account of pervasive Sovietized subjectivity opposes the earlier 'resistance' model, almost entirely ignores the presence of material structures in people's lives. …

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