Housing and Urban Planning during the Russian Revolution

6 June, 2021

Housing and Urban Planning during the Russian Revolution
Housing and Urban Planning during the Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution confronted the issue of housing, gave rise to the greatest social experimentation ever seen by workers on collective and communal ways of living and working, and very soon had to address the transformation of urban space in order to push forward the revolution of social space that was in its perspective.

Table of Contents

The Revolution and the immediate needs for housing and accommodation

Typical worker's dwelling according to Einsenstein: a single room with a small table, a chest of drawers, a table and a small coal stove-heater.
Typical worker’s dwelling according to Einsenstein: a single room with a small table, a chest of drawers, a table and a small coal stove-heater.

The war and the spontaneous demobilization which followed the February revolution increased the contingent of homeless people, which already exceeded ten thousand in pre-war Petrograd. From February onwards there were anecdotal occupations of houses of the petersburg aristocracy by soldiers without shelter and requisitions of public or private palaces for use by working class organizations. The Smolny Institute will house the soviets, the Krzesińska Palace – belonging to the tsar’s former ballerina mistress of the same name – will be taken over by the Bolshevik party, etc.

However, the triumph of the October insurrection will be the trigger for the process that will allow the workers to outline the bases of their own housing policy… even under the atrocious conditions of the civil war and the crumbling of the productive structure.

At first these will be first and foremost emergency measures. On October 30, 1917 the All-Russian Congress of Soviets institutes a moratorium on rents for wages under 400 rubles, i.e., for unskilled workers and day laborers. And on December 19 it empowers the local Soviets to solve the problems of housing and hygiene for the workers.

The soviets of the workers’ towns, relying on the neighborhood soviets will begin to create housing registers already thinking of their distribution. The Petrograd Soviet will do so on March 1, 1918. The first results, in May, will throw the figure of 8,250 buildings and large empty houses that will begin to be reoccupied with homeless workers. Soon space proved insufficient for the purpose: one room per couple or single member of each family and one for children.

The situation could not be confronted until August 1918, when the Congress of Soviets abolished private ownership of land in cities with over 10,000 inhabitants and empowered local soviets over urban properties with more than five apartments. In September it will create a Central Housing Soviet, a congressional committee specifically dedicated to coordinating and giving direction to policies for the distribution and construction of workers’ housing.

But the simple distribution of space in aristocratic and bourgeois neighborhoods clashes with the inherited urbanism and soon proves dysfunctional: the relocated workers, who would reach 65,000 between 1918 and 1919, are too far from their workplaces, feel isolated in an adverse environment in which the neighbors are open enemies and do not even have anywhere to provision themselves at an acceptable distance. The architecture of the ruling classes does not help either: heating the immense palatial volumes is simply impossible in the context of civil war shortages.

Again the first response will be merely reactive. In December 1918 the Petrograd Soviet grants means of transport – horses and sleighs – or, alternatively, a subsidy of 150 to 200 rubles per family to make transport to work free. Already in 1920 it becomes clear that it is not on the basis of distribution decrees that progress can be made.

By that time also both class organizations and the general workers’ movement were already redefining both communal and collective space and the local soviets, faced with the needs of reconstruction, were considering transforming, beyond the anecdotal, the inherited urbanism. There is talk of creating a new type of social space, something that is neither village nor city.

The collective space

Farmer's Palace. In addition to a resting house for workers, it included housing for the workers and researchers of the complex and museum.
Farmer’s Palace. In addition to a resting house for workers, it included housing for the workers and researchers of the complex and museum.

On the one hand, the need to preserve historical heritage had given rise to the first people’s museums, on the other, natural conservation policy and the recognition of natural monuments were creating centers for research, education and learning in the natural environment.

These are not idle spaces populated only during a certain time of day. They house researchers, militants and experimental groups for whom they serve as living quarters in a way that spontaneously converges with what Rosmer, among others, tells us were the spaces of the political organizations: open 24 hours a day with people arriving continuously from all over the territory ruled by the soviets and with resident groups for longer or shorter periods.

House of the Arts building. It was the usual home of many of the avant-garde writers of the time.
House of the Arts building. It was the usual home of many of the avant-garde writers of the time.

These kinds of collective spaces, which tend to become communal because of the nature and previous experience of militant work, expand naturally beyond the social milieu of the workers. Gorky for instance will promote -and finance at the expense of the foreign exchange earnings of his works- the famous House of the Arts which will be a true incubator of the literature of the time.

The first Houses of Rest for workers will also be created as early as 1919. In Kameni Island alone, 32 large palatial houses were converted into hotels so that industrial workers could enjoy their first vacation. These hotels not only accommodated a permanent population of hotel workers, some, like the Farmer’s Palace (pictured above) were also school-museums dedicated to exhibition, teaching and research.

The communal space

"Down with kitchen slavery!", a slogan taken from Bebel, typical of the communal movement that will survive until 1929 (date of this poster), when Stalinism applies itself to the forced dissolution and repression of the last workers' labor collectives.
“Down with kitchen slavery!”, a slogan taken from Bebel, typical of the communal movement that will survive until 1929 (date of this poster), when Stalinism applies itself to the forced dissolution and repression of the last workers’ labor collectives.

This redefinition of spaces converges with the explosion of the communal movement which became massive with the NEP (1921). Hundreds of thousands of workers will form urban residential communes and work collectives throughout the territory controlled by the soviets.

Bebel’s critique of domestic labor and the architectural definition of the household is well present and explicit: the new way of living passes through the socialization not only of production, but also of domestic labor.

For millions of women the private kitchen is an institution extravagant in its methods, limiting them in endlessly monotonous tasks and wasting their time, robbing them of health and good mood, an institution that is but an object of daily distress, especially when means are scarce as they are in most families. The abolition of the private kitchen will be liberation for countless women. The private kitchen is as antiquated an institution as the small machine shop. Both represent an unnecessary and useless waste of materials and labor time.

August Bebel. Woman and Socialism, 1879

As a result, the buildings housing the new egalitarian communities of workers, still those of the old world, are remodeled to create communal kitchens, dining halls, kindergartens, nurseries, red corners, reading rooms, and laundries.

The wait for the extension of the world Revolution was by no means passive. The experimentation of new forms of organization of the house and the rehabilitation of spaces that accompanies it are the other side of the trials of workers’ management of production and distribution of goods. Without it, the immense effort of experimentation that the workers will make by themselves until the last breath of the Revolution in 1929 would have been incomplete.

Neither village nor city

But both collective and communal space, doors in, are only parts, moments and details of the reorganization of social and productive space that the Revolution opens up. Academics here try again and again to present to us the tensions and limitations of the Russian Revolution as the product of a battle between two intellectual currents, between two ideas: urbanism with its functionalist division of space (industry, agriculture, housing) and the supposed utopianism of the deurbanist current of the architects active in the Left Opposition and influenced by the communist perspective. This attempt to reduce a large scale process into an intellectual confrontation is evidently the idealist way of understanding it.

In practice however, everything brings us back to the materiality of the great framework of the Russian Revolution. Firstly the main limitation, imposed by the defeat of the first revolutionary wave in Europe as a whole and amplified by the Russian social structure itself, with its immense majority of peasants; secondly the destruction of productive capacities brought about by the civil war, which in turn forced the implementation of the NEP; and finally the confluence of the consequences of both in the emergence of the bureaucracy and its ideological manifestation, Stalinism, as a new counter-revolutionary force.

Within this context, in which the appearance of a new productive apparatus and the possibility of decommodifying production will always remain ahead, pending new class triumphs in other countries, the expressions of social revolution will be more important than ever. Far from being mere untimely impulses they will be a reflection of the force that will allow the class to remain in power for a precious time.

In that framework, militant architects like Okhitovich, murdered by the Stalinist political police in 1935, and associations like OSA, where the name de-urbanism arose, take on another meaning. In fact, they do not even appear as a school or defined group until 1925 when the bureaucracy is already pushing a new industrialist urbanism, guided by the needs of capital concentration under the banner of NEP targets… and inevitably confronted with the generic living needs of the workers.

This urbanism of towering masses and factory-cities full of beehives, architectural expression of the counterrevolution then already underway, will be the root of the Stalinist architectural horror at the same time and for the same reasons that lead back to a predatory relationship with the natural environment.

Stalinist urbanism was born in direct confrontation not with one school or another, but with what the soviets had advocated since at least 1919. The de-urbanists were in fact, a coda, a last theoretical expression of what the soviets had attempted to do.

It is not to the schools that one must look, but to the working groups of the soviets, such as the Architectural Workshop of the economic department of the soviet of revolutionary Petrograd. On this workshop fell the realization of proposals for rebuilding the city after the siege of 1919. It was not a group of creators around a drawing board looking for an ideal solution, it was a group of technicians working with the neighborhood soviets, gathering concrete expectations and needs of the workers.

What came out of that work was a proposal for the transformation of the revolutionary capital from the bottom up: new neighborhoods already conceived under the model of socialization that the communal movement was testing and that Bebel had theorized. With them, logically, a whole new family of facilities: collective dining halls, halls and cultural centers, kindergartens, bathhouses (spas), etc.. All linked by green belts and collective transport, recycling concepts from the hygienists, the Linear City and the Garden City tailored to the needs of the workers rather than subordinating them to the logic of capital revalorization.

The working-class neighborhood of Viborg where the February Revolution had begun and which was the first to become a Bolshevik stronghold, would have the most radical plan: small communal houses of three stories or less would share with the single-family homes, communal dining halls and laundry services, day care, libraries, social centers… in a green setting. The result, neither village nor city, will contain already in 1919 everything that the de-urbanists claimed as theirs a few years later, but it was not a proposal made by a school, it was a political proposal born of one of the most avant-garde soviets during the Revolution.

The contingent and the enduring

In architecture and urban planning there are always contingent elements. They are given by the available technology, by circumstantial conditioning factors or by temporary needs. However, the convergence between the conception of collective and communal spaces, and the impulse of both towards an urbanism that on the one hand has Bebel very much in mind, but converges in turn with previous and contemporary historical experiences of communal workers’ movements since Étienne Cabet, is no coincidence.

The threads that tie together all the different worker-driven experiences with space during the Russian Revolution are rooted in a common approach: the preponderance of human needs in thinking about community in space. But there is more: a perspective of abundance that implies a new geographical division of labor and a conception of community life that consciously gets rid of individualism and bets on socialization as a way of satisfying the needs of each one.

What the proletariat showed during the Russian Revolution is that it flees from atomization like the poison it is, but also from precarization. It does not need, like capital, to stack up vertically the population in little boxes isolated from each other because capital valorization is not its goal. Nor will it restrict privacy with unwanted collivings or tiny cells sold as mini-houses, nor reduce the aesthetic effort to make smooth cubes easily industrializable and reproducible.