The Stalinist order, the Putinist order

Private life, political change and property in Russian society

25 June 2013
Only in en
The "Stalinist order" continues to lurk in aesthetic forms and written documents; from an architectural perspective, it lives on as long as the buildings survive. And merges with the new order, in which the new "elite" buy up the same buildings and imitative newbuilds for artificially inflated prices.

The project in which we live

I was born in a place wholly deprived of urban space, even though it was the USSR’s biggest city – Moscow. The area consisted of identical residential blocks (just as in the neighbouring estate) and, as a child, it failed to leave any significant imprint on my memory. I remember everything there was inside, but nothing outside. I can recall only the pond beside our block, because it was the sole place of interest in the district. Occasionally, we used to travel into the centre of town to admire the buildings there, as though we were visiting a museum. This was the city. Here you could take a walk but surely not live (I couldn’t imagine anyone living in the Kropotkinskaya area). Whereas in our area, it was possible to live – but there was nothing of interest to encourage you to go out walking. All you had to do was get to the doorway and vanish inside. I couldn’t take seriously any attempts to establish a flowerbed by the entrance to our block – I felt rather sorry for the flowers planted in that little hollow, lined with cement. You wanted to get past the plants, and the old lady seated by the entrance, as quickly as possible, just to get indoors. For me, as for many people who grew up in similar residential tower blocks, the most important thing was the interior.

Housing for families of workers from “Rocket and Space Corporation Energia” in Korolev, Moscow area. Photo: Korolev Sun Times. Source: Flickr

This was a very simple space. The architect or, more probably, the engineer who had designed it was constrained by available funds – there could be no spiral staircases or bay windows. We lived in box rooms, just like everyone else. It seemed quite natural to me that my best friend’s flat, where I spent almost as much time as at home, was identical to ours. Literally so – for even the coat rack in the hall was the same, as were the chandeliers. The bookshelves were also similarly installed, and the books in them no different from our own.

Life was confined to our apartment, of course, but I was also aware of the presence of people living upstairs and next door. Flats with paper-thin walls are places where people are constantly reminding each other of their presence. Like anyone who grew up in an apartment of this type, I knew the voices of the people next door and those upstairs. The neighbours next door used to quarrel loudly at times, and one of the children was learning to play a musical instrument – though the attempt seemed limited to performing scales. Occasionally something heavy could be heard tumbling to the floor in the flat upstairs – a piece of furniture? A beam? But on a working day, in the morning, there was almost total silence; and you could hear far further than the nearest neighbouring box room. It would seem to me, sometimes, that I could hear someone reading aloud to a child.

To my grandparents, a life with no exterior aspect seemed a joy. I can remember the stories they told about moving into their nine-storey block. The flat was better than a room in a communal apartment or in a wooden barrack, far better. People wouldn’t be watching you. These were glad tidings indeed. You’d be able to go to the lavatory when you wanted, you’d be able to wash in your own bathroom. From a harsh world of intense struggle for survival, a world where nothing was private, where there was only the public, you had come to have a home of your own. You had somewhere to hide. So what if it was a prefabricated box room made of panels produced in a building construction factory? This was the only available option.

Economic law governs our actions and our minds.
Housing is the problem of our times. Social stability depends upon it. In a
period of renewal, the first duty of architecture is to bring about a revision of values, a revision of the constituent elements of the home. Mass-production is based on analysis and experiment. Heavy industry should focus on working out and producing the elements essential for the construction of housing on a mass scale. We must create a spirit of mass-production, a spirit of mass home construction. We must establish the idea of a building as an industrial article, manufactured on a grand scale, and encourage the aspiration to live in such buildings. If we eliminate from our hearts and minds the set notion of what a home should be, and look at the issue critically and objectively, we shall arrive at the idea of “the house as a machine for living”, an industrial product that is healthy (also in the moral sense of the word) and beautiful – just as the working tools, inseparable from our existence, are beautiful.

These lines were written in the 1920s, by Le Corbusier, who made the distinction between architects and engineers. He predicted that architects, who had forgotten about the primary purpose of the home and become wholly absorbed by décor, would soon be put in their rightful place. They would have nothing left to do: “We no longer have the funds to erect historical souvenirs.” Meanwhile, the role of engineers would grow and they would take the reins in the community. Of course Le Corbusier could not have imagined how firmly engineers would grasp the communal reins in far distant Russia. It would not have occurred to him that in his own lifetime, in the 1960s, thanks to the industrialization of construction by Nikita Khrushchev, an entire society would grow up and be educated inside “industrial products”.

We became that society. The “governance of economic law” was translated into the language of the resolutions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: “The Central Committee of the CPSU and the Soviet of Ministers of the USSR note that the superficial, ostentatious and overindulgent aspect of architecture has become prominent in the work of many architects and organizations undertaking architectural projects, which does not correspond to the line of the Party and the Government on matters of architecture and construction.” The five-storey residential block which appeared thanks to this new political line (copied in the 1950s from a French prototype by the engineer Vitaly Lagutenko) proved a lifeline for millions. Later, nine-storey blocks appeared, like the one in which I grew up, constructed from rough, grey panels. Later still, the 16-storey blocks arrived, together with all those other examples of “machines for living”, as attractive as working tools and inseparable from our lives.

Have we developed “the aspiration to live in such buildings” that Le Corbusier hoped for? Of course we have. For the majority of us, this is home. Even today, for most people, it is the only opportunity to create a small space of their own even today – never mind that it’s in a box room in a huge residential block. To experience the outside world we can go to the centre of town, just as we did when we were children. Or, better still, we can travel to other cities and other countries where we can have a good look at the external environment and even stay for a while. An old house in an old European city is like a souvenir. You want to pick it up and take it home.

It’s perfectly clear which kind of house you’d want to take away, and which you wouldn’t. Like many others who live in faceless buildings, I have developed a very specific attitude to architecture. Soviet constructions – multi-storied, residential blocks made of prefabricated panels – define the appearance of most Russian cities to this day. No doubt that is why the attraction of rationalist avant-garde architecture, with its levelling impact, seems so incomprehensible in this context. Most buildings erected during the brief Rationalist, Constructivist period in the second half of the 1920s and early 1930s, need to be culturally rehabilitated, so the contemporary Russian schoolboy can learn to distinguish between examples of buildings created by the avant-garde movement, and the simplified copies run off in Soviet and post-Soviet times. A severe approach to form, functionality, the growth of a building from “within” (from the internal space not the façade) …all this became the basis and language of world architecture in the twentieth century. But it means almost nothing to us in Russia. The functionality and beauty of Constructivism was pushed out by mass construction. Our architects were given the opportunity to create an environment and build over vast areas according to their own plans – something most of their colleagues abroad never experienced. But economic law proved extremely harsh. The environment came to play no part at all. It was almost as though it didn’t exist.

Architects including Le Corbusier and his Soviet colleagues Konstantin Mel’nikov and Moisei Ginzburg, seriously attempted to force people into a pre-existing project, “to invent” the future and populate it with living human beings. But the buildings they erected came to be used in ways that proved very different from those originally proposed by the authors of the project. In order for people to be comfortable in a communal household, the shared recreation areas, washing rooms and dining rooms would have had to function, and be serviced, to the highest possible standard. But the resources were never available. A severe housing shortage meant that communal areas were needed for accommodation. The shared recreation spaces dreamt up by architects were divided into rooms; lavatories were left uncleaned; food had to be cooked in box rooms. The occupants were not happy.

The creators of the project were persuaded that people would come to love their homes in time. They were convinced that they had picked the right moment. “The unacceptability of these buildings, in practice, given the specific conditions of the time, was generally explained by saying that they had been introduced too early. It was assumed that, in due course, society would ‘mature’ enough to accept the way of life that communal blocks were intended to cultivate.” But in fact, like most fantasists, the authors of these projects were behind the times. If genuine communes developed at all, they emerged from attempts by workers to resist a hostile social environment. During the years of the civil war, social aggression forced supporters of Soviet power to come together and form domestic communes. Architects picked up the notions of communal housing from these communities, merging them with utopian ideas from the past. But once socialism had triumphed, people (who now felt they were living in a country they owned) needed not defence installations, but comfortable urban housing. This remained confined to the realm of fantasy.

Plebs and patricians

We, in Russia, understand architecture instantly and unconsciously. Anything that is tall, exceptional and redolent of “the elite” is unattainable. It is acquired in return for service to the state or for untold sums of money. “Elite quality” establishes value – no matter how this expression may be understood at any given time. It may be a flat in a Stalinist tower block, a detached brick fortress or a sterile-looking, minimalist house. Equally, any building that has no features or character at all is a product not of architecture but of engineering. Engineers were the social levellers, forbidden to indulge in excessive ostentation, and forced to invent buildings that were, as far as possible, identical.

In order to understand the merits of simplicity, one needs to have experienced both complexity and luxury. Only those who have tired of complicated spaces, garish facades and an excess of decorative architectural features can appreciate the distilled elements of modern architecture, its vast spaces and featureless concrete surfaces. But the people who had no choice but to function in a world where architects and engineers stood opposed, did not understand either space or decorative features and, on the whole, did not even have their own home. Most Soviet people lived (and, in Russia, continue to live) in a world invented by engineers constrained by lack of funds. They have known no alternative. Khrushchev’s five-storey residential blocks, known as Project K-7, were intended to save the country from homelessness. And so they did. But the five-storey model also became the prototype for numerous prefabricated clones which continue to be reproduced today. Buildings survive longer than people and if, fifty years ago they were built as a lifeline, they are now being replicated out of inertia and a sense of inevitability.

All this shows how a temporary, “experimental” decision (for the five-storey blocks were thought of as a temporary measure) can become a permanent feature of daily life, with no existing alternative. It is an example of how, in a major plan, a small diversion can become a highway. We become dependent on a chosen route very quickly – consider how a field track is formed. It becomes increasingly difficult to shake off our dependence* – just as it is hard to get out of any rut. Mass produced multi-storey blocks were an excellent solution for the Soviet state, because the Soviet economy knew how to create “output” and organize a form of mass production in which quantity was more important than quality. This was a solution for many residents of barracks and communal flats, but it also proved to be a trap.

With the appearance of the free market, everything was expected to change. It was assumed that demand would affect supply. But it turned out that in free market conditions, manufacturing plants were profit-making assets. Directors realized that industrial complexes could be privatized and that money could be made by producing the same panels as before – sometimes with a slightly modernized design. Either way it was far quicker and cheaper than building individual residential blocks. This is one of many examples indicating that technologies and policy decisions can have a more powerful effect than revolutions.

The residential blocks designed by Soviet engineers and planners were transformed into real estate, and areas with multi-storey blocks came to be deemed “non-prestigious” (according to post-Soviet geographical coordinates). This split into “prestigious” and “non-prestigious” is enhanced by the fact that old, five-storey blocks are being demolished and replaced by panel buildings that create the impression – as they did 50 years ago – of recent settlements that have not yet developed into towns. “If we demolish all five-storey blocks and build new ones in their place, we shall simply replicate what we want to leave behind: that is to say – ‘new suburbs'”, the architecture critic Andrei Kaftanov wrote before the launch of the programme to demolish the five-storey blocks. “These areas won’t become more upmarket because residential blocks of the K-7 series have been replaced by series P-44. They won’t be towns. They will be the next generation’s settlements.”

Mass construction and the relative financial accessibility of flats encouraged the development of multi-storey housing. The residential blocks built by engineers – as opposed to the buildings designed by architects for the elite – became homes for ordinary people; homes plucked out of the natural environment in which the population could hide and sleep. The attempt to build a level society failed, however. Social engineering suffered total defeat. But civil engineering has left us with a legacy of “mass”, multi-storey housing that will stay with us for the foreseeable future.

Architecture is for patricians, engineering is for plebs. This division can be traced back to ancient Rome where, during the period of the Late Republic, social inequality came to be reflected in both lifestyle and housing. Only a few could afford a villa, a domus. The detached house was a sign of high social and financial status. Villas were the successors of country estates, adapted to urban needs. They had an inner courtyard or atrium, and an outer courtyard or garden hidden inside the building, behind thick walls. Homes for the middle class and the poor – insulae – were a supremely urban invention. They were multi-storey constructions (with up to seven floors) with box rooms available for rent. Roman poetry and correspondence is replete with complaints about the appalling conditions of life in insulae: lack of space, poor hygiene, costliness and danger.

Have living conditions changed over the past 2000 years? Firstly, there is the fact that, sadly, today we have many thousands of big cities, whereas Rome was once unique. Second, for many people, life away from the natural environment and outside the domain of architecture is no longer inevitable. In Russia, the real home, the place where people escape from the city, is the dacha, which I shall discuss separately. Every culture formulates its own answers to housing issues. One way to measure progress may be to look at the proportion of people who can afford the luxuries of erstwhile patricians or kings, and are in a position to design and create their own space for living.

If a person of moderate means can take out a loan and build a house in any style, creating the space he would ideally want, then progress has been made. The more people there are who can afford a personal utopia, the more affluent the community. A society in which only a few can possess their own utopia, and in which an elite structure is valued, has not fully matured. Ideally, everyone should build what he needs – that is to say, a house. For a house is a refuge, from work, for example, or the state, or crowds. The house is also an aspiration – to happiness, for example. That is why, looking at private houses one sees not just exhibitions of competing purses, but displays of perceptions of happiness.

Happiness and order

In a broader sense, buildings and the environment into which they have been fitted may be said to be an expression of order, an architectural reflection of the established rules of the community in a given territory. Living in box room apartments, privately and away from the community, we have arrived at a mirror image of life in the ancient polis. The ancient Greek polis was a socialized city. The look and design of a private home were of little importance to an ancient Greek because he spent very little time there. In the city-states of classical times, houses were so simple that if we were to find ourselves in the residential quarter of Athens in the fifth century B.C., we would not recognize this as the famed city of Athens. The house was not an object of financial value, or an object of pride, because it exerted no gravitational pull. Attention was focused on the square, the stadium and the temple.

The road to the predominance of privacy in our daily lives, in economics, and in the way we interact socially, was very long. Today privacy may seem natural to us but it is worth remembering that, in classical Greece, the private luxury home, as well as the art of portraiture – representing a particular person with all his individual traits – were unknown.

The notion of privacy was culturally absorbed in a gradual way, displacing and overshadowing the idea of a common order. But the process was irreversible. The art of construction, the aspiration to decorate the home with mosaics, paintings and marble statues, developed as individual lives became increasingly isolated, and the gap between the poor and the rich increasingly pronounced. In the end, images of ideal relations between private and public life survived as cultural ideas. They remain vibrant, and embodied in physical reality, thanks to architecture in its highest manifestations. There can be no doubt that this is architecture’s greatest mission. It can be no coincidence that the word “order” is so often used to identify and interpret different architectural forms.

Life lacks consistency and order. This is true both externally and within ourselves as human beings. That is why humanity tries as far as possible to establish rules and limits. Architecture is a visible manifestation of our eternal and insatiable yearning for order. The well-known comparison between architecture and music is not entirely satisfactory because it touches only the exterior, the decorative aspect. It may be that gothic and baroque churches have a musical quality. It is more helpful, however, to discuss architecture in terms of different notions of order that fluctuate from age to age or from one construction to another, even though the buildings may be contiguously positioned in a single city.

A building is a representation of an ideally constructed world. The Russian church offers an architectural representation of the hierarchy of created beings, in the heavens and on the earth. This notion of order survived Soviet times, when churches were put to other uses – as warehouses, hostels, even swimming pools. Inside, anything could happen, but the exterior form of the church continued to carry its message. Even if icons were removed and walls stripped it remained clear where the earth was and where the heavens were, which was the domain of the laity and which the domain of the clergy.

Notions of order also find expression in a Russian peasant hut; a workers’ barrack; a communal apartment; a Stalinist skyscraper; an elite house built for members of the Central Committee of the CPSU; or the Black Sea palace built “for Vladimir Putin”. Similarly, the Villa Rotonda designed by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio conveys a specific conception of order, as does “Fallingwater” by Frank Lloyd Wright, or a caravan, a fisherman’s cabin, or a nomad’s tent. Some people may perhaps feel unsuited to the environment in which they have found themselves. They will seek to overcome the status quo and escape their wooden barrack or their panelled residential block. Images of order and happiness, tested by others before them, will help to suggest where they should aspire to go. Yet the notion of order conveyed by the Soviet residential blocks around us is especially distinctive.

The Stalinist order

Stalinist buildings may attract attention and hold appeal because they display much that is excessive, strange and out of proportion – towers, stucco and giant arches. The architects of these edifices were ready to challenge the Russian climate, as well as human dimensions, by building spacious Italian loggias in the centre of Moscow where people could sunbathe. These buildings seemed to say – to any Soviet citizen who had ventured out of his hostel-like lodgings and come to the city centre – this is a place for the elect. Engineering is for plebs; architecture is for patricians. Those who live here are superior. In these buildings, even the climate is different; they have the Mediterranean sun, we have a clouded sky and perpetual cold.

The Stalinist style appeared as soon as the Soviet commander had grasped the substance of the new architecture and was in a position to convey it to his subjects. Now that the new social order had taken shape, tools were needed to maintain it. There was the secret police, forced labour, social organizations created by the authorities – and this was fine, but these were tools of restraint and oppression. An attractive visual aesthetic was required. And so the aesthetic reflecting the lifestyle of the new aristocracy came into being: tall buildings crowned with columns of the “Stalinist order”; huge edifices, imperiously declaring the unassailability of the Soviet hierarchy and built, quite literally, to provoke envy.

In the Soviet lexicon, the word “order” acquired a new meaning. An “order” for a flat was a document sanctioning private ownership in a country where private ownership did not exist. This was, of course, an evident return to Ivan Grozny’s practice of conferring property as a reward for service. The state granted “orders” for apartments in new buildings with towers and columns to those who flew particularly high, to those who achieved fame, and of course to those who led the country. An ordinary person could only fantasize about becoming a pilot, a general or an artist. But the professions of the other residents in these buildings did not even bear dreaming about. They were directors, ministers, deputies and specialists indispensable to the regime: engineers, painters, or writers.

The word “order” had another meaning, however. It was also an arrest warrant. We know of many cases (the House on the Embankment is of course the most renowned) where, soon after a housing order was granted, an arrest order would follow. The authorities might grant you a licence for a private life in return for faithful service. But they retained the right to decide to what extent your service was indeed loyal. If service was no longer judged to be faithful then a private life was no longer your due. Instead you would be despatched into the communal life – to a prison camp. That was the “order”, that was the way things were.

A beautiful, desirable, and well-located home in Russia has a moral dimension, as well an architectural one. I am not referring to religious movements or ideologies that do not acknowledge private ownership, or indeed to Rousseau’s certainty that civilization, with its passion for establishing boundaries, had blighted humanity. I am referring once again to the link between private ownership and service to the state.

In Autumn 1933, the poet Osip Mandelstam acquired his first personal home – the only one he ever had. It was an apartment in the cooperative house for writers in Nashchokinsky pereulok. He was to enjoy little of his settled life, however. In May 1934 he was arrested there: the housing “order” was followed by an “order” for his arrest. It is thought that the main cause were his verses about Stalin (“We live without sensing the country beneath us…”), but during his interrogations he was asked about a poem directly linked to the flat in Nashchokinsky pereulok, “The apartment is as quiet, like paper…”:

And the accursed walls are thin
There is nowhere to run now
And like a fool playing a comb
I am made to perform – for someone

I read rationed books
I listen to sycophantic speeches
And sing a terrible lullaby
To the child of the kulak

Only some kind of inventor
Who combs out the flax from a kolkhoz
Who blends ink with blood
Would deserve such an impalement

Only some kind of honest traitor
Boiled alive in the purges like salt
Who keeps a wife and children
Would swat a moth in this way

Nadezhda Mandelstam recalls that the writing of this poem was prompted by a single brief exchange with Boris Pasternak. Pasternak came to look at the Mandelstams’ new apartment and, as he left, remarked: “Well, now you’ve got a flat, you can write poetry.”

O.M. was furious […] He was deeply convinced that nothing can ever prevent an artist from doing what he must, and that – on the contrary – prosperity is not a stimulus for work. Around us a fierce battle was being fought over the rationed amenities offered to writers, and in this battle an apartment was considered the greatest prize. A little later, small dachas also began to be offered as a reward for services[…] Boris Leonidovich [Pasternak]’s words struck home. O.M. cursed the apartment and proposed that it should be returned to those for whom it was intended – honest traitors.

There is nothing in Mandelstam’s poetic sensibilities to suggest a Tolstoyan or otherwise philosophical rejection of private ownership. Maldelstam was infuriated by the inference that creativity could be directly dependent on service. Pasternak had made a good natured remark, most probably without a second thought, about daily living arrangements and home as the best place for work. Instead, Mandelstam had heard the suggestion that a home is not bought but, at best, provided in return for playing a comb, and at worst for betrayal and blending ink with blood. “The curse on the apartment was not intended to advocate homelessness, it was an expression of horror at the price exacted for it”, Nadezhda Mandelstam writes.

The extraordinary price demanded by the state for basic amenities had no financial equivalent and was an essential constituent of Soviet life. The profound inhumanity of the Soviet regime lay not just in the fact that it killed and harmed people physically, but that it wounded them morally. This intent may not have been specified in the Party programme, but the leadership nevertheless pursued a policy that imposed moral humiliation on the educated sector of society, and those who demonstrated a spirit of independence. Compromise, denying oneself the right to creative freedom in art and science, was encouraged by the distribution of privileges, flats, food, and money. An uncompromising position, creative freedom and independence were punished by material deprivation, arrest or death.

The very existence of this appalling choice on a daily basis compels us to look at Soviet life in a specific way. The price for every expression of independence, any refusal to act in step, was extremely high. Those who chose to take this route were great human beings and should be remembered. The dilemma whether to co-operate with the regime or not was particularly acute in Stalinist times, but later the choice wasn’t easy either. Only the degree of risk varied. If you played by the rules, you were rewarded with those “rationed amenities” (though there were never any guarantees). If you did not play by the rules, you could lose not only your ration, but your profession and your life. The choice of non-action at home, or departure abroad (in Brezhnev’s time, once emigration became possible) was in many cases both honourable and tragic. We shall never know the names of all those who would not collaborate, failed to realize their talents, and were never heard of again because they refused to compromise, and thereby lost their voice.

These were times when survival and creative fulfilment, unstained by betrayals or other ignominies, were the most one could hope to achieve in life. But only an isolated few succeeded in this. Consequently, those enviable buildings for the elite were inhabited by people who had made the requisite pacts with themselves. One could envy their success, or one could be horrified by the ways, means and contacts they must have used to become part of the “elite”.

Stalinist architecture, the high rise buildings in particular, hold an attraction I find hard to explain. This may be quite simply aesthetic, the presence of some kind of feature against a backcloth where individuality and expressiveness were the exception. I mentioned the fact that life in multi-storey blocks, built by Soviet engineers, seemed deprived of any external side. The environment itself appeared to intensify people’s self-absorption, and their immersion in a family life concealed within those panel box rooms.

The superficial attraction is also encouraged by the fact that people have lived in these buildings for a long time. The story of these blocks, and of many of those who once lived there, is both fearsome and chilling – but it is nevertheless history. Furthermore it is a story understandable to most people living today – unlike pre-revolutionary history, which has little connection with life today because links with pre-revolutionary Russia were broken so long ago. But a fascinating building cannot be created by architecture alone. Stalinist elite edifices are not just monuments to architectural “excess”, but also to oppression dressed up as valour. Servility and perfidy became their turrets and filigree grilles.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the authorities began to build unnoticeable, but very good, mansion flats on the upper floors. Everything was significant: an austere lack of décor, a large area, a “western” design, additional rooms, even fireplaces and underground garages. The floor on which an apartment was built might indicate a specific place in the hierarchy. There is a well-known building on Granatny pereulok in Moscow where one of the floors, built especially for Brezhnev, has higher ceilings than all the others. But one can see this only if one looks carefully: the extraordinary superiority of the homes designed for the nomenklatura was not meant to be striking – unlike the décor of Stalinist buildings.

The turrets, the layout and the high ceilings embellished the absence of freedom that characterized any conditional ownership, any possession dependent on service. If a home is provided by way of recompense for work, service or success, it can also be taken away. Under the Bolsheviks, the state in effect rescinded the reforms of the previous 150 years and annulled the right to private ownership established prior to the revolution. Land, a home and other privileges associated with ownership came to be held conditionally: they were wholly dependent on decisions made by the authorities.

Having disposed of the law, the authorities also disposed of any independent actors. Arguably, the Soviet system went even further than Ivan the Terrible in terms of destroying independence. In effect, all signs of prosperity were transformed into privileges or benefices, if you will – much as in early medieval Europe. All material well-being was rationed. In this way, architecture became part of a vast project in which Soviet people lived out their lives, and which they sought to escape at the first possible opportunity.

The Putinist order

Because conditional ownership is so precarious, it is secured only by the strength of centralized power. It is natural for a human being to aspire to move from an insecure form of possession to unconditional ownership: that is to say from dependence to independence. The events that unfolded in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union reflected a shift from conditional ownership to full private ownership. But, as the past 20 years have shown, the process was considerably more difficult than it may have seemed at the start.

It is interesting to note that the “Stalinist order” has not entirely been relegated to the past, either as an aesthetic form or as a written document. In the architectural sense, the order lives on as long as the buildings survive. Demand for real estate in the buildings once inhabited by the nomenklatura remains as high as ever, although it is gradually being eroded by the appeal of a new “elite style” which either imitates Stalinist architecture (take, for example, the residential district behind the university in Vorobevye Gory in Moscow, with its characteristically commanding name “Dominion”) or aspires to be emphatically minimalist and contemporary (consider the “golden mile” on Ulitsa Ostozhenka in Moscow). It is noteworthy that the present age has not yet produced its own aesthetic style. It isn’t possible to identify a “Putinist” order; there is no unity of style or place, as in Soviet times. Freedom of movement complements a freedom of stylistic choice.

But the word “order” in the sense of privileged access on the one hand, and sanction for arrest on the other, has not lost its meaning. Indeed, a particular dynamic may be traced in connection with this. In the pre-Putin years, especially in Moscow under Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, representatives of the political elite, and people who served them, could receive apartments for reduced prices from the municipal government. This denoted a gesture of goodwill on the part of the state, based on an agreement with the city of Moscow. It was how Moscow paid for its liberties. Today, civil servants receive a small subsidy from the state for the purchase of a home, while high-level officials have certain privileges which are not made public and details of which are known only through the rumour mill.

However, most of those who want to be associated with the “elite” have to buy a home appropriate to their status for artificially inflated prices. Inordinate sums of money have to be paid for the best houses in the most desirable locations in the city or suburbs. A (symbolic) “order” is granted not for living space, as in Soviet times, but for the opportunity to earn these “inordinate sums” without which the space cannot be acquired. But this kind of property is hardly necessary to anyone who knows the real value of money. The purchase of real estate for an evidently inflated price is a form of payment for access to big money, and returns a certain proportion of funds to a corrupt pot. This, the distinctive Putinist “order”, is a permit that opens doors into the official cum business class. And it is indispensable to those who have earned enough money but need to demonstrate that they belong to the new aristocracy.

It is quite possible that in future this practice may continue to grow. The consortium of investors who sold part of TNK-BP to the state oil company Rosneft is receiving persistent hints that any money received should be invested in Russia. Recently Putin has said that, in the course of a new wave of privatization, packages of shares in Russian companies should be sold on Russian trading platforms. Previously there had been repeated calls for big “offshore” capitalists to place their funds in Russian assets. It is known that pressure is being put on them privately as well. This would suggest that representatives of business circles close to the authorities, and their clients, will find they have to “buy Russian” – and no one is promising them fair prices.

Published 25 June 2013

Original in Russian
Translation by Irena Maryniak
First published in Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Transit
© Maxim Trudolyubov / IWM / Eurozine

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