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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…)

Can Russia Modernise? An economist’s perspective

Sean LHanley20 March 2014

ICan Russia Modernise Thumbnailn her 2013 book Can Russia Modernise? Alena Ledeneva picked out key types of networks that make up Sistema:  Russia’s complex, ambiguous and sometimes surprisingly effective systems of informal governance. In the last contribution to a ‘mini-symposium’  Theocharis Grigoriadis assesses the book’s arguments from an economist’s perspective, suggesting that Ledeneva understands the durability of sistema as a series of trade-offs that reduce collective welfare. 

In her seminal book on informal politics and governance in post-Soviet Russia, Can Russia Modernise? Sistema, Power Networks, and Informal Governance , Alena Ledeneva puts forward a theory of networked governance that relativises the significance of formalised vertical structures and hierarchical decision-making for understanding Russian politics.

 Ledeneva’s theory makes a unique contribution to political science and sociology and deals with following themes in relation to Russian politics and society:

  1. Continuities of power networks under central planning and capitalism;
  2. Sistema as a form of networked governance in authoritarian regimes;
  3. The transformation of the St. Petersburg circle into the inner sistema of Russian politics;
  4. The prospects for societal modernisation under Putin.

 While blat networks in socialism facilitated the provision of consumer goods circumventing the formal absence of marketplaces, power networks in post-socialism involved the provision of public goods such as security, justice, and healthcare. The author suggests that market transitions in the former Soviet Union preserved more elements from the economic organization of central planning than we might want to admit, both in terms of people in power and economic practices.

 As Ledeneva argues, the analysis of informal networks matters, because it is essential to trace the effects of friendships and close relationships on ministerial appointments, judicial decisions and corporate deals. The identification of their existence per se has major theoretical significance, but does not explain current developments in Russian politics. Ledeneva suggests that while continuities in networked governance between socialism and post-socialism exist, what differentiates Putin’s Russia is the even wider spread of informal rules and even higher informational asymmetry between those insider and those outsider a power network. In this sense, Putin’s sistema is at least partially – if not fully – a reversion to the Soviet status quo ante.

 The Russian sistema is a set of public and private networks that manages public wealth and delivers public goods, thus determining the magnitude of its members’ rent-seeking strategies. While the sistema combines both public and private elements in its enforcement strategies, the hierarchical predominance of public over private interests and institutions is indisputable.

This is how, according to Ledeneva, Putin’s sistema has redefined the Russian public domain. (more…)

Can Russia Modernise? The author’s perspective

Sean LHanley19 March 2014

Can Russia Modernise ThumbnailIn her 2013 book Can Russia Modernise? Alena Ledeneva picked out key types of networks that make up Sistema:  Russia’s complex, ambiguous and sometimes surprisingly effective system of informal governance. In the final part of a three-part ‘mini-symposium’ the author reflects on and responds to critical assessments of the book.

The criticisms made by Katharina Bluhm and by Geoffrey Hosking are both valid and valuable. In my response I will attempt to clarify my arguments, where I can, and call for further research, where I cannot.

 How do we define sistema? Sistema stands for the network-based informal governance system backing up the formal facades of power. I agree with my critics’ point that sistema is a runaway target. My method was to rely on respondents’ perceptions of it. But they often varied a lot, as in the fable about the elephant and the seven blind men.  There are a range of definitions in the glossary of the book. I pieced together a detailed ethnography of sistema, but conceptualising sistema proved elusive.

 The Soviet writer Fazil Iskander has described the pressure of sistema as follows

 Imagine that you had to share a room with an aggressive madman all your life. Moreover, you also had to play chess with him. One the one hand, you had to play so that you would not win and anger him with your victory; on the other, you had to play so subtly that he would not suspect that you allowed him to beat you.

 When the ‘madman’ disappears this precious skill and the life-long experience of survival with a madman turns out to be redundant. Sistema reveals its features mostly to those who feel pressurised or victimised by it, rather than to its beneficiaries (President Putin is one of latter at the moment, but his memoirs will be an invaluable source on sistema one day, just as President Gorbachev’s ones are now).

 So I interviewed people who in some sense had exited sistema, distanced themselves or had time for reflection (I describe this ‘slow cooking’ methodology in a recent SSEES working paper. Distance from sistema enhanced their ability to articulate – as happened with understanding of the Soviet system after its collapse – and provided a useful point of comparison (especially if people had a chance to live elsewhere). (more…)

Can Russia Modernise? A historian’s perspective

Sean LHanley18 March 2014

Can Russia Modernise ThumbnailIn her 2013 book Can Russia Modernise? Alena Ledeneva picked out key types of networks that make up Sistema:  Russia’s complex, ambiguous and sometimes surprisingly effective systems of informal governance. In the second part of a three-part ‘mini-symposium’ Geoffrey Hosking assesses the book and its arguments from a historian’s perspective.

 This is a very good book, but it shares some of the characteristics of the system it describes.  One thinks one has grasped an important point, but then on the next page it turns out that point is not always valid, its operation is subtly influenced by other aspects of the system.

I would see sistema as ‘the way to get things done’, the allocation of power and resources in order to get things done.  It is a system of personal relationships, accepted practices and codes of behaviour (poniatiia), not formulated or laid down explicitly but generally understood.  It centres on Putin as President (and did even when he was Prime Minister:  persons are more important than institutions), but his actual power within it is not unlimited.  He is locked into it and his freedom of action is constantly circumscribed by it.

 In this sense it confirms Foucault’s dictum about power operating along several vectors:  downwards, but also upwards and sideways.  Its operation is intangible:  there is often no need for direct instructions or commands, because people know how they are expected to behave.  Much depends on loyalty and trust, but trust which is limited and instrumental.  A trusts B for certain purposes, but not more than that: I trust him because I know him well, his strengths and weaknesses, and what he is good at doing; perhaps I also have some kompromat on him.  This is also forced trust, because there is no real alternative.

Alena Ledeneva identifies distinct networks around Putin: 1. an inner circle, which is  agenda setting where there  is daily or regular, frequent contact; 2. core contacts for the implementation of policy –  people who are well known from institutional contact, and trusted to get things done without frequent contact.  3.  useful friends who are similar, but with emphasis on relationships formed in youth, who are useful to get things done or trouble-shoot problems, but who will expect in return to be offered opportunities to make money; and  4. mediated contacts used for getting things done locally or at a lower institutional level.  Essentially these are patron-client networks of various types.  However, it should be noted, that patron-client networks differ from authoritarian ones in that clients need to get something out of them.  (more…)

Can Russia Modernize? A sociologist’s perspective

Sean LHanley17 March 2014

Can Russia Modernise ThumbnailIn her 2013 book Can Russia Modernise? Alena Ledeneva picked out key types of networks that make up sistema:  Russia’s complex, ambiguous and sometimes surprisingly effective system of informal governance. In the first part of a three-part ‘mini-symposium’,  Katharina Bluhm assesses the book and its arguments from a sociologist‘s perspective.

Alena Ledeneva is the author of several books all of which centre on informal economic and governance practices in Russia. Her three monographs Russia’s Economy of Favours (1998), How Russia Really Works (2006), and Can Russia Modernise? (2013), can be read as a trilogy. In Russia’s Economy of Favours the centre of attention was the everyday exchange systems of normal people, while in How Russia Really Works Ledeneva’s focus shifts towards business and the asset stripping that takes place through complex inter-firm relationships. Her newest book explores Russia’s power networks and systems of informal governance or sistema.

The 2006 and 2013 books share one particularly important question: Can Russia modernize? In How Russia Really Works Ledeneva asks how Russia’s unwritten rules can be changed, or whether in fact they can. Her answer is laced with scepticism. She points to the fact that over the past decade, actors have fought bitterly over the rules of the game: for example the support for shock-therapy of Western aid programmes and advisers aimed at the rapid installation of a new market economy, or the foreign investors who have tried to introduce Western business practices being studied in Russian business schools today. Small entrepreneurs have called for more transparency in the way business is done.

Russia is now a member of the World Trade Organisation, and Putin once called for a ‘dictatorship of law’ and – at least according to some observers – Medvedev really was interested in changing the rules of the game, but just did not get very far in his efforts. Ledeneva concludes that in order to overcome the informal rules it is ‘simply not enough to transform the formal rules and the way they are enforced. (more…)

Holy Sodomy: Incarnation and Desire in Russian Religious Thought

BlogAdmin27 February 2014

The Place of Christianity in History, by V. V. Rozanov

The Place of Christianity in History,
by V. V. Rozanov

Modern theological studies into the nature of embodiment, desire and sex could enhance contemporary scholarship on Russian religious philosophy, especially in its studies of love and homosexual relationships, argues Adam Ure.

I started writing this on (Orthodox) Christmas Day, and it seems appropriate to consider one of the most contentious issues facing contemporary Christianity: the evaluation of homosexual love, as well as of homosexual sex. I mention Christmas Day, as a prominent strand in current academia is focusing primarily on Incarnation Theology in a re-examination of how Churches should appraise same-sex relationships.

Although many studies have concentrated on questions of love and sex in revolutionary Russia, little work has discussed homosexual relationships during this period. Here scholars of Russia should, as in other areas, perhaps start drawing on other fields of study to enhance their work: bringing recent developments in western theological scholarship into Russian studies could help provide new approaches to the questions which faced pre-revolutionary religious philosophers (and contemporary scholars), most particularly how to overcome apophaticism (the conception that knowledge of God is only accessible in terms of what He is not) in Russian Orthodoxy and the resulting bifurcation of religion and culture, which in turn affects the appraisal of homosexuality. Here the body might well be key: a reconsideration of the nature of Jesus’ flesh should help in a reinvestigation of the axiology of the human body (Christ, according to Chalcedon, was of both divine and human nature), and could possibly assist in the Church’s reappraisal of homosexual marriage, as well as answering important questions in Russian studies.

Prurience might provoke reticence amongst some; people are sometimes squeamish when discussing matters of the body – and what the body does. To discuss bodily matters relating to the Holy Family, including birth and sexuality, is more contentious. Yet for us to understand the Incarnation, we should accept that it was a human birth. Jesus was a normal human male and had a penis. But what did He do with it? And what, if any, is the nature of the desire Jesus felt? Can desire be understand as something sacred, where normally in Christian thought it is disregarded or considered something base and even demonic? (more…)

Storming the Winter Palace

BlogAdmin20 December 2013

Storming the Winter Palace, a SSEES languages and culture photo competition on the theme of Russian and East European London, led students and staff to contemplate cultural resonances, contemporary identities and stereotypes – and language-learning opportunities! In the final post of the year on the SSEES Research Blog, Sarah Young introduces a selection of entries. Commentaries are by the photographers, unless otherwise stated.

Harbry Ellerby’s photograph of the Hungarian stall in Camden reminds Eszter Tarsoly that every encounter with Eastern European food in London invites us to reflect on cultural exchange, language, and translation:

Harbry Ellerby: Hungarian stall in Camden

Harbry Ellerby: Hungarian stall in Camden

The photographer took this shot in front of the Hungarian stall in Camden Town. The food on sale here, instead of the grilled sausages more usual on Polish and other East European stands, is lángos, a deep-fried flat bread whose dough is similar to that of pizza. It is traditionally seasoned with garlic and tejföl, a wide-spread diary product in Eastern Europe known in various guises in the region (e.g. Romanian smântână and Czech smetana) and most similar perhaps to soured-cream. How much a simple, hearty food – particularly recommended after a long, hearty night – can teach us about translation! The man’s silouette in front of the stall and the hanging flower baskets are revealing: the image, while entirely authentic, could have been taken only on a somewhat manicured market. This video clip of the song ’Lángos, tejföl’ by the band Kaukázus shows how lángos is enjoyed in Hungary.

Seeing a street sign commemorating one of the many Eastern European revolutionaries who lived in London during the nineteenth century, Eszter Tarsoly‘s thoughts turn to today’s immigrants:

Eszter Tarsoly: Kossuth Street: a Cul-de Sac

Eszter Tarsoly: Kossuth Street: a Cul-de Sac

In a quiet, respectable, yet exhilarating corner of Greenwich stretches a modest Cul-de-Sac called Kossuth Street, named after Hungary’s larger-than-life revolutionary hero, one of the driving forces behind the 1848-49 Revolution and War of Independence. Lajos Kossuth, after the demise of that Revolution, resided briefly in Britain, and legend has it that he stunned English-speaking audiences with his knowledge of English acquired in prison, or rather, with the kind of English he had acquired (only from written texts) in prison. We do not know exactly what Kossuth’s English was like. But not far from Kossuth Street, just across the Thames near Limehouse basin, there are entire blocks of flats inhabited almost exclusively by Kossuth’s contemporary compatriots, sharing overcrowded accommodation, having little hope – in the absence of knowing good English or who knows what other skills – to move on. A dead end…?

The reality of contemporary immigration from Eastern Europe is the subject of the first of two photographs by Ger Duijzings:

Ger Duijzings: Automatic Door

Ger Duijzings: Automatic Door

This image was taken during a cold night in February 2012 at just after 3 in the morning, at a bank branch opposite Victoria Station. Together with my research student Cezar Macarie I was doing a night walk around the area. Underneath a row of ‘fast, easy, and convenient’ cashpoints, in the glass protected bank area, a dozen or so Poles and Romanians are sleeping rough. As it is outside of official opening hours, the automatic door is kept open by a traffic cone. A Pole smoking a cigarette in front told us that he had been working in London for seven years, the first five years on a contract, but the last two working on-and-off.

Ger Duijzings’ second entry confronts insular British views of Europe and the question of what ‘Eastern Europe’ means in this country:

Ger Duijzings: SKY for Eastern Europe

Ger Duijzings: SKY for Eastern Europe

A quick snap shot taken at the end of November 2007 at Luton Airport which shows how outdoor advertising at UK airports targets low-budget travellers from East Europe. I had just returned from one of my frequent commutes to so-called ‘Eastern’ Europe which for some natives in the British isles apparently starts just across the North Sea. I took the photo from the inside of a bus waiting to take me into Central London. A lone individual is about to put his luggage into the belly of a bus: it may have been an East European guest worker or student, perhaps. The cold and grey image has the impersonal and slightly gloomy quality of what Marc Augé would call a ‘non-place’.

(more…)

Curiosities from the Russian Classroom

BlogAdmin11 November 2013

 The British Library holds some rare early Russian grammars and language materials, which offer remarkable insights in culture, publishing practices and language learning, writes Katia Rogatchevskaia.

Cultural history and history of education is a relatively new research trend, so it was not obvious to the previous generations of librarians and curators that future scholars would want to examine textbooks. This type of material is difficult to collect and preserve. Although produced in large quantities and numerous editions, textbooks, like newspapers and ephemera, are not meant to survive. Older foreign textbooks and practical guides for teaching and learning represent an especially precious category of items. What was meant to be cheaply-produced learning material now becomes invaluable for the simple reason that very few copies survive. One of the most treasured works in our collections is Ivan Fedorov‘s  Azbuka, printed in Lviv in 1574, the first printed and dated East Slavonic primer. This is an extremely rare item – there is only one other recorded copy in the world, at Harvard University Library.

Fedorov's primer 2
Fedorov’s Azbuka 

A Slavonic Grammar by Meletii Smotritsky was first printed in 1618-1619 and reprinted several times in the 17th century. Smotritsky made an attempt to codify the contemporary Church Slavonic language as used in the Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian lands. The book had a significant impact on the development of these languages. In 1648 the grammar was reworked to reflect the norms of the language as used in Moscow at that time. We have two copies of the 1648 edition. The latter copy comes from the collection  of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753)  and bears notes in Latin, which suggests that the book was used for learning purposes. Interestingly, all notes are made on the page where the  principles of Russian syntax are explained, which probably suggests that the learner was quite advanced. Before belonging to a foreign owner, this copy was in possession of a priest – one Andrei Petrovich Peresvetov.

Smotritskii2
Sloane’s copy of Smotritsky’s grammar (C.125.d.14) showing the Latin notes

(more…)