The term of the breaking point is so wide that it inevitably requires more specification of the context in which it is made. A breaking point, seemingly, must refer to some paradigmatic change or even shock significantly transforming the essence of a given phenomenon. Moreover, the word “point” strengthens the sound of the word “breaking” in such a way that you start imagining that the breaking point must be short and momentary. Nevertheless, instead of thinking of the breaking point as a momentary, overall change, one needs to treat it as some hybrid formation, in which momentary transformations are interwoven with much slower and sometimes even almost imperceptible structural changes. Which element (of the momentary transformation or slow shift) prevails depends on which dominant feature of the breaking point is emphasized.
But speaking about the category of the breaking point, it is important not only how something breaks, but also what is being broken. When asking questions about the breaks and transformations of urban tissue, it is important to specify the tissue and what its construction was before its breaking point, before its transformation. A few years ago, in cooperation with the English urbanist and curator Benjamin Cope, we compiled a collection of texts P.S. Landscapes: Optics of Urban Research.1 The subject of analysis in this book was the so-called P.S. – Post Scriptum, Post-Soviet, post-Socialist, post-Soros – spaces. The P.S. metaphor itself, it seems, suggests that post-Soviet and post-Socialist spaces follow the Soviet and Socialist spaces in the same way, as inserted references follow the main solid text. But any solid Soviet space has never existed as a given (one-piece narrative). In this essay I am going to summarize my own arguments listed in the aforementioned P.S. Landscapes to answer the question of why such a thing as a solid Soviet space has never existed, but instead there were different spaces interconnected by continuously improved and renewed homogenizing relations. Bearing this in mind, the specifics of the post-Soviet urban breaking points becomes much clearer: a breaking point happens not only when macro structures undergo radical changes, but also when such urban-space homogenizing ideologies and practices lose their power and efficiency.
Synchronization Strategies of Soviet Cities
Instead of stating that a solid Soviet and Socialist landscape existed in the past, we inevitably have to admit that many different Soviet spaces existed with an entire network of directives and practices developed to coordinate and synchronize them. The distinction between a strategy and tactics helps to explain the way in which such Soviet space synchronizing network was arranged. “The unanimous and strict line of the Communist party”, often discussed in the official discourse, was an initial and publicly seen synchronization strategy of Soviet spaces. Hidden beyond this show-off strategy, a lot of other strategies competed backstage. Official and unofficial strategies synchronizing the life of Soviet spaces made up the top of the power pyramid, out of which “a unanimous and strict party line” was drawn, reaching the peripheral spaces in official and visible as well as unofficial and concealed ways. At the periphery, in Kiev, Tallinn, Ashkhabad, Baku, Vilnius, Tbilisi or Riga, such strategies were gradually covered with microscopic tactics to implement the strategic provisions taking into account the specific local conditions.
The result of such a ubiquitous network of global strategies and local tactics was the peculiar synchronicity of life in different and often, as it seemed, historically and culturally incompatible spaces. Of course, a citizen from Tallinn or Vilnius visiting Alma-Ata or Dushanbe felt like they were in a historically, culturally, geographically and architecturally radically different environment. But such newly found otherness could quite easily be converted into a recognizable model of Soviet life because of the aforementioned synchronization strategies and tactics. It goes without saying that such model consisted not only of ideological Soviet narratives, but also daily practices of urban living.
Regardless of radical differences, all Soviet spaces had a single common denominator synchronizing them. The unification of urban lifestyles was carried out during the entire period of existence of the Soviet Union. The Lithuanian Architect Vytautas Brėdikis once suggested a key to understanding the way of synchronization of Soviet spaces with the help of urbanization. In a private conversation he was asked how he would describe Soviet architecture in the different republics of the Soviet Union, Mr. Brėdikis recalled the once popular saying that Soviet architecture was uniform everywhere by its content, but different by its form.
The political, ideological, social, economic and even technological content “filling” of architecture of Soviet cities was essentially the same. Moreover, a number of cities even had almost the same characteristics of form. Industrial towns in different republics built from scratch or almost from scratch could be converted one into another because of the essential similarity of their content and form. Upon the appearance of prefabricated housing construction technology, the possibilities for the unification of newly built areas in industrial towns and old cities alike became particularly extensive. In many cities any differences of new urban spaces were caused just by a quantity factor – the different scale of the cities.
Actual differences appeared only when new Soviet urban structures were built on the foundations of the existing urban network rather than in an empty space. Although, in such cases even old city centres usually underwent radical reconstructions, but at least some of the characteristic features of a town were retained. Old historical, pre-Socialist urban layers, in their turn, impacted the newly constructed spaces. In such a way, for example, apartment blocks in one or another Asian republic of the USSR were often decorated with vernacular ornaments of Eastern motives.
Nevertheless it is not difficult to notice that such ornamental decorations could not make any essential difference in the uniformity of the new Soviet architecture. And the differences in the urban tissue of the pre-Socialist period, which inevitably existed due to the unequal geographical, historical and cultural formation conditions of such old parts of the cities, were polished and softened by the Socialist daily living of the city dwellers.
Soviet daily life was such a medium which continued the work of urbanization in the synchronization of Soviet spaces. In contrast to the gigantic industrial urbanization, daily practices were orientated towards microscopic spaces, microscopic events and situations. The regulation and synchronization of daily practices was a long-term process, but the regularities that had settled in the daily practices of city dwellers often persisted longer than any fixed material urban structure.
The same formula was valid for Soviet daily living, which also shaped Soviet architecture in the different cities of the country. Daily living in Leningrad, Tbilisi, Moscow, Kiev, Alma Ata, Kishinev, Yerevan, Tallinn, Minsk, Frunze, Vilnius, Baku, Riga and other cities of the Soviet Union might be of different form, but it was intensely and aggressively unified by its content.
In truth, the forms of many daily items and practices were also aggressively unified and synchronized. This was especially true when speaking about the European part of the Soviet Union. Soviet flats often had similar furniture – in many places the differences were determined by the size of the flat and, respectively, the furniture, rather than by any quality characteristics. Windows were covered in similar curtains, and people wore clothes of similar or even the same models and sat in front of the same few TV set models used all over the large country. People who remember the daily life back in those times also recall standing in huge queues to get a pair of shoes or a cap. When your turn came to buy, there was no need to pick a model because only one model was available, you just had to mention your shoe or cap size.
It was quite natural that alongside such unified spaces and standardized daily items time was also standardized. Radio sets were eventually installed in all new flats. Television broadcasting two or three programmes, one out of which – the information programme Vremia (English – Time) was almost obligatory and watched en masse. Newspapers circulating all over the Soviet Union were duplicated by their regional counterparts. Newspapers read in the morning on one’s way to work and evening newspapers got at a local kiosk after waiting in a long line of people again. Such information flow was used not just for the dissemination of news, but also to provide a stable time-pertaining rhythm to Soviet daily living.
Ideological mechanisms seeking to regulate and synchronize the present, however, were never limited just to the synchronization of the daily present. The present generated by such ideological mechanisms sought to adjust the future visions and what, seemingly, was impossible to change – the past.
Reorganization of the past was considered a prerogative of all political formations that existed at the time. Situated at the crossroads of different competing forces from long ago, cities have been turned into arenas for experimenting with the past. But in the case of totalitarian regimes, the mechanism of reorganization of the past becomes all-encompassing. Totalitarian regimes colonize and occupy the past in the same way as geographic physical spaces are occupied. Not only is the relationship between “old” and “new”, “past” and “present” radically changed, but also the very notions of “old”, “new”, “past” and “present”. Totalitarian regimes change everything – from the names of streets and signboards to memorial plaques and monuments. All this is used to create a physical and material “narration” about the past, which in actual fact did not happen. Such past-reshaping strategy of totalitarian regimes wins when an ordinary citizen starts “remembering” the past which never happened, and in such a way as if he/she experienced it.
In cities with a long history of the past, their non-Socialist past was adjusted to their Socialist present. Renaming St. Petersburg into Leningrad was the most symptomatic example of such a rewriting of the past. The revolutionary ideological narrative, maybe different slightly by the details, but essentially the same by its revolutionary ideological content, consisted of such changed and unchanged names of Soviet cities, existing names of streets and squares, memorial plaques and monuments.
The scale of this reconstruction process of the urban past can be perceived in the example of Vilnius. In 1980, out of all 650 streets of the city only 21 historical names were left unchanged in the previous 150 years. Many of its old streets, similar to the new ones, had revolutionary, later Soviet, neutral national or absolutely safe names of natural phenomena or animals. After reviewing the city monuments signifying the basic ideological points of the city’s history and the street names connecting the city into a unanimous ideological narrative, the Vilnius of 1980 had very little in common with, let’s say, the pre-Soviet period Vilnius of 1939. Such was the essence and main goal of the Soviet space homogenization and synchronization project: to ensure conditions upon which the Soviet present and past reconstructed in accordance with Soviet ideological narratives could destroy, or at least marginalize, any other alternative present or past of the cities.
Beyond the City Synchronization Principle
Even such short discussion of the Soviet space synchronization principle helps to avoid the reductionism of explaining the breaking (transition) point from the Socialist to post-Socialist situation based on just one social, economic or political principle. As shown above, a unanimous Soviet and Socialist space has never existed. Instead of speaking about such solid Soviet and Socialist space, we need to talk about the many different spaces that were synchronized by various strategies and tactics. As soon as these strategies and tactics lose their power, the differences of such versatile spaces come to the surface. Now the particularity of one or another space starts to dictate its own conditions. Soviet synchronizing relations have been destroyed or “broken” by political national circumstances in one space, by the old still retained narratives of the past in the other, by economics in the third, social problems in the fourth, and most often – by the manifold combinations of all the above-mentioned factors.
In the case of the urban tissue, the fastest and most obvious were the breaking points of the memory narrative. It is quite natural that under the collapse of a synchronizing ideological totalitarian regime, the solid ideological narrative of street names is eventually destroyed. In Lithuania, for instance, streets got back their old historical names before the official collapse of the Soviet system. And with the loss of Soviet political power the period of destruction of monuments came because they signified the colonization of the past. The elimination of Lenin’s statue in Vilnius still functions as an exclusively symbolic act, which contributed to the demolition of the entire foundation of the Soviet ideological narrative about the Soviet present and past of the city. This breaking and cracking was followed by a number of other, maybe not so visible but equally important steps of memory decolonization in the Soviet ideological memory narrative.
Breaks in urban narratives of memory were continued by other slower and sometimes almost invisible fractures. Although it is paradoxical to admit, the slowest changes are observed not in the physical urban structures, not in the architecture, but rather in the different practices of urban daily living. Some elements of Soviet daily life survived for much longer than the political ideologies that once synchronized all Soviet spaces. Some details and practices of the Soviet reality have been functioning for a long time, and in some places are still functioning as certain islands or enclaves within the tissue of the capitalist city.
Of course, the relationship of the Central and Eastern European cities with their Soviet and Socialist past cannot be held accountable for all their recent problems and urban transformations. But this relationship with the past is still significant, and especially because it also refers to the breaking points in the once dominant forms of urban practicing. To be in a city and “practice” a city – all this once was regulated by a common formula, according to which urban practices were also “different by their form, but uniform by content”. How much diversity is brought into a city by the new urban practices is the object of a new discussion, but it would be difficult to argue that they signify a resistant breaking point in respect to the Soviet homogenizing urban practices.
1. Милерюс, Н.; Коуп, Б. (2008), P.S. Ландшафты: оптики городских исследований, ЕГУ.