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Socialist blocks as homes


At the LA Review of Books, Mirela Ivanova explores former Soviet apartment blocks from a perspective they are rarely seen from in the West: as communal living spaces, rather than Cold War ruin porn. She finds that these living arrangements created community ties of a kind that were rare in Western capitalist countries. Here’s an excerpt:

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…

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.

Image via LARB