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Housing, interior design and the Soviet woman during the Khrushchev era - by Jemimah Hudson

02 August 2016 | By

'Khrushchyovka' apartments in construction, 1962

It can be safely assumed that despite the re-opening of the ‘women question’ under Khrushchev, a gap existed between the rhetoric and promises made by the regime and the reality for Soviet women. Looking at Khrushchev’s housing reforms and related ideological programmes is a fascinating way to approach the position of women in Soviet society. Khrushchev’s plans to provide each family with its own apartment, signalling a radical break from the Stalin era, were bound to have profound implications for women; the domestic realm was traditionally viewed as a female concern.

Khrushchev’s ambitious housing programme was launched with the 1959 Seven Year Plan, promising to build 15 million new urban apartments, distributed on the principle ‘one family, one flat’. This transition from communal to separate-apartment living was accompanied by a complete break in style, denouncing Stalinist architecture and decoration. Khrushchev instead turned to

Modernism and the partial rehabilitation of Constructivism, favouring the modernist maxims of ‘less is more’ and ‘function over form’; homes were to be functional and austere, using modern, efficient construction methods and materials. Khrushchev’s prediction that full communism would be achieved by 1980 demanded all citizens internalised communist morality, achieved through the rationalisation and regulation of their daily life (byt), consumption and desires. The most efficient path to such regulation was to penetrate the domestic realm, ensuring the ‘correct’ communist values were enacted behind closed doors. As the domestic realm was traditionally seen as the female domain, it was women who felt the effects of Khrushchev’s policies most fully.

An interior design manual from 1962 showcases space saving kitchen units

Women were advised against decorative clutter; silk scarves, vases of paper flowers, perfume bottles and other ‘knick-knacks’ which allegedly created the effect of ‘vulgar, dismal coziness’ and were to be avoided at all costs. Instead, women were to be rationalisers and modernisers of the home. Sectional, convertible furniture and new technology was instead favoured, modern in form and functional in design.

As byt became essential to the development of communism, the Soviet Woman’s aesthetic task of furnishing the home became ‘a civic mission of educational and ideological import’. Alongside this important mission, women continued to shoulder the responsibility for housework alone, whilst holding down paid jobs and participating in the public sphere (workplace unions, political and social organisations); otherwise known as ‘the double burden’. Khrushchev’s reforms claimed to relieve women of this; new furniture would supposedly liberate women from household chores, such as dusting and polishing the mass of decorative knick-knacks in vogue during the Stalin era.

New labour saving devices, such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners, were also seen as the practical way of lightening women’s workloads. We can see that although a woman’s workload was supposedly lightened, she was expected to put a huge amount of time and effort into re-making the home in line with new ideological requirements, revealing such homemaking policies to be contradictory in nature. We can also point to a contradiction in the very nature of the ‘separate’ apartment; whilst suggesting a move towards a more private home life, in reality this was not so.

Domestic life was never truly separated from collective concerns; how the Soviet woman chose to furnish her home was very much a public matter.