Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 2, 2019
Tijana Vujošević Modernism and the Making of the Soviet New Man Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2019. 208 pp.; 72 b/w ills. Paper £ 20.00 (9781526114884)
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Soviet architectural modernism is characterized sometimes as unrealizably utopian, and other times as an expanse of drab housing blocks that failed to take account of their human users. Tijana Vujošević begins Modernism and the Making of the Soviet New Man by noting that neither view is exactly true, and further that the truth was, at least arguably, precisely the opposite of both: a radical transformation of the built environment was in fact realized in the first decades of the Soviet Union, and the most extraordinary aspect of early Soviet design was its attention to how its human inhabitants would themselves shape and be shaped by it. Indeed, for Vujošević, Soviet architecture was primarily a social project, in which the production of space was fully intertwined with the production of a “new Soviet man.”

The six case studies, or episodes, that make up the book chart a refreshingly unusual path through the material. Vujošević begins with her most speculative chapter, which treats the period’s fascination with flight and outer space as a reflection of ideas about social change. The discussion then proceeds roughly chronologically: Chapters 2 and 3, on biomechanics and the proletarian home, consider the productivist ethos of the 1920s, in which the new man was understood to be a proletarian subject, a worker. Chapter 4, on bathhouses of the early 1930s, is transitional. In chapters 5 and 6, we move into the “representational” mode of the 1930s by examining the Soviet housewife under Stalin and the Moscow metro. Overall, the volume reads more like a cultural history than an art or architectural history. Projects by well-known figures of the avant-garde are strung together alongside—rather than contextualized within—those of more obscure figures and formations. So, for example, a canonical work like the Letatlin (Vladimir Tatlin’s flying machine of 1932) becomes a relatively minor example in a chapter dominated by the work of the lesser-known Cosmist scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Similarly, LEF (Left Front of the Arts) theorist Boris Arvatov, who has been important in studies of Constructivism, is paired with GosPlan (State Planning Committee) functionary Stanislav Strumulin and his efficiency studies.

Vujošević’s approach also departs from the norms of architectural history of the early Soviet period in its focus on the construction of a new Soviet individual, rather than a collective. Much has been written about Soviet public spaces and “social condensers,” such as Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin communal house or Konstantin Melnikov’s Rusakov Workers’ Club. Vujošević turns instead to architecture’s intersections with projects and processes of self-fashioning at the individual level: the intimate and everyday rituals of sleeping, bathing, home decorating, and commuting to work. Theoretically, the argument is constructed loosely around the traditional Russian dichotomy of byt’ and bytie—or everyday/material life and spiritual life—most famously explicated by Svetlana Boym in Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994). Vujošević’s claim (again, loosely tendered) is that the resolution of this dualism maps onto the materialist project in which consciousness is produced by material circumstances. One gets the sense throughout that Vujošević may have omitted some of the groundwork that would have fully connected the dots, but her intention seems to be to draw out the ways that the body—the retraining and refashioning of its maintenance, discipline, and desires—was understood as a means toward the remaking of the soul, at the same time that a broadly distributed cultural imagination (a soul of sorts) drove the remaking of the built environment. Sometimes architecture is employed to reform bodies in a very physical way, as in the fascinating chapter on the Soviet bathhouse. Here, humans are not users, but products processed by the building, at the same time that their residue (hair, soap film, etc.) is collected, recycled, and reincorporated into the structure—at least in one example from 1932. Other times architecture is, in her words, “an identity-making enterprise,” hinging on emulating, reproducing, and reflecting ideal visions of Soviet life.

This latter case is most effectively argued in chapter 5, which treats the movement of obshchestvennitsy (socially minded women) of the mid-1930s. The obshchestvennitsy were more or less housewives whose “activism” consisted of constructing a Soviet version of the good life through traditionally feminine work, such as the beautification of the home, the workplace, and themselves. Vujošević should be commended for taking the movement seriously. It is tempting to dismiss the era’s characterization of the obshchestvennitsy as activists as a Stalinist perversity, a return to order that undermined the previous decade’s efforts to expand women’s roles and to challenge traditional patriarchal institutions. Vujošević’s treatment is more measured, situating the movement’s reactionary character within a context in which the prevalence of promiscuity, abortion, and divorce had risen quickly and in which mechanisms for child support had yet to be worked out and enforced. This perspective allows us to forestall judgment at least long enough to consider the ways that the movement was significant aesthetically. Here, Vujošević makes a rather bold argument: that the work of these women constituted a mass-cultural and pragmatic alternative to more monumental forms of socialist realism. In attempting to emulate an ideal Soviet life in their own homes, they remade the environment in a very real way. She highlights the role of mass media (largely magazines) in distributing model representations of women and domestic environments, along with instructions on how to approximate them.

Part of what is most fascinating about this phenomenon for one familiar with the period’s architecture is that the “mass arts” taught by the magazines, such as color coordination, relied on the same theories about the psychology of perception that inspired avant-gardists like the Rationalists, but they were implemented through a network of small-scale construction projects at the level of everyday domestic spaces—that is, in the province of byt’. Conceived as an architectural history, the book as a whole makes a valuable contribution to thinking about Soviet architecture in this more broadly distributed and participative way. It can be understood as something like a low architecture, or an architecture from below. In this paradigm, the construction of socialist modernity was not masterminded by Stalin, nor by the period’s more famous architects, but rather constructed by the modest renovations of a redisciplined populace. Particularly in chapters 1–4, the material often dovetails with topics familiar from other art historical accounts: ideas surrounding biomechanics and the scientific organization of labor, material faktura, the object as coworker, and so on. In Vujošević’s telling, however, the driver for this project is a cultural imagination of which artists, social engineers, bathers, housewives, and so on are all constitutive parts.

Vujošević clearly has a taste for the idiosyncratic, and her delight in recounting some of the quirkier moments of “the great experiment” is one of the pleasures of the volume. Sometimes one wonders whether the examples presented are indeed significant—seminal, canonical, representative of broader trends—or simply eccentric instances that she happened upon. This is, of course, bound up with larger questions: What authorizes an object to serve as a model for understanding a larger historical formation? Why are we less likely to accept the exceptional as paradigmatic when produced by a housewife or functionary rather than by a bona fide member of the avant-garde (a rather hermetic group, after all, even in the Soviet case)? And how does one balance an object’s specificity with its broader relevance? For the most part, Vujošević’s constellations hold together (for this reviewer, at least), but it would have been helpful if the evidential girding were more sturdily constructed. Many readers will enjoy the intriguing connections that she pieces together by casting a broad net, but some will wish for arguments and examples fleshed out in greater depth and notes that more convincingly validate the connections made. Just as one example, in the chapter on Vsevolod Meyerhold’s biomechanics, she highlights one (obviously hostile) critique of his production of The Magnanimous Cuckold. The critic aggressively ties the mechanical character of the sets and the biomechanical acting to an animal primitivism and unregulated sexuality. In a field that often assumes widespread adulation of advanced technology, the fragment is a useful reminder that, for many, technological modernity was not associated with advanced culture, but with civilization’s demise. This important insight would be more convincing, however, if it did not hinge on a single statement, one whose character and origin is left uncontextualized. In this regard, Vujošević might have benefited from engaging an expanded circle of interlocutors. This might have helped to refine the arguments and would only have served to emphasize the virtues of her approach. And the virtues are many. This is an innovative, fascinating, and very readable history that challenges its readers to think about early Soviet architecture in a new way. 

Kristin Romberg
Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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