Academic journal article Kritika

Housing and Meaning in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia

Academic journal article Kritika

Housing and Meaning in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia

Article excerpt

Steven E. Harris, Communism on Tomorrow Street: Mass Housing and Everyday Life after Stalin. 416 pp. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. ISBN-13 978-1421405667. $60.00.

Jane R. Zavisca, Housing the New Russia. 264 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. ISBN-13 978-0801450372. $79.95.

In 1986, Joseph Brodsky's essay "In a Room and a Half" was published in the New York Review of Books. In it, the exiled poet enters, through the door of his family's Leningrad home, into a lyrical meditation on memory and loss. While Brodsky moves in his essay toward themes that are as timeless as they are universal, the memories of material forms that give the writer passage to the metaphysical are so time-bound and particular as to render them almost untranslatable. "The room and a half (if such a unit of space makes any sense in English) in which the three of us lived," Brodsky begins, "had a parquet floor, and my mother strongly objected to the men in her family, me in particular, walking around with our socks on." (1) Brodsky describes the strange configuration of space that made up his family home by recalling the logic of square-metered housing distribution that dictated familial relations and everyday life in Russia during the Soviet period. A decade and a half after emigration, the writer could still recall that "the minimum living space per person is nine square meters"; he could remember the arcane system of property exchanges that allowed his parents, as newly weds, to trade their two separate rooms for a single room-and-a-half in a communal apartment; and he could picture the clerks in the district property office who decided the fates of many and whose "initial impulse is to give you less." (2) Brodsky's "Room and a Half" makes clear that when the Soviet state sought to dissolve the bonds of private property, the matter of personal property, of home and housing, took on a new, acute, and often painful meaning for Soviet citizens and officials alike. Of all the transformations in everyday life brought about after 1917, the revolution in living space was one of the most sustained and personally felt effects of Soviet power.

In two monographs, the historian Steven E. Harris and the sociologist Jane R. Zavisca show us that the way the Soviet Union approached the housing question had profound and long-term effects on the lives of Russia's urban inhabitants well into the late Soviet and post-Soviet periods. Harris and Zavisca contribute to a growing literature that examines the history of housing allocation and construction and the issue of urban property in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Recent work in this field also reveals the continued importance of socialist housing policies in the postsocialist period. Works by the historians Mark B. Smith, Lynne Attwood, Christine Varga-Harris, Mark Meerovich, by the anthropologist Stephen Collier, and others have shown that attention to housing and the built environment yields new answers to questions about the nature of Soviet power and its relation to everyday life. (3) This new wave of scholarship on the history of housing draws on earlier work by geographers, political scientists, and sociologists--like Gregory D. Andrusz, who observed in 1984 that housing still remained a central problem for the Soviet state well over 60 years after the Bolshevik revolution had promised to fundamentally transform property relations and to solve the housing crisis once and for all. (4) Both Harris and Zavisca focus on the single-family apartment, officially adopted as the solution to the housing problem in the late 1950s. In examining how these apartments took on meaning for ordinary citizens, and how these meanings lived on through the dissolution of the USSR and into the 2000s, these scholars offer a model for approaching the housing problem that raises issues about policy and materiality alongside questions about the meanings articulated by residents themselves. …

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