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“Down with kitchen slavery!” Detail of a 1931 poster by Grigory Shegal (©DIOMEDIA / Fine Art Images)

“Down with kitchen slavery” is the slogan on a classic Soviet poster of 1931 by the artist Grigory Shegal (now widely available as a nostalgic postcard). A woman in red pushes open the door of a room with black walls, hung with laundry and cobwebs. Behind her is another woman, up to her elbows in a sinkful of dishes. In the white-lit world beyond, the world of the “new everyday life” that the poster advertises, is a large glass and concrete building with clean constructivist lines. A red flag waves on a spire in the distance. Written in big letters on the building are the words “cafeteria”, “factory”, “kitchen”, “crèche”. Through a large window, rows of swaddled babies lie neatly in their cribs, while outside in the sunshine, athletic women in white shorts play with a ball or lounge in deckchairs. Like many early Soviet posters, the image in Shegal’s visionary agitprop is reminiscent of traditional Orthodox iconography. The woman in red has the stance of Christ in a prototypical Resurrection icon, freeing souls from bondage, leading them into the light of paradise.

“We are giving shape to a new everyday life, wrote one Soviet architect of the 1920s, “but where is this life? It does not exist. It has not yet been created.” The utopian building in Shegal’s poster closely resembles Moscow’s “House of Government”, the concrete expression of the Bolshevik dream of a “new everyday life”, which was completed in the same year, 1931. Now familiarly known as the “House on the Embankment”, this building is the setting and central metaphor of Yuri Slezkine’s prodigious  “saga of the Russian Revolution”. It was built as a home for the Soviet government during Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, as the new socialist state was constructed. Lying diagonally across the Moscow River from the Kremlin on an area of reclaimed swamp, this gigantic structure, designed by the architect Boris Iofan, accommodated 505 furnished apartments for the families of the Bolshevik elite and had its own cafeteria, grocery shop, bank, clinic, gym, tennis court, hairdresser’s salon, library, kindergarten, post office, and two theatres. In its time, it was the largest residential building in Europe,  “a dormitory,” Slezkine says, “where state officials lived as husbands, wives, parents, and neighbours; a place where revolutionaries came home and the revolution came to die”.

The House was intended to sit in the shadow of a far larger monument to socialism, the Palace of Soviets, also designed by Iofan, on the opposite bank of the Moscow River, on the site of the 19th-century Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was dynamited in 1931. The Palace of Soviets was to have been the official stage for the dwellers in the House of Government, the heart of the new Moscow, “the ultimate wonder of the world”, Slezkine writes, “a tower that reached unto heaven not out of pride, but in triumph; a tower that gathered the scattered languages of the Earth and made them one”. A striking metaphor for the whole revolutionary dream, it never rose higher than a foundation pit.

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August 12th, 2017
3:08 PM
Long article about a building but not one picture.

George Leonard
August 10th, 2017
7:08 PM
At my advanced age, it's infuriating to find yet another a gigantic book which I absolutely must read. "Always reading, never to be read?" His other book, "The Jewish Century," sounds wonderful too. Damn his eyes.

Chuck Lanigan
August 10th, 2017
5:08 PM
In paragraph 9 (?) I would add Anton Chekhov, son of a serf, who was born in 1860 and died in 1904. I would have to look up specifics (Perhaps 'Cherry Orchard' and 'Uncle Vanya'?), but his short stories and plays provide numerous visions of the future in which everything weak, feeble and old is swept away. Thanks for the nice review. Slezkine's book is on my list. I esp. find comparison to 19th Cent. and later millennial sects interesting.

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