Living Space: Socialist Blocks as Homes




Left: Block 27 was part of later developments that boast 12 floors of inhabitants. Image credit: Theo Chevallier, 2014

 

THERE IS a new obsession in the West with “Soviet remains.” For evidence of this, look no further than Buzzfeed’s clickbait list “24 Mysterious and Chilling Pictures of Abandoned Buildings from the Soviet Union” (the makers of which seem unaware that neither Poland nor Bulgaria was ever part of the Soviet Union), or photographic collections like Rebecca Litchfield’s 2014 Soviet Ghosts: The Soviet Union Abandoned: A Communist Empire in Decay. It’s easy to add to this with, for example, Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings, Christopher Herwig’s Soviet Bus Stops, and the work of endless travel photographers eager to get their lenses on an appropriate amount of “decay.” What is lacking from such often-simplistic content is an assessment of why Soviet remains attract us in the first place. Litchfield and Hatherley are both Brits; Herwig is based in New York. So, what exactly is the interest in

There is a long tradition in the West of dancing on the Soviet grave in order to celebrate Western values, and so it comes as no surprise that the focus on Soviet historical artifacts is a focus entirely on the dead and decaying. In the 1980 Olympics in New York, the American hockey team unexpectedly won against the Red Army (even though in a showcase game only a few months earlier the result was 10–3 to the Soviets). Herb Brooks, the coach of the US Olympic hockey team, said by phone to President Carter after the win, “It is a great win, you know, for everybody. And I think it just proves that our way of life is the proper way to continue on.” (See Gabe Polsky’s 2012 documentary Red Army for a fascinating analysis of how Soviet hockey players became currency in the market of political Olympics.) 

In light of such celebrationist grave-dancing, it comes as no surprise that capitalist success must be presented as absolute Soviet failure. Such was the narrative during the Cold War, and such celebrationism has been repeatedly repackaged in the last quarter of a century. Today the death of the Soviet Union is increasingly encapsulated in books, blogs, and textbooks fetishizing “Soviet decay.” 

The story of this fetishization is not unimportant. But that is not the story I wish to tell. My story takes place not in the abandoned military bases or sport centers or in the vacated psychiatric hospitals, Communist party headquarters, or airfields. Mine is not the story of Communist ideologies slowly corroding with the monuments embodying their grandeur. The story I wish to tell is humbler in scope, and it is the story of the living as well as the dead.

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Sliven, a small textile city in central Bulgaria, experienced a period of rapid industrialization and urbanization in the 1960s and 1970s, as did much of the rest of the country. In 1944, 24 percent of the Bulgarian population lived in urban settlements; by 1970 the figure was 53 percent. 

While industrialization is a popular term in discussions about Soviet culture and politics — and abandoned factories an iconic image of Soviet failure — the Eastern bloc states’ aggressive industrialization policies also facilitated what was a less analyzed but nonetheless fundamental transformation of urban living space. It was only in the 1970s that a real increase of money for housing and construction in Bulgaria could be observed, the model for which came directly from the USSR, hence my use of “Soviet.” It was also in 1973 that my grandfather, Hristo Hadjiev, was granted approval to purchase an apartment in one of the first two right-to-buy state-built Socialist panelka blocks in Sliven. The panelka blocks remain by far the most prominent and recognizable feature of urban, former-Eastern Bloc landscapes. These block living spaces were at the heart of the idealism of communism.

3_Block, Bulgarka, SlivenThe blocks neighboring number 26 are part of the complex
now called Bulgarka. Image credit: Theo Chevallier, 2014.

As early as the mid-20th century, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard insisted that “inhabited space transcends geometrical space.” In his seminal book The Poetics of Space (1958), Bachelard explored the experience of inhabiting a space in depth. His focus, however, was on the house as an entity caught in the liminal zone between attic and cellar. These polarities, although geometrically measurable, transcend materiality. The attic, he insisted, is a space of reason, rationality, and clarity. The cellar has no immediate rationality. It remains a dark entity, immersed in subterranean forces — a source of fear and, with it, the unknown. 

Bachelard had nothing to say of Soviet blocks. But his vision of the house as an inhabited space caught between two opposing human concepts is the vision of a purely individual-centric ontology. The individual, Bachelard surmised, occupies and creates individual space, caught between the attic and the cellar. 

Block-living, however, repositions the individual. Instead of being caught between cellar and attic, in block-living, we inhabit and create a space caught between others. Our idea of our space and of ourselves is affected by this repositioning. We are no longer each an individual entity caught between polarities, but part of a larger entity encompassing all eight floors of inhabitants (as in the case of my grandfather), altogether comprising the same in-between-ness as that limbo between roof and cellar. 

Panelka blocks, however, were not merely an embodiment of idealism in the dynamics of co-inhabited space. They were also the consequences of economic shortages. The construction industry across the USSR and its satellite states abandoned brick, steel, and lumber to invest in cheaper methods of rapid urbanization. The panelka of my grandfather was built using prefabricated housing parts and wall-sized panels made from pre-stressed concrete. 

Hristo’s life is in many ways a microcosm of the idiosyncratic path socialism took through Bulgaria. He was the youngest of four children, born not far from Sliven in the small agricultural village of Skala (“rock”) in 1930. His family had lived there since at least the mid-19th century. (Today, fewer than 50 houses in Skala remain inhabited.) His father died in the military when Hristo was still a child. His older sisters sacrificed their access to anything beyond primary education so that the family could send Hristo to college in Sliven. He attended a woodwork specialist technikum and qualified as a carpenter. Eventually, he started work in Izkustvo (“Art”), a furniture factory in the city’s industrial zone, where he remained to retirement. This in itself was notable, given that during the 1960s and ’70s, the USSR saw a turnover rate of roughly 15 million workers in industry and construction alone. He was married with two children (a number the state approved of) with whom he lived in his spacious panelka flat, which was highly sought after given the widespread housing shortages across the Eastern Bloc. 

From potato to proletariat, Hristo’s life was very much the socialist story of a “country boy done good.” He seems to have taken his proletarianization with at least a certain sense of pride, if only for the modernization that it symbolized. He made sure to attend party meetings, participate in discussions, and still today, under the bed in my mother’s room, are dozens of copies of the party magazine, Rabotnichesko Delo (“Workers’ Deed”), dating back to the 1970s. Into his last years, Hristo’s daily routine of reading the papers and watching the eight o’clock news was as consistent an event as any prescribed by the laws of causality. Perhaps he never articulated it in these exact words, but he had internalized the significance of class consciousness (a term Marx himself rarely used). He sought to be informed about the society he lived in, to understand his position in it, and with that, albeit to a lesser extent, to understand its history. A few times, he even made it to the public boards posted in the city center to celebrate the achievements of model workers, good Socialists. 

He veered right with age, much like the rest of the country; the moment socialism ceased to offer the modernization it had glorified, he (much like the rest of the country) abandoned it. That is to say, precisely because he internalized the urban modernity that socialism preached, he had to abandon that ideology when modernity became NATO, the European Union, and consumerist market economics. His story is a remarkable one, albeit not in the post-Enlightenment individualistic storytelling way to which we are too often exposed and therefore eager to listen for, if not hear, regardless of the narrative at hand. His life and transitions matched the model path intended for all the recently urbanized Bulgarian masses by the state. To tell his story is thus to tell the story of many.

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Scholarship on the socialist experience has demonstrated how communities themselves, not the top-down leadership structures in which they operated, participated in the creation of their own experience. From anthropologist Gerald Creed’s work on the domestication of revolution in a Bulgarian village, to Stephen Kotkin’s micro-study of industrialization in Magnitogorsk, the history of socialism is shown to be one in which people shaped their socialisms as much as they were shaped by them. 

Nowhere is this more pertinent than in the realm of spatialization. In its very conception, much of Bulgarian Soviet housing, epitomized by the panelka block, was already a product of this interaction. My grandfather’s purchase of the flat is no exception. The very buying of a Socialist state-built block is a process of shaping the space, of adapting its ideological communalism and economic limitations to the country’s own tradition of private property. In 1951, the Bulgarian state started to refer to spaces their inhabitants owned as “personal property,” a hybrid term that gave them the ability to avoid acknowledging the existence of “private property.” The bastion of Socialist landscape that is the Soviet block should be thought of as a process rather than as a symbol. 

The processes and interactions that both shape the space and were shaped by it are most easily deciphered on the smaller scale. In short, in building Block 26 (as the panelka of my grandfather was later called), in the new settlement on the eastern end of Sliven, the state invented a community which found itself co-inhabiting a small and confined space. 

These physical limitations meant that the same community had to choose who it would admit and exclude. It naturally found itself mired in pretences and prejudices. My grandfather’s flat was on the fourth floor of eight, which in Soviet block politics meant that it was one of the most expensive floors. Nobody wanted a flat on the ground floor; perhaps prophetically, those who ended up inhabiting them often would become the stereotypes the community feared: “unsuccessful,” “unemployed,” and, therefore, not a part of the communal space of the block. But nobody wanted the top floors, either. The flatness of the roof meant that water would gather rather than drain, so the ceilings would regularly leak. 

All this personal reorganization is to be expected when essentially repositioning a community of strangers with no common ties into the cellar-attic in-between-ness of inhabited space. The space itself was a catalyst for community creation, but also an agent in the process. 

The building of the blocks necessitated the creation of underground parking lots (very popular at the time), which weren’t quite underground. Rather, they were slightly elevated slabs of concrete, at the end of which, after a small drop, you could find the entrance to the car park. At the other end was often a rectangular flue to ventilate the space. There was roughly one parking lot per block at the very beginning of work in Sliven, the size of a small rectangular stadium. But it was always a botched job, the surface on top mostly uneven, the concrete already cracking to reveal the metal frames of the ceiling.

Shortly after its 1973 completion, the very same invented community appropriated the space into a de facto playground. The state-built car park for Block 26 was the football pitch for the children of Block 26. The flue became one goal. The rail at the other end (protecting people from falling at the end of the drop) became the other. So popular was the slab of a playing field for my mother’s generation and mine that four years ago the local council invested European Union money in actually building a football pitch on it. The pitch now boasts a large cage and shiny fake grass.

The place’s materiality and geography were irrelevant; what mattered was what the community projected on it. All spaces are living spaces. They are molded and shaped by the communities that pass through them. Such spatial legacy is significant. It was a socialist car park that made the capitalist football pitch.

2_Blocks and a Parking Lot, Bulgarka, Sliven

Blocks and Parking Lot – view from the back of Block 26. In the lower
end of the image is a slightly elevated parking lot that never made it
into a formalized playground. Image credit: Theo Chevallier, 2014.

Today, Soviet blocks are more than just one instance of spatialization. As they remain inhabited and dominant across the Eastern landscapes, they have become memory theaters, with multiple layers of spatial processes and meanings. A simple archaeology of the act of pressing the button on the rusty old elevator in entrance B of Block 26 tells a story of its own.

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I take a step up (the elevator never stops at the correct height) and into the dimly lit, wood-paneled lift. The heavy metal door bangs against it. I press button number four and hear the motor click somewhere in the echoing distance. I feel it starting to pull and watch each floor’s door lapse before my eyes as there is no protective panel in the way. 

In the act of pressing the button, a series of traces emerges. One is in my own memories. Growing taller, more buttons became available to me. With age, the block opened up, became larger. Floor 8 became reachable. Another trace lies in the sets of memories told and retold by those near me: my mother stuck in the elevator, dropping her key in the claustrophobic shaft and jumping into the pitch-black space to look for it as her sister held the door to ensure that no one called it to another floor. The block has a memory of its own, too. The signs of wear tell the story of its age, the quality of wood and metal tell the story of lack. But the memory of the block is more than pure materiality. The flickering light on the ceiling, protected by a newly installed cage to prevent theft, tells the story of the disappearance of trust between co-inhabitants. More broadly still is the memory of the idea, if not idealism, of this space as it was conceived: a home for the proletariat to communally coexist. 

The layers of memories, traces, and experiences embedded in blocks — and therefore their centrality and significance to Socialist history — have not gone unnoticed in literature. It is no surprise that Andrei Platonov’s Foundation Pit (finished in 1930) presents the socialist dystopia of a disillusioned revolutionary through the story of workers restlessly digging a never-ending foundation pit. Their only glimmer of hope, the pit is more than that; it is the foundation pit for a Socialist Block. A single block to house all the proletariat of the nameless Soviet village becomes the workers’ only flicker of faith in utopian realization.  

Nor is it surprising that Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (first published in the States in 1924) — which would become the model for much of Western dystopian fiction (Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury have all taken their cues) — focuses not on the state violence or state surveillance so dreaded by Orwell, nor on the book-burning and censorship so dreaded by Bradbury. Rather, it focuses on living space: the citizens of the “One State” inhabit spaces that have no walls, only windows. That is to say, the erosion of living space as the product of how families and confined communities interact with it is more terrifying than physical violence. In We, everyone sees inside every space, and therefore all spaces are the same. This is the ultimate death of space, and for Zamyatin, the death of individual autonomy. 

Socialist blocks as they stand today are not dead and decaying. Rather they continue to exist and are regularly remolded by the changing communities that inhabit them. Unlike Zamyatin’s, they are living spaces. 

Today, Block 26 is a microcosm of a very different type of society. Permanent homes for nearly three full generations, its flats are now inhabited by a people of strikingly different incomes and occupations: from floor three — home to someone who made a fortune in an agricultural supply business and bought another flat on floor two — to floor one — where its drunken dweller passed away in an unheated flat with broken windows and a door that didn’t lock. In the West, social cleansing would have ensured floor one and floor three would never meet. In 26, they co-inhabited a living space that they, willingly or not, helped shape together. 

In the study of history, post-socialist or otherwise, it is therefore important to adjust our approach to the process of historical spatialization. Block 26 is not unique, or particularly significant. It’s a model for a story that can be retold about each of the other 25 in that complex of housing in Sliven — and hundreds more across the Balkans, central Europe, and the former USSR. Socialist blocks are still living spaces soaked in socialist, post-socialist, and current memory. No amount of celebrationism can erase that.

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Mirela Ivanova is a graduate student in Byzantine History at the University of Oxford.


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