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Sharing Underwear, Living Revolution: The Urban Communes of Revolutionary Russia

BlogAdmin10 April 2014

 

'In the Commune'. Krasnoe studentchetsvo, 1930

‘In the Commune’. Krasnoe studentchetsvo, 1930

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. (more…)

History is too important to be left to politicians

Sean LHanley10 July 2013

Sudeten-Gedenktafel (Linz)

Photo: Christoph Waghubinger/Wikimedia Commons

Czech debates about the forced removal of the Sudeten Germans exercise a powerful fascination, but they are refracted unevenly in historical writing in English writes guest contributor  Martin D. Brown.

 Seasoned Czech Republic-watchers will be well aware of the paucity of coverage provided by English language sources. With some exceptions, on the sporadic occasions when the country does make an appearance it tends to be in stories about political corruption, natural disasters, or the Czechs’ fondness for beer.

 This is nothing new – see Neville Chamberlain’s comments, circa 1938 – and the obvious solution is to read Czech, although, even this approach is not always straightforward, as was revealed by a dispute that arose during the Czech Presidential elections in early 2013.

 The elections, a contest between foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg and former prime minister Miloš Zeman (who won), proved ill-tempered, and included a heated televised dispute over the legacy of the forced removal of around two and half million Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after 1945. Intriguingly this just happens to be one subject that has garnered a fair amount of English language coverage in recent decades.

 Superficially this was a clash between opposing sides of the Czech political spectrum: Schwarzenberg, on the centre-right decried the ‘expulsions’ as illegal, unjust, against all the accepted norms of international law and argued they had contributed to the success of the communist coup in 1948; while to the left, Zeman defended the ‘transfers’ as a necessary response to the Sudetens’ collaboration with the Nazis, legal under international law and part of the constitutional   foundations of the modern Czech state. Particularly noteworthy was the way both candidates expressed their respective positions through the terms ‘expulsion’ (vyhnání) and ‘transfer’ (odsun)  to denote their approval or disapproval for the process.

 Anyone following this spat would have been left with little idea which position was the more accurate, and turning to Czech sources wouldn’t have offered any immediate answers. (more…)

Borders and what they do: lessons from a lost Habsburg province

Sean LHanley3 May 2013

Contested Frontiers in the Balkans-p17oi0ls081o7l132i1l2ld101al9Why write about a province that has long ceased to be and is currently divided between three states?  Irina Marin explains why she wrote about the historic Habsburg province of the Banat of Temesvár

Well-hidden behind the title Contested Frontiers in the Balkans: Ottoman and Habsburg Rivalries in Eastern Europe is a monograph of the Banat of Temesvár or, by its Romanian name, Banatul Timișoarei. Why write a book about a historical province that has long ceased to be one and is currently peacefully divided between Romania, Serbia and Hungary? Outside the region and a narrow circle of historians, the Banat is a classic Ruritania, a non-existent land for all the reality it has for outsiders.

Everybody will have heard of Transylvania, Bosnia or Kosovo, but I doubt the Banat of Temesvár is at all known in the English-speaking world. Even when events take place there which are worthy of public attention, people usually refer to the present-day countries rather than the historical province, even if the name ‘Banat’ is still in local usage. So why write a history of this seemingly obscure province?

First of all, because no such history is available in English. The region deserves putting on the map of Anglo-Saxon historical scholarship. This, however, is not a strong enough reason and does not forestall the Ruritanian accusation. We instead should perhaps turn the question around and ask what makes a province worthy of interest. Sadly, more often than not the answer is blood and violence: whether blood sucked by vampires (as in Transylvania) or massacres and ethnic cleansing (as in Bosnia, Kosovo). Extremes of violence should, of course, never be ignored or left unexplored and unexplained.

The problem arises when one concentrates exclusively on such places visited by unprecedented violence. It creates the impression that nothing but ethnic violence comes out of Eastern Europe and fuels myths of  ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ as characteristic of the region.

I have therefore stopped at the Banat of Temesvár as a relatively peaceful province, with just as many ethnicities and religious denominations as these, but if anything dogged by myths of harmonious ethnic cohabitation rather than the perennial ancient-hatred myth. My new book is not intended to solve bibliographical disputes, count populations or work out who was there first. It is instead a historical meditation on the destructive and creative effect of ebbing and flowing borders on an ethnically variegated population, who lived and died under several waves of imperial rule, under nation-states and under communist and post-communist regimes. (more…)