CRM Journal

Book Review

Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc

Edited by David Crowley and Susan E. Reid. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2002; 288 pp., illustrations, photographs, notes, indices; cloth $75.00; paper $25.00.


Last year, the film Goodbye Lenin was a big hit in European theaters. It portrayed a son's attempt to recreate life in East Germany for his mother who had emerged from a coma unaware (and unprepared) for news that the Berlin Wall had fallen. Around the same time, a museum called the Documentation Center on Everyday Life in the G.D.R. (German Democratic Republic) opened in Eisenhüttenstadt, and a postwar Polish steel town, Nova Huta, built in Stalin's Socialist Realist style began offering guided tours.

These examples show an emerging interest in daily life in socialist Eastern Europe, an era that until recently many tried to forget. Popular curiosity has been matched by the recent work of material culture, architecture, landscape, and art history scholars. A 2001 issue of the Journal of Architectural Education and a 2001 conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explored socialist attitudes towards architecture, city planning, and space. A series of books from Berg Publishers, including An Archaeology of Socialism and Style and Socialism, has expanded our understanding of how socialist attitudes affected the lives of ordinary people.(1)

Berg's latest book, Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc, collects 10 essays that discuss how the postwar governments of Eastern Europe sought control over public sites and private spaces and how, in some instances, citizens challenged that control. Edited by British scholars, David Crowley and Susan E. Reid, Socialist Spaces includes work by authors from a range of disciplines that examine topics from monumental sculpture to vacation homes to interior decoration, from Latvia to Prague to Sevastopol. This broad approach traces similarities in the way Eastern Bloc governments defined and created space. It also reveals significant variation in the local priorities and impediments—ethnic antagonisms and lack of economic or material resources—encountered by the socialist governments as they shaped the landscape after seizing power.

Whether monumental or modest, new construction, urban planning, and the creation of material culture (such as furnishings and home decor) were predicated on environmental determinism—a belief that one's surroundings shaped individual thought and action. By creating uniquely socialist spaces imbued with ideology, Eastern Bloc governments expected to "organize the psyche of the masses." Many of the essays in Socialist Spaces document the efforts to create a new socialist citizenry through architecture. Susan Reid discusses how this social engineering began with youth at the Pioneer Palace in Moscow (a large campus for the "boy scout"- and "girl scout"-like club), designed to instill collective attitudes, devotion to socialism, and optimism about the future of the Soviet Union. Abundant murals and monumental art created an educational "force field" that young pioneers could not help but absorb.

Reuben Folkes writes of how, after taking power, Hungarian socialists reprogrammed public squares replacing nationalist monuments with statues that were more politically and ideologically appropriate. Olga Sezneva presents the case of Kaliningrad, which until the end of World War II was the German city of Königsberg. There, physical reminders of the city's German past were demolished or left to molder; new construction was designed to integrate the city with the rest of the Eastern Bloc through standardized building forms.

Soviet authorities desired central control over the form and meaning of the built environment, whether it was public buildings, parks, apartments, or monuments. Several authors in Socialist Spaces, however, challenge the conventional assumption that the Eastern Bloc was monolithic with each country and city sharing an experience conceived, promulgated, and imposed from above. Karl Qualls writes about the Russian port of Sevastopol, where local officials and residents resisted efforts for a radical reorientation of their city and instead negotiated a balance between Moscow's demand for oversight and their own interest in preserving historic places.

While socialist governments may have intended one meaning for a particular place or building form, the local population often had ways to subvert that meaning, retain earlier meanings, or invent entirely new meanings. In one example, Mark Allen Svede discusses a statue of Lenin in central Riga that, to the Soviets, implied domination over this formerly independent state. But Latvians found angles to photograph the statue so that Lenin's figure appeared to be waving to a surviving Orthodox cathedral down the street.

A number of essays address public spaces central to the identity of the socialist city. Others explore the relatively new terrain of personal space and the intersection between a collective ideology and individual privacy. Discussions of Warsaw apartments by David Crowley, Russian and Czechoslovak vacation homes by Stephen Lovell and Paulina Bren, respectively, and Soviet communal apartments by Katerina Gerasimova present socialist incursions into spaces formerly considered private. Communal apartments, with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities, for instance, reduced the space that could be called one's own. The distinction between public and private and the degree of government interest in the latter remained in flux, depending upon location, the prevailing political climate, and available resources.

Although state-built apartment blocks imparted a dulling sense of standardization, Crowley shows how officially sanctioned publications encouraged Poles to overcome austerity with creative, resourceful decoration that claimed the interiors as individual and private spaces. After the Prague Spring was crushed in 1968, the Czechoslovak government allowed a boom in private vacation homes, hoping to quiet unrest and encourage political compliance.

These essays advance our understanding of how Eastern Europe's built environment reflected the tumultuous changes following World War II and how central planning reflected socialist ideology and aspirations. The essays show everyday citizens grappling with the socialist spaces that resulted, alternately accommodating them, subverting their intended goals, or negotiating their effects and meanings. The essays reinforce the idea that the perception and meaning of a particular space varies among different parties and often differs from that intended by the designer. The authors move beyond a strict architectural history to explore how the architecture affected the lives of ordinary people. They show that despite attempts to create new socialist environments, Eastern Bloc governments were unable—as the events of 1989-91 confirmed—to create a wholly socialist population in the process.

With the break-up of the Eastern Bloc, there was an earnest movement to again erase the reminders of the previous political order. Cities were full of renamed streets, plinths were missing busts, and plans were underway for major reconstruction. Today, Eastern Europeans are still dealing with the effects of socialism on their environment; the tendency is often to expunge or conceal. These moves are often dictated by aesthetics and the shoddy condition of surviving socialist architecture as much as by ideology. As bitter memories of the period fade—in some cases to be replaced by a growing nostalgia—it will be interesting to see how the region's historic preservationists confront the postwar socialist landscape. Publications like Socialist Spaces lay the groundwork for a critical reexamination of these built environments and suggest that their multifarious meanings will continue to evolve.

Chad Randl
National Park Service



1. See the Journal of Architectural Education: Political Change and Physical Change in Eastern Europe 54, no. 4 (2001); Victor Buchli, An Archaeology of Socialism (Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 1999); Susan E. Reid and David Crowley, eds., Style and Socialism: Modernity and Material Culture in Post-War Eastern Europe (Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2000).