Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
An Englishman’s home is his castle, but pulling up the drawbridge is a near universal human activity. It seems natural to mark off what is yours from what is someone else’s. Deeds and leases identify what belongs to you, but so do garden fences, office doors and suitcase labels. This sense of mine and yours exists among people who live in all kinds of cultures and legal systems, both those that emphasize communal endeavour and those that celebrate private pursuits. It flourishes in happy times and harsh environments alike. Village life has often consisted in peasants cultivating the land together before retiring to their own family hut for the night. People in shanty towns might share enough resources to facilitate survival, but they barricade themselves into their overcrowded family dwellings when it goes dark. In countries where renting a home is more common that buying one, leases seem to last forever.
And even in those Communist dictatorships where consumption was fiercely suppressed, people still owned some things and hankered after others. Owning things defined people’s lives even under ‘Communism’.
For sure, the Russian Revolution led to the abolition of private property. Citizens could no longer accumulate property and make a profit out of it. But if property in a capitalist or bourgeois sense had been outlawed, then ownership in a wider sense had not. Throughout the Soviet period, laws and constitutions enshrined the principle that people could own things that derived from their labour and were for their own use, such as a toothbrush and later a television. But it also allowed them to own a dwelling on terms that were akin to a medium-term leasehold. The Soviet state never really interfered with the desire of its citizens to own things, even their homes, on a personal level, and even promoted it.
In 1950, 39.6 per cent of urban housing was owned not by local soviets, factories or other institutions, but by the residents themselves as personal property. This housing tenure was central to post-war reconstruction. A 1944 decree facilitated people’s access to credit and made it easier for them to build their own house. Across the Soviet Union, the total stock of personally-owned housing rose by 69.1 per cent between 1944 and 1950. Such dwellings might cluster in shanty-towns, but people still talked about ‘our house’ and went to great lengths to construct it, acquire it, or get it back. Later, under Khrushchev, when such forms of housing fell victim to slum-clearance schemes, people could invest savings and obtain credit for what amounted to the purchase of a cooperative apartment. If the individual construction of personally-owned houses had fuelled the first stage of post-war reconstruction, then cooperative apartments helped to define the eternal-seeming society of late socialism.
The commitment of the Soviet state to make the world anew and to treat human beings as raw material was a long-term tragedy for the Soviet peoples. And yet, paradoxically, the Soviet state’s capacity to follow the grain of human impulses and local cultures accounts for its longevity.