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Paradise lost? The enduring legacy of a Soviet-era utopian workers’ district

Paradise lost? The enduring legacy of a Soviet-era utopian workers' district

Architecture critic Owen Hatherley travelled to Nizhny Novgorod to visit Avtozavod, a purpose-built “workers’ paradise”. The idealism may have gone, but its legacy remains strong

4 December 2014

Company towns and workers’ settlements were not rare in the 1930s, but few of them were so ambitious, or so freighted with ideology and cross-cultural exchange — and misunderstandings — as the Avtozavod district of Nizhny Novgorod. An entire district of over 100,000 people, all of whom were working in or around a vast automobile plant built by an American company with American technology, housed — at least at first — in a bold experiment in collective living. Workers flocked to work there, not solely from the Soviet Union, and labour leaders visited to find out what this “workers’ paradise” was actually like. They wanted to discover how a district built for Ford factory workers in the USSR differed from one in the US or UK, like Becontree or Dearborn. Though altered and relatively depopulated, most of the Socialist City, or “Sotsgorod”, still stands today, a three-dimensional showcase of what a Soviet socialist company town was meant to be like.

From the centre of Nizhny Novgorod the Avtozavod district is best reached by the city’s one-and-a-bit-line metro, built between 1977 and 1985. Simply in terms of infrastructure, the new industrial district is considerably better served than comparable British examples — the 1930s workers’ garden city of Wythenshawe on the outskirts of Manchester, a city similar in size to Nizhny Novgorod, is only now being connected with the rest of the city by a tram and never had a rail connection. By contrast, somewhat rickety trams go through Avtozavod every minute or so and the more infrequent but certainly more impressive metro serves it with five stops. But once you get out at the other end, you notice some other differences with British practice. First, the factory is still working, albeit at massively reduced capacity and with a far smaller workforce; two, the factory is still adorned with a whole series of various ideological artworks and decorations; and three, that even now, the best workers and citizens of the district are still immortalised on billboards, hoisted up on the lamp-posts. “Model Workers” and “People of Avtozavod” can both get their name and a photo on a billboard.

The permanent monuments include a faintly cheap-looking, plastery Lenin and the first truck produced here mounted on a plinth of concrete numerals reading 1932. Most impressive of all though are two large mosaic panels produced in 1982 for the factory’s 50th anniversary. They depict lone figures waving banners in the foreground, with smaller workers behind, in overalls and protective masks, building the automobiles on one panel, and making and driving tanks on the other, all pieced together with glittering blue, red, orange stones. The fact that the factory has long been a totally capitalist proposition — owned by Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch and friend of Peter Mandelson, the Labour peer and former UK business secretary — hasn’t led to any “de-communisation” of the visual rhetoric and street furniture around the red granite factory gates. Far from it: recent printed photo-panels tell the story of the factory, with due attention to the role of iron-fisted bosses such as Stalin’s Minister of Industry Sergo Ordzhonikidze, the efficacy of its tanks built by women during the Great Patriotic War and a fleet of black Volgas on Westminster Bridge. You don’t get things like this outside the Ford factory in Dagenham, east London. Here, clearly, being able to put together a car on a production line had an ideological meaning somewhat different from the American dream of the automobile as signifier of freedom and individuality.

Which is ironic, given that this was a Soviet-American co-operation from the very start. Avtozavod was a project of the Ford Motor Company and for a time the Ford logo even accompanied the medallion of Lenin on the factory gates. The factory was closely modelled on Ford’s structures in Detroit and elsewhere, only with the difference that this time, it wouldn’t be owned by them — the Great Depression meant the famously union-bashing, right-wing Ford assented to building nationalised factories for communists. The construction of the city itself was managed by The Austin Company, an engineering firm based in Cleveland, Ohio (not to be confused with the English motor company). Richard Stites, in his compendium of early Soviet utopias Revolutionary Dreams, disparagingly refers to it as one of the partial, unsuccessful, botched attempts to realise the various new collective environments he catalogues. “The workers’ city of the Nizhny Novgorod Plant was designed by Americans and approved by the Soviets, with centralised schooling, clubs, hospitals, bakeries, kitchens, laundries and other services for its 18,000 employees in communal blocks of 300 residents each — a symmetrical phalanstery on a modern industrial site. An entire village of 3,000 people was moved to make way for its construction. Yet as late as 1932 there were not enough beds and the premises had no water. These sites were parodies of the bright dreams of the clean, rational, community building homes envisioned by the architects and planners of the 1920s.”

The “utopian” dream here came up against the messy reality of a rural, “backward” country undergoing rapid, forced industrialisation. In this particular case we have a document which makes it clear how complex the interactions between the American industrialists and Soviet architects actually were and how far from inevitable this decline into Potemkin modernism actually was. The Sotsgorod site is extensively discussed by Richard Cartwright-Austin, the son of the head of The Austin Company, in his book Building Utopia: Erecting Russia’s First Modern City, 1930. He points out how the design was based on an architectural competition held at experimental institute VKhUTEMAS; the winning entry constituted several collective blocks in a parallel arrangement, with the open space between them traversed by interconnecting walkways, all of them fully equipped with collective facilities. This was then adapted by The Austin Company’s engineers, who recognised that all this concrete and glass was far beyond the capabilities of the Russian building industry, replacing it with subtly detailed brick and smaller windows. At first, however, these were the only changes to the programme: the project seems to have elicited some enthusiasm from the Methodist engineering firm.

The head of the project, Allen Austin, wrote in 1931 for the New York Times Magazine of the communalisation planned for the new city — “the fourth floor of each building is composed of larger rooms, the size of a double and single room combined. These are intended to be occupied by ‘Communes’ — groups of three or four young men or women who study, live or work together.” When this failed to be actualised, it was less because of the direct importation of American morality and conformism, nor a totalitarian insistence on collectivity, but the demographic tumult created by the Five Year Plan itself, and specifically its massive underestimation of the population shift to the cities and industrial centres.

“These sites were parodies of the bright dreams of the clean, rational, community building homes envisioned by the architects and planners of the 1920s”

Cartwright-Austin quotes a contemporary report by an American journalist, Milly Bennett, in terms which, aside from the exoticising tone, immediately evokes the peri-urban maelstrom of breakneck industrialisation: “The Russian workers come to the plant from the villages, husky peasant men and women with packs on their backs. They live in long, rude barracks. And, impatiently, they move into the unfinished model houses of the Workers’ City, 300 families strong, and camp there.” This occurred, she points out, before electrical and other services were finished in the flats. Cartwright-Austin notes the unpopularity of the communal flats, but it seems unlikely that ideology had much to do with this — in fact, “some of the scheduled communal facilities were never provided”. A comparative image in the book of the Workers’ City over the course of the 1930s shows the aesthetic becoming more conservative after the design passed out of the hands of the Austin engineers, with pitched roofs added to the new blocks and the experiment with communal walkways not repeated.

The end of this Soviet-American ideal industrial settlement came the same year the first car was produced — “the utopian city of 1930 was overtaken by economic necessity. It was finally abandoned in 1932 ... workers in the new automobile factory would live very much as industrial workers in other parts of the world”. As a place to live, he was probably right. Writer and scion of Avtozavod, Kirill Kobrin writes in his short story The Last European of how an encounter with Dublin nightlife immediately “tipped him back, into the Soviet proletarian 1970s”, and a memory of “women chipped with alcohol, their eyes full of yearning. Sharp-nosed urchins, shiveringly wrapping themselves in cheap jackets. Lads always ready for drinking and fighting. On Mondays, the irrepressible stink of puke in the streets. Gorky. Avtozavod.”

The several blocks that make up that first part of Avtozavod are still lined with those short rows of tenements, their brick facades sometimes in their original state, sometimes with cheap corrugated metal balconies, and sometimes with rather alarming red roofs with built-in attic floors which look very recent indeed. As architecture, their heritage in Constructivism is invisible, but as a space, you can spot it — a collective city in a garden, with easy, rather informal tree-lined boulevards running between them, without much activity save some vague strolling. It’s quiet, and quite pretty, not a garden suburb but a suburb in a garden. The difference between this and Becontree or Wythenshawe is most obvious in the collectivity of the housing. There, as in the US, the single-family house with a big front and back garden, with lots of domestic space inside, was the model; here, the green space is all exterior, public. But for a small colony built for the American engineers, there are no single-family houses at all.

The mass unemployment of the Great Depression coinciding with full employment in the Soviet Union meant that the Avtozavod district was, for a time, a magnet for workers and socialist activists, both trade union leaders and their rank-and-file. Among the latter were the brothers Victor and Walter Reuther, who didn’t find conditions there to be particularly different from those in the US. They were both blacklisted in the USSR after leading a strike at Avtozavod. On their return to the US, they were prominent in the then-militant United Automobile Workers and became the best known leaders of the General Motors strike of 1936. As in Nizhny Novgorod — renamed Gorky in honour of writer Maxim Gorky in 1933 — they suffered blacklisting in the US, not to mention beatings and assassination attempts; but there at least they won, managing to unionise the auto industry for the first time. The brothers later managed to wind up Nikita Khrushchev during a meeting with American labour leaders during his 1959 US tour by asking him — in Russian — “Is the Gorky Automobile Works still named after Molotov?”, soon after the former foreign minister’s purging. “Can you give us one single example”, asked Walter Reuther, getting the chance to ask the questions he couldn’t in Gorky, “which one of your unions ever disagreed with government policy?” “Why poke your nose into our business?” retorted Khrushchev.

“I did not like to think we were going to visit apartments with our boots simply ankle deep in mud. We did so, however”

But another observer, from the other side of the trade union movement gave more attention to the living conditions of the Avtozavod workers. The then-leader of the British Trades Union Congress, Sir Walter Citrine, was keen to contrast the conditions of the recently uprooted peasant workforce of the Soviet city with the council houses, large rooms, gardens and municipal facilities enjoyed by many workers in the UK thanks to the lobbying of the trade union movement. He called his travelogue of his 1935 trip round the USSR I Search for Truth in Russia and found the truth in the Sotsgorod to be muddy. “We visited the Socialist City”, he writes, “and found it to be exceptionally well-planned, with good, wide streets, which some day, I hope, will be concreted. At present, they are a mass of slush, and I could not help wondering whether they will ever be anything different. These people rush to put up buildings but never seem to finish them. They never seem to have time.” He is puzzled that the streets are not paved but that trees have been carefully planted, obviously not considering that asphalt and concrete were far more scarce at the time than seeds. With marvellously English discomfort, he notes: “I did not like to think we were going to visit apartments with our boots simply ankle deep in mud. We did so, however.” He found in them flats of five-and-a-half-square-metres a head, admittedly in advance of three-and-a-half in the rest of Gorky, and families of four taking up two rooms, with the kitchen shared with the neighbours, a version of collective life somewhat less well-serviced than that which had been planned in the ateliers of VkhUTEMAS. He doesn’t say so much about the facilities themselves, largely because they weren’t finished at the time of his writing, but it’s here that the difference is most obvious.

At Wythenshawe, for instance, the main architectural interest for those not so fascinated by pretty arts and crafts houses is expressionist churches and streamline modern cinemas or shopping parades. Obviously there were none of the former in this deliberately godless city, but cinema and consumption had a role. The main department store, or Univermag, designed in 1935 by Lev Nappelbaum, is in the style called “Post-Constructivism” in Russia, that is, it has Modernist simplified glazed volumes that have been given a slightly classical dressing. The grandly curved central glass stairwell is still very impressive, with its neatly crafted balustrade unaffected by being divided up into the usual tacky, chaotic Russian mini-mall. There are no small shops but for recent impromptu kiosks, but then big Co-Ops were equally dominant in the company towns and giant estates of 1930s England. They had super-cinemas too, but there are no Odeons quite like the Gorky Avtozavod’s Kinoteatr Mir — another 1935 building, this one by Alexander Grinberg. A square, coffered portal dressed in dark granite forms the entrance and a wing with restaurants and other facilities is topped by a row of finely detailed Socialist Realist figures, athletic men and curvaceous women, both detailed with a fine, sinuous plasticity.

Opposite is the Palace of Culture, one of those comprehensive centres for theatre, music and general improving activity that were as important here as they were in a paternalist garden suburb like Bourneville, although on a much greater scale. It’s a banal piece of Stalinist architecture — a massive block whose linear mass is detailed with randomly applied classical detail. Inside, however, past the usual grand neo-classical central atrium, is a series of murals from the era of the post-Stalinist “thaw”. A central mosaic of Lenin is flanked by two panels where all the heaviness disappears, replaced with vivid, light, colourful images of revolution, construction, science, football and general leaping about and frolicking. Some of this, at least, can still today be enjoyed at the mini-Gorky Park adjacent.

All the “social” aspects of socialism are abandoned except as a residuum, but its aesthetics have, evidently, proven surprisingly useful

Surrounding the Palace of Culture are the later, neoclassical blocks of flats, the hierarchical, monumental architecture that succeeded the collective ambitions of Constructivism — some of it designed by former Constructivists, like a gigantic crescent of flats with curved balconies, an unexpected product of the Vesnin brothers. Running linear to the park are crumbly Khrushchevkas and a series of identical red brick-clad vertical blocks. And from here, the metro can take you back to your part of the district, to the factory, or to the historic centre, through stations that are reduced, shallower versions of the underground grandeur you would find in Moscow, St Petersburg or Kiev. They feature vaulting ceilings with Futurist light fittings, mural friezes of workers making cars, stained glass panels of Lenin, flying red star reliefs in red and grey granite, and much else to attract the eye while you wait as much as 15 minutes for a train. But it’s the fact that it was built in the first place that is so remarkable — nothing like this sort of investment in elegantly designed, efficient and comprehensive public transport was ever tried in an industrial city in the west. It is curious that the most impressively “socialist” space in the Socialist City should be underground and a product of the Brezhnev era at that. The city evidently doesn’t care much for it, with only one new station erected since the collapse of 1991.

Yet, for all the unemployment, inequality, decay and decline, one of the most obvious things about the Avtozavod district is not discontinuity, but the way certain things have continued. These holdovers are not necessarily the more attractive aspects of the Soviet past such as rent at 5% of income or full employment, but they are still very alien to the Fordist towns in the west. Of course, there are those banners of the good citizens of Nizhny Novgorod, hung up all the way down the boulevard. But, at the end of the Park Kultury, there’s also an impromptu beach, centred on a lake carved out of an old industrial pit. On a sunny day this May, it was strewn with litter, but also full of people enthusiastically using the beach, flirting, sunbathing topless, sitting around, drinking, perhaps much as they would if there were a beach in Dagenham. It looked like a lot of fun. But framing the beach is an immense development of repeated tower blocks, visibly system-built, in a linear structure, like a wall surrounding the water. They look like they were built in 1980, but were erected in the 2010s — no longer given away nearly free to industrial workers, but following almost identical architectural and spatial precepts. All the “social” aspects of socialism are abandoned except as a residuum, but its aesthetics have, evidently, proven surprisingly useful. Maybe the new tenants of these hulking towers will be lucky enough to have their face on a poster as one of the Model Workers of Avtozavod.

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