Sharing Underwear, Living Revolution: The Urban Communes of Revolutionary Russia
By Sarah J Young, on 10 April 2014
Andy Willimott writes about the self-styled urban communes of revolutionary Russia, explaining how these activist groups made revolution part of their lives, practiced equality, and tried to be the change they wanted to see in the world.
The October Revolution of 1917 marked the birth of the first avowedly socialist state in history. As the earliest posters, fliers, decrees, and declarations appeared promising radical change, many contemplated what revolution would mean for them and their daily lives. Visions of a fairer, collective society, based upon the belief that human relations could be rationally reorganised, were frequently espoused by Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership. In turn, the Bolshevik press readily equated “class struggle” with the rejection not only of existing political and economic elites, but bourgeois norms, habits, and mores. Even when referring to the dense economic theorisations of Das Kapital, Lenin had long insisted that Marx’s assessment was rooted in “flesh and blood” – highlighting “everyday aspects” that had to be overcome if communism was to succeed.
Inspired by these messages and the opportunities of revolution, some activists set about putting into practice their own conceptions of what it meant to be part of this new world. As workers threw out their bosses and teenagers challenged the authority of their parents – all in the name of revolution – urban activists were re-thinking the way they conducted their everyday lives. In the tenements and basic housing of the early Soviet landscape, for instance, some young revolutionaries were dramatically re-imagining the home. Innocuous features of domestic life – from internal walls to personal ornaments – were associated with “bourgeois individualism”, as activists sought to construct new domestic and social relations.
At the forefront of this domestic assault were the self-styled “urban communes”. Essentially the product of like-minded individuals looking to share space, resources, materials, income, and, most important of all, modern socialist visions, the urban communes were cohabitational units run upon a popular understanding of socialist revolution. They embraced one of the key tenets of Marxism: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” Most adopted a “common pot” into which members placed a share or all of their earnings. Others took the cause one step further, often sharing clothes and even underwear. Founding agreements or “domestic charters”, signed by all members, dictated the parameters of a socialist lifestyle, including systems of collective voting, the promotion of self-betterment activities, as well as a commitment to social and political agitation.
Groups living in this manner, it was eagerly reported in 1918, made the most of the limited accommodation available and released domestic life from “the bourgeois yoke”. During the early years of the October Revolution, commune activists were limited in number; a select group of a few hundred activists across Petrograd (renamed Leningrad in 1924) and Moscow. By the end of the 1920s, fuelled by a reinvigorated discourse on collectivism and the promotion of rank-and-file initiative in the build up to the First Five-Year Plan, their numbers grew dramatically. One Soviet newspaper estimated that there were up to 50,000 persons attached to the communes by the end of the decade, and numbers continued to grow over the next couple of years. Ultimately, like so many local revolutionary initiatives, the urban commune movement would be co-opted within the Soviet apparatus under Stalin, as officials tried to professionalise and incorporate rank-and-file activities. But the story of the urban communes, and more specifically the tale of their emergence, reveals the dynamism of revolutionary development. Theirs is a messy tale of interpretation, appropriation, and revolutionary practice at ground level.
Some of the first cohabitational units were formed by students in the dormitories of Soviet higher education. In 1919, a small group of enthusiasts based at the Polytechnical Institute, Petrograd, formed their commune in a single dormitory room, pooling money and establishing a roster system to ensure that all household tasks were shared equally between men and women. In these cramped conditions it was also necessary to demarcate zones for certain activities and adhere to a structured schedule so as to avoid conflict and mess. The communal table, for instance, had to serve as a hub for study as well as a base for shared meals and group activities. What might seem like rather trivial concerns were firmly understood in terms of “socialist management” and “modern practice”. The activists of this commune read, understood, and internalised the Revolution through these daily struggles. Tangible acts, such as the peaceable sharing of space and facilities, brought Marxist visions to life. Similarly, in 1923, a member of the another Petrograd commune, a student by the name of Mai, reported that she and her fellow activists had formed a cohabitational group that monitored and enforced equality. They each allocated 30% of their student stipend to the common pot. This went towards food, maintenance, and collective activities. Included in their expenditure was the establishment of their own “Red Corner” – an area, first seen in Soviet workers’ clubs, dedicated to reading and study.
While these groups looked to establish internal discipline, their endeavours were not meant to function in isolation. Among other things, collective trips to the cinema and participation in local revolutionary agitation campaigns were a visible expression of one’s modern, socialist credentials. Within the dormitory environment, surrounded by other students and, in some cases, non-revolutionary teaching staff, commune activists were making a series of ideological statements. The communes offered these young idealists a way to write themselves into the historical process, while challenging those that seemed to disagree with their convictions. Rallying behind certain campaigns, while rejecting and even objecting to others, the actions of the student communes actually helped to shape the contours of revolution within the university environment. In their wake, local revolutionary representatives felt obliged to take stock and even promote their example as part of a “cultural revolution” within the dormitory and wider society.
Outside the student dormitory, activists and radical workers formed communes within the apartments and factory accommodation blocks requisitioned in the name of the proletariat. Here, everything from “who makes the breakfast?” to “how should a socialist conduct romanic and sexual relations?” was up for debate. In Moscow, groups such as the simply named “commune of ten” were often formed by activists keen to advance on the ideological mission of the Communist Youth League (Komsomol). Frequently adapting their views, they discussed how they might stand as exemplary figures of the Revolution and promote a new socialist way of life. Frustrated by the slow place of change in the early-to-mid 1920s, an increasing number of communes formed with the express intention of pushing the revolutionary agenda of local Komsomol and Party bodies. The collective ideals they read about in the newspapers did not always match reality. In some cases, it was thought that the local Komsomol cells were not engaging in the right struggles. Just as the student communes pressed revolutionary imperatives within the dormitory, so groups such as the “commune of ten” promoted new collective working habits within the factory that employed its members. They thought that greater comradely consciousness and team work would improve efficiency, while spreading the cause and culture of socialism among the general workforce. In their view, commune activists were the cadre of the agitational front, attempting to take the lead on the everyday issues that officials and local representatives were still debating.
Now, reflecting on their actions, it would be wrong to suggested that the urban communes were the leaders of revolution. Indeed, it is hardly surprising that despite their self-perceptions, the communes could prove inconsistent and capricious. Their actions were often disconnected and spontaneous, reacting to localised concerns and experiences. It should also be noted that the communes antagonised many of their peers with their abrasive and self-righteous attitudes. Like all activist developments, they could both inspire and divide. All of which may explain why the communes never received full support of the higher echelons. But, at the same time, their impatient actions, personal determination, and interaction with ideology reveal a fuller picture of everyday revolutionary construction. They help to show how grand revolutionary imperatives were internalised within Soviet society. On occasion the example of the communes helped to conceive the manner by which revolutionary and state imperatives came into being at the ground level, revealing an array of voices and variables involved in the process of revolutionary development. In other words, the communes show that Soviet socialism was more than the arbitrary worldview of a Bolshevik elite imposed upon the unsuspecting masses; the Revolution was a living process.
It is now well established within our historiographical literature that the October Revolution represented more than political upheaval. Building on the messages of a revolutionary intelligentsia and the ideology of Marxism, it called for a new kind of state and society. It looked to establish a new civilisation which stood in opposition to the established practices of bourgeois society, capitalism, religion, and tradition. While the Bolsheviks would strengthen their hold on political power between the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly (6 January 1918) and the successful resistance of all official opposition by the end of the Civil War (circa 1921-22), modern revolution – the process of breaking and making the surrounding world – remained an ongoing project. This was a project that beckoned an array of popular experiences and a degree of revolutionary indeterminacy that we are only just beginning to appreciate.
The Soviet urban communes remind us that people will often seek to interpret, navigate and carve out their own political identities in a world that is chaotic and messy. They put a spotlight on the lived experience of revolution.
Andy Willimott is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at UCL-SSEES. His book, Living the Revolution (forthcoming with Oxford University Press), charts the full history of the urban communes.
Some of the ideas in this contribution are expanded in: ‘Everyday Revolution: Making the Urban Communes’ Russia’s Great War and Revolution, 1914-1922; The Home Front, eds. C. Read, A. Lindenmeyr & P. Waldron (Slavica: Bloomington, IN), in press.
Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.