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CREES Lecture - "The Building of Stalin-Era Nizhnii Novgorod (Gorky): Matter, Metaphor, and Power"

Wednesday, February 18, 2009
5:00 AM
1636 II/SSWB, 1080 S. University

Heather DeHaan, assistant professor, Department of History, Binghamton University, and 2009 Kennan Institute Fellow. Sponsored by the Center for Russian and East European Studies.

Soviet power rested on a strange conundrum: the rise of a self-defined Marxist state in a peasant nation, so that the state's legitimacy and mandate demanded not only rule in the name of the Soviet Union's workers and toilers, but also in laying the foundation of a "modern" working-class society. As the Soviet Union underwent the Stalin Revolution--notable as much for the emergence of heavy industry and collectivized agriculture as for Stalin's consolidation of power, cities became important sites through which the state aimed to lay the material foundations for its vision of socialism--not just heavy industry, but also appropriately "socialist" structures for domestic, work, and recreational life. Debates over what might be "socialist" produced aesthetic incoherence into the landscape, even as economic pressures fostered an intense power to control resources--land, construction materials, transportation, and human beings. In the ensuing chaos, internal state struggles came to focus not so much on aesthetics or economics, but on self-representation--that is, on appropriating effective metaphors of power. This talk explores the interrelation of material and semantic struggles--that, the overlapping struggles over real resources as well as over the "terms" of socialism, and it explores how these affected both the making and the representation of Soviet power.


Heather DeHaan discussed the built architectures of Nizhnii Novgorod, both in the more distant past--starting in the 13th century--and during a period of intense rebuilding during the Stalinist 1930s. The pre-revolutionary city had by 1817 built a succession of churchly sites that created what DeHaan called a "soterioscape"--a salvation narrative inscribed onto a path through Nizhnii. As the Soviet regime destroyed or retasked these sites, it (unintentionally) created its own soteriology, although of course with a completely different narrative of socialist progress.

Most of the lecture focused on the 1930s, as DeHaan explored first the functional rationalist model of architectural "experts," who maintained the power of technocratic and rational city designs to remake people as Soviet authorities wished. They created a decentralized collection of factory sites, around which local settlements arose. DeHaan then considered the impact of Moscow's city plan, which theoretically went into effect in 1935 and quickly percolated down to other cities and towns. This new approach aimed to build a compact, unified city, based on the historic 17th century urban center. This later planning effort focused not so much on technocratic rationalism as on almost spiritual kind of idealism, aiming to create an imaginative community, a socialist brotherhood. Of course this work ran into problems in practical realization of the plan, but DeHaan argued that was not the point. Rather, these architects worked to produce socialism as much through the marketing of these ideas as by actually building any of the blueprints. They made literally tons of drawings, held discussions, competitions, etc., all to suggest that the plans came from the people.

Discussion ranged widely after the lecture, focusing on the implications of categorizing Soviet architecture into these two overarching approaches, the degree to which the tsarist city had been constructed haphazardly or consciously, the meaning of erasing a specifically merchant presence in the city of Nizhnii Novgorod, the role of perceived wilderness (and the Old Belief) across the Volga River, and the degree to which experience as well as imagination could shape an urban space.

Summary prepared by Douglas Northrop, director, Center for Russian and East European Studies