Workers’ Clubs

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

A lineal descendant of the “people’s houses” established by philanthropic societies and the fledgling trade union movement in late Imperial Russia, the workers’ clubs of the Soviet era were intended to provide workers and their families with salutary recreation, and opportunities to improve themselves by exposure to Soviet values and culture. They also were sites of contestation over the definition of culture with respect to daily life (byt) and how to shape it. Debate over this question was at its most intense during the years of the New Economic Policy (NEP) when clubs competed for working-class patrons with commercially operated cafes, taverns, dance halls, theaters and cinemas, and when party leaders such as Trotsky weighed in with their views.

The trade unions which sponsored the clubs confronted such issues as whether they should be restricted to the unions’ rank-and-file and family members or the entire population of the district in which the clubs were located; whether they should be segregated on the basis of age; whether performances in clubs by professional actors violated the commitment to the creative self-expression (samodeiatel’nost’) of workers; and whether club administrators should permit drinking, card playing, and other popular pastimes that did not conform to the more elevated and puritanical culture approved by Communist leaders but did raise revenue. Behind these practical and ideological concerns lay the fear that the revived bacillus of the “bourgeois” values of the “private” and the “personal” (read sexual) would overwhelm public life and the commitment to build Communism. In this sense, workers’ clubs were a microcosm of the ambiguities of NEP.

As institutions for what Trotsky referred to as the “culturalization” of the masses, workers’ clubs proved an irresistible challenge to Soviet architects. In the forefront of designing clubs along constructivist lines was Konstantin Mel’nikov, the architect of the Soviet pavilion (in the form of a workers’ club) for the 1925 International Exposition of the Decorative Arts in Paris. Between 1927 and 1929, Mel’nikov carried out commissions from trade unions for seven workers’ clubs of which six were built. They are among the finest examples of Soviet modernist architecture, embodying the vision of clubs as “conductors and condensers of socialist culture.”

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Seventeen Moments in Soviet History – Workers’ Clubs by Lewis Siegelbaum is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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