While We Aren't Stuck in Our Kitchens

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

An article at NPR describes how important kitchens were in the Khrushchev-era Soviet Union as gathering places and centers for civic culture. The piece is somewhat erroneously titled "How Soviet Kitchens Became Hotbeds Of Dissent And Culture", but it doesn't really answer that question. Nevertheless, the piece is still quite interesting for the perspective it lends to our current cultural and political situation:

When Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union after Stalin's death in 1953, one of the first things he addressed was the housing shortage and the need for more food. At the time, thousands of people were living in cramped communal apartments, and one bathroom with sometimes up to 20 other families.

"People wanted to live in their own apartment," says Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Nikita Khrushchev. "But in Stalin's time you cannot find this. When my father came to power, he proclaimed that there will be mass construction of apartment buildings, and in each apartment will live only one family."

They were called khrushchevkas -- five-story buildings made of prefabricated concrete panels. "They were horribly built; you could hear your neighbor," says Edward Shenderovich, an entrepreneur and Russian poet. The apartments had small toilets, very low ceilings and very small kitchens.

But "no matter how tiny it was, it was yours," says journalist Masha Karp, who was born in Moscow and worked as an editor for the BBC World Service from 1991 to 2009. "This kitchen was the place where people could finally get together and talk at home without fearing the neighbors in the communal flat."
The emphasis on privacy -- which helps "[set] man free from men" is interesting for many reasons, among them: how much value even a semi-private space brought with it, how much privacy we still have by comparison, and how much privacy has come under attack of late. Anyone blithely says things like, "I have nothing to hide," in reaction to the torrent of news about our deteriorating ability to keep the meddlesome out of our affairs, would do well to read this.

-- CAV


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, interesting article. Mind you, we've already discussed a lot of its contents here already. In any case, a couple of amusing sidelines.

First, you quote this passage: "They were called khrushchevkas -- five-story buildings made of prefabricated concrete panels." That's a direct transcription that obscures part of the pronunciation; the word's pronounced like khroosh-CHOAF-kuh. The reason I mention this is that a common slang term for them was trushchobka (pronounced like troosh-CHOAP-kuh), which would mean, roughly, "slumlet" or "little slum." (Trushchoba means "thicket, out of the way place, slum.")

Second, the Wikipedia article mentions one of the best late Soviet films, The Irony of Fate (Ironiya Sudby), from 1975. Quoth Wiki, "This "cookie-cutter" architectural method is satirized by the 1975 Soviet comedy movie Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath [literally, "With Light Steam," S Lyokhkim Parom, a reference to the bathhouse --Sned] directed by Eldar Ryazanov, where a Moscow dweller was flown by mistake to Leningrad, the taxicab drove him to his home street address which happens to exist in Leningrad as well, and the house and the apartment, and even the key to the apartment are exactly the same as his own." It's a delightful flick that's become a fixture of modern Russian culture (we watched it in third-year Russian class over the space of a month). This summary doesn't mention that the reason he was flown there by accident was, of course, because he and his friends got Russianly drunk and had some sort of mixup at the airport. Perhaps the funniest scene (at least to a bunch of students watching it in a classroom with ears peeled for every syllable) is when the guy is standing outside late at night in the snow waiting for a taxi after being kicked out of the apartment he had gotten into, he's stamping around in the snow muttering something repeatedly. After the third listen you can make out what he's saying: Nado men'she pit', "Need to drink less."

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the amusing sidelines and bringing up that old post!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Snedcat, for an interesting trip down memory lane. Particularly recalling my attention to the Spider Robinson tribute to Robert Heinlein. I thought this quote, though now inverted in political polarity, particularly illuminating.

"You know, the redneck clowns who chanted “America—love it or leave it!” while they stomped me back in the sixties didn't have a bad slogan. The only problem was that they got to define “love of America,” and they limited its meaning to “blind worship of America.” In addition they limited the definition of America to “the man in the White House "

And he wrote that in 1980!.

He continues:

These mistakes Heinlein certainly does not make. (Relevant quote from Expanded Universe: “Brethren and Sistren, have you ever stopped to think that there has not been one rational decision out of the Oval Office for fifty years?”—[italics his—SR]). In this book he identifies clearly, vividly and concisely the specific brands of rot that are eating out America's heart. He outlines each of the deadly perils that face the nation, and predicts their consequences. As credentials, he offers a series of fairly specific predictions he made in 1950 for the year 2000, updated in 1965, and adds 1980 updates supporting a claim of a sixty-six percent success rate-enormously higher than that of, say, Jeane Dixon. He pronounces himself dismayed not only by political events of the last few decades, but by the terrifying decay of education and growth of irrationalism in America. (Aside: in my own opinion, one of the best exemplars of this latter trend is Stephen King's current runaway bestseller The Stand, a brilliantly entertaining parable in praise of ignorance, superstition, reliance on dreams, and the sociological insights of feeble-minded old Ned Ludd.)"

I will add, in my own voice, that the modern Luddites AKA Environmentalists make Ned Ludd look positively benign by comparison.

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...

Ugh. The Stand. I read that when I was in early college. That description of the book is spot-on.