Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.3 (2005) 583-614
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In Search of "Ordinary" Russia
Everyday Life in the NEP, the Thaw, and the Communal Apartment
Steven E. Harris
Robinson Hall, Room B359
George Mason University
4400 University Drive, MS 3G1 Fairfax, VA 22030 USA
Living a "normal" life and being an "ordinary person" in the former Soviet Union were difficult, if not impossible, tasks. Particularly in the 1930s, when the regime was most active in transforming its citizens through industrialization, urbanization, collectivization, and political indoctrination and terror, the most ordinary aspect of everyday life in the eyes of many citizens was its extraordinary nature.1 At first, pre-revolutionary Russia was the point of reference for many Soviet citizens dreaming of a lost "normal" life, but it was Western life that came to represent "normality" for many citizens in the late Soviet era.2 With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, an alternative system to life in the West disappeared; and most saw the transition to Western democracy and capitalism--and, therefore, "normality"--as a foregone conclusion.3 As we now know, the end of communism in the Soviet Union has not been followed by such an unproblematic transition, and remnants of the Soviet past live on well after the regime's collapse. Take, for example, the communal apartment, which was for both Soviet citizens and outside observers a chief example of the "abnormal" condition of the Soviet everyday that made life so difficult. What are we to make of its survival into the post-Soviet era?
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, scholarship on the communal apartment has changed our understanding of its place in Soviet history. No longer seen as merely an aberration of presumably universal notions of modern domestic life and privacy that helped distinguish the Soviet Union from the West, the communal apartment has been reinterpreted by the literature reviewed in this essay in the following ways: as a central foundation of a typical Soviet citizen's everyday life, social relations, and values; as the unintended product of ideological programs aimed at transforming the everyday; as the outcome of massive housing shortages brought on by war, revolution, and the industrialization drive; as the state's all-purpose tool for exerting ideological, social, and economic control over its citizens; and, ultimately, as a space to which some residents have unexpectedly clung, claiming it as their own after the Soviet Union's collapse. Having thus made the communal apartment the form of housing most commonly associated with Soviet history, where has the literature left that other form of Soviet housing, the single-family separate apartment, which dominated the urban landscape in the postwar era of Soviet history? [End Page 584]
Recent studies by Russian scholars shed light on these and other questions about everyday life and housing. In their detailed...