The Good Old Days

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Summerfolk 1710-2000: A History of the Dacha by Stephen Lovell
    Cornell, 259 pp, £18.95, April 2003, ISBN 0 8014 4071 8
  • Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc edited by David Crowley and Susan Reid
    Berg, 261 pp, £15.99, November 2002, ISBN 1 85973 533 9
  • Caviar with Champagne: Common Luxury and the Ideals of the Good Life in Stalin’s Russia by Jukka Gronow
    Berg, 179 pp, £15.99, October 2003, ISBN 1 85973 633 5
  • The Unmaking of Soviet Life: Everyday Economies after Socialism by Caroline Humphrey
    Cornell, 265 pp, £13.95, May 2002, ISBN 0 8014 8773 0

Who could ever forget everyday life in the old Soviet Union? The sheer oddness of the way the place functioned, the incongruity between functioning and pretension. The discomfort and inconvenience, the drabness, the constant shortages and roundabout ways of getting things, the ubiquity of pull and patronage, the insignificance of money, the awfulness of officials, the splendid company of friends talking philosophy around kitchen tables, the sense of being caught in a time warp that was supposed to be the future but felt like the past. When I first went to the Soviet Union as a British Council exchange student in 1966, I thought it was only foreigners who noticed the oddness of Soviet life. But it turned out that the locals, or at least the local intelligentsia, felt it too. ‘If only we could have a normal life!’ they would sigh, not just in Moscow but in Budapest and Prague as well. ‘Normal’ had once referred to the way things were before the Revolution, or in Eastern Europe before Sovietisation. By the 1970s, however, most people didn’t know what that ‘normal’ was like and redefined it in terms of a Western lifestyle and culture that was not only unattainable but also hazily understood. Normality itself became a utopian concept.

Nothing ever changed in the old Soviet Union. That, at any rate, was how it seemed in the stolid smugness of the Brezhnev years, with the upheavals and terrors of Stalinism definitively in the past and the fleeting excitement of the post-Stalin Thaw long gone. Khrushchev’s boast about the imminence of Communism was a joke. As a founding myth, the Russian Revolution was largely displaced by the Second World War, and the Brezhnev regime seemed more committed to gradualism than any Fabian. To be sure, in the postwar period the Baltic states and Eastern Europe received a Soviet-taught Short Course in revolution from above, featuring such prewar staples as collectivisation, terror against class enemies, affirmative action in education and Socialist Realism in the arts. But in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, the sense of the impossibility of change – of being held for eternity in the claustrophobic embrace of the Soviet elder brother – was even stronger than in the Soviet Union. There the older generation, at least, remembering Stalinism, could see some merit in a relatively benign stasis.

And then the unthinkable happened. Soviet power crumbled, first in Eastern Europe and then in the Soviet Union itself. In principle (as Soviet spokesmen used to say when they meant that the reality was more complex), the emergent nations of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union embraced democracy, the free market and Western culture; in principle, normal life could begin. In practice it wasn’t so easy. The governmental anarchy and economic chaos that followed the collapse in the Soviet Union didn’t seem normal at all. Mafias were not normal; neither were unemployment, pensions made worthless by inflation, and pornography being sold on the streets. Democracy was a good idea, but politics, it turned out, was a dirty business, best ignored if possible. It wasn’t normal for life to be so disorderly and unpredictable; for everyday survival to be even harder for most people than it had been in the past.

Stephen Lovell’s choice of the dacha as a prism through which to look at the changes in Russian society is inspired. His book is not light reading: the story is complex and he has done a lot of research (if readers want to try something less demanding first, they can go to his article, ‘Soviet Exurbia: Dachas in Postwar Russia’, in the Crowley and Reid collection).[1] But it shows Lovell to be a first rate social as well as cultural historian. Like his mentor, Catriona Kelly (whose recent study of Russian advice literature is an essential source for anyone interested in Russian and Soviet consumerism),[2] Lovell paints on a broad canvas, starting in the 18th century and going right through to the present.

The origins of the Russian dacha were aristocratic: in the early 18th century, Peter the Great gave his noble servitors plots of land on the road between St Petersburg and his new palace at Peterhof and required them to build (at their own expense) suitably impressive and well-landscaped country houses (hence the term dacha, meaning ‘something given’). But it was as a bourgeois phenomenon of the late Imperial period that the dacha came into its own; and one of the great merits of Lovell’s book is that it gives a sense of the continuity of the middle-class lifestyle across the Revolutionary divide. Like many bourgeois phenomena, the dacha has often had a bad press, with dachniki lampooned as vulgar, snobbish, pretentious, unappreciative of the nature they claimed to worship, and accused of corrupting the peasantry by their presence. The dacha was a cut-price competitor of the noble estate (usadba) in the late Empire, and anyone with connections to the real thing was bound to despise it. Dachniki – or rather the economic changes that led a declining nobility to sell off their estates at the turn of the century and urban weekenders to use that land for dachas – are the off-stage villains in The Cherry Orchard. But Chekhov himself was a dachnik, as was another critic of the bourgeois dacha, Maxim Gorky. In time, dachniki, like the nobility before them, developed their own mythology about the land and the virtues of physical work, fresh air and exposure to the beauties of nature. In addition, dacha life became associated with qualities thought to be peculiarly Russian, such as sociability and hospitality.

The story of the dacha in the Soviet period is particularly interesting. Soviet dachas could be owned, which made them one of the few substantial forms of private property available. The appalling conditions that most people endured in their city apartments made escape to the dacha seem extremely attractive. In Stalin’s time, dachas were mainly a perk of the Party and cultural elites, though a few ordinary mortals who had owned them before the Revolution managed to hang onto them (Nikita Mikhalkov’s 1994 film Burned by the Sun gives a picture of elite dacha life in the 1930s, based on firsthand experience). Post Stalin, dacha ownership and use spread and, by the 1980s, it was rare to find an intelligentsia family that did not have access to one (a 1993-94 survey of seven Russian cities showed that almost a quarter of all households owned one). The distribution of small plots of land to city dwellers so that they could grow potatoes and other vegetables, which had began on a large scale during the Second World War, assisted the expansion, since many cultivators managed to build on their plots. When the Soviet Union, and with it the urban economy, collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s, growing vegetables on dacha plots became part of the standard survival strategy of town dwellers. In 1997, it was estimated that between 60 and 80 per cent of families in St Petersburg had some kind of plot.

Dachas are part of the East European story, too. The Czech version (the chata) is the subject of Paulina Bren’s essay in Socialist Spaces. Like Lovell, Bren sees the dacha as a private space, valued as somewhere one could escape the pressures and demands of urban life. In the context of Soviet-type societies, ‘private’, as the antonym of ‘public’, always raises the possibility of nonconformity with the regime; and this is one of the central concerns of the Crowley and Reid volume, edited by two cultural historians who have played a leading role in the development of studies of the everyday in the former Soviet bloc. Some scholars have argued that in totalitarian states the private is necessarily absorbed in the public; others point to evidence that the private survived, regardless of the state’s intentions. Still others note that the state awarded private space to favoured citizens (the dacha settlement at Peredelkino, given by the Politburo to the Soviet Union of Writers in the early 1930s, is an example), while adding that privacy was often ‘an illicit haul’ won by cunning. Bren’s conclusions on the post-1968 chata in Czechoslovakia is that it was a form of private space that the regime tolerated (indeed allowed to flourish: by the early 1980s, according to Bren’s figures, about two-thirds of Prague households owned or had access to a chata), in contrast to hiking, a competing leisure activity which was seen as having more definite oppositional connotations.

Urban apartments were owned – as well as designed, built and allocated – by the state, in both the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But they could still be cherished, even though they were not strictly personal property. In his essay on Warsaw apartments in the 1950s and 1960s, David Crowley quotes Czeslaw Milosz’s remark that ‘to protect his position and his apartment (which he has by the grace of the state), the intellectual is prepared to make any sacrifice or compromise; for the value of privacy in a society that affords little if any isolation is greater than the saying “my home is my castle” can lead one to surmise.’ The apartment must also, therefore, be seen as a site of privacy – at least as long as it was a separate apartment, not the ill-famed kommunalka (‘communal apartment’) of the Soviet 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

In the Soviet Union, separate apartments are another instance of a ‘gift’ of privacy given by a regime that in principle regarded privacy with suspicion: the mass movement out of communal and into separate family apartments was the keystone of Khrushchev’s housing reforms of the 1960s. These standardised, mass-produced and hastily constructed separate apartments were later to be stigmatised as khrushchoby, a coinage linking Khrushchev with the Russian word for slums, but at the time they were greatly appreciated; in the 1970s and 1980s they were the site of the famous kitchen-table sociability of the Soviet intelligentsia (there was no such thing in communal apartments, whose residents used the kitchen neither for socialising with each other nor for entertaining friends). In Eastern Europe, where large tracts of Soviet-inspired apartment buildings went up in the postwar decades, the (separate) apartments were also wryly regarded as a Soviet gift and despised for that as well as for their poor design and workmanship. All the same, as Crowley shows, the interior of the apartment – the part the resident could make his own, and to which he could retreat – was regarded in Poland in the 1950s as a private sphere embodying family and domestic values. A popular magazine ran a series of articles on celebrities’ apartments that focused on the way they had managed to create ‘a congenial and individual atmosphere’ despite the ‘banal architecture’ that unimaginative state planning had forced on them.

The communal apartment is the pièce de résistance in the chronicle of the miseries of Soviet everyday life. Contrary to the myth, they were not a product of collectivist ideology. Rather, they developed out of urban overcrowding and the low budgetary priority that the Stalinist regime gave to housing – these, and a dose of Revolutionary schadenfreude which made local authorities eager to punish the bourgeoisie by forcing them to give up part of their apartments to proletarians. A whole folklore exists about the humiliations, petty vindictiveness, fights and resentments associated with involuntary communal living.

Kitchens and bathrooms were the sites of epic battles over property (saucepans, washbasins) and use of space. Readers of Svetlana Boym’s Common Places (1994) will recall the nightmarish story of her parents’ efforts to entertain foreign visitors in their room in a communal apartment while a stream of urine from a drunken neighbour in the corridor trickled slowly under the door. According to interviews quoted by Katerina Gerasimova in the Crowley and Reid volume, communal lavatories caused so much unhappiness that being able ‘to sit down on one’s own lavatory’ was one of the major pleasures of finally moving to a separate apartment. As for collective spirit, there are a few kommunalka memoirs that mention mutual support among neighbours and a feeling that one was part of an extended family. Much more common was the sense that the family’s room, not the kommunalka as a whole, was home; and as for neighbours, as one of Gerasimova’s respondents said, you just tried to pretend they weren’t there.

There wasn’t much room for possessions in the kommunalka, or even in the small separate apartments. This was just as well, as goods of all kinds, even basic necessities like food, shoes and clothing, were in short supply throughout the Soviet period. Yet shortages did not mean that Soviet citizens were indifferent to consumption. On the contrary, getting hold of scarce goods via connections and various under-the-counter arrangements became a national pastime. Marxist ideology may have emphasised production, but in the Soviet Union it was hierarchies of consumption (based on preferential access to goods) that mattered.[3] From the citizens’ standpoint, the key decisions of Soviet-type governments were all about allocation: that is, who got what goods.

While the Soviet regime may be said to have discouraged consumerism by keeping goods scarce, it was not ideologically on the side of asceticism. On the contrary, future socialism was always conceived in terms of plenty: according to the regime’s Socialist Realist perception of the world, the meagre supply of goods in the present was only a harbinger of the abundance to come. More goods (especially luxury goods) was conflated with more culture; and in a society where it was hard to get enamel bowls to wash up in, connoisseurs of silverware were held up for emulation and newspapers ran stories on the delivery of grand pianos to Stakhanovite milkmaids. In Champagne with Caviar, Jukka Gronow describes the development in the hungry 1930s of a Soviet rhetoric of cultured living that privileged luxury commodities like champagne, caviar and perfume, though only the last of these came near to reaching a mass public. This is not a particularly original book, but the thorough research in the archives it is based on makes Champagne with Caviar useful to scholars, and general readers will enjoy its vivid illustrations. In an endearing prefatory note, Gronow remarks that a post-Soviet sighting of the once ubiquitous torty (cakes, very sweet, packed in white cardboard boxes) was to her as the madeleine was to the narrator in Proust, bringing back memories of the 1970s and ‘my first glasses of Soviet champagne with caviar sandwiches’. (‘Sandwich’ is a misleading term: what she surely has in mind are buterbrody – pieces of bread, buttered only if you were at the Bolshoi Theatre, each topped by a teaspoonful of caviar.)

It was not until the 1960s that serious efforts were made to increase the supply of consumer goods to the whole population. Khrushchev didn’t just make rash promises about achieving Communism: he also said that the Soviet Union would catch up with America in the field of consumption. Despite the real gains to the Soviet consumer (the proliferation of dachas, separate apartments and even, under Brezhnev, private cars), the promises were not fulfilled and popular disillusionment followed, together with a wistful desire for the Western consumer goods that were now known to exist but remained largely out of reach.

In her stimulating book The Unmaking of Soviet Life, Caroline Humphrey – one of the few anthropologists with substantial field experience in the old Soviet Union – explores changing attitudes to consumption. Consumer desire, she argues, was both aroused and frustrated in Soviet-type societies and ‘acquiring consumption goods and objects became a way of constituting . . . selfhood.’ In Eastern Europe, this was an implicitly anti-regime process but in the Soviet Union, as Humphrey points out, the oppositional connotations of consumerism were less clear-cut because, after all, the regime was ‘ours’, not imposed from outside. In the Soviet Union, as in Eastern Europe, Western goods were coveted, and their arrival en masse with the collapse of the regime at first seemed like a miracle. Who can forget that sudden influx of Mars bars, Snickers, foreign liqueurs (or at least bottles adorned with foreign labels), Nike running shoes, Dutch tomatoes, real and fake Italian leather jackets, and brightly coloured anoraks, sold from ramshackle booths and tables by newly minted entrepreneurs under the watchful eye of Mafia protectors? But consumer fatigue and (justified) doubts about quality soon set in, and Humphrey suggests that by the end of the 1990s the old Soviet assumption that ‘foreign’ (importnyi) meant ‘better’ – universal in the 1970s and 1980s – had largely gone.

The exception to Humphrey’s generalisation are the so-called New Russians, the widely despised nouveaux riches of the post-Soviet period, whose ostentatious embrace of Western goods and Western-style consumption is one of the main reasons people dislike them. Humphrey has a wonderful essay on New Russian villas: those elaborate, architecturally bizarre two and three-storey brick kottedzhi whose sudden eruption on the outskirts of Moscow, clearly visible from the air, dramatically transformed the landscape in the 1990s. Built in an eclectic style combining Scandinavian modern and a ‘Napoleon III’ style described as ‘a blend of Classical, Baroque and Renaissance’, complete with jacuzzis (often not functioning) and armour-plated doors, and sitting behind high fences on empty plots that often have trash piled in the yards, these villas, in Humphrey’s words, ‘rear upward in several storeys, with sharply tilted roofs, pointed gables and porches’. In their rawness and ‘thrusting verticality’, they are symbolic of the New Russians’ awkward relationship with their native land.

One of the virtues of Humphrey’s book is that the words ‘democracy’ and ‘capitalism’ – so enthusiastically invoked by Western commentators in the early years of Russia’s ‘transition’ – are used sparingly. Based largely on field trips in the first half of the 1990s, it shows life being unmade rather than remade, but Humphrey gives little cause to anticipate a happy outcome. Noting the ‘cruelty’ of the process of economic readjustment, the increasing ‘aggressiveness of everyday life’ in Russia, and ordinary people’s continuing sense of powerlessness and victimisation (though by a new set of oppressors), the most optimistic note she can sound in conclusion is that ‘the everyday economies of Russia are a site of ethical choices’ – meaning, I think, that people have the option of behaving more or less badly to each other – ‘and from this some new, possibly more benign, arrangements are bound to emerge.’ It may be reasonable, from the vantage point of 2003, cautiously to raise the level of optimism, and suggest that Russians are already settling into new behaviour patterns and growing used to new institutions and that the very worst times are probably over – the years when the struggle for economic survival coexisted with the catastrophic collapse of the old Soviet value system. But that is not to say that, subjectively speaking, Russians are finally attaining that longed-for ‘normal’ life. With the perversity of veteran sufferers, many have started to look back nostalgically to the good old Soviet days when there was order and discipline and guaranteed employment; when bosses were paternalistic, and there was plenty of time to socialise at work; when people lived simply, helped each other and were indifferent (sic) to possessions; and the corruption of Western pop culture was held at bay. Perhaps Putin will recover some of this Soviet ‘normality’. But those thrusting New Russian villas will remain hard for travellers to ignore as their planes land at Sheremetevo – even if the process of going through customs and passport control provokes, like Proust’s madeleine, waves of memory of Soviet times past.

[1] Crowley and Reid are also coeditors of Style and Socialism: Modernity and Material Culture in Postwar Eastern Europe (Berg, 256 pp., £50 and £14.99, 2000, 1 85973 234 8).

[2] Refining Russia: Advice Literature, Polite Culture and Gender from Catherine to Yeltsin (Oxford, 482 pp., £55, 2001, 0 19 815987 0).

[3] See Our Daily Bread: Socialist Distribution and the Art of Survival in Stalin’s Russia 1927-41 by Elena Osokina, translated by Kate Transchel and Greta Bucher (Sharpe, 320 pp., £50, 2001, 1 5632 4904 9).