The second CamCREES seminar of the term saw Professor Susan Reid of Sheffield University talk about the Soviet building boom of the Khrushchev era and the role of personal improvisation by residents. Using real-life examples, Professor Reid explored the complex relationship between the state programme and the craft employed by inhabitants through choice or necessity. The late 1950s and 1960s saw millions of Soviet citizens move into new housing. Construction was undertaken on a huge scale made possible by partial pre-fabrication. Visitors to the former Soviet Union will doubtless have seen panelled khrushchevki, the nickname for the blocks of flats introduced under Khrushev. Pre-made concrete panels allowed the houses to rise quickly but, as Professor Reid explained, true modern efficiency was not always achieved. Interviews conducted through the speaker’s ‘Everyday aesthetics in the modern Soviet flat’ research project in the 2000s with Soviet novosely (inhabitants of new-builds) showed that the official building work itself frequently depended on the practical input of future residents themselves, and that internal work was often unfinished, with residents left to complete installation themselves. Nevertheless, the interviewees almost all recalled the genuine excitement with which they took possession; for most, they were moving into their own flat for the first time.
The DIY and craft skills which residents often had to show were not used solely for completing unfinished work. They also allowed the novosely to personalise their new living space, able to mimic more cheaply or move away entirely from the mass-produced finishings on sale at the time. Professor Reid showed a large number of photos taken of home improvements, from homemade furniture to hand-stencilled wallpaper. She told of several more extreme examples of enhancement, the most remarkable of which was the decision one couple made to dig out a cellar for their ground-floor flat. The talk was based on Professor Reid’s 2014 article of the same name, which is, thanks to Open Access, available online here. The talk made reference to books and articles such as Zhilye doma s nesushchimi stenami (Houses with non-bearing walls; here’s its WorldCat record), Ina Merkel’s ‘Alternative rationalities, strange dreams, absurd utopias’ in the 2008 edited volume Socialist modern : East German everyday culture and politics (571:78.c.200.207), Alexei Yurchak’s Everything was forever, until it was no more (586:92.c.200.265; the Library has also got a copy of the significantly expanded and re-written Russian version at C209.c.2126), and Ekaterina Gerasimova and Sof’ia Chuikina’s 2004 ‘Obshchestvo remonta’ article (Society of refurbishment; available online here).
All illustrations on the page are from books in the peerless Catherine Cooke Collection of Soviet architecture and design, which has featured often in previous Slavonic blogposts. The first two pictures are from the book Sovetskaia arkhitektura shestidesiatykh godov (Soviet architecture of the 1960s; CCB.54.189), showing floor plans and an example of a block of flats formed in part by pre-fab blocks. The last image is from the book which was in my mind for much of the seminar. Sovremennaia mebel’ – svoimi rukami (Modern furniture made with one’s own hands; CCC.54.262) is a much later publication, from 1980, and is in fact a translation from German (G.B. Weber’s Moderne Möbel leicht gebaut, first published in 1973). Nevertheless it is hard to forget; its front cover shows a jolly man with a moustache and pipe eyeing up a piece of wood in front of his rather less enthusiastic son. The book provides detailed design plans and instructions for the creation of a wide range of domestic furniture, including the most extraordinary armchair. It not only reclines but also includes within its structure a radio, record player, bar, and library. Mel Bach