- Stories of House and Home: Soviet Apartment Life during the Khrushchev Years by Christine Varga-Harris
This outstanding book by Christine Varga-Harris is a welcome addition to the developing literature on the history of the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin. Stories of House and Home focuses on the state campaign to provide individual apartments for Soviet citizens. Varga-Harris argues that the state's policy on housing and the reactions of the country's citizens is as important, representative, and revealing of the nature of Soviet society under Nikita Khrushchev (leader of the Soviet Union from 1958 to 1964) as his attempts to distance himself and the country from the Stalinist past.
Varga-Harris situates herself within the existing historiography on the period typically referred to as the Thaw, building on the works of Lynne Attwood, Deborah Field, Steven Harris, Oleg Kharkhordin, Susan Reid, and Mark Smith, among many others. She is clearly familiar, comfortable, and well versed in the existing material and deftly threads relevant historiography through the text. In much the same way, she carries a sophisticated gender analysis through the work, looking at the impact of the new housing policies, architecture, and design on both men and women. The book integrates the story of Soviet postwar construction into the story of European postwar construction as a whole, and into the international world of architecture. Soviet architects in the Khrushchev years borrowed from the West, turning to the works of Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) for inspiration and embracing a return to aspects of Soviet constructivist ideas of the 1920s. Varga-Harris skillfully weaves literature, film, plays, art, anecdotes, satirical magazines, novels, and rich archival material together to provide as complete and complex [End Page 362] a portrait of her subjects as possible. She paints a nuanced portrait of what it meant to be Soviet under Khrushchev and her interpretation conveys a sophisticated agency to Soviet citizens that is subtle and convincing.
Stories of House and Home challenges traditional understandings of the Thaw as simply a period of liberalization and a distinct break with Stalinism. It examines continuities and discontinuities from the early days of Bolshevik rule through the Stalin years, and makes sense of them in the context of the Soviet 1950s and 1960s. Varga-Harris confronts head-on the seeming paradox that the 1957 decree on housing was built on a promise of singlefamily apartments within a system that was based on collectivism. She argues that the single-family apartment was not necessarily a retreat into private life. Rather, the housing program under Khrushchev was accompanied by a commitment to the regeneration of socialist society and the creation of model Soviet citizens in ways that harked back to the utopian goals of the 1920s. Moreover, she argues that the boundaries between public and private were blurred in the Soviet Union as conceptions of family life, healthy living, propriety, and civility were all directed toward contributing to the "collective good" of Soviet socialist society. Good Soviet citizens were expected to participate in collective life outside of their homes. Moreover, the housing policy was connected in a complex web of ways to the goals of modernization, the emancipation of women, the Soviet friendship of peoples, and the overall construction of a socialist society. Varga-Harris points to something that we twenty-first-century cynics often find hard to see: the "earnestness" with which building and design as prescriptions for a better life were approached and embraced.
The book details the range of ways in which Soviet citizens could approach the matter of access to housing, ranging from the legal letters of petition and complaint, to registering at exchange bureaus (outside of which one could find private citizens willing to do the work for a significant fee), to the gray market, to strategies of intimidation and fraud. Her close reading of letters of complaint and petition reveals a significant degree of both agency and empowerment for Soviet...