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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

What distinguished the Soviet cities of the sixties — not Soviet cities in the 1960s but the ones that were created (more or less) ex nihilo during that decade? Did everyday life resemble that of other, older cities, did residents enjoy a better quality of life associated with everything being up-to-date and the product of the scientific-technological revolution then at its (rhetorical) zenith, or was there a darker side to these cities without pasts?

Let us consider the middle Volga city of Tol’iatti, best known as the hometown of VAZ, the Volga Automobile Factory founded in 1966. Named after the long-time Italian Communist Party (PCI) leader, Palmiro Togliatti, who died in 1964, Tol’iatti previously was known as Stavropol’. In the 1950s, the long somnolent town received a jolt — it literally was displaced — by construction of the massive Kuibyshev (now Zhiguli) Hydroelectric Station that spanned the river to generate electricity for expanded industrial production. By the mid-1960s, the siting of several petrochemical plants nearby had boosted the number of residents in the town to some 150,000, but also the toxicity of the air they breathed. The building of the giant car factory to turn out Ladas (the Soviet version of the Fiat 124) utterly transformed Tol’iatti. Indeed, it was accompanied by an entirely new district — Avtograd (Auto Town) or more formally, the Auto Factory District — designed by a Moscow-based group of architects and urban planners under the direction Boris Rubanenko.

Capable of accommodating upwards of a quarter million people, Avtograd’s residential buildings represented the Soviet adaptation of international modernism, the dominant aesthetic of urban architecture from the mid-twentieth century onwards. Linearity, standardization (tipizatsiia) of large ferroconcrete paneling for the exteriors of the nine-, twelve- and sixteen-story tower blocks, and the strict application of the principle of a graded system of services applicable to the entire ensemble of superblocks or micro-districts (mikroraiony) were made possible by the absence of any private property encumbrances. Thus, like Naberezhnye Chelny and other Soviet new towns of the 1960s and ’70s, Tol’iatti’s Avtograd presented Soviet planners with a supreme opportunity to start over from scratch and build a genuinely “Socialist City” (sotsgorod). In this respect, as well as in its utter dependence for social services and cultural activities on the industrial giant that was its raison d’etre it harkened back to an earlier era of new town construction, the Stalin era, which saw the building of Zaporozh’e (Zaporizhzhia), Magnitogorsk, Komsomol’sk-na-Amure, and the original Avtograd outside Nizhni-Novgorod.

Auto workers and members of their family (who often were also auto workers) dominated the new Tol’iatti. As was common with other new towns, many had been recruited to construct the factory and stayed on, attracted by the prospect of a new apartment and perhaps even a car. They were overwhelmingly young. Indeed, it was common knowledge in the 1970s that at 26, the average age of Tol’iatti’s residents was the youngest of any city in the entire USSR. Aside from the youthfulness and lack of indigenousness of the population, the Brave New World character of the cityscapes “deprived the city of an atmosphere of warmth and humanity” (to quote one resident) and created a good deal of anomie. In Avtograd, a novel by Vasilii Volochilov published in 1994 but set in the early 1980s, a temporary resident about to be dropped off at one of the tower blocks says:

Do you know what I think of when I approach these colossal structures? I think that people lose any sense of themselves, become small insects, nonentities, actually nobody. Perhaps the builders specially built them with this subtext so that everyone living here and everyone entering them is turned into a slave deprived of any rights and vested with the obligation only to work.

This combination of a new town thrown up with great haste (or “heroic intensity”) and the recruitment of a workforce that, for the most part, was new to urban life and otherwise lacked social moorings outside the workplace made for a rather volatile residential environment. Indeed, the local archives are filled with cases before the comrades courts of defacing public property, disturbing the peace and other acts of “hooliganism” for which the city became notorious. Theft of auto parts and eventually entire cars from VAZ’s lots also marked the city as a “crime capital” especially in the post-Soviet era when turf wars among rival gangs for control of the distribution of cars claimed an unknown but not insignificant number of lives.

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