Keith Gessen is a journalist, novelist, editor and translator. He’s the founding editor of N+1 and the translator of Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good and Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl. He’s also written for the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and many other publications between teaching journalism at Columbia University. He’s the author of All the Sad Young Literary Men and his new novel is A Terrible Country published by Viking.
Read Keith’s article “The Quiet Americans Behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio” and my response.
Listen to Keith Gessen’s previous appearance on the SRB Podcast!
The Smiths, “That Joke isn’t Funny Anymore,” Meat is Murder, 1984.
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By Sean — 2 years ago
Christine Evans is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research interests include Modern Eurasian mass culture and communications and play, leisure, and consumption. She’s the author of Between Truth and Time: A History of Soviet Central Television published by Yale University Press.
Watch some Soviet TV!
KVN Final, 1964
Vremya news broadcast, 1977
Chto? Gde? Kogda? (What? Where? When?), 1982
Dramarama, “70s Tv,” Stuck in Wonderamaland, 1989.Post Views: 2,886
By Sean — 9 years ago
Vedomosti has a great article on the history of Russia’s housing crisis. Housing, as Maksim Trudoliubov notes, is a chronic historical problem in Russia, one which the Soviets tried to attenuate, but made little headway until the 1960s. “The comfort of our home life is still not good for many of us,” Trudoliubov begins. “As in the early Soviet and even in the “mature Soviet” period housing was the main problem for the majority of citizens. Life was collective not because the state managed to inculcate citizens with a fancy for the romanticism of “communal life,” and because of this all of Stalin’s construction projects must be seen in this light. There’s just not enough housing (as is the case up to the present). But even more important, housing–from the bunks in dormitories to elite apartments in nomenclature buildings–was an instrument of manipulating people.”
Indeed, as Truboliubov continues, solutions to the housing problem took on a variety of realist and ideological forms to manipulate people. Lenin, for one, saw the housing problem a matter of distribution and allocation. According to the Soviet founding father, the Tsarist elite held a monopoly over living space. The solution was a simple but cold revolutionary formula of “K = N – 1,” where K equaled the number of rooms, and N the number of residents. Meaning that “the number of people in an apartment must be one more than rooms.” Well, as the those intimately familiar with Russian housing know well, the proportion of people to rooms was often many times more lopsided than Lenin’s prescription.
Things only worsened after the Civil War when structural dilapidation, poverty, disease, and general governmental decay exacerbated the existing housing problem. As Truboliubov writes, “In 1921 37% of buildings in Moscow were unsuitable for habitation.” As one resident of what is now Building 9 on Bolshaya Dmitrovka, the street that runs parallel to Tverskaya, central Moscow’s main drag, commented in 1922, “The pluming system, drainage and heating are destroyed. Apartments lack facets, radiators for central heating, and are stripped of stoves. In the majority of apartments the floors are taken apart, and dirt and garbage are everywhere.”
Apartment life in the 1920s was abysmal to say the least. As any reader of Bulgakov’s Dog’s Heart will know, apartments were allocated and reallocated in a sporadic, albeit proletarian, manner. Residents of various classes were cramped together. Revolutionary justice in housing required the bourgeoisie to give up their rooms to the new proletarian ruling class. And “when there weren’t any rooms to rent, then people rented corners, that is parts of rooms, corridors and kitchens.” And if those weren’t available, then sleeping in bathtubs served as a desperate alternative. The average living space in the 1920s was an average of 5.2 to 5.8 square meters per person.
Stalin’s industrial campaign of the 1930s only made matters worse as millions of peasant migrants flooded into Russia’s cities. As David Hoffman notes in his Peasant Metropolis, migration was so great that there was no conceivable way for the authorities to provide adequate housing. The solution was often the rapid and shoddy construction of worker’s barracks. The crunch was so great that the average number of persons per room in the Soviet Union rose from 2.71 in 1926 to 3.91 in 1940. One can only guess that the increase would be even more if the statistics only accounted for the country’s industrial urban centers.
More people meant less comfort. One American cited by Hoffman described his friend Kuznetsov’s living conditions in the barracks of the Kuibyshev electronic factory in the 1930s,
“Kuznetsov lived with about 550 others, men and women, in a wooden structure about 800 feet long and fifteen feet wide. The room contained approximately 500 narrow beds, covered with mattresses filled with straw and dried leaves. There were no pillows or blankets. Coats and other garments were being utilized for covering. Some of the residents had no beds and slept on the floor or in wooden boxes. In some cases beds were used by one shift during the day and by others at night. There were no screens or wall to give any privacy to the occupants of the barracks . . . I could not stay in the barracks very long. I could not stand the stench of kerosene and unwashed bodies. The only washing facility was a pump outside. The toilet was rickety, unheated shanty, without seats.”
Rapid urbanization also gave rise to the Stalinist internal passport system in 1934. The passport system was an attempt to slow migration, especially that induced by the famine in Ukraine. The logic was to prevent an already desperate situation was getting worse. With housing and food supply already short (urban residents were on rations), a tidal wave of starving peasants would have brought the situation to the brink Soviet officials reasoned. The policy was certainly cruel. But Stalinist policies were never known for their niceties.
The passport system also became a permanent biopolitical measure of population control. Urbanites got them. Kholkhozniki didn’t. And though getting off the collective farm was easily done, the system put in place institutionalized discrimination until the mid-1970s when Russia’s rural inhabitants began getting passports. This is not to say that urban residents were allowed to move freely. City to city migration required registration. True, people still moved throughout the postwar period, but the passport and registration system was yet another bureaucratic control for the authorities to wield when necessary.
Substantial housing relief didn’t come until the 1960s when Nikita Khrushchev attempted to tackle the housing problem with the mass production of five story, box like apartment buildings. The “khrushchevki” provided relief, gave many their own apartments, but were hardly aesthetic or structural masterpieces. But a shoddy apartment was better than no apartment, especially for those war refugees who were living in dugouts until the late 1950s. And the continued housing projects of the Brezhnev period provided additional living space. So much so that by the end of the Soviet period, the square meter per person had grown to 15.3 square meters.
Present day housing, though still a problem, appears to be improving. As Truboliubov notes, according to Rosstat, the average living space has increased to 20.9 square meters per person. This is still low by Western European and American standards (Germany, 36 sq. m.; Sweden, about 40; and the US, 60), yet by Russian standards, which has a totally different historical relationship to living, privacy, and relationships, this is a great improvement.
Finally, Truboliubov ends his narrative with a reminder that registration, though deemed illegal by the Russian Constitution, remains in force. The authorities repeadtly balk at abolishing it. They only seem to always promise to “modernize” its application. Why? As Truboliubov notes, one of the features of a capitalist system is to increase the mobility of not just capital, but labor. But Russian capitalism works on an additional profit motive. The registration system has an additional function as an “instrument of extracting the profit of corruption.” “The Stalinist institution of registration now properly serves the bureaucrats as a source of income.”
Photo: English Russia.Post Views: 765
By Sean — 12 years ago
Today’s news is buzzing with reports of
becoming the most expensive city in the world. According to a survey by Mercer Human Resource Consulting, Moscow Moscowhas topped as the world’s costliest city. Many news reports have noted the obvious irony that the former capital of Communism is now the capital of capitalist expenditure. Few articles give much analysis as to why Tokyo Moscowhas surged so quickly and to such heights except for ’s Independent. In an article in today’s addition, it seems that London ’s rise has not come without cost. Moscow
Prices for flats have more than doubled in the past year and the average cost per square metre is about ?2,700 and rising by the day. A modest city centre flat is now hard to find for less than ?190,000, a big price when you consider that the average national wage is ?170 per month and the average monthly
wage about ?350. Moscow
Ordinary Russians are embracing mortgages (albeit with interest rates well above 10 per cent) in order to get a foot on the property ladder before it is too late and are rushing to put their names down for apartment blocks that have yet to be built in an attempt to avoid seemingly unstoppable inflation.
Cranes labour over Moscow’s skyline day and night and immigrant workers from across the former Soviet Union toil on building sites for poverty-line wages as developers try to snap up more and more land to cash in on the boom.
There are not nearly enough good quality flats to go around and prices seem set to rise even higher. Indeed buying a flat in the Russian metropolis is now just a dream for many young Muscovites, who can only rent rooms in rundown flats in the city’s concrete suburbs in Soviet-era tower blocks.
People desperate to get a foot on the property ladder resort to desperate measures; the media often carries stories of contract killers hired to bump off flat owners, of elderly people tricked out of their city centre apartments, and of apartment blocks burnt down “accidentally” to force people to sell.
Renting in the centre of
is also too expensive for many. Western companies regularly shell out more than ?5,000 per month in rental costs for their employees and it is hard to find anything decent for less than ?1,000 per month. Hotel prices in Moscow are also higher than anywhere else in the world. Moscow
The average room rate is ?165 per night, thanks to the city’s bizarre strategy of knocking down large cheaper Soviet-era hotels and replacing them with exorbitantly priced, Western-style four- and five-star hotels, while making no provision for anyone on a more modest budget. Visitors to
are therefore forced to choose between slumming it in a hostel or living it up at the Metropol. Moscow
The Mercer’s report should be taken with a slight pinch of salt, however. It was primarily drawn up to help multinational companies decide how much to pay their expatriate employees posted abroad.
The final note is an interesting tidbit. As news agencies quickly churn out the news about
ascendant, they forget to ask the vital question in regard to any such statistics: Expensive for whom and for what? Now for expat employees, I’m sure glitzy clubs and Moscow whores can drive up one’s cost of living rather quickly. All of this begs the question as to what this news actually tells us about life in Moscow . Moscow is expensive. Muscovite natives, though, know how to cut corners and navigate the city’s costs with exactitude. Very few of average Russians are paying exorbitant rents, and they are certainly not staying in four- and five star hotels. This is in no way to suggest that Muscovites aren’t effected by the city’s rise of expensive prominence. As the Independent article points out, public transportation costs and food prices have risen substantially in the last decade. Moreover the scramble to wrestle expensive property from the hands of pensioners has resulted in scams, terror and violence. In all, very little. However, there is one truism: Moscow
The rise of
Moscowin post-Communist has had other results. You can’t look across the skyline without having your view obstructed by a construction crane. Construction requires labor. Lots of it. And the cheaper the better. Russia Moscow’s boom has a magnetic pull on populations, flooding it with immigrant labor. The recent rise in racial tensions in the city cannot be separated from the centripetal forces of urban expansion and financial dominance. While some wish to paint ’s current race problems as simply manifestations of a deep seated racism within the Russian psyche, the current socio-economic conditions of the capital serve as a better explanation. This is not to say that racism in Russia is absent of cultural roots. It is to say that they rise to the top under particular conditions. Hence the slogan “ Russia for Russians” and other xenophobic rhetoric becomes quite salient in many minds. Russia may be on top but that doesn’t mean is has come without cost. If anything the capital’s boom places it well within processes that every metropolitan on the planet is experiencing . MoscowPost Views: 581