Tol’iatti, Russia / Wikimedia Commons
Aeroflot and Pan Am
When Flying was First Class (1968) / Life Magazine, 07.26.1968
Finalized after many years of top-level negotiations, the launch of a direct New York-Moscow air route in 1968 signaled an early turn toward détente in the Cold War struggle. Aeroflot, the Soviet Union’s only airline, and Pan Am, the storied American carrier that had long served US government interests, were the designated carriers for this exclusive venture in peaceful coexistence. To be sure, the two airlines had been Cold War rivals since the 1950s competing for routes and influence in developing countries of the newly de-colonized world, but starting in 1968 they were transformed into business partners.
Sheremetevo Airport (1965) / From E. Vail’ev, Wikimedia Commons
Like the hotline that the US and USSR created after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the Moscow-New York route symbolized a desire for direct contact to ease tensions. But unlike the hotline that was designed to avert crises and little else, the air route encouraged a normalization of relations, which was the essence of détente. In the case of Aeroflot and Pan Am, such normalization took place not only at the diplomatic level, where the air route was negotiated, but was enacted by Soviet and American citizens who flew over the Iron Curtain as tourists, businessmen, and members of cultural and educational exchanges. In short, the airlines’ joint partnership broadened the number and variety of actors who played a role in advancing détente.
Worldport Terminal at Idlewild (1961) / Scott Hensen, Wikimedia Commons
Like any business partnership, Aeroflot and Pan Am had their rocky moments. Their competition for global influence in the Cold War remained a critical part of their joint history. And their direct flights between the US and USSR were temporarily suspended in the early 1980s when the countries entered a renewed Cold War chill after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Reagan administration’s aggressive military build up. But the two airlines also competed in the soft power realms of mass consumption, mobility, modernist design, and popular culture. Each airline touted its ability to extend jet travel to the masses eager for convenience, comfort, and an upwardly mobile way of life. Both airlines sought to meet and shape the tastes of an international flying public with ever increasing consumer expectations. And each airline’s respective terminals in New York and Moscow-built in the heyday of sleek modernist design-further promoted the modern lifestyle Aeroflot and Pan Am promised their passengers.
The TU-1004 / Wikimedia Commons
Pan Am and Aeroflot’s competitive partnership ended when the Soviet empire collapsed in December 1991, but not as might have been expected. That same month, the Pan Am empire also collapsed, after years of being unable to adapt to a rapidly changing airline industry that underwent deregulation. In contrast, Aeroflot re-emerged from the Soviet Union’s demise and the end of the Cold War as a decidedly leaner and commercially driven airline that competes today for passengers both domestically and on the world stage.
This is What I Gain! A Day by Train or an Hour by Plane (1961) / History in Aeroflot Posters
Countering the image of “collapse,” Aeroflot’s reincarnation suggests that certain Soviet institutions were able to reinvent themselves for the post-Soviet order. For its part, Pan Am now occupies a hallowed place in popular American memory for the romantic age of mid-century jet travel when seats were wider, service was better, and benevolent airlines looked after the country’s interests and not just the bottom line. Like Aeroflot’s Soviet afterlife, Pan Am’s story counters the grand narrative of American triumphalism at the end of the Cold War.
The Chinese Border
Conversations between Khrushchev and Mao (1959) / Wikimedia Commons
Once allies in the world-wide struggle against western imperialism, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China became embroiled during the 1960s in ideological controversy, political rivalry, and, towards the end of the decade, armed clashes along their lengthy common border. These hostilities between the two Communist giants had profound implications for both countries’ relations with the rest of the world, including other Communist-ruled states, popular insurgency movements, and the other superpower, the United States. Within the Soviet Union, members of the Politbiuro spent many a late night pondering how to deal with the challenges posed by their Chinese counterparts. Soviet citizens, many of whom regarded the Chinese as latter-day descendants of the Mongol hordes, meanwhile cowered at the thought of them pouring across the border and precipitating an all-out war.
Chinese Border Guards (1968) / From Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages, by Stefan R. Landsberger
The Sino-Soviet “dispute” emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s after negotiations involving Soviet military assistance to China bogged down over the question of nuclear weapons. To the Chinese, the Khrushchev administration’s reluctance to help the People’s Republic develop its atomic weapons program smacked of “big power chauvinism,” which, as relations worsened, was one of several accusations hurled against the Soviet leadership. They denounced the Soviet emphasis on “peaceful coexistence” with the capitalist world as kowtowing to the “paper tiger” of imperialism, considered de-Stalinization as “revisionism,” and, in Enver Hoxha, the leader of tiny Albania, found an ally among ruling Communist parties. For its part, the Soviet leadership criticized Mao Tse-tung for unbridled nationalism, “left-wing sectarianism,” and other ideological sins. Although somewhat abating after Khrushchev’s forced retirement in 1964, this war of words divided Communists throughout the world into pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions.
Stalin, Mao, and Khrushchev (1949) / Wikimedia Commons
In March 1969, tensions between the USSR and China erupted into clashes between regular military units over control of Damanskii Island (Chenpao Island to the Chinese), situated at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri rivers. Later in the year, clashes occurred further to the west along the Xinjiang-Kirghiz border. On August 28, 1969 Pravda called on China to give up its “absurd territorial claims” and warned that if war broke out, the Soviet government would not shrink from employing its nuclear arsenal. With China in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s intentions were difficult to gauge, but in October both sides agreed to reopen talks on resolving the border dispute. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union continued to increase its military forces along the Far Eastern border and to expand its Pacific fleet.
Crisis in Czechoslovakia
Left: Tanks in the streets, photo by Paul Goldsmith (1968) / Czech Center New York
Right: The fraternal peoples (1968) / Wikimedia Commons
“Socialism with a human face” was the slogan advanced by Alexander Dubcek to popularize the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s agenda for sweeping political reforms. Dubcek, a career party functionary who had risen to become head of the Slovak party organization, replaced Antonin Novotny as First Secretary in January 1968. Having presided over the party since 1953, Novotny had proven incapable of either stifling or co-opting creative intellectuals and student youth who had been animated by western New Left currents in this most culturally western of Soviet bloc countries. Dubcek’s “Action Program,” prepared by reformist theoreticians in the party, prefigured Gorbachev’s reforms two decades later. Calling for complete cultural freedom, economic reform based on the “socialist market,” and restrictions on the secret police, it provoked an outpouring of debate throughout the country.
Left: An unknown hero, by Josef Kouldeka (1968) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Students battle the tanks (1968) / Wikimedia Commons
In the forefront of the chaotic but optimistic and peaceful Prague Spring of 1968 were intellectuals and students who pushed beyond the limits set by the party. Workers and farmers were more cautious, but among them many seized the opportunity to press their demands through strikes, the formation of workers’ councils, and other actions. The Politbiuro in Moscow was none too pleased, especially as many Soviet intellectuals were following developments in Czechoslovakia with hopes that they would spread to the Soviet Union itself. In March Dubcek and his top associates were summoned to a meeting in Dresden with other Warsaw Pact leaders who expressed their fears of matters getting out of hand. It was, in a sense, already too late. Dubcek and other reformers within the party could not, even if they had wanted to, rein in an aroused public. On July 20-21 the Politbiuro approved preparations for a full-scale intervention by Warsaw Pact forces if Dubcek did not reverse his course. A last-ditch attempt to persuade him at a meeting in the little town of Cierna just over the border in Soviet Ukraine proved futile. The show of support for the Czechoslovaks by Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia during his state visit to Prague in early August was perhaps the last straw for the Soviet leadership. On August 17 the Politbiuro put the plan in motion to invade on August 20.
I am with you… (1968) / Wikimedia Commons
The invasion, captured on film and broadcast around the world, was a public relations disaster for the Soviet Union (even if in the United States it was overtaken within days by footage of the wild scenes of police attacking demonstrators at the Democratic Party’s National Convention in Chicago). What became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine — the assertion of the right and responsibility of Communist parties of fraternal socialist countries to intervene against “antisocialist degeneration” — was unpersuasive even among western Communists who generally condemned the invasion. Encountering angry crowds but no armed resistance, the several hundred-thousand invading Warsaw Pact forces settled in for the long haul. Although Dubcek was not removed from office until April 1969, the back of the reformist movement had been broken and with it the chances for socialism with a human face.
The Double Burden
To the Health of Our Dear Women!, by N. Lisogorskii (1963) / Moscow: Pravda
“The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins … against this petty housekeeping.” So did Lenin in 1919 chart the agenda for the establishment of cafeterias, nurseries, laundries and other facilities that would unburden women from domestic chores and free them to participate fully in the sphere of production. In the course of the 1920s and ’30s, the Soviet Union got its cafeterias and nurseries, albeit inadequate in number and frequently unsanitary and poorly staffed. Thanks to the depression of living standards and industry’s boundless need for workers, it also got women into the industrial workforce in unprecedented numbers. From the mid-1930s onwards, an officially sponsored cult of motherhood, buttressed by anti-abortion legislation, encouraged women to fulfill what Stalin termed the “great and honorable duty that nature has given” them. Urban women thus found themselves assuming the “double burden” (also known as the “double shift”) of waged work outside the home and the lion’s share of unpaid labor within it. Collective farm women meanwhile bore the triple burden of work in the collective farm, on the household’s private plots, and in the household itself.
Madonna and Child, by G. Iorsh (1970) / Moscow: Pravda
The double burden was the product of the planned economy’s exigencies but also a gendered division of labor among families that left men relatively free to pursue leisure activities and women responsible for child rearing, food acquisition and preparation, and other household duties. It was perpetuated by a vicious cycle: the gendered division of labor within the family fostered different forms of sociability among men and women which reinforced essentialist notions of their proclivities and capabilities. These notions in turn encouraged the clustering of women in such low-wage jobs as teaching, medical care, and clerical and sales work which contributed to different expectations at home.
Be Happy, Father, by E. Shukaev (1969) / Moscow: Pravda
What it was like to experience the double burden was poignantly conveyed in a work of fiction by Nataliia Baranskaia that appeared in the literary journal, Novyi mir, in 1969. The story, “A Week Like Any Other,” was told in diary fashion by the heroine, Olga Nikolaevna, a lab technician who lives over an hour away from work with her husband and two young children. The story begins with the line “I’m in a rush,” and proceeds through her harried week of dealing with deadlines at work, long lines at the shops and trolley bus stop, children catching colds at the badly run nursery school, and a husband who resents having to fetch the children and tells her she should give up her job. Representative of a new generation of Soviet urban women who could not rely on babushkas to look after their children, Olga somehow gets through the week. She thus ironically reinforced the stereotype of the self-sacrificing Soviet woman whose ability to bear the double burden earned her admiration and flowers on March 8 (International Women’s Day).
Left: The Signs of Difference, by G. Val’k (1969) / Moscow: Pravda
Right: Which one should we push?, by L.S. Samoilov (1965) / Moscow: Pravda
Soviet elders looked proudly at the youth of their country in 1968. Children in Paris were rampaging in anger; American kids were protesting Vietnam, experimenting with illegal drugs, and embarking on the sexual revolution; even young folk in socialist Prague were making rumbling noises about an open society; yet Soviet young people were quiescent, channeling their energies into healthy activities prescribed by the Komsomol, or other relatively harmless occupations.
Memories of Old, by V. Goriaev (1964) / Moscow: Pravda
The worries occupying young minds seem, in retrospect, remarkably tame. Soviet children were no longer subject to the depredations suffered by their parents, and the displacements caused by collectivization or war. They were the first Soviet generation to command the leisure and disposable income to make questions of style paramount. If the pages of the satirical journal Crocodile are an accurate gauge, then conflicts at the generation gap focused on youth fashions and the disinclination of young people to work.
How did you manage?, by E. Shukaev (1961) / Moscow: Izd-vo Pravda
Were things in fact so calm? In many respects yes, but stylistic bickering that seemed insubstantial could easily grow into deeper conflict. Authorities were extremely worried that the minor unorthodoxies of youth fashion signaled a more pervasive social illness. The desire for western consumer items such as clothing and music drew young people into the gray area of the second economy. In 1968 the most serious threat, the rock-n-roll music that was already shaking western cultures, was just peeking over the horizon. Soviet youth could hear the music over the Voice of America when it was not jammed, on records smuggled in from the West, or even on underground recordings. That year in a Moscow school, a group of boys led by the unknown Andrei Makarevich were forming a kitchen band with homemade electric instruments, a band they called The Kids (name in English). Within the year they would rename the band Time Machine (Машина времени in Russian), and would become the first super-group of the unstoppable Russian rock movement.
Exiled Peoples Return
Proletarians of All Nations, Unite!, by Nikolai Kogout (1920) / International Institute of Social History
An axiom of Soviet nationality policy, enshrined in the 1936 constitution, was that a “people” was a cohesive social grouping sharing a common cultural background (most often embodied by a language), and some territorial expression, a homeland. Although the policy sometimes led to the creation of artificial entities to conform to the axiom, as when the Jewish Autonomous Region was created in Birobidzhan, in many cases it was progressive, allowing small peoples (narodnosti in the Soviet terminology) some degree of cultural and political autonomy within Soviet reality.
Contradictions in the principle accumulated over the decades, leading to unexpected crises. Homeland can mean many things to many people. Freed by the October Revolution from the enforced Pale of Settlement, driven by Nazi extermination policies from the Ukrainian and Belorussian lands, and a vital presence in Soviet city life, where they experienced both satisfying integration and dismaying anti-Semitism, Soviet Jews found themselves once again facing an array of unsatisfactory choices. Immigration exerted an ever growing pull. Jews and other Soviet citizens who applied for exit visas were, in 1968, a small group subject to harsh reprisals. Applicants found themselves stripped of employment, sometimes housing and other necessities, and forced to wait years while deprived of most rights. Many were driven by the age-old dream of the homeland of Zion, now a reality in Israel; yet the large majority that preferred immigration to the capitalist West suggests that economic and other hardships were no less a factor. The Soviet government often seemed ambivalent about its Jewish citizens, distrusting them, yet making their exit difficult. The Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967 which saw Soviet policies aligned with the Arabs, only exacerbated the distrust. Most bitter was the fate of the so-called “refuseniks,” applicants who were refused exit visas, but whose civil rights were nevertheless revoked. When new policies in the late 1980s made emigration easier, Jews left the Soviet Union and then Russia in a massive exodus.
The Tatars felt little ambivalence about their Crimean homeland, where they had settled as part of the Mongol Horde, and remained when the region passed to Ottoman, then Russian and finally Soviet rule. Uprooted by NKVD troops in 1944 under suspicion of collusion with the Germans, and exiled to Uzbekistan, the Tatars were not even allowed to return in 1957 when other unjustly exiled peoples were given back their homelands. Although the Supreme Soviet did rehabilitate the Tatars in 1967, it did not resolve the most difficult issue, what to do about the former Tatars lands, now long occupied by Russian and Ukrainian families. Tatar anger came to a head in April 1968 in public protests in Uzbekistan, which were not quelled by mass arrests. The right to return was restored only in post-Soviet times.
The Limits of Expression
Brief Encounters, by Oleg Vasiliev (1968) / Wikimedia Commons
Two films released in 1968 helped define the boundaries of cultural expression for the next generation. Kira Muratova’s Brief Encounters, filmed in the Odessa Film Studio, was shelved by censors for “moral” objections. Although the censor did not state the objections explicitly, the film would not be seen for twenty years. Perhaps it greatest sin was its mood of ambiguity. The film chronicles the efforts of Nadya, played by Nina Ruslanova, to attract the attention of a famous geologist, Maksim. Played by a young Vladimir Vysotskii in one of his first great roles, he is a shiftless but compelling man, made attractive by a love for freedom and open space that also renders him incapable of permanent attachment. The two women competing for his attentions, one tough and vibrant, the other submissive and less confident of her charms, find some comfort in their own growing relationship. Muratova herself played the role of a local bureaucrat who gets to the geologist first. The absence of any point of political controversy led most to assume that the film was shelved for the same psychological richness and ambiguity that made it so powerful.
The uncontested hit of the 1968 was Galdai’s delightful comedy, Diamond Arm. The plot is light and silly, but moves along briskly with a touch of parody and the acting gifts of two audience favorites, Iurii Nikulin and Andrei Mironov. Nikulin plays a bumbler, an average Soviet citizen who goes on an overseas cruise (in itself an unusual opportunity). Onboard he is mistaken for a smuggler by the villains, who use the cast on his arm to stash illegal diamonds. A series of comic misadventures ensues, culminating when the good guy Nikulin goes to the police, who use him and his broken arm as bait for the criminals intent on recovering their contraband. Still watched by Russian audiences with delight, the movie was as apolitical as Brief Encounters, but challenged audiences with none of the ambiguity. Wise directors would take this path for the next twenty years.
It was often difficult to know why a particular film was banned by the state censors. Complex treatment of subjects that official propaganda had rendered one-dimensional was often a cause. This was the case of another two films banned that would disappear for twenty years, Aleksei German’s Trial on the Road and Aleksandr Askoldov’s Commissar. Trial dealt with the question of collaborators during the Second World War, and the heroine of Commissar is female commissar during the Civil War who gives illegitimate birth while harbored by a Jewish family. Censors had broad powers to regulate the cinema, needing to provide only the simplest explanation for their decisions. Artists were forced to avoid any possible intervention by censors. Many learned simply not to raise controversy of any sort, bringing on a period of cultural “stagnation” that ended only with the policy of glasnost.
The Responsive Economy
Left: Workhorses (rabotiagi), by L.V. Soiferts (1964) / Moscow: Pravda
Right: Reorganization, by B. Savkov (1968) / Moscow: Pravda
Once a rural economy in the throes of forced industrialization, the Soviet Union boasted a complex modern economy by the mid-1960s. Alongside kolkhozes and traditional heavy industries, economic planners now managed a variety of sophisticated enterprises that demanded educated workers and technological innovation, and served an evermore complex population. Growth could no longer come from forcing higher targets on industrial behemoths such as Magnitogorsk. The most desirable growth was in the consumer sector (light industry), which needed to be responsive to shifting tastes and standards. Aleksei Kosygin, who became prime minister as part of the triumvirate that succeeded Khrushchev, introduced a series of reforms in 1965 designed to make the economy more flexible and responsive. Enterprises now received their planning targets in terms of goods sold, not goods produced; and to encourage efficient investment, they were charged a small interest fee for capital funds and equipment, and allowed to reinvest their profits as they wished.
Left: Complaint Book, by B. Savkov (1969) / Moscow: Pravda
Right: Does your enterprise need a supply agent?, by A. Tsvetkov (1964) / Moscow: Pravda
Several factors undermined the reforms. Although they received latitude in investing capital and setting targets, managers had no ability to fix prices, effectively depriving them of flexible response. Managers often turned to unofficial middle-men (nicknamed “tolkachi,” or pushers) to steer around the impediments of central planning. Human factors weighed heaviest against change. Implicit in the reforms was an improvement in the quality of labor, and tightening of labor discipline, yet in a society where, according to popular opinion, “they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work,” workplace discipline seemed a violation of the social contract. The quality of production remained low, and the service ethos necessary for a consumer economy could not develop. Reform also demanded technological innovation, implying a degree of intellectual autonomy for an intelligentsia that was increasingly prone to question the Soviet system. Thus the very forces that made economic reform necessary also made it difficult.
Left: Plan Production, by G. Val’k (1966) / Moscow: Pravda
Right: Director of the Enterprise as Imagined by the Ministry Nannies, by K. Eliseev (1962) / Wikimedia Commons
The failure of reform did not remove consumer demand, which turned to the booming second economy for satisfaction. This shadow economy consisted of goods smuggled in from abroad, and goods and services produced by Soviet citizens, some in underground facilities, more often by workers moonlighting during or after work hours. A huge but incalculable portion of total economic activity, the second economy was officially illegal, yet it so pervaded Soviet life that nobody could avoid participation. An unfortunate side effect of the second economy was that most citizens were forced to engage in activities undermining the Soviet system, which fed a cynicism that eventually destroyed popular trust in authority. Actions deemed normal in most societies were subject to prosecution in the Soviet Union; and the entrepreneurial spirit was channeled into mafia-like enterprises that spawned an epidemic of criminality.
The Russian Village
Left: Before the Village Dance, by Igor Kugach (1961) / Artkhronika
Right: To the City for Education, by M. Kugach (1965) / Moscow Museum of Russian Impressionaism
Longing for what no longer was, and perhaps had never been, writers and nationalist intellectuals looked to the Russian village to recapture the heart of Russian life in the midst of spiritual degradation. Citing values such as community responsibility, collective work ethic, and family cohesion centered on the matriarch, these thinkers bemoaned the ruin of village life by the socialist state and its policies. Many shared certain values with the ruling Communist Party, including patriotism and subordination to authority, and a distaste for western-oriented dissidents, so much so that outsiders often labeled them conservatives; yet the mood captured such disparate thinkers as Valentin Rasputin and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Popular Russian nationalism, which was very significant, was perhaps most clearly, if ambiguously embodied by actors such as Vasilii Shukshin and Vladimir Vysotskii, who maintained a tenuous relationship with official values.
Left: Collective Farm, by Vladimir Firsov (1978) / Russian Art Gallery
Right: Rumor about feed, by Ogorodhnikov (1989) / Wikimedia Commons
While intellectuals and other city folk were praising the benefits of rural life, peasants were abandoning the kolkhoz in droves. Most worrisome was the fact that migration was concentrated on the young and the skilled, who had the wherewithal to reach the city, leaving the old and unskilled to stay on unproductive farms. Lack of opportunity, lack of entertainment, lack of amenities and lack of consumer goods all contributed to the rise in migration. The party leadership attempted to improve peasant lives by easing harsh regulations first imposed under Stalin. Where once peasants received social welfare benefits from the collective farm, and were paid in “trudodni” (labor days), representing a portion of their farm’s production, their bondage was loosened by becoming eligible for pensions and other social benefits and receiving a guaranteed wage. The state also provided huge subsidies to the agricultural economy. Yet peasant families were inspired to send their young people to cities by the very measure designed to keep them in the village, the deprivation of passports, which made it virtually impossible for rural folk to reside in cities. Called “the second serfdom” because it tied peasants to the land as serfdom had, the lack of passports made the village a future to be avoided.
Third World Friendships
Good Morning, Africa!, by O. Masliakov (1960) / Wikimedia Commons
During the 1950s and 1960s the Soviet Union significantly increased its influence in what began to be referred to as the Third World. This broad arena of Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States consisted of the countries of Asia and Africa, many of which were struggling to achieve or had recently received their independence from colonial rule, as well as parts of Latin America. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the close ties that the Castro government subsequently established with the Soviet Union was only the most spectacular gain in this respect. Even while the Chinese Communists increasingly challenged Soviet pretensions to lead the anti-imperialist cause throughout the world, the socialist orientation of many Third World leaders and national liberation movements and the willingness of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev administrations to provide them with military and economic assistance led to a number of foreign policy successes.
Left: Castro in Moscow (1963) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: International Friendship, by A.E. Tekhmenev (1972) / Russian Art Gallery
The Soviet Union was the main supplier of military and other forms of aid to the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnam-based National Liberation Front in their long and ultimately successful struggle to oust the American-backed South Vietnamese government and achieve the unification of the country. Elsewhere in Asia, its role in bringing about the end to military conflict between India and Pakistan in 1966 earned the Soviet Union high accolades. Less successful was Soviet support for the Arab states that went to war with Israel. Israeli victories in the Six Day War (June 1967) and the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 were followed by Anwar Sadat’s reorientation of Egyptian foreign policy towards accommodation with Israel and reliance on western assistance, leaving the Soviet Union without an effective client state in the Middle East. Subsequently, the Soviet Union’s credentials as friend of the oppressed peoples of the Third World were strengthened inter alia by its support of the new Marxist regime of military officers in Ethiopia, the beleaguered post-independence governments in Angola and Mozambique, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 marked the outer limits of this forward thrust.
Left: Order of Friendship of Peoples / Orders and Medals of the Soviet Union
Right: Knowledge for All, by V. Karashev (1972) / Moscow: Sovietskii khudozhnik
An important dimension of the Soviet Union’s influence in the Third World was the establishment in 1960 of the University of the Friendship of Peoples on the southern outskirts of Moscow. A year after its founding, the university adopted the name of Patrice Lumumba, the first president of the Republic of the Congo who was kidnapped and murdered by separatists from the province of Katanga in September 1960. Offering free tuition, accommodation, and medical care plus a modest stipend, the university attracted students from over eighty developing countries. It also contributed significantly to the colorization of Moscow. Indeed, for most Muscovites, Lumumba University’s students were the first people they had encountered from relatively exotic parts of the world. These encounters were overwhelmingly friendly, although unpleasant incidents derived from Muscovites’ naive racism and mutual incomprehension did occur.
Revolution Street, Tol’iatti / Wikimedia Commons
What distinguished the Soviet cities of the sixties — not Soviet cities in the 1960s but the ones that were created (more or less) ex nihilo during that decade? Did everyday life resemble that of other, older cities, did residents enjoy a better quality of life associated with everything being up-to-date and the product of the scientific-technological revolution then at its (rhetorical) zenith, or was there a darker side to these cities without pasts?
Let us consider the middle Volga city of Tol’iatti, best known as the hometown of VAZ, the Volga Automobile Factory founded in 1966. Named after the long-time Italian Communist Party (PCI) leader, Palmiro Togliatti, who died in 1964, Tol’iatti previously was known as Stavropol’. In the 1950s, the long somnolent town received a jolt — it literally was displaced — by construction of the massive Kuibyshev (now Zhiguli) Hydroelectric Station that spanned the river to generate electricity for expanded industrial production. By the mid-1960s, the siting of several petrochemical plants nearby had boosted the number of residents in the town to some 150,000, but also the toxicity of the air they breathed. The building of the giant car factory to turn out Ladas (the Soviet version of the Fiat 124) utterly transformed Tol’iatti. Indeed, it was accompanied by an entirely new district — Avtograd (Auto Town) or more formally, the Auto Factory District — designed by a Moscow-based group of architects and urban planners under the direction Boris Rubanenko.
Capable of accommodating upwards of a quarter million people, Avtograd’s residential buildings represented the Soviet adaptation of international modernism, the dominant aesthetic of urban architecture from the mid-twentieth century onwards. Linearity, standardization (tipizatsiia) of large ferroconcrete paneling for the exteriors of the nine-, twelve- and sixteen-story tower blocks, and the strict application of the principle of a graded system of services applicable to the entire ensemble of superblocks or micro-districts (mikroraiony) were made possible by the absence of any private property encumbrances. Thus, like Naberezhnye Chelny and other Soviet new towns of the 1960s and ’70s, Tol’iatti’s Avtograd presented Soviet planners with a supreme opportunity to start over from scratch and build a genuinely “Socialist City” (sotsgorod). In this respect, as well as in its utter dependence for social services and cultural activities on the industrial giant that was its raison d’etre it harkened back to an earlier era of new town construction, the Stalin era, which saw the building of Zaporozh’e (Zaporizhzhia), Magnitogorsk, Komsomol’sk-na-Amure, and the original Avtograd outside Nizhni-Novgorod.
Map of Tol’iatti / Wikimedia Commons
Auto workers and members of their family (who often were also auto workers) dominated the new Tol’iatti. As was common with other new towns, many had been recruited to construct the factory and stayed on, attracted by the prospect of a new apartment and perhaps even a car. They were overwhelmingly young. Indeed, it was common knowledge in the 1970s that at 26, the average age of Tol’iatti’s residents was the youngest of any city in the entire USSR. Aside from the youthfulness and lack of indigenousness of the population, the Brave New World character of the cityscapes “deprived the city of an atmosphere of warmth and humanity” (to quote one resident) and created a good deal of anomie. In Avtograd, a novel by Vasilii Volochilov published in 1994 but set in the early 1980s, a temporary resident about to be dropped off at one of the tower blocks says:
Do you know what I think of when I approach these colossal structures? I think that people lose any sense of themselves, become small insects, nonentities, actually nobody. Perhaps the builders specially built them with this subtext so that everyone living here and everyone entering them is turned into a slave deprived of any rights and vested with the obligation only to work.
This combination of a new town thrown up with great haste (or “heroic intensity”) and the recruitment of a workforce that, for the most part, was new to urban life and otherwise lacked social moorings outside the workplace made for a rather volatile residential environment. Indeed, the local archives are filled with cases before the comrades courts of defacing public property, disturbing the peace and other acts of “hooliganism” for which the city became notorious. Theft of auto parts and eventually entire cars from VAZ’s lots also marked the city as a “crime capital” especially in the post-Soviet era when turf wars among rival gangs for control of the distribution of cars claimed an unknown but not insignificant number of lives.