Sticky Heritage

by Bjørnar Olsen

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx wrote that people make their own history, not as they please, “but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. The past, however, burdens more than the brains of the living. Through its accumulating material deposits it produces the very conditions under which we live and thus constantly inflicts on our most everyday conducts; the way we move about in our towns and villages or the view we may enjoy from our kitchen window. Sometimes however these deposits become particularly massive and viscous, providing one clue to the impression that the past weighs heavier on some societies than other.

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Consider the material legacy of the former Soviet empire as manifested in remote towns and settlements on the Kola Peninsula in NW Russia. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 these, in economic terms, relatively prosperous sites faced a very different reality. Today the immediate impression left from encountering them is not only one of decay and decline but also of “offline-ness” and postponement. The signatures of “sovietness” are still remarkably pervading, and far more comprehensive and also more mundane, of course, than the somewhat over-depicted iconic repertoire of surviving communist monuments. Ranging from the gauge of railways, Stalin, Brezhnev and Khrushchev era apartment houses to power grids and urban planning, the viscous Soviet deposits are still so massive and persistent that the investment needed to get rid of this legacy seems by far to outweigh the costs of living with it. Seemingly disregarding conventional historical chronology, and contemporary political gestures, these effective and distributed extensions and constituents of the regime thus stubbornly continue to survive in a presumably post-Soviet era.

A common opinion among commentators and intellectuals is that the serious obstacle to progress and change is an inherited Soviet mentality, a passive and obedient attitude that prevents innovative solutions and new modes of governing. “Soviet mentality is alive and well,” The Moscow Times’ commentator Georgy Bovt wrote a few years ago. Without questioning the relevance of such opinions there is however far less concern with the, literally speaking, concrete material reality which still stubbornly conditions people’s lives. Take the example of the khrushchevki apartment house, built of precast concrete slabs and introduced in the early 1960s during the reign of its namesake Nikita Khrushchev.

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The khrushchevki represented a functional and practical alternative, and contrast, to the massive and monumental Stalinist architecture. It was a quickly assembled, low-cost, and temporary solution pending the arrival of the subsequent and affluent stage of complete communism. As this awaited stage never arrived, the khrushchevki became a far more permanent solution. According to accounts published in 2004 these apartment houses still comprised just shy of 0.5 billion of the entire 2.8 billions square meters of housing space in Russia. And while currently being demolished and replaced with increasing pace in the metropolitan areas of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the far less prosperous marginal areas, as on the Kola, offer no prospective alternatives. As remarked by Thomas Lahusen, despite their decay and breakdown, people “continue to live in these concrete ruins of socialism”.

And much of this Soviet legacy may indeed qualify for the term “ruins”, modern ruins. However, contrary to how we often encounter ruins in their abandoned condition, decay and ruination is here often a lived reality, something that constantly confronts you – next door, in your apartment complex, at the naval base or even at your research institute. For those who live here this Soviet heritage is hardly an object for contemplation or escape; something that evokes entropy or motivates theoretical mediations. Neither can it be reduced to exhibits in what Svetlana Boym somewhat sarcastically has called a “theme park of lost illusions”. It is rather a heritage lived with as an existential and “thrown” condition, and which also exercises its own peculiar and highly involuntary modes of remembering – or indeed of not forgetting, ignoring or bypassing.

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When did the Soviet Union end? When Gorbachev resigned or when the Supreme Soviet dissolved itself on December 26, 1991? When the Soviet Army and police forces faded out or when the last KGB officer left his post? These historical events occurred; they may be dated, and they give, despite the slight discrepancy, a fairly exact and probable answer to the question. However, the archaeology of the former Soviet Union provides a very different answer and gives face to a far more stubborn and persistent regime. In a simplistic but effective way it also highlights some of the differences between the historical and the archaeological project, including their basic diverging chronologies.

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This posting concludes the portfolio series.

 

References

Boym, S. (2001). The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.

Lahusen, T. (2006). “Decay or Endurance? The Ruins of Socialism,” Slavic Review, 65/4: 736–46.

Marx, K. (1968). The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers.

Nagy, D. (2010). “Goodbye khrushchevki. Soviet Housing in Post-Soviet Europe,” available at http://khrushchevki.wordpress.com/about/.

Reid, S. (2009). “Communist Comfort: Socialist Modernism and the Making of Cosy Homes in the Khrushchev-Era Soviet Union,” Gender and History 21/3: 465–98.

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