Soviet vs Western approaches to laundry, 100 years ago

22.06, Wednesday 26 Jan 2022

Art in Revolution: Soviet Art and Design after 1917. This was an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1971. Here’s a slideshow (Google Arts & Culture). I’ve been leafing through the catalogue.

From the intro, the exhibition was an attempt to define one of the most important of modern art movements – Constructivism.

…which was (I’m getting the impression) not just an art movement (as I previously thought) but almost like history put forward the question: what if the artists won?

So the Revolution of 1917 has artists doing their best work in the forum of everyday life: Let us make the streets our brushes, the squares our palette.

And the propaganda posters are glorious.

And the architecture too, more artists: for in architecture one can most successfully create a way of life, a new order, touching every aspect of man’s activity.

So I hadn’t quite got that connection between the Soviet philosophy and Constructivism.

It’s enticing as a prospect, I have to admit.


Architects tasked themselves with the double problem of improving conditions and easing congestion and of destroying the class distinctions which had shaped towns before.

Imagine class being part of the discourse today!

This caught my eye:

Lenin, at the 1919 Congress of the Communist Party, demanded the formulation of a policy of rebuilding suited to the democratic society. This included better living conditions and also educational facilities, including easy access to artistic treasures. It stressed the need to liberate women from domestic routine by offering co-operative services.

I want to zoom in on that.

Because it implies a form of town planning, or maybe housing estate design. Shared laundry; shared childcare; shared kitchens. By hand, I’m guessing – it’s 1917, early in electrification.

AS AN ASIDE, I want to say something about Britain in 1971.

Which is before I was born.

The impression I get is that there was a certain type of person who was, at best, on the fence about Soviet culture. Pro, possibly.

It was the middle of the Cold War, the USSR was clearly the enemy. But the propaganda and control of information was immense.

Soviet culture looked like a genuine alternative to Western culture? I think that was the perspective then. It genuinely looked like a different way of running society, and it genuinely looked powerful and like it had a chance of winning.

And from a British point of view, the Soviets aren’t Soviets… they’re one of the four Great Powers! The Brits and the Russians have been tussling at that point for centuries, there’s always someone in the ascendant and somebody scrabbling, and it turns over periodically. So I think there’s a kind of respect given to Russia and Constructivism that wouldn’t have been there if this exhibition had been in the US.

Now Communism ain’t great. I’m a generation and a thousand miles removed, and I’ve spoken recently with people much closer to it than me – really not great at all.

But reading this exhibition catalogue, I come away with the view that the authors don’t know who will come out on top: the Soviets or the West; Communism or Capitalism. Nothing for them - not the west, not capitalism - is inevitable, so it’s a very different read than we’d get nowadays, now we know how the story progresses.

Let’s go back to the town planning thing.

Because the Western alternative to co-operative services, in terms of “liberation” from the domestic routine, is consumerism.

The first couple of decades of the 1900s was the story of electrification and the fractional-horsepower motor (Wikipedia). The technology of the factory came into the home, and: By 1920, over 500,000 fractional-horsepower motors were powering washers and other appliances in America.

Here’s French sociology Henri Lefebvre on the topic, as told by Rob Shields:

In France after the First World War, factory work was reorganised by rationalising production and streamlining workplace activities. Everyday life was affected by a similar impetus towards rationalisation and efficiency. One example that Lefebvre noted was the scientific redesign of the kitchen and the large-scale intervention in housework by corporations. Advertising discourses of rationality appealed to ‘science’, to time management and to efficiency understood as the reduction of effort. Ironically, at the same time, new tasks became expected parts of household labour, thus consuming all the time that was freed by, for example, self-stoking coal furnaces or gas cooking stoves, which replaced wood-fired appliances, which has to be tended. The everyday life of the nuclear family became the norm as mothers were portrayed single-handedly managing the household to high standards of care, nutrition and hygiene while husbands worked for wages elsewhere. This new form of the household was marked by its isolation and non-cooperation with other kin or nearby families.

So this is a very different lived experience from the Soviet aspiration of co-operative facilities for domestic life.

It’s a kind of town planning by stealth, an intervention by technology and corporations (i.e. consumerism) that promotes atomisation rather than community.

I’m not making a statement about which is better or worse – who knows what confounding effects there are, or how things play out in the long term, or the difference between what we’re told and what was really happening. I wouldn’t have wanted to live under Communism (though I would love to give artists another shot at sorting us out).

HOWEVER – it strikes me:

Looking from the perspective of 1971 at how these two cultures approached, say, what it’s like to do your laundry, you would identify a real separation in outcomes. One from the perspective of the other is science-fictional, alien!

I find this juxtaposition simultaneously

ONE: reassuring that whenever I talk about abstract things like politics or technology, it’s valid to have as a starting point a focus on the human, like: do we want people to spending more time with their communities or not so much; and that real difference is in fact possible;

AND TWO: mentally destabilising that such fiercely different cultures existed as valid alternatives within living memory, and as such the concrete inevitability of our current culture may not be as eternal as it looks and in fact could be undermined or feel significantly more temporary in a simple instant.

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