- Everyday Soviet Utopias: Planning, Design and the Aesthetics of Developed Socialism by Anna Alekseyeva
In 1920, V.I. Lenin famously declared that communism would be achieved through a combination of Soviet power and electrification. The conviction that technology could transform society was central to utopian thinking in East and West alike. Yet decades into the 20th century, not even the scientific technological revolution had managed anywhere to secure Utopia. In the Soviet case, by the end of the 1960s, intellectuals were recognizing the alienation wrought by postindustrialization. In 1971, the Communist Party revised the timeline for communism as Leonid Brezhnev replaced the narrative of his predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, that communism was imminent, with the idea that the Soviet Union still had to undergo an intermediary phase. This stage of "developed socialism" lasted until 1991—a year that marked not the triumph of communism but the demise of the Soviet Union.
This is the backdrop for Everyday Soviet Utopias: declining economic prosperity, political ossification, and waning morale. Yet Anna Alekseyeva accentuates the dynamism of late socialist society, which was simultaneously experiencing continued technological advances, and a steep rise in urbanization, in the white-collar labor force, and in opportunities for consumption and leisure. Exploring how professionals in this context came to envisage ideals for urban residential areas, the home, and domestic consumer goods, her main purpose is to excavate "the cultural condition of developed socialism."
Deemphasizing zastoi (stagnation), Alekseyeva states that the departure from the cohesive byt (everyday life) program of Khrushchev did not signal a retreat from utopian aspirations. Ever intent on cultivating a model society, Soviet professionals like sociologists and design experts merely revised their blueprint. Eschewing modernist functionalism, technological rationalism, and hierarchical bureaucratic planning, which they cited for generating monotonous and dehumanizing spaces, they began to consider individual needs based on empirical data and popular preferences. Basically, professionals decided to try to coordinate human activity instead of molding it to their visions. In residential design, for example, surveys showing that individuals were nurturing collectives away from home and not in the mikroraion (microdistrict)—as imagined under Khrushchev—prompted experts to disentangle collectivity from territorial proximity.
What exactly everyday utopias would consist of was also reworked. Significantly, professionals challenged the traditional Bolshevik (and late imperial intellectual) opposition between the higher (spiritual and intellectual) plane of bytie and the mundane (material and practical) realm of byt. Thus, although norms against veshchizm (excessive materialism) continued to predominate over Soviet byt, growing belief that individuals could be surrounded by objects [End Page 131] without fetishizing them led experts to substitute the revolutionary asceticism resurrected under Khrushchev for coziness (uiut).
In seeking to create a new aesthetic prototype, professionals came to view binaries like intelligentsia/populace, public/personal, and decoration/function as interlinked, rather than dichotomous. Shorn of a dialectic of negation, Alekseyeva asserts, utopias were inscribed into socialist everyday life in "degenerate" form. Especially important, the collective and the individual came to be conceptualized as interlaced, signifying that the victory of one was not contingent on the effacement of the other. This was evident in a new understanding that "alone time" for respite from the psychological fatigue of constant impersonal interactions in urban life was necessary for fostering a healthy collective—one that led experts to advocate increasing the size of apartments to afford space for solitude.
This speaks to another key finding of Everyday Soviet Utopias: professionals not only adapted their visions to real conditions; they also came to see choice and autonomy as vital to a socialist way of life. In the sphere of household functions, for example, aware that tasks like cooking and cleaning would not be entirely socialized, and that shortcomings in services and household appliances would persist, experts proposed various forms of voluntary cooperation for carrying out daily functions. These included joining mutual associations, working jointly to provide services within a housing complex, or pooling funds to hire out the work.
Alekseyeva acknowledges that the realities of Soviet byt during developed socialism rarely converged with professional ideals; for one, construction remained...